Why I Left The Ad Game

SONY DSCWhy I Left Advertising

‘Why I left advertising’ blog posts have been popping up around the internet for the last few years. Perhaps tellingly, these posts often get passed around with fervor by people who work in the ad industry.

The latest was a brilliant one by Bud Caddell, about disempowered, feckless, and under-resourced clients—if you haven’t read it, it’s right here:


Personally, I found it hard to step away from advertising after a decade. As I reflected on the decision, six months after the change—I realized that ‘why I stayed in advertising’ was as big of a part of my story as why I left.

Why I stayed in advertising

I see now that leaving advertising was so difficult because I absolutely loved the people I worked with. When I had a particularly bad day (inevitably involving a client backtracking on something hard-earned and long-sought),I took solace over a beer with my wonderful colleagues as we asked the rhetorical question of why we continued to stick with the ad rag. At these times, I dug deep and conjured up an old memory of walking into a dark auditorium on my campus and meeting the university advertising club for the first time. I remembered the recognition that surfaced after just a few moments—advertising people were ‘my’ kind of people: I’d stumbled into a conclave full of smart, cultured, curious, goofy, and geeky people that very quickly felt like family to me. I found this substitute ‘family’ in the personnel of many agencies throughout the country—and those folks steeled me through many a brutal day in advertising. Perhaps too many, on reflection.

I also stayed in advertising so long because I believed it was one of the coolest businesses in America. We did tend to bring the fun when we rolled up—the wacky brainstorming techniques, the offbeat trends, or the guffaw-inducing storyboard—clients would often say that meetings with the agency were the most interesting parts of their week. The thought of leaving advertising seemed unbearable partly because other options seemed desolate by comparison. I assumed most other were soul-crushing cultural wastelands (as evidenced by short visits to suburban office parks and occasional viewings of “The Office”). I see now that some of those assumptions were not only erroneous but incredibly self-important—(almost as self-important as writing a blog post about leaving advertising, you say? Zing!).

Ultimately, I stayed in advertising so long because of the combination of the people I worked with, and the belief that advertising was more fun than any other business out there. This got me through the bad days—like when clients picked the worst ad in the stack, when the creative teams acted like playground bullies, or when agency leadership came into the pitch room at the 11th hour, blew up everything and calmly walked out.

But some bigger signs started to emerge and signal that it was time to move away from advertising. For instance, someone added me to their “Disgruntled Advertising Professionals” Twitter list—a moment which seemed to come right out of that hilarious and cutting Careerbuilder Super Bowl ad about when it’s time to leave your job. (For a breather, here’s a link to that gem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6CWrCxks_8)

Some bigger questions had begun to surface for me, and over time, I found that staying in advertising carried no satisfactory resolution for the issues that I had come to recognize.

Finally… Why I Left Advertising

  1. Advertising is very influential despite being dismissed as very uninfluential

During the years I was in advertising, I could expect one of two responses to revealing my profession. 1. Outright hostility, in which someone would tell me how much they hated advertising or—more often, 2. Deliberate indifference, in which people were keen to tell me advertising means nothing: they never watch it, they barely see any, they can’t think of one off the top of their head. “Nobody really pays attention to advertising,” they’d say, in a determinedly dismissive tone. But if ‘deliberate indifference’ sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because it is—while you can modify your behavior in an attempt to avoid something (hello, DVR), many times—when we go out of our way to be dismissive, we’re trying to downplay a truth we wish to avoid.

There is truth in volume: collectively, advertising is one of the biggest voices we hear in any given day. That often-cited number of advertisements we see per day (last I heard was 10,000?) seems to be ever-ascending. And it’s true enough that most people can’t actively recall one of them—unprompted, that is. But just hum a few bars of a jingle or start a few lines of dialogue from an ad in heavy rotation, and suddenly the mind fills in the space that was formerly blank. It leads one to believe that advertising isn’t processed by the conscious mind; it simply couldn’t be, given there isn’t enough room in the processing centers of our conscious mind to accommodate that ridiculous kind of volume.

If you’re a fan of alarmism, just Google “advertising and the subconscious mind”—the word ‘subliminal’ will appear in many of the links, with plenty of atomic commentary about how advertisers are purposefully manipulating us by tricking our subconscious minds into purchase. Let me assure any non-advertisers reading this, there is no ad agency on earth able to actually do this in-practice. The subconscious is still a mystery to science, let alone to business—all that is known is the subconscious is “always-on,” never sleeps (literally), and is probably scooping up a bunch of stuff our conscious mind can’t deal with.

