Max Lenderman
CEO & Founder
  • School
Originally Posted

January 2, 2017

In one of his last New York Times columns, the famed advertising reporter Stewart Elliot wrote an astoundingly blunt and blatant evaluation of the current state of the ad industry. In describing the challenges facing our business, he described it thusly: “the situation is hopeless but not serious’ seems to sum up what several Madison Avenue thought leaders believe lies in store for the [advertising] industry.”

After covering the business for nearly a quarter century, his damning description must be taken seriously. It certainly signifies the beginning of the end for our business. But it could also mean the beginning of something more positive, intentional and wholly new for ourselves.

The situation is hopeless but not serious.

We must face the most obvious and confounding fact about the ad biz: people aren’t buying what we’re selling anymore. A recent study by the McCarthy Group suggests that 84% of millennials don’t trust traditional advertising. Uh oh. That’s a lot of people who won’t be persuaded by our “creativity.”

It also feels like we as an industry aren’t really persuaded by ourselves. Pardon the solipsism, but here’s the point: we the ad workers aren’t really happy with what we’re doing either.

A study that came out in early 2016 from the 4A’s in partnership with LinkedIn showed that turnover in the advertising industry is higher than related industries. This turnover is growing at a faster rate than competitive industries, with the gap increasing 10 percent in the past year. And overall, there was a 25 percent net talent loss at ad agencies globally compared with competitive industries in 2015.

As an Adweek article about the study points out, “for an industry built on marketing and selling products, and one that relies on its people, the ad industry has a major problem with its image. Mainly, it’s not meeting people’s expectations.” In response, “according to the LinkedIn team behind the study, a major fix for these problems is learning to brand agency life in a more appealing and honest way.”

Okay. Let’s do that.

Millennials who don't trust traditional advertising

Holding companies get bigger, but nimble independents are winning more. Digital is eating everyone’s lunch, but TV is eating up more budgets. Top talent is deserting for greener tech and start-up pastures, while agencies themselves are getting in the business of making stuff, launching products and investing in brands.

We are rooted in creativity but stuck in passe´ structures. We tout collaboration but reward connivance. We believe in a thing called loyalty but hardly ever practice it. We know that margins are ever-shrinking, and we continue to throw money at that problem. We are constant optimists believing that a major pitch win will reinvigorate the agency, but find ourselves cynically griping about the lack of meaning in it all. We are either sadists or masochists. Sometimes, each one of us is both.

Those of us in the advertising world are all a part of a very paradoxical industry indeed. This is no indictment, just an intentional and interested observance. So in this context, allow me to share a few more observances to add to the prognostications of the year to come.

There is a dearth of honor in advertising, and this needs to change.

No one ever told anyone that this is an “honorable” profession. We’ve all had to somehow minutely (or not) apologize at a dinner party to someone or other for being in advertising. For years, advertising has been the third-least-trusted profession in this country, behind lawyers and car salesmen. And yet our industry is instrumental — dare I say irreplaceable — to commerce and culture.

So let’s act like it.

We need to hold ourselves up higher. We need to elevate the business to match the ideals and expectations that our audience has for the products we help sell. We need to be more optimistic, intentional and open.

If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you see the need to help, jump right in. Stop squeezing clients for more money and your people for more hours. Win graciously and lose with grace. Never post anonymously on Agency Spy.

Following in the steps of the brands that are setting the tone for more transparency, authenticity and purpose, let’s be more meaningful in our work. Let’s nurture new talent rather than poach old ones. Let’s stop proving the industry adage that “the day you win a client is the day you start losing them.”

Let’s lose the term “co-opetition” and instead pursue true collaboration among diverse agencies without ever looking over our shoulders. Seriously, if this industry is to continue to attract and retain talent and expertise, it desperately needs a more honorable approach to the business in which we find ourselves.

We need more people with "fire in their eyes."

Shortly before I launched School with the Project network, I received a piece of invaluable advice from IDEO’s Paul Bennett: Work with people who “have fire in their eyes.”

This phrase has stubbornly stuck with me and continues to be a north star in the way we approach our work and our partner relationships at School. We seek out the innovators, the iconoclasts, the makers and doers who truly believe that they can dent the world for the better and have the seniority, talent or expertise actually to do it.

