Just before the holiday vacation, I had the chance to attend a four-hour dinner with a diverse group of about 80 people who all happen to know our host and have some job in the fields of investing, advertising, teaching, writing, or other “new media.” I was lucky enough to be joined at my table by James Othmer, author of the new book, Adland. Interestingly, Adland was already on my shelf and in queue for holiday reading. Meeting James in person gave me more evidence that my book selection was strong and his written work certainly lived up to my positive impression in chatting with him.
Overall, Adland is a very unique and additive perspective on the future of marketing and is definitely worth your money and time. As a movie pitchman might say, it’s In Search of Excellence written by a David Ogilvy who has actually lived in and writes about the dirty trenches of the ad-agency business. Othmer tells his own story of a guy who somehow wound up in the advertising-agency business, learned how to thrive amid its crumbling, gradually discovered that it is not his calling, and escaped to a career as an fiction author (see his first book, The Futurist). Othmer returns to his old industry home in this book to share his experience with those of us still figuring out how to stick with it, and he shares insights from discussions with the leaders of some of the newest, most successful companies that are winning as the traditional-agency model falls apart.
One of the most enjoyable and cathartic elements of the book is Othmer’s stories from his work with some of the biggest advertising agencies and clients in the world. We laugh and/or cry with him through horrible bosses, time-churning pitches, and arrogant clients on million-dollar commercial shoots. Those of us who have seen this dark side of the business will enjoy Othmer’s biographical romp. But all is not dark; for example, I loved Othmer’s musings on the creative brainstorming process, and how it creates “intellectual adrenaline” that is hard to find in any other kind of business. This alone is worth the book price.
But Othmer’s book is really about the future of the advertising-agency business, as he weaves in stories of visits to and discussions with upstart agencies such as Droga5 and Fahrenheit 212—as well as old-school ad firms that seem to have crossed the chasm into new media success, such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. One of my favorite passages comes from Othmer’s discussions with the leaders of The Barbarian Group, who set the world on fire with Subservient Chicken in 2004. Co-founder and COO Rick Webb was asked, “Isn’t all this digital work actually more intrusive and dangerous than ‘traditional’ ads? Isn’t the Internet just another pipe through which marketers can pump more insidious, nuanced, and targeted messages?”
“On the Web, aside from banner advertising, I pretty much have to decide to experience a marketing message. I have to click on that banner, I have to visit that Web site, I have to add that Facebook app or watch that viral video. I have to start the engagement. And therefore advertisers have to incent me to do so, the same way they incent me to visit their showroom. Think of VW ads—jarring, in-your-face, edgy. They have to be, because they have to catch my attention. Now think of their showrooms. Clean, friendly, inviting, with nice couches and coffee. Because they have to be, because they have to convince me to come in. Interactive advertising is the showroom.”
Of course, it’s a perfect fit with the gospel we’re trying to espouse around Marketing with Meaning, and it’s what I talked about in a blog post here a few months ago about how digital agencies fundamentally think differently. The best line of the book comes soon after this passage, delivered by Barbarian co-founder and President Ben Palmer: “I see the Internet as a way of taking advertising back from the evil assholes.”
At the end of Adland, we see a survivor of some of the bloodiest battles in the business escape to a new career as a fiction novelist. Reading this, I felt as though I was cheering the hero, but it also left me acknowledging that I’m still knee-deep in the business that Othmer found mainly meaningless. I and many others do not necessarily have the will or means to escape. So we must try to find a way to make a living and make a difference in “adland.” For me, that’s by creating Marketing with Meaning. I hope you do, too.