20 Years Gone from the Ad Business

59975734820 years ago on April 15, 1999 I left the ad business. I had been the CEO of a now defunct agency called the Star Group and I sold my interest in the firm that day, ironically on Tax Day. It was also 3 years to the day that I had joined the firm in 1996. Nice symmetry. No need to belabor the issues of the time at that agency, which fade in the rear view mirror of life, other than my feeling, then and now, that it was a very good day for me. I was excited about my personal and business future, and happy to have closed my personal chapter of ad agency management.

In selling my interest of my firm to my partners I had no plans that spring other than taking our family on a 2-month vacation driving around the country (our kids were 10 and 5 at the time) in the summer of 1999. No smartphones, email, internet. Brought my cell phone and used it a couple of times. Much more on the trip in a future Struming.

Though I “left” the ad business 20 years ago, truth is I have peripherally remained in the industry as a marketing consultant to more than 15 ad agencies over the years, particularly MayoSeitz Media, a terrific media agency in PA. I also have worked with many companies outside the ad industry as well.

To say that the business has changed in the past 20 years is an obvious understatement. That’s true for virtually all business. Though at its core the advertising industry was built on delivering marketing programs which help companies drive their business, the means of doing so have dramatically changed in several obvious ways:

1Digital marketing has transformed the industry, largely for the better.

I know “old timers” are supposed to yearn for yesteryear and there were aspects I miss, but digital marketing is more targeted, effective and accountable than the blunt traditional marketing  which still has a role though a less dominant one.

2Agency specialization.

20+ years ago many agencies were built on “we can do it all for you”—advertising, media, PR, direct response, yellow pages (remember that). The agencies I led in the Philadelphia area—Star Group and Earle Palmer Brown–both had the full-service mentality and capabilities in that era. That’s changed dramatically.

3In the past, relationships were glue that maintained accounts for 5, 10 years, even more.

At BBDO/New York in the 80s I worked on the GE and Armstrong Flooring accounts which had 60+ year relationships with the agency at that time. My job was simply not to screw it up. The average length of an agency-client relationship has plummeted (as has the tenure of the average CMO). Correspondingly fewer relationships are AOR (agency of record) relationships and more are project based.

4. Analytics were blunt to non-existent.

I yearned for data to support my recommendations. Even the analytics of that era were largely research based on attitude, awareness and consideration data that were difficult to tie to directly sales trends.

Despite the dramatic changes, there are still things I miss about the ad business

1. New business—I always enjoyed the pitch–“game day”. The loved the opportunity for the agency to woo a potential client and then perform and win. New business is a win-lose opportunity. Winning was great. Losing stunk. I was a zealot for rehearsals–for practice (sorry AI). The  joy of winning was fuel for my business soul.

2. Great work, not just good work. The ad business at its core was and continues to be an idea business. Great ideas are not common and need to be protected from homogenization from well-meaners.

3. People and camaraderie. Agencies are teams of highly creative skilled professionals. Most of the people were smart, and interesting. I liked the energy of smart interesting people galvanized toward a common goal.

As I look back on the industry I left, there were many people I didn’t like and some clients I didn’t connect with well. But I tried to work through those situations the best I could. On the other hand there are relationships I maintain to this day with people I worked with many years ago. The angst I may have left at a particular time fades. Issues that were so important at one time I can now easily see for their relative unimportance.

That’s what 20 years does. But I am grateful for the memories of my ad agency career in Philadelphia and earlier in New York. I wouldn’t be able to be an effective consultant for the past 20 years without those earlier experiences. Life goes on.

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  1. ks says:

    I remember when you left STAR and described your decision as, “This is halftime for me.” I remember being sad for us and happy for you. Also remember you were a real stickler for preparation and practice. (”Perfect practice makes perfect” was, I believe, one of your pre-Struming quotes). I’ve tried to instill these values among my teams: if we plan for success we’ll be more likely to experience success. If we don’t plan, we may have success anyway — but it won’t consistently reproduce or scale. Thank you for those early lessons.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Yes Kel. I am a big believer in preparation (aka practice). Maybe Allen Iverson doesn’t agree with me, but since I never had his talent I knew that preparation is best. Yes it was halftime for me 20 years ago. I went on a cross country trip after I left and began my consulting practice in the fall of 1999. Thanks always for your interest and feedback in Strumings.

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