Comment: Banjaxed In America

Sean Boyle.jpgBy Sean Boyle.

I decided to get out of Dodge.

Four years in New York was enough.

Although hard to believe, the place gets a bit boring.

Sure, it's one of the great world cities...a 'must see'.  A city to visit. It spikes you with an adrenaline rush the like of which you've never felt before. But you live there for a few years in a small, boxy, over-priced, one bedroom flat, and it quickly grows monotonous. The excitement wanes when you realize that most of the restaurants, bars, clubs are all the same.  Same food.  Same layout.  Same clientele, give or take.  And nobody's really from New York.  It's just one vast, expensive dormitory city.

If you can make it there, you probably can make it anywhere...but you can probably make it anywhere without having to make it there.  If that makes sense.

People go there to work. They live to work.

And if you're planning to seek your fame on Madison Avenue, beware of that particular career lure. It's an ugly corporate working environment. An advertising city of madmen (and women).
I moved from one massive agency to another just to check this was not an unfortunate and isolated finding.

In the big shops, the contrarian who speaks out is 'a problem'...'not a team player'.

Get rid.

Office politics are rife.  If you ain't good at them, don't bother going. Fear reigns and every place gets wet. You need to smile all the time.

Play nice.  Play fake.  Play dead.

And behind it, people don't much like each other.

Like something Orwellian, they're encouraged to behave like hungry, gnawing rats in a cage.  Departments full of back-stabbers. Be careful using a cuss-word in an internal meeting...that junior account executive just might 'come over all traumatized' and report you to HR. And she'll get away with it too; such is their terror of litigation.

It's disgusting.

Seriously.

There is a disease that has permeated our industry.

Sean Quotes_1.jpgWithin every big behemoth, the back of house people...accounts, HR, finance etc...are now in complete control. They treat the front of house folk...the people who do the actual advertising bit...like shit.

Wanna make a million dollars on your bottom line?  Don't pay staff their expenses for a few weeks...and when you do get round to it, give 'em a cheque (there's an extra few days in there) and we can make money off the money we owe them.  It seems to have gone un-noticed somewhere, that without the front of house people, there's no back of house in this game.

At a dinner in Hong Kong, my friend Jules sits beside the CFO of one of the big four global holding groups.  She congratulates him when he tells her that he has just turned in the best profits of any agency in the history of the ad business.  "You know where we got it?" he chortles with a nudge and a wink..."from the staff!"...as if he was some sort of calculator-banging Einstein.

It's disgusting.

Seriously.

Smiling, guffawing, orthodontically immaculate, over-tanned terracotta warriors steer these various advertising supertankers. Supremely confident, head-nodding, yes men with a distinctly eighties approach to advertising.

Lizard men. Me men.

Look at my beautiful house.

Look at my beautiful wife.

Look at my beautiful children.

Look at my beautiful watch.

Now, let's go to the Hamptons.

Disgusting.

Seriously.

Advertising is broken.
America is broken.


Like its adland, the land of the free is also in deep doo-doo. Politically broken...lobbyists appear to rule the roost.  Spending rages out of control.

Although people tend to scoff at this suggestion, I believe there is a high possibility that Romney will take out Obama come November.  The latter's re-election is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite the best-of-a-bad-lot-buffoon the Republicans have thrown into the ring at him.

Obama is undoubtedly a statesman; intelligent; a brilliant orator who has been responsible for a revolutionary new way of delivering healthcare.  Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, all scratch their heads in puzzlement at why Obamacare is such a big deal over there.  Shouldn't everyone in society - your fellow countrymen - be allowed to get treated and healed of what ails them?  In America, they speak of 'open-wallet surgery'.

And yet for all that, many view Obama as something of a mediocre POTUS.  A lame duck.

Sean Quotes_2.jpgWhen it comes to the economy, the fact that he received a veritable hospital pass from his predecessor has been conveniently forgotten.  Stuff like the de-mapping of Bin Laden and soldier homecomings are somehow done with a lot less pomp and hoopla than if they had happened on Dubya's watch.

Here's how Obama can lose: he only barely got in the last time.  He got in cos usually apathetic (with every reason) African Americans bothered to come out and vote in huge numbers; the Republican-leaning Hispanics also voted Democrat in his honor; and he secured the young vote - largely on the back of an exceptional piece of online marketing.  Well, right now, the general feeling amongst the minorities is that none of the 'Hope' he promised in 2008 has been forthcoming.  The disenfranchised see him as 'in-the-pocket' of corporate America (what President isn't?).  And the country's young voters, are those that have suffered the most in the recession: unemployment in their ranks is well into double figures; and more youths are out of work today than at any time since the aftermath of WWII.