And while it’s a bit unsettling to know we’re taking in much more of advertising than we can consciously realize, that isn’t why I left advertising. It’s the contradictions within the attitude of advertising toward its ability to influence that left me disillusioned.

The advertising industry is at-once aware and unaware of the influence it wields. It is aware when it wants to create an individual result for an individual client.

Over my many years of the advertising business, it was a truism bandied between clients and agencies—infiltrating and influencing culture was a sign of a successful campaign. This kind of talk crosses oceans—an agency representative in a work session here in Australia postulated to the group, “but what is the role of the brand in culture?”. Classic ads like Wendy’s ‘Where’s the Beef?’ and Budweiser’s ‘Wassup’ were cited as successes because consumers adopted the phrases in daily life—the phrases became repeated themes before ‘memes’ became famous on the web. (It’s important to note the word ‘meme’ isn’t bound to internet expressions, but was coined in the 70’s to describe any ideas, symbols, or practices being transmitted through culture—thanks, Wikipedia!).

Long after the days of catchphrases in TV ads, advertising content is getting passed from one person to another on the interweb, becoming culture in milliseconds. Remember the “Carrie”-remake telekinesis stunt that pulled in over 56 million Youtube views?—that didn’t sell a ton of movie tickets (oops!), but will likely be a reference point in every single ‘which superpower would you rather have?’ conversation for the next decade. It failed in persuading with its intended message, but the surrounding content actually had a longer tail in its topical influence (e.g. social currency, conversation fodder, and enough YouTube hits to make movie studios consider backing a previously-canned telekinesis superhero film).

And that rather harmless example is exactly why influence goes beyond catch-phrases and conversational reference points—ideas, images, and frames are some of the passengers that ride along with every piece of content we see or hear, advertising or otherwise. All of these memes are creating schema—organizing principles for the human mind—on a daily basis. Some examples could have bigger consequences—for instance, talk to less than five people about beer, and one of them will tell you that darker beers or microbrews are “filling”. Are they? Really? There’s the exact same amount of liquid in a pint of microbrew as the yellow beers. The Miller Light premise of “Less Filling, Tastes Great” has continued to influence actual patterns of thought and behavior around beer long after the time period in which the ad aired (and now influences people who weren’t even born when the ads ran). It reset people’s very expectations for what beer should and should not do. One could speculate the long tail of these Miller ads might have led to the eventual rise of low-calorie beers, possibly delayed the rise of craft beer, or even helped to drive women toward their now-strong preference for wine. Regardless, that advertising had an influence (and a life) well beyond selling more beers at-launch.

The influence of advertising is bigger than the plans we make, the messages we intend to send, the product we intend to sell. It’s a responsibility to have so much of a voice in culture, to be able to bend and influence people’s perceptions and ideas NOT JUST about brands, but about themselves and their world by bending their daily ways of framing. For me, that feeling of responsibility mounted over time until it became impossible to ignore.

I said before that advertising industry is at-once aware and unaware of the influence it wields. Advertisers often profess they are UNaware of advertising’s influence when things don’t go as-planned.

This denial generally takes one of three forms—when 1. Advertising doesn’t move sales (“what can we do? It’s only advertising”) or when 2. Advertising produces a negative side effect that people are unhappy with (“it’s not THAT big of a deal, it’s just advertising”) or when 3. Advertising made by their team or agency crossed the values or beliefs of a person working on it (“it’ll be off the air soon, luckily it’s not REALLY going to impact anyone”).

By dismissing the influence of advertising in these moments, it’s easy to absolve oneself (I should know) of responsibility. But to make these dismissive statements is to forget the original goal of cultural traction—as obviously, influencing culture cannot happen without influence.

Not to mention, if people did not notice advertising, they would not complain when they see advertising that rubs them the wrong way or offends them. When the ‘passengers’ that ride along with an ad’s intended message reinforce negative stereotypes, use humor in a way that is injurious to a party of people, or take an approach to selling that undermines someone or something, people take notice and rise up (which usually results in a half-hearted public apology from the company). We should ask ourselves if advertising is so uninfluential when a group of regular people with busy lives become insulted enough by it to complain with ferocity.