This easy filter applies to brand leaders with whom we work, to people who we want to work at School, to our holding-company partners, to our vendors, to our colleagues and our interns. We yearn to work with people who give a shit and not just talk it.

I truly believe that the way to build brands is through story-doing around social impact. In other words, brands need to prove that they can actually make people’s lives better and not just make a claim to do so.

Marketers who believe this – that the brands they lead are made up of people who are responsible to other people – and who want to bring love, intention, meaning and positivity to their work will have fire in their eyes.

It’s inevitable. Once a brand’s purpose is uncovered – it’s true purpose beyond profit and shareholder value – every person involved will want to take part and contribute.

It’s too easy to find cynicism amongst ourselves. It’s hardly a surprise when our colleagues bounce around from one clone-like agency to another. In this environment, fire in the eyes is hard to find. It is therefore even more imperative that we attract and retain talent that does have it.

I don’t mean people who work in advertising and are passionate about music, filmmaking, woodworking or cafe´ racer motorcycles. I mean people who are passionate about advertising. People who want to disrupt it, reformulate it and use it to create new forms of communication and human connection beyond consumerism.

My erstwhile boss would tell the story of when he interviewed with a creative legend for a job at the at-the-time hottest agency in the world. He was asked what he would want to do if he didn’t work in advertising and replied with something about playing music. He didn’t get the job. On his second attempt to land at the agency, he knew exactly what needed to be said.

So the question to ask any new agency hire is this: what would you want to do in order to make advertising better? Not just the work; the entire industry. What would you do to root out the hopelessness?

Brands, clients and partners: help us find your purpose!

Flush with statistics that show purpose-based companies – and the marketing they do – far outperform their non-purposeful competition, some agencies and CMOs (with fire in their eyes) are trying to do better by doing good. The creative work that is coming out of this intention has been stellar, inspiring, goosebump-inducing and tear-jerkingly good.

Despite the fact that most ad insiders grudgingly accept that purposeful agencies are growing in number and share of voice, clients still seem to be (optimistically) ambivalent or (cynically) totally bereft of purpose for their brands. They’d rather stick to the tried-and-true approaches to selling their wares. You know, the kind of work that 84% of young people in this country inherently and inexorably mistrust.

Agencies are supposed to be ahead of the culture curve. Our strategists and creatives are expected to be the sherpas who lead our clients into the immediate future. So it’s no surprise that our industry is well-advanced when it comes to understanding the new-found importance of purpose in culture and commerce, if even our clients are not yet ready to face the future.

But face the future you must. And that future must be purpose-led.

All over the world, people’s attitudes toward brands that embrace purpose and social impact are fundamentally shifting the creative work that is breaking through and influencing culture. The marketing and advertising industry is evolving in front of our eyes in order to meet and serve this change.

As the Good Purpose study from Edelman states, purpose is inventing, motivating, and even reengineering brand marketing – whether this is through changes in the way brands do business or in the kinds of brand campaigns and propositions companies launch. “It’s no longer a question of whether purpose can drive brand strategy,” the study reminds us. “It’s a question of how to do it better.”

According TBWA’s “The Future of Social Activism” report, it is the younger generations who are determining the way purpose is expected from the brands they patronize. As the report supposes, “the most powerful way to engage millennials, create brand ambassadors and build your business is to appeal to their hearts, not reach into their pockets. Those brands that take this message to heart will be the ones that profit most in the future.”

Penny the Pirate :30


Like A Girl 3:18

For Always.

This is Wholesome :31

For Honey Maid.

Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables 2:30

For Intermarche.

Share a Coke 2:59

From Coca-Cola.

Kan Khajura Station 2:05

From Unilever.

I Will What I Want 1:01

From Under Armour.

All this work is creatively purposeful. And according to WARC, these campaigns were the most effective pieces of communication in the world in 2016 — taking the top six out of ten spots on the list.

All these great pieces of creativity pushed purpose into the collective discussion of what we can accomplish together as an industry. And this discussion must go on vigorously, because I expect great things from purposeful brands, and even greater things from agencies using purpose for their insight and inspiration. Purpose will drive our ethos, our integrity and our success.

Purpose is the new digital. And this year will signal its significance. For agencies and marketers alike, there is only one question to ask yourself as you start the day: are you ready to find your purpose? Are you ready to #giveashit? Will you have fire in your eyes?