No matter.

More advertising and marketing money will be spent on the upcoming slagging match than ever before, with estimates ranging in the $6-7bn range.

A guy shoots up a cinema and half the country runs out to buy a gun.

The rest complain that the only reason the carnage was so bad, was that there weren't other gun-holders at the movie who could have taken down the shootist.  Just imagine that scene!  Where's Batman when you need him?

You encounter a graduate from one of the top universities who doesn't know his star sign from his elbow; nor the capital of Canada; nor the five previous Presidents of his own country ("Was Kennedy one?") and he's holding down a pretty cool job in advertising.  He then gets shirty with you when you ask him whether he thinks it's important to like, y'know, know...stuff?

As I read somewhere recently, the trouble with children these days, is that they have a Google answer for everything.  And the same thick school-kids bully their elderly bus monitor and stick it up on YouTube cos they think such behaviour is "awesome!"

When I say thick, I also mean thick, as in fat.  Single serves of popcorn the size of picnic hampers...industrial vats of Coke...a nation predicted to be over 50% obese by 2020 with all the inherent diabetic medical diabolics that will bring.  Australia isn't too far behind.

Housing is still rooted.

I could go on...the still-close-to-the surface racism; bigoted, insular and hypocritical communities marching across the plains under the banner of Christ.

The place is broken.

Utterly.

I suspect there is another major crash on the short-term horizon.  If Europe doesn't get there first, America will bring it down and most of the world will come along for the ride again.

I showed a draft of this article to an American friend of mine in the advertising business.  She read it and proceeded to go apeshit on my ass in a way that would put the Campaign Brief blog to shame:

"It's too negative...you sound like a cranky old man who's been in the business too long. And yeah, New York is full of self-important advertising douchebags, but New York is not America.  Our country is not broken we are progressive and innovative and lead the world in almost everything.  When you're a leader, you fail at things.  We fall down a lot, but we get right back up and fight even harder.  Many of the things the world can't live without - Apple, Google, facebook - all came from America (and none of these were created in New York).  Our dirty laundry fascinates, and is always on display. People want to love and hate us, but that's all ok.  When I go to other countries, I realize how amazing we really are.  Overseas, people don't smile and everyone seems miserable.  I come back home and everyone smiles and says hello and you feel joy.  We are leading the world, trying to set an example and doing the best we can.  And we're proud of it.  Free speech is our bloodline. Oh and one last thing, we are incredibly good looking, have nice teeth and amazing hygiene.  Europeans like you should take a lesson."

Bang!  You Go Girl!

Who wants to argue with an incoming missile attack like that?

Certainly not this smelly Irishman.

Perhaps it is unfair to bash America.

The majority of her populace are indeed good people and I have a great many pals there.

It is geographically stunning.

But I believe The United States is a country that could and should be doing much better.
Will it ever lead by example again?  This young country the rest of the world has looked up to almost since its inception.  One that has guided development and democracy, and ideas and human rights.

Before I left, I took a spin down to Washington DC to see 'The American Idea' as it was originally intended.  It's so inspiring: this work-in-progress of Jefferson, King, Lincoln and the guy the town's named after.  Great men who are probably turning in their statues when they see the direction their country is pointed right now.

It's hard to know where to start...I have spoken before of the need for a new 'ism' in the world...maybe an America that is bankrupt in so many areas can shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over. For if there is one country in the world that still truly has the brains and the brawn and the can-do-spirit to restructure, reorganize, reinvent and reinspire, it's probably the United States of America.

Sean Boyle is a cranky old man who has spent too much time in advertising.  Most recently he was the Global Head of Strategy for Gillette at BBDO, New York.  He has also worked as a Global Head of Planning at JWT, New York and was a member of The Worldwide Planning Board at Saatchi & Saatchi, based in Asia.

32 Comments

ole said:

Love it. More from the cranky old man please.

meh said:

Interesting article. But advertising ain't that different in Australia and as for some of the attitudes and beliefs you talk of, well, ditto.

'I could go on...the still-close-to-the surface racism; bigoted, insular and hypocritical communities marching across the plains under the banner of Christ.'

haha said:

the office politics thing is rife in any big agency, NY or here. they should teach ass-licking in award school.

fun read by the way.

Orthodontically Perfect said:

Great article Sean. I think elements of this are happening everywhere, but America is
the perfect magnifying glass. Look at the rise of the Tea Party and how politically polarised Australia has become in recent times. It's ideological warfare to the extent that logic and common sense have not only fallen by the wayside, but become seemingly absurd to those indoctrinated. The media feeds off it, making matters generally worse.