At these times, I found that corporate statements read like shrug-offs that minimized the influence of advertising in general. Veet is hardly the sole example of this—but they’re the most recent. If you haven’t seen these terrible ads, this link includes them as well as some scathing content from Jezebel as a bonus: http://jezebel.com/horrible-new-veet-ads-if-a-lady-has-hair-on-her-legs-1560720940. Here’s the ‘apology’ the company issued…

It was really simple and funny, we thought. To be honest, the 3 of us could really relate to these real-life moments and they made us laugh. Not everyone appreciated our sense of humor. We know that women define femininity in different ways. Veet helps those who choose to stay smooth. Our intention was never, ever, to offend anyone, so we decided to rethink our campaign and remove those clips. Thank you for letting us know how you feel.” – Veet’s North American Marketing Team

See?! It was just a silly ad! You might not have liked the joke but it was funny! Advertising is no biggie! (As an aside, my favorite statement in there is “Veet helps those who choose to stay smooth”— a heavy implication that such humorless complainers must also be super-hairy women who are neglectful to their personal appearance).

I once raised offense when a company I worked for produced a campaign featuring buxom young women jumping on a trampoline (in slow motion)—and was promptly told by a male colleague to “get over it.”

See? No biggie!

Never mind that it was a stated (and discussed) part of the objectives of said ad to gain social traction. No doubt Veet, also, had hoped its ad would be a big enough deal to be passed along—as do most marketers without the top share of voice in their product category. But if that ad gets passed on with any negative characterization, it’s time to disavow the very influence they were hoping to gain.

Yet, despite all this, I am sure Veet’s marketing team and ad agency high-fived behind the scenes, because in the view of many in the business—‘any publicity is good publicity.’ The logic being that if people talked about it, it must have worked—it must have had an influence.

  1. For all that talk about insights, marketers and advertisers have real trouble with real truths

We all know the grim facts—73% of people say they wouldn’t care if the brands they use disappeared from their life (Co.Exist). The same number (73%) of women say that advertisers just don’t understand them (the 3% Conference). Can you blame them? I know when I turn on my TV, I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a truth I feel inside, or a world that I see outside. If the advertising industry is so insight-driven, why is this the case?

Agencies talk often about the power of insights, or human truths. In capabilities presentations or pitches, they talk about their proprietary process for ‘unlocking’ these truths, and in meetings around the country, they present insight-driven advertising as successful case studies. But it seems like there’s a very slim and over-utilized list of case studies when it comes to truth-based ad campaigns—for example, Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Almost a decade later, its simple and compelling truths still have the ability to rouse people, and yet the campaign remains largely unjoined by other notable examples. In fairness, it’s a high bar to match—Dove has the platform of a global brand campaign, and that isn’t easy to replicate when selling toothpaste (shinier gums?!). But smaller truths can be truths nonetheless—it could be anything that reflects something people know or feel, that makes them think, ‘that’s me’ even if for the briefest of moments. Where are those moments in advertising?

The truth, I’ve found, is that advertising with any real truths contained is so hard to come by.

Whose fault might it be that consumer truths and insights aren’t reflected in advertising? It’s common to ask this within the industry—it seems that every few years (or every few minutes), agencies try to assess how to make insights better. They might change the sheets of paper that serve as input into the creative process (the client input document or the creative brief), or look outward to pull in new talent, or borrow best practices from a rival firm. In my view, these changes just skimmed the surface, and ignored some simple foundational things that underlie an agency’s ability to recognize, develop, and execute insights.

I believe that in order to make a piece of creative that is based on a truth, there are two basic beliefs the agency has to internalize and advocate for: 1. Embracing people’s realities—from the mundane to the meaningful and 2. Respecting the people those truths are about. In my experience, the advertising industry is pretty dismal at doing both (I know, ouch), which is why advertising based on authentic truths is so rare, despite the industry’s outward embrace of insights. When these two basic tenants are missing, it can keep a viable, truthful insight from ever being recognized, let alone developed. And while meaningful change is possible, it requires shifting beliefs, not simply shifting blanks around on a page.

Embracing a fantasy version of reality

“I reject your reality, and substitute my own”—Adam Savage is a Mythbuster, not a marketer—but based on that phrase, he might as well be. The phrase he helped to popularize accurately describes why marketers and advertisers aren’t fully capable of embracing the reality of their consumers and customers: because nobody likes the consumer’s version of reality as much as they enjoy their own.

This begins with clients, who have a particular version of reality they prefer—a world in which people love their products, can’t wait to get their hands on new products, and are passionate about brands. (Perhaps it is too hard to justify getting out of bed in the morning if one considers the more accurate version of reality, in which consumers barely tolerate products and could care less if most brands disappeared forever). The facts are stacked in favor of consumer indifference. But it’s not facts that drive the re-versioning of reality, it’s feelings.

I often heard clients say they wanted to stay “positive” when faced with an accurate consumer truth, which was a way of saying that what people thought, felt, or did was too uncomfortable for them, likely because it was unfavorable toward their brand.This kind of thinking essentially eliminates any neutral-to-negative color from the palate, leaving only a rose-colored tint in truth’s place. When a brand considers how it feels about itself above how consumers feel about that brand, truth is lost, and I believe—relevance with it.

