Tag Archives: new business

A New Approach to Ad Agency New Business

7 Myths to Avoid for Growth in 2013


1. “New Business is a Numbers Game” — Bah, humbug