I read last month that Ed Ney died. Ed was in his 90s, so I imagine most people in advertising today never heard of him. But, he was a giant. He ran Y&R when it was the largest agency in the world. But, even beyond the industry, he was an important figure. He was on a number of prestigious boards. He was a trusted marketing consultant to President Ronald Reagan. In fact, Reagan even named Ney to be the US Ambassador to Canada.
My father, Jim Jordan, died ten years ago today. His death was covered in Time Magazine, NPR and CBS News. Like Ney, he was the president of a large New York ad agency (BBDO), was on a number of boards, and was a frequent guest at the White House. He helped Gerald Ford in 1976 win the GOP primaries against Ronald Regan. And when the US celebrated its Bicentennial, my parents were invited to the White House party alongside the Queen of England.
All of which makes me wonder. Why were ad men – and women – more important back then? Or, perhaps the question should be, why are we less important now?
There are probably dozens of different, well-documented reasons for this.
Many of them are external factors, like new competition and a maturing industry.
- The ad business has become less profitable – and consequently, less glamorous. The industry attracts fewer of the best and brightest, fewer giants and visionaries.
- The magic or mystique has slowly leaked out of the branding process. There is a belief now “that anyone can do it.”
- There are now hundreds of political consultants and DC pollsters that make Washington’s reliance on and fascination with Madison Avenue almost non-existent.
- Marketing dollars have been siphoned off by things like sales incentives and store placement.
- The media has become so diluted, advertising seems to be less impactful and noticeable.
All of these have diminished the stature of our industry. But I can’t help but think that some of the wounds have been self-inflicted. Perhaps the greatest under-miner of the ad industry has been the ad industry itself.
- By merging and folding agencies throughout the 80s and 90s, we demonstrated that brands aren’t that important after all. We contradicted what we preach.
- We’ve handed the reins over to accountants and technicians… rather than marketing visionaries.
- We promote “Consumer Generated Content.”
- The industry seems to care more about exchange rates, real estate prices, stock splits and pension plans than the actual work.
- We celebrate the frivolity of the business. We give awards to fake ads. We look for stunts. What happened to big, sweeping… important ideas?
- We can be creatively lazy. Instead of creating ideas, we borrow ideas from mass culture. The industry used to create value and equity -- rather than just rent it from somewhere else.
This isn’t a plaintive cry for the good ol’ days. (I wasn’t even around for those days.) It is just a reminder that, historically, great value and importance were placed on what we do.
Visionary strategies. Memorable ideas. Consumer Insights. These principles are as important today as they ever were. Maybe if we re-embrace them, the rest of the world will re-embrace us.