There’s many reasons the old “LEMON” Volkswagen ad is a favorite classic ad—but I’d bet its efficacy came from the fact that consumers recognized the truth behind it (as it was framed through their lens). In more recent years, this “tell-it-like-it-is” approach has become a “tell-it-like-we-want-it-to-be” approach. Only one campaign in recent memory seems to have truly embrace the consumer’s version of reality—the brilliant and ballsey Domino’s “Oh Yes We Did” campaign, created by CP+B.

This campaign has been written about ad nauseam, but what fascinates me about it is the fact that marketer and the agency looked through the consumer’s lens and honored the truth, despite the perceived risk in portraying the Domino’s product in a negative light. Domino’s could have avoided the more ugly truths (such as people saying their crust was like cardboard!). They could have reframed the reality of consumers to suit their own interests, creating a ‘positive’ story to make the brand look better—‘new and improved pizza!’ But instead, consumers reacted strongly to the recognition paid to their thoughts and feelings. Small moments of ‘I know, right?’ went a long way for CP+B and Domino’s, as same-store sales went up 9.9% in the campaign’s first year (Pizza Marketplace).

I can’t imagine how the agency persuaded the client to do it. But I do know it must have been difficult, given how exceedingly rare this kind of campaign is. For the most part, I found clients’ inability to face consumers’ version of reality really tainted their ability to see value in truths.

Agencies would be happy for the story to stop there, saying clients are the biggest barriers to insight—can’t recognize truths, and can’t embrace them. But agencies are absolutely guilty of dismissing the reality of consumers, despite the love of insights professed—because agencies, in my experience, simply love themselves more than they love insights.

I spoke before about the collective chip on their shoulder that advertising agencies can have—the ad agency ‘swagger’ comes not only from the belief that agency people are super-cool and in-the-know, but also comes from the necessary confidence an agency must have in the ideas that emerge from the creative department. The work is the product of the agency, and therefore, the vision of the creatives is the version of reality the agency preaches. From what I saw over my time in the business, creative teams are put on a pedestal (which has been creating unhealthy egos for generations). But beside that, it’s also means their vision—their version of reality—is nearly incontrovertible.

What does the creative teams’ version of reality look like? I’ll be the first to say I am not one, but I had the distinct pleasure (only somewhat sarcastic!) of working with many in my time in the business. First, and a surprise to no one, is that creative teams represent a pretty narrow subset of the population—they are almost exclusively young, urban males; and as with all of us, our station informs how we think and feel. I often found a creative team’s vision of reality is more of a fantasy—the result of just about any briefing for any product could result in metaphoric, hyperbolic humor that seemed to be written to appeal a 20-something male demographic (no matter what the product was or who it supposedly targeted). And while in fairness, it’s a creative person’s job to make things interesting, it’s not necessarily their job to create something they themselves find interesting.

When presenting a truth to my creatives, I often found the teams just weren’t biting. It was boring, they might say; not interesting enough, might as well put the audience to sleep. Whether that truth was a driving motivation, an underpinning emotion, a twist on a common thought, or a day-to-day choice we are faced with, the creative teams often found these truths to be too mundane, too uninteresting in their view to be worthy of bringing to life on the screen. The culture of the agency as a whole seemed to believe that the truth just wasn’t as dramatic or engaging as whatever the creative teams could come up with. Even if creative teams were excited by truths and utilized them, the execution skewed the reality far away from the consumer purview: how many layers of hyperbole and metaphor can be laid atop a truth before it becomes unrecognizable?

Yes, the point of advertising is to be engaging and catchy. But creatives are so busy making things engaging, they often couldn’t find the interest and the magic in the truths that stemmed from the consumer point-of-view. And while everyone might find a chuckle or two in most ads, I’d venture that most don’t find anything that feels like it relates to them, their thoughts, or their lives. In tacking on associations, metaphors, and production value to make the ads ‘interesting,’ the truth gets buried under all the layers.

In my experience, nobody liked the consumer’s version of reality more than their own.

And maybe—just maybe, nobody liked the consumer.

It’s a question of respect… or lack thereof

In order to reflect or comment on something true, you have to pay some respect to the place, the people, and the circumstances behind that truth. This seems like a no-brainer, but as foundational as it seems, I found it to be lacking in the advertising business.

