Of Seinfeld and the ‘importance’ of advertising

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Jerry Seinfeld hit out at the advertising industry while giving an acceptance speech at the Clio Awards last month. Oh, the irony. I personally thought it was a case of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ but Seinfeld does raise some relevant points.

His main issues – the industry lies about the products it sells (‘spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy’), is obsessed with awards is about ‘phony careers and meaningless lives’. See the video or read the transcript here. The Denver Egotist carried an interesting editorial on it recently. There was a response to that rebuttal too – all good reads.

My views with respect to issues raised by Seinfeld and the subsequent responses:

Early in my career, my then boss explained how the concept of capitalised billing (a widely used metric then) was just notional and meant diddly-squat. I am grateful to her because it made me realise how small the advertising agency business is when compared to most of the businesses they represent. Sure, one cannot gauge the importance or relevance of an industry by its size alone but it does put things in perspective. The businesses clients run are complex, huge and deal with relatively many more issues than the ad business. More importantly, generate much larger income.

My boss went on to emphasise the futility of fretting too much about the kind of things we usually fret about in advertising agency or marketing meetings (’50 different layout combinations of a pack design for a candy’, ‘font size 18 vs 22 in poster for beer’) while there are far more important things to worry about in life. No, it wasn’t an advice to be sloppy at work or ignore issues which are important to clients, but giving your best to the task at hand while being aware of one’s priorities, striking a balance and not taking oneself too seriously.

Sure, advertising has an important and positive role in commerce but with caveats & limitations:

We work with products clients produce, warts and all: Not all our client’s products are perfect. Not all of them are meant to change the world. But is our duty to show the same level of enthusiasm and put in as much effort for a floor cleaner brand as well as a ‘cure for cancer’. It is our job to sell even if the product is mundane, run of the mill, me-too or simply of dodgy quality. We don’t get to choose how a product is made – though we can definitely advice.

Comparisons are odious: To say that an advertising career is ‘less substantive’ than that of a doctor who saves lives is perhaps true, but a wrong comparison, in my opinion. Such comparisons are futile and never ending. Where will the comparisons stop? Is the output of an architect more important than of a pilot? We all end up choosing a career for many reasons – we either stumble upon them (most common reason, I guess), chase a passion or choose a career based on the degree we have earned and plod along. Also even within professions there is a hierarchy, stated or otherwise. In the medical profession (high up on the totem pole of noble professions), it is common for specialists to look down upon GPs, cardiologists to consider skin specialists as ‘infra dig’ and so on. There is a need for varied skill sets in society and each ‘role’ is important.

Creative domain – still an expertise: The output of an advertising agency can be seen as ‘just 30-seconds of entertainment’ for a beer brand or shampoo and hence inconsequential or unsubstantial. Fact is that effort is required to sell that brand and make a business of it. There are several businesses which may not need the support of conventional advertising but a large section of commerce needs the engine of advertising. And that piece is something which the clients do not have the talent to create. Clients may be good at everything else – strategy, number crunching, post campaign analysis but they cannot produce the actual creative themselves. In today’s context, client company teams can & do produce social media content but they depend on creative specialists to create conventional advertising. Increasingly traditional advertising agencies are bypassed for ‘specialist’ services – long format audio visual content meant for YouTube, short format content or Vine & Instagram etc., but specialist ‘creative folk’ are still required to create them.??Advertising and formal education: I for one, find it odd that highly qualified engineers and top notch MBA’s (typically Type A personalities) make a career out of selling soft drinks, fairness creams and crunching numbers about toilet paper sales. You find them in both client and agency teams. To me, it seems like a waste of education & talent. Sure, one is free to choose one’s career but I sometimes wonder what good a degree in metallurgy is when it comes to planning strategy for potato chip band or crafting creative for a beer brand. Since there is no formal educational qualification required (or even possible) to make a successful career in advertising (be it in Planning, Media, Business Management or Creative) – it all depends on one’s talent, a ‘flair’ for the business and some common sense. Even in production of ad films, some of the big names may not have formal training or education in film making. In many other professions this is not the case. So in comparison the ad industry may seem even more like a lightweight profession.

A creative industry which can be a force of good: this is something that the industry can truly be but often put on the back burner. As an industry this is coming together of number crunchers, psychologists, business strategists, musicians, film makers, graphic artists, technologist and creative minds. Such a coming together of talent is rarely seen, especialy for a business or commercial purpose. It is not just art for art’s sake or mindless entertainment or creative work meant to make money for the creators. It is to help a business or a cause – the industry needs to take pride in this and needs to be celebrated. There are countless causes where advertising has played a critical role in effecting change – be it in attitude or behaviour. The ad industry needs to be applauded for it and not just berated for creating another ad for a beer brand or skin cream.

Creative awards as the only goal is a serious problem: the big problem, in my view is the narcissistic nature of the ad industry. To many awards have become everything. Sure, celebrate creativity by all means. But let it not be for deceptive, surreptitious work which is what scam and ‘created-for-awards’ advertising is. This is what Seinfeld was referring to rightly in his speech.

Advertising is an industry like no other: is fun, exciting, ever-changing. It only needs a creative, curious, ever-learning mind with some knowledge of how business works, consumers behaviour and brands building. The output has an effect on business and can be entertaining. But there’s no point in whipping oneself comparing it to brain surgery. It is not meant to be.

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