Where Has the Fun Gone in the Ad Agency Business?

183320123I exited the ad agency business many years ago and although I’ve had many ad agency clients in my consulting practice, I no longer as directly experience the highs and lows of agency leadership as I did years ago.

But what I’ve seen from my vantage point is that the angst is now growing and the fun is dissipating, and I think this is happening at all levels. This was reinforced by a 2-part blog post by my friend Paul Gumbinner, a long-time, highly regarded executive recruiter in the ad business, which followed a long stint in account management leadership. Paul wrote about these in a 2-part blog post, 15 Ways the Advertising Business Used to be More Fun, Part One and Part Two.

I encourage Strumings readers to read the full stories in Paul’s blog, View From Madison Avenue, (If you are a student of the ad biz, it should be regular reading). But for those of you with short attention spans, here are the “Cliff Notes” of Paul’s 15 Ways the Ad Business Used to be More Fun. Smart stuff.

1. Big production film shoots

2. There were real training programs

3. Agencies did much more than advertising

4. We went out with salesmen and helped make sales calls

5. Water-fights and other nonsense were an integral part of the business

6. Client entertaining wasn’t just reserved for management

7. Everyone pitched in to help each other

8. Everyone lived for the work

9. There were no silos

10. There was integration among the agency disciplines

11. Everyone had his or her own office

12. Agencies had real bonus plans, profit sharing and other incentives

13. Summer Fridays made the business attractive

14. Big Parties

15. Less Fear

I agree with virtually everyone of these (#9 no silos might be a stretch). #8 was largely true–everyone lived for the work. I know I did, but I don’t see the same passion today. Perhaps that’s because #15 is also true. There is fear and with fear comes lack of emotional connection.

I started in the business in the mid-70s when advertising was an exciting business where people aspired to work. I thought ad people were lucky. Smart, creative, and they all had great jobs, and had lots of fun. I did have fun early in my career but the fun faded as I rose through the ranks and as time went on. My early years at Needham Harper & Steers were joyful, and despite the angst, my years at BBDO were still largely happy ones. But by the mid 80s the joy was starting to fade and when I became an agency head in 1989 the joy was largely gone. Some of it was the pressure of the responsibilities, but another part was the changing nature of the business.

I still admire and respect those who are tops in their marketing craft, though I know they couldn’t be having as much as those who worked in the industry in earlier decades. That’s probably true in many other industries too. But advertising was once a special industry. Alas it’s less special today, and surely not as fun.

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  1. Michael Elkisch says:

    Hi Lonny,

    Enjoyed the blog post from Paul Gumbinner. Say hello from me if you speak with him. Very true points, some more than others. I snickered at your comment about “joyful days” at NH&S. You didn’t have the same supervisor as I did.

    My point is that the 15 reasons didn’t include the key reason, the demise of the 15% commission. While fees were OK for a number of years they seemed to have continued to strangle the agencies hurting compensation for all.

    Keep well.


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