The people who buy things marketers and advertisers sell are constantly devalued throughout the ad-creation process. This often starts with the marketing team of the client, who don’t often use the product they advocate for, and therefore don’t relate to the people who do (or might have to). There seemed to be a lack of general appreciation or respect given to consumers in the way marketers speak about them, which often took the form of questioning consumers’ thinking, choices, or intelligence.

Marketers might speak about consumers in a slightly condescending manner, saying things like, “well, our consumer is more mainstream than we are”—meaning unsophisticated, by their definition. Or perhaps they’d talk about consumer behavior in a cutting manner, “they say they want gluten-free but they don’t even know what that means”. The worst would say insulting things like, “have you seen our consumer recently?” and joke about physical attributes. All this left the general feeling that the people who buy were perceived as people beneath.

Given that, it’s not really surprising that marketers would often use the word “educate” to describe marketing actions; for example, “we need to educate the consumer about our new product”. This was never truly about educating, providing crucial or useful information consumers might actually need or be able to use. It’s not just a bit heavy-handed to say ‘educate,’ it’s borderline ridiculous—most of the things companies sell are so simple, nobody could ever need an education about them. It was just a part of the condescending words and phrases that hung around the corridors, building into a culture of derision that remained unchallenged.

This kind of talk absolutely gutted me. Yes, people are fallible—we all do stupid things, can make ill-informed choices, and have moments in which our appearance is highly questionable (actually, most of the time, my appearance is highly questionable). And we all have ugly moments in which we have a tendency to judge other humans— but when it’s organizationally acceptable to make slights against the very people who keep that company in business, how can that same organization value truths about those very people in the form of insights?

Nor do agencies seem to respect the consumer much more. From what I observed, agencies subsist on coolness—carry a ‘cool factor’ into every meeting; use it as the weapon they fight with and the shield they defend with. Now, sitting across the table from agencies in my new role, the demeanor of ‘we are cooler than you, and if you don’t like it—you clearly just don’t get it’ is palpable. As if being chic, urban and metropolitan means being smarter and savvier than everybody else. The fact is, many agencies just respect themselves far more than they respect consumers.

So what, you ask? What’s the crime in a little cultural elitism?

Ultimately, how marketers and advertisers speak ABOUT people will inevitably come across in how they speak TO them. If marketing and advertising are originating from a place in which consumers aren’t respected, any insight about those consumers is also positioned to be disregarded. The effect of this is apparent in thousands upon thousands of irrelevant ads that bear little resemblance to any truth we’ve ever thought, felt, or imagined.

As a strategist in the ad business, it was my job to represent and advocate for the consumer—they were my constituent in the process, the way the account person served the client and the creatives served the art. I believe in that role’s importance because I fundamentally believe it makes businesses better if they understand the needs of the people who buy their products. So over time, it was demoralizing to hear consumers and their reality being so dismissed in the advertising business. It was painful to watch the truths I advocated for evaporate so quickly in the creative process, or be transformed into an end product that would be irrelevant or unrecognizable to consumers. I got to thinking that all the talk of consumers and insights was more for show in the pitches and the meetings, while being shut out behind closed doors. It became harder and harder to bounce back for another day.

I guess I have just always been a believer in people—what they have to say, and what their experience of the world is. And you could say my embrace of the consumer makes me literal, or makes me a bore—but I always loved the saying “truth is stranger than fiction,” because I’ve always found that to be the case. You can’t make this stuff up—humans are infinitely interesting, with enough fascinating beliefs, behaviors, and bizarreness to keep anthropologists, psychologists, and plenty of other professions who study our species busy for the remainder of human history.

This fascination with and curiosity for people was a big part of what brought me into the business to begin with—in fact, that trait was part of the kindred spirit I felt with that auditorium full of advertising people way (way) back in college all those years ago. I think over the years, I found that trait to be less prominent in the advertising business than I would have hoped. This, coupled with my growing sense that the impact of advertising is more pronounced than any of us would care to entertain or admit, drove me to be so dissatisfied that I left advertising.

And if you’re wondering (my goodness, if you’re even still reading)—yes, there are days that I miss it, especially the people I worked with. But those are fewer than I expected, as new challenges are reinvigorating my spirit in a way that never could have happened if I had stayed in the same roles (as evidenced by the “Disgruntled Advertising Professional” Twitter list). I didn’t expressly leave advertising with the goal of gaining new perspective and energy, but have found these gifts continually reinforce the decision I made to be a “Former Ad Professional,” hopefully removing “disgruntled” as a description for good.

One thought on “Why I Left The Ad Game

  1. Megan,

    Spent past few hours reading your words and Admap essay – seriously good stuff. Wonderful idea for true insight with your inn despite mismatched ads being served by WordPress.



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