As for our industry, don't even get me started on agency remuneration, added bullshit, pitch facilitation and procurement agencies. Its too depressing. That said, I'm still naive enough to believe that somehow, my next campaign is gonna jump through all those hoops and be killer. In the end, hope is what gets us all up the morning.

Now I need to go file my expense claims...

Unfortunately said:

Brilliant.

Jen said:

Come home Sean. All is forgiven.

eyes wide shut said:


Nice job Sean.

Back of house don't just run ad agencies, they run nations.

How do we clean out the back of house?

Andy F said:


Beautifully written Sean.

Andy

MB said:

I like Sean, I worked with him for a bit. He won't remember me, but he was one of the most impressive people I've met in advertising. But a lot of what we as 'creative people' complain about is so shit. We are part of a business, the business of selling stuff to people. We innovate, create, change, even copy. But at the end of the day all of us would be flat broke on our arses as unmotivated 'artists' (the real ones are already doing it) if their wasn't someone to set up a meeting for us, look after the bills, manage our work flow, do our time sheets and hand us our cab charges.

We work in an industry that outsiders marvel at and watch shows about. They spend their free time with friends talking about what we do at work - could you imagine a semi-serious Gruen version of accounting? Our job even at its most shit is way more fun than most. Salaries are going down, yeah, because there is a massive over-supply of people wanting to join this magic party. Supply/demand - it's first-term year-10 economics, kids.

There are bean counters in every company. There are some companies that are just about counting beans. People need money and it makes the world go round, so these people who know how to handle it for us are important. Do you call your personal accountant a fuck head, back of shop arsehole when he tells you you can't claim the beer you bought at Cannes?

Life is like any game that must be played - you can play like a prick or you can play nice. But you if you don't train at it and play as hard as you can, you won't get anywhere. I think that Sean has played hard for a long time and done very well, and I get his frustration on many things. But I don't think the advertising industry should be a special place where everyone plays nice and lives a fun, happy life doing what they want – it's called work for a reason. The people who have the good situations have gone and created them for themselves. They worked the hardest, kissed the most arse (or told them all to fuck off) played the game the hardest and I can't image they were nice to everyone all the time.

Save your fun times for friends and family, make sure that when you aren't at work you have a great time. And if all the bars and night clubs are full of the same boring people, then you need to look at yourself and where you spend your time. Once you power down your Mac and sign off for the day, you can do whatever you want. What time of day you do that is entirely up to you.

Love the honesty said:

Great read and perspective.

Hope you don't mind if I share it outside advertising.

Thanks.

a. said:

Brilliant. Thanks for speaking so straight.

ian said:

brilliant article and he does'nt even get to the fact that America has 10,000 military drones and there's no democratic control on their use.

Vote Sean 1 said:

Sean for president!

DL said:

Brilliantly written and realised Sean.

And the same goes to MB, well said.

Jack Sparrow said:

Refreshing prose. Thoroughly enjoyed the part about NY being a city of workaholics. It's true and yet so many Ad Aussies are over there at the moment trying to scratch a living. I've never understood the idea of spending every second of your life at work just so you can say 'I live in NY'?

lover not a hater said:

'I moved from one massive agency to another just to check this was not an unfortunate and isolated finding.'

come on dude, you're a smart guy, Big Isn't Beautiful, and there's no surprise there.

There is some great energy and creativity in that city, but you need to get out of Midtown, mate. But then you don't necessarily get the big money salary or those trips to Cannes you like.

Surprise me and don't join yet another big agency. Go start something, do some good, have some fun (take your own advice, it was good advice
http://www.psfk.com/2010/03/jwts-sean-boyle-on-10-steps-to-fix-advertising.html

Lead by example. Be the change. You get the gist.

You think NYC is boring christ what are you gonna do in Sydney??? said:

Mate great rant, but I tell you what... I've worked in a number of foreign offices at ad agencies and Sydney definitely works the longest hours.

Everyone in the Sydney agencies basically lives to be at work, they hang out with the work crew, eat drink and often sleep with the work crew.

The mentality of leaving at 6pm is frowned upon.

Lastly dear god if you think NYC is boring what the hell are you gonna do in Sydney?!?? The most boring expensive, unfriendly city on earth.

Yankee said:

I agree. I'm American. I wish I wasn't.
We suck.

AEM said:

Come out to California where people actually make things - TV, movies, music, software, hardware, sporting goods, wine. It couldn't be more different. Not to mention mention trees, mountains, sunshine, innovators, entrepreneurs and the ocean.

JWT then BBDO on Gillette? What exactly were you expecting...?

Have you been following the news/politics/innovation etc in Australia or Ireland recently? It's not exactly all 90210 original series over there...

Yuri Gagarin said:

I love SeanyB and have worked with him for several years.
One thing I can say for sure. He's not smelly.
He was a CKOne man at the time but hopefully he's moved on to
something a bit less ubiquitous.
What is your scent now Mister B?

Erm said:

He goes to America, works for the biggest agencies there, whinges constantly, blames, literally, everyone else, from clients to finance (even blames the entire country back to its founders) takes zero responsibility, and people on the blog applaud him.

No wonder this industry is fucked.

Commercial creative said:

There's no shangri-la in advertising. We make commercials, it is a commercial industry and bean counters run commerce. In every country.

The only way to get around that's start an agency without bean counters. Very quickly you'll come to appreciate their value.

'Alternative' said:

It's all a little Kurt Cobain / grunge / 90's for me.

It's a new world and there's more money than ever to be made. Go and milk it, cause being mainstream is cool again.

Mrs Silence Dogood said:

"Erm" has hit the nail on the head.

The bloke needs a reality check.

In the words of a patriot "Life ain't all sunshine and rainbows."

Matt Smith said:

Love it dude! Totally agree

Sad Fact said:

Brilliant Sean, sounds like Saatchis Sydney too.

Terry said:

The best line in this article is the last. I'd like to hear Sean's thoughts and ideas on how America can "reinvent" and "reinspire." Instead, he has gone down a predictable pathway and the "America is broken" angle is nothing new. Let's hear some strategies next time, particularly if it's coming from a strategist.

Razor said:

It's the same in Chicago. ('cept the blues clubs are better)

LA CD said:

I agree with Terry. This argument is unoriginal and tired. We're all getting fatter bla bla bla, Adland sucks these days bla. It's fun to read about folks hating on the world (much more fun than reading positive opinions) but really, for a strategist? I was expecting a unique angle. Something that would make me think and see the world in a new light. There is no insight in sight. Unmemorable. I'm not buying it.

Bless my Irish passport said:

Time was, advertising was fuelled with the petrol of original, bright, interesting, thinkers like Sean. People like Frank Lowe, Bill Bernbach and Charles Saatchi, who showed that advertising can make or break brands, and who built a dynamic industry built on original thinking, great insight and creative courage.

Cowardice and corporatism have squashed that philosophy flat, and the result is what we now have - a business model that's broken. Comms companies operating on microscopic margins. So much for putting the power into the hands of the bean counters. They haven't made things work, not even on their own terms.

As for the practice of witholding staff expense payments as an unofficial 'bank', this is efficient business practice, obviously. It's also immoral, and if it isn't criminal, it ought to be. Along with taking forever, or never, to pay freelance people.

On America? Well, plus ca change. Americans may speak a common language with some of us in other parts of the world, but the moment you arrive at immigration in the USA and get hauled into a small room by silent, armed thugs who do it because they can, you know that wherever you've landed, it sure isn't the land of the free. (If this hasn't happened to you, keep returning and sooner or later it will). The US is a deeply authoritarian and somewhat oppressive society that frowns on maverick thought, thinks that alcohol is subversive, believes holidays and free time are an ungodly concept, and harbours endless other ideas counter to those in different cultures. There's no escaping it, America is very different to Europe (and Australia, too).

So don't go there? OK, I'm happy with that. The more I work in the US, the more often I breathe a sigh of relief when I return home and can say to myself that I'm a European and consequently have drawn first prize in the lottery of life.

Bless my Irish passport said:

Time was, creative, maverick figures like Sean were regarded by advertising agencies as being a good thing. Frank Lowe, Bill Bernbach, Jacques Seguela, John Hegarty, Charles Saatchi and others helped build a dynamic, profitable industry on the idea that creative thinking - in its broadest sense - helped build brands and deliver customers. The current corporatisation of advertising hasn't just made the business less interesting and less creative. It's made it less valued by brands, and therefore less profitable.

Handing the ship's wheel to the 'bean-counters' hasn't worked, even on their own terms. All they've done is wreck the business model, and they've been reduced to decimating staff levels, slave-driving the remainder, hacking salaries and, as Sean rightly points out, doing underhand things like taking forever to pay freelancers, and 'borrowing' huge sums from staff by withholding legitimate expense claims.

Of course advertising is a business. And of course advertising needs 'bean counters'. But advertising as a business is flatlining, so maybe it's time for the thinkers, the creators, and the doers to ressurect the business we helped create in the first place. And with respect to the 'bean counters', guide them courteously away from the ship's bridge and let US steer the ship again. We could hardly do a worse job.

Fuck it. it would certainly be more fun.

Leave a comment