I can count on one hand, with plenty of fingers to spare, the number of times I’ve raised my voice in anger in a professional context. Given the endemic tension in my line of work, I’m proud of this fact.
The first time will always stay with me. It was crisis in the minutes before a deadline: shouting ADs and PMs on the verge of tears. An all-too familiar scene to anyone in the ad business, but it was new to me, and flat-out ridiculous. I wanted to shut it right down. People, get ahold of yourselves. We’re not curing cancer, dodging artillery, or rescuing disaster victims. We’re selling a cheap bottle of mediocre alcohol. Nobody will die if this ad doesn’t ship. Nobody will lose a job, a loved one, or a limb. Less than twelve people will even notice. Yes, it’s important; sure, we should do it right and well; but my god, just breathe for a minute.
I hang on to this memory not because of my own imagined eloquence, but because ever since the rant left my lips, I’ve been haunted by the daydream of what my job would be like if it wasn’t true.
Two discoveries this week have brought the thought back to the forefront of my consciousness. The first, Rory Sutherland’s disarmingly funny TED talk on the power of perception management. [Watch it below. It's worth the 16 minutes. It's most of what Art & Copy could have been, and failed to be, in a fraction of the time.] “Engineers, medical people, scientific people, have an obsession with solving the problems of reality,” Rory challenges, “but most problems — once you reach a basic level of wealth in society — are actually problems of perception.”
The second, just such a worthy problem of perception. The US Army issued an RFP for an ad campaign aimed at winning hearts in Afghanistan. The key metric for measuring performance? Reduction in the number of IEDs that blow apart Humvees. Literally, life and death. When I raised it in the weekly new biz meeting, of course, it became a funny joke about moderating focus groups in Kandahar. Fair enough.
The secret irony of being an agent is that we have very little agency. We’re one step removed from decisions and thousands of miles insulated from real accountability. Most of us have built up a comfortable credibility as consultants based largely on the fact that we’ve consulted for others in the past. Even after a decade of web-based performance marketing that can count success down to the minutia of clicks and conversion rates, we still channel prestige more by who we’ve performed in front of than how we’ve performed.
Here’s an arresting thought about the gap between prestige and proof:
If we’re actually good at what we claim to be good at, we should be able to launch wildly successful consumer brands with uncanny consistency, from scratch, blindfolded with hands behind our backs.
If we’re great at it, we should be doing more. Changing lives. Leading cultures. Curing the diseases of perception that turn people against each other, themselves, and their planet. As elite agents of cultural change, we should have long ago vanquished injustices with ideas. It shouldn’t have even been much of a struggle.
Why haven’t we? Plenty of reasons. Those problems aren’t so simple, of course. And there’s no client to pay for that kind of work. There’s no time to work on it anyway. And even if there were, it would be polarizing — you’d have to take political positions. Make risks even beyond the investment of time and money. You’d alienate people and strain relationships and put yourself in the morally-questionable position of deciding the right direction to lead culture in the first place. You’d be accountable if you failed.
They’re reasons that are all true and valid and logical and deeply prohibitive.
But are they good enough?