Why I Left Advertising

A couple of days ago, my friend Matt Eastwood, who is the Global Chief Creative Officer at J Walter Thompson (you can’t get much higher than that in creative roles in advertising), was interviewed by Indian website Live Mint. In the interview, he proclaimed that “it is the best time to be working in advertising”, because “now, you can invent a new product” [instead of just doing “advertising”]. So basically, he is saying that advertising is much more than it used to be, so it’s a great time to be in an agency. Fair point, but the ideas that agencies come up with are almost always created for the sole purpose of creating a marketing “buzz”. It’s driven by marketers, and it is highly unlikely that any of it ends up solving real problems for consumers and companies. So with all due respect to Matt (who is a truly great creative and one of the loveliest guys you’ll ever meet), the answer is the opposite. If you really want to build something, if you really want to change something, advertising is the last place you want to be – especially if you are young, and just coming out of university or college. In any event, Matt’s interview made me think of why I decided to focus on other things than advertising.

Now, I am a former ad man. I didn’t run the global creative for a large network, like Matt, but I ran creative departments for large global agencies in Sydney, Singapore, Oslo and Shanghai – and I worked on some of the largest brands in the world. I used to feel the same way as Matt, that we could “invent” anything, and it would create real change in the world. I don’t believe that anymore. The truth is that doing something to get people to talk about your company/brand, is the wrong reason to do it. The solution could be right, but most likely it’s not. Solving real problems is not about “buzz”, social media presence, or even fame. Advertising, is just that – a way to get people to take interest in your product, but it actually perpetuates the old way of thinking, that brands are defined by how you get people to talk about you and how they perceive your brand.

Today (and especially in the future), nothing is about what you say – everything is about what you do. Branding is not about logos, packaging, advertising or PR anymore – branding is about how your brand behaves in the world, and the experience that the consumers have at every point of contact with the brand. So I believe that creative people are better off working with designing new customer service experiences, creating new services, new products, new ways of using products and services, new ways of using technology to solve problems, and new ways to stimulate the society we live in. It doesn’t only have to be “for good” (i.e. charity). Most companies make products that are useful and desirable to people. That’s where the path needs to continue, but of course with a stronger understanding of the digital culture we live in, and the technologies available to us – that can help solve real world problems. And the marketing department in a company is very rarely the place where these changes can happen. Not because there’s something wrong with the people who work there, they are usually both knowledgeable and passionate about what they do. But they have been tasked to create marketing activities, and that is their focus. Their budget is allocated to “marketing”, and therefore they will spend that money on “marketing”. Modern marketers understand that this could be creating products, services or new experiences for the customers, but as I said, it’s usually done with the wrong motivation.

If you want to help create real change in a company, you need to be speaking to top management. They are usually focused on growing the business, adjusting the strategy and understanding how to rebuild or adjust the company for the future. Marketing can only take the company so far. Everything else has to come from products, services, customer service, logistics, etc. etc. And that’s where advertising agencies find it hard to cut through. They rarely get to discuss with the top management, and when they do – it’s almost always about marketing. And this is exactly the reason why I chose to say goodbye to advertising, and focus on helping companies change their business for the future, using strategy, innovation, technology and of course creativity.

By all means, advertising isn’t disappearing anytime soon, but to hail it as the most dynamic place to be at the moment, is grossly misleading. After over 20 years in advertising, I realised that it is one of the most conservative industries in the world. They haven’t even figured out how to fully integrate the “new” digital world (digital has been around for over 20 years, hence the quotation marks) with traditional advertising. There are still “traditional” and “digital” agencies out there. So I’m thinking someone will disrupt the industry pretty soon. And I won’t be done by one of today’s mastodons.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by Mark Higgins, under CC]

This post was later published by Campaign Asia.