A view from Dave Trott: We can fake integrity
A view from Dave Trott

We can fake integrity

Recently on Twitter, Richard Shotton quoted Leo Burnett: "A company in which anyone is afraid to speak up, to differ, to be daring and original, is closing the coffin door on itself."

It is an inspiring quote, and a powerful sentiment we should all live by.

But I thought the reality was rather different when I visited his agency, years ago.

I replied on Twitter: “Nice sentiment, but I was once being interviewed in Leo Burnett's head office in Chicago – in the lift, a secretary was forced to apologise because the boss saw her carrying a can of cola that wasn't the agency's client.”

Hugh MacLeod, an American artist and a friend of mine, replied: “A secretary would have to apologise. A creative would’ve gotten fired. (I worked there four years. They were good, but tough as nails.)”

I replied to Hugh: “With that in mind, let's revisit Leo Burnett's quote – ‘A company in which anyone is afraid to speak up, to differ, to be daring and original, is closing the coffin door on itself.’"

But then I got a reply on Twitter from Stewart Pratt, a data scientist from Portland: “Agree with you often, disagree here. I’ve sat in WAY too many agency meetings talking about brand positioning only to realise no-one in the room consumes the brand… I also wouldn’t expect a player to show up to the game in the jersey of the rival team.”

I replied: “Living in a bubble makes you divorced from reality.”

Stewart replied: “Not taking a Coke into a Pepsi office constitutes living in a bubble?”

It was pretty clear Stewart and I wouldn’t agree.

He works in Portland and Leo Burnett worked in Chicago, I’ve only ever worked in New York and London, and the attitudes are obviously different in those cities.

You don’t preach freedom and individuality and then lay down rules about what to drink.

Any agency is a small slice of the world, having the staff exclusively consume the client’s produce is a pretence that our ads are working.

The sales figures in the bigger world will tell us if that’s true, not a few dozen cans in a single building.

I’ve always preferred to hire the best brains regardless of sex, race, age or what cola they drink.

I think that’s what the clients are paying us for, not just a bit of theatre, walking round the agency carrying their product.

I find it patronising and it reminds me of the way a politician surrounds themselves with flags, as if the more flags they have the more patriotic they are.

If you’re sincere, one flag is enough.

For me, it’s similar to the way Hollywood rewrites reality.

I saw a TV doc recently on John Wayne, possibly the biggest movie star ever, certainly he was seen as the most patriotic movie star ever.

And yet John Wayne never served in the US military in World War II, despite most of his other Hollywood contemporaries doing so.

James Stewart served, so did Clark Gable, David Niven did, Kirk Douglas did, Paul Newman did, Alec Guinness did, even Mel Brooks, and many more.

They all put their movie careers on hold but Wayne didn’t, yet none of them are seen to be as patriotic as him because none proclaimed it as loudly or as often as he did.

We are like that with brand purpose – we believe it doesn’t matter what a company does, it only matters what we say it does.

It seems to be a case of the old motto: “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

And, except for a brief few decades under the influence of Bill Bernbach, that seems to be what advertising has retreated to. 

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three