Now and then

People often talk about how much advertising has changed - but in what way? Did all admen have drinking issues back then, and can everyone be film-makers now? Laura Jordan Bambach and Andrew Cracknell discuss.

Now and then

On the face of it, Laura Jordan Bambach and Andrew Cracknell don’t have a lot in common. One is obsessed with the future as the creative partner at the digital shop Mr President; the other had a 40-year agency career spanning Collett Dickenson Pearce, FCB and WCRS, and has put his knowledge into a book exploring the Mad Men era. But both know advertising. So, Campaign brought them together at Cracknell’s riverside flat in London on a crisp winter morning to talk about where the industry has been and where it’s going.

The biggest difference between agency life today and in the past?

Andrew Cracknell: I think it’s the speed at which things are done. It’s extraordinary and probably counterproductive. But then I think [when I worked in agencies] we had too much time. If you measured productivity, we were appallingly inefficient. At CDP, when I joined in 1968, we had six weeks to do a television script. The agency would only make one recommendation, so we only had to produce one. Doing things overnight was just unheard of.

Laura Jordan Bambach: I enjoy the fast pace and the movement, but I think that now it has got a little bit beyond what you need to create great work. There’s some really beautiful work coming out of places such as Japan, where they still value time and craft, and they do put big budgets into things, such as the "sound of Honda" work. Here, there’s pressure now to get out what in digital is called "minimum viable product".

Why are agencies now expected to work so quickly?

LJB: It has sped up since 2008 – budget pressures have added pressure. But also it’s due to digital. When we were all in our twenties and running agencies, we were quite enjoying doing things fast and behaving like pirates, and now a lot of the traditional agencies have taken on digital practices, which has been great in some ways but not others.

AC: I think it predates that. The big watershed for me was the 80s. The hard edge that came through Thatcherism, of business being serious and of every penny counting, made people quite hard. That’s when you first saw real drives for efficiency. What I would not recognise [in today’s industry] is how much cost consultants seem to rule. They’re usually disaffected agency producers.

How has the agency/client dynamic evolved over the years?

LJB: I’ve seen a bit of a change but, because of my background, I’ve always had very different client relationships. I usually deal with chief executives. One reason I am at Mr President was that I only wanted really good clients. But there is something I think we’ve lost in terms of respecting each other’s expertise.

AC: It is true that, at a place such as CDP under Frank Lowe, there were very short lines of communication: it was usually Bill Bernbach talking to the top man at the client company. The whole notion of golf-course relationships is held in contempt but it could actually be an enormously positive thing because if, at the 19th hole, the agency chief said "Your guys are giving my guys some trouble about this work but I can assure you it’s absolutely brilliant", the problem would be fixed that afternoon.

How has the craft of advertising changed?

AC: There used to be an arcana around creativity. No-one, not even our own mums, knew what it was that we were doing. A few people wrote; art direction was a mystery. Film crews would do it to the agencies too. Now everyone has grown up shooting and editing film; everyone is on the internet and using social media. So the space in which creative people can do their own thing without being tinkered with has shrunk. But it’s not all bad because a lot of creative people used to hide behind the arcana.

LJB: It’s still an absolute craft. The difference between making a film at home and knowing how to make a film in the industry is vast. Art directors are kind of surviving, but I actually despair about what is happening to copywriters. The craft in copy is so difficult to find now because there’s not the space to learn and there’s not the respect for the craft.

AC: It’s my generation that’s responsible for that. In the 80s and 90s, everyone got so busy that we couldn’t train people any more. Then things got so busy that we were hiring people straight out of art college and asking them to be revenue earners. Even worse, they twigged quite quickly that the best way to get work was to turn up as a team because if a creative director employed a team, he was not responsible for their relationship. And who were these people? They were kids straight out of art college, both of whom wanted to be the art director. But they tossed a coin and said: "Right, you can be the writer."

LJB: Something that I’m very passionate about is the idea of teams. I believe absolutely in collaboration but I’m not a fan of traditional teams, although we do have some in Mr President because I don’t want to get in the way of that.

Is the public’s perception of advertising different?

LJB: Advertising has become an incredibly dirty word. Not everywhere in the world: when you go into places in Asia, they still have a very positive attitude towards advertising. But when I talk particularly to young people here, they say: "Why would I get into that? It’s disgusting."

AC: It’s the handmaiden of capitalism. If you buy one, you have to buy the other. It’s one of those things where most people don’t have a view. In the 70s, research showed that people liked the ads better than the TV shows. So if you asked people what they thought then, I think you would have come up against little resistance. If there’s interesting work, it raises acceptance.

How has agencies’ relationship with data changed?

LJB: There’s so much data that can be gathered. What we haven’t figured out yet is how to use it in a really interesting way. It’s easy to shift stuff to people who are open to taking it. And the easy way to do that is collecting data on them. What’s lost in that story is the creativity and the magic and the real delight in what we do as creative people.

AC: Bernbach said something along those lines in 1965: "This business of trying to measure everything in precise terms is one of the problems today. This leads to a worship of research. We’re all concerned about the facts we get and not about how provocative we can make those facts to the consumer."

What will agencies look like in 30 years’ time?

AC: Thirty years is not a long time when you consider that the basic agency model has remained the same since 1890. People break away and say "this is going to be different because we are two creative people" or whatever but, within years, if they are successful, they realise they need all those things they had that they so despised at the place they left and, before long, they have reformed the mothership.

LJB: The agency world is so porous now, with people going backwards and forwards. I wonder whether there is a movement we haven’t seen yet where clients will start to do these things in-house and agencies will become irrelevant until they see they need someone slightly independent of themselves and farm it out again.

AC: It’s interesting what you say about porousness. That never happened in my day. If you went from an agency to a client, you were condemned. And people who came from clients to agencies were looked upon as utter curiosities and rarely succeeded – probably because we were so beastly to them. Maybe the slight air of arcana is gone because there’s such a frequent link between agencies and clients now.

How has the social side of working in an agency changed?

AC: One of the few inaccuracies I found in Mad Men when I was researching for my book, The Real Mad Men, seemed to be the amount of drinking in the office. Some New York agencies were dry – several wouldn’t even handle alcohol accounts well into the 60s. But prodigious drinking did take place in bars and restaurants – and two former executives told of cocktails being smuggled into Ogilvy & Mather from Ratazzis, a bar round the corner.

Here in London, we were awash in alcohol. As a senior copywriter at Kingsley, Manton & Palmer in St Martin’s Lane in the early 70s, a lunch with an account team, a client, production company or photographer’s representative would start with me drifting into the boardroom around 12.30 for a sharpener – probably a gin and tonic or a whisky – as bracing for the short walk into Soho for lunch. There would be another G&T while studying the menu. Meanwhile, if the waiter knew us, he’d probably plonk down one bottle of our usual wine for every two people. After the meal, we would have a sambuca or Armagnac or single malt; cigars would be pressed upon us.

And the weird thing is, I don’t remember anyone being particularly out of it. Indeed, I can remember having conversations about people we thought may have a "drink problem" – by contemporary standards, we all had one.

Agencies were hugely sociable and enormous emphasis was placed on fun. As the executive creative director of FCB, I remember being given a budget of £15,000 for a mid-summer party at a stately home – for the creative department only. And this was at 1982 values. Inter-office affairs were plentiful, although I doubt that was limited to advertising – what’s the percentage of people who end up with partners they met through work? Pretty high, I should think.

And, over the years, the quantity and quality of fun was self-perpetuating and would continue today but for two things: money and time. Both got tighter through the 80s and 90s, until the conditions under which creative people work today are unrecognisable from my first two decades. But I’m sure you still find the ways and means.

LJB: Great agencies are – and always have been – built on great culture as well as great work. There’s a lot less daytime debauchery these days, but we still let the creatives and others get out of the office to work and be inspired as much as possible. Too much time is otherwise spent in front of computers, getting inspiration from the same kinds of places.

Client lunches tend to be working sessions most of the time. Relationships are so important and, although there’s usually not much drinking, it’s not always serious either. I think the US attitude is a lot more buttoned down. And we invest in other things for the agency to keep the social side going – drinks and events after work, memberships and other treats.