Here's a deeply unappetising (and admittedly somewhat forced) analogy for you…
Before they were co-opted as the delicious, environment-enhancing crack dens we all know and love today, red telephone boxes were once upon a time actually used to make telephone calls from. It’s true. Their interiors were sweetly fragrant with the smell of copper pennies, stale urine and Old Holborn tobacco smoke (they smelled exactly like my Uncle Tink’s cardigan), and you would often see actual real life people in them, on the phone, talking and stuff. Amazing.
The other commonplace feature of these old-time phone booths was that the interiors were vividly wallpapered with advertisements for sex workers. Every square inch was covered with these photocopied cards, often featuring butcher’s-shop-window imagery cut out from old hardcore jazz mags and accompanied by baffling acronyms and code words for the types of terrifying services they offered (a "Hot Carl", anyone?).
If you were unlucky enough to be in desperate need of an urgent, non-sex-based telephone call and didn't have one of those fancy new mobile phone thingies, you’d find yourself entombed within a gloomy Freudian nightmare for the duration of your call. It was horribly awkward phoning your mum to have a chat about how things were going when you were surrounded by so much angrily aroused flesh. Distracting, as you tried to stuff your last 10p into the slot before the pips went.
But one of these advertisements in particular has echoed down the years for me. It was breathtakingly, brilliantly, convincingly simple. Handwritten in red felt-tip pen on a piece of lined paper torn from a notebook, all it featured was a chap’s name, a telephone number and these four words:
I LOVE MY JOB.
So here’s the somewhat forced analogy I was getting to. We seem to spend so much time and effort talking down our industry at the moment that I am worried we are beginning to fall head over heels out of love with what we do for a living. We’re at risk of downgrading the joyously sweaty hip bump of making stuff to a dead-eyed, going-through-the-motions mechanical act that no-one wants to join in with.
I hear you; there are all sorts of difficult, nasty-shit things happening in our world to take the lead out of our collective pencils right now. But haven’t there always been? The constant refrain of "no-one cares about adverts" isn’t new news. I hate to tell you this – but nobody ever cared about your shitty ads, not in the whole history of shitty ads.
In 1987, Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury ran a provocative house press ad featuring a couple getting frisky on a sofa in front of a TV with the headline: "Current advertising research suggests these people are watching your ad. Who’s getting screwed?" The challenge to cut through the noise with even noisier creative work is no different today and the skip button is no more a threat to our industry than a kettle (or an attractive couple getting the horn) was three decades ago.
Agencies fold, clients cut costs, new channels threaten old ones – as ever they have and as ever they will. It’s painful and disruptive and challenging but, despite the fond, dusty anecdotes about long lunches and even longer lines of nose-bag on the boardroom tables of yesteryear, these challenges are nothing new. To paraphrase a really horrible homily, the pain we currently feel is just our weakness leaving the industry, nothing more and nothing less.
We need to enjoy the disruption, stop moaning about its advances and lean in for a bit of a sweaty fumble. No great art is ever made in times of peace and plenty – Switzerland, Russia etc etc – and no great advertising was ever made by comfortable agencies with profligate clients. The challenges we face are exactly the sort of of opportunities we should be excited by rather than moaning about. The finest brands and finest agencies make work in today’s climate and media landscape that far exceeds the ambition and reach of the work they made 20 years ago. What would you rather have been responsible for when you shuffle off your advertising coil – Nike’s "1966" poster or the "Nothing beats a Londoner" social campaign?
What we do for a living is fucking brilliant. For the better part of our days, we work with unaccountably talented and attractive people with brilliant minds and huge ambition in an industry where the creative possibilities are genuinely endless. The things we put out into the world can provoke and arouse and amuse and anger and sadden, can demand action, start a revolution and change a closed mind. Whether we write it or make it, sell it or buy it, code it or carve it, wear it or talk about it, our product has the disproportionate potential to transform brands and human behaviour in a way that is uniquely satisfying and nothing to be ashamed or depressed about.
If you don’t love the visceral thrill of coming up with an unexpected idea surrounded by equally excited people, I’d suggest you get out of the business before you do it irreparable harm. Because if we all carry on being such Debbie Downers about everything, it’s no surprise that our clients are finding us increasingly unfuckable.