Hernias & The Sausage Factory

TMI in the Age of Information

You have a medical condition, a hernia. You know something is definitely wrong with your body — it’s not performing properly. So you go to the doctor. What does he do? Does the doctor show you x-rays of previous hernia patients? Does he waste your time by walking you through his track record of success in performing hernia operations? Does he show you what those other patients are doing now; how they are performing as a result of his operative techniques? And does the doctor try to convince you to get an operation because of his proprietary hernia procedures? We would think that doctor wasn’t very good if he had to make a case study to perform a hernia operation. We would seek a second opinion.

Or, let’s say you want sausage for dinner so you go to a Pork Store (when I was a kid, there was a “Pork Store” or Italian butcher in every neighborhood). Does the butcher take you in the back of the store and say — “Here’s where we take the gizzards and chop them up. And these are the casings that we stuff the fat and chopped organs into. Our casings are made of the finest pig intestines.” If this happened, you may never eat sausage again.

Yet, ad agencies feel compelled to show x-rays to prospective clients and give them a tour of the sausage factory. Why? It’s easier than diagnosing a particular patient’s hernia, or the prospect’s particular problem. We show them what we have done for others and not what we can do for them. We stamp trademarks on “secret sauce” processes as if they are anything more complicated than making sausage.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a rare and true art to make a great sausage. It requires time-tested recipes involving carraway seeds and special spices. But, the sausage maker knows that only two things really matter to his customers: taste and price. The Italian butcher doesn’t say, “well if that’s what you want to pay for the sausage, then I will make them smaller.” He sets his price and makes his sausage. Then he sells them because his customers like the way they taste.

It’s the same with great creative communications. There’s this new show on AMC called “The Pitch”. This was actually an idea I was trying to sell in to agencies in 2006. But this rendition gives me douche chills (not my line, but I like it so I’m using it). I’ve never watched Mad Men so I don’t really understand this emerging public fascination with the advertising business. It’s really quite unsensational, the day-to-day of it; much like the butcher’s day.

This comes from Carey Moore, one of the great Southern copywriters of our era: “If you rolled the cameras and re-created a typical week in a creative department, it would be the most boring television ever made. What we actually do isn’t very glamorous to a cold set of eyes. They had to make it contrived to make it even remotely watchable.”

I visit agencies ALL THE TIME. Between biz dev and headhunting, I’ve been inside well over a thousand agencies in the past 23 years. Ad agencies are quiet, like a library (more so now than ever). They are sterile, like a hospital. They are politically correct, like a government agency. They are fashion-backward (jeans & Clarks), like a college campus. Yes, the babes are hot, but besides that, there is nothing remotely entertaining about the advertising business — EXCEPT THE PRODUCT (at the better creative agencies, that is).¬†Shows like Mad Men and The Pitch create a false illusion about our industry — show business replaces sound business sense. Creativity becomes a clich√©, marginalized in a sea of strategy and soap opera voyeuristic sexcapades.

Does our industry really need this type of promotion? No wonder it’s so hard to find a good young writer today. Everyone wants to be this Don Draper guy. But, the smart kids are going to work for the top consulting firms, like Boston Consulting Group. And, as a result, BCG and the like are writing the real business and marketing strategies for clients today. They view us as narcissistic dilettantes. They warn our clients away from us. This explains to me why talent agencies like Creative Artists Agency have infringed upon advertising creative territory. They’ve become more creative than us and produce better work. We go to Mad Men cocktail parties and watch ourselves on The Pitch.

Clients aren’t buying into it. They remark to me about how offended they are by agency case studies. “It’s like the brand never could have succeeded without them,” one recently told me. Their “douche radar ” beeps loudly when agencies tout their trademarked proprietary processes and the fancy phrases they coin to promote themselves, er, explain their point of differentiation. They don’t want to see x-rays — they want their hernia fixed. Don’t show them gizzards, show them the sausage.

6 thoughts on “Hernias & The Sausage Factory

  1. Kate

    I find myself intruiged by Mad Men, but in a soap opera way. Working in broadcast advertising is mostly boring, but this is a great analogy—we spend so much time concentrating on our own accolades and ingredients that we don’t just address the problem. Good job.

  2. Todd McVey

    Hmmm. I hear ya Mike. And in reading your post it reminds me of my time at Levine Huntley Schmidt & Beaver. Great agency and a great place to work. It was usually loud with laughter, people talking about ideas and, at curtain times of the day/evening, the air would have a rather sweet, pungent smell, floating it’s way around the creative side of the offices. Everybody helped each other. There wasn’t any bullshit either. When Lee Garfinkel came into your office to see your work, he would ask, what ideas do you like?
    If he agreed you probably had an award winning concept. You didn’t have to show it to a committee of who knows who. Out the door it went.
    I too saw the trailers for the PITCH. I thought I was going to throw up! It made me feel bad about the profession that I choose some 20 years ago. Who the fuck are these people? And what fucking agencies would be seen acting like this? (At least on TV) I’m surprised Donald Trump isn’t involved in some way. No place I want to work at if I can help it. (oh by the way, got any freelance jobs for me)?

    With all the above bullshit said, I agree with some of what you’re saying but on the other hand, besides the whole sausage fest, what else do most agencies have? At Hammerhead we showed the gizzards.
    I didn’t like it but we were small. We didn’t have (sausage) a wall decorated with Lions, Pencils and an assortment of other awards which firmly announced “THIS IS THE WAY WE ROLL” either do it our way or take your shit down the road.

    It’s the ROI! Baby. And of course, we ARE in a business to sell stuff. Thanks to platforms like Social Media (The Holy Grail of Advertising now, which they still can’t measure all that well), make the environment so that it’s about the gizzards. Oh look! I just got my 250th LIKE! I’ve been engaged once again.

    I don’t know what the answer is. Guess if I did I would be some big time global Creative Director with a huge rock hard sausage in my paints.

    Take care.


    1. mikepalma Post author

      Yeah, that’s the spirit we like to see here at Mike Palma dotcom.Todd. You just won a major award here, “Comment of the Year.” I’m proud of the fact that I’ve worked with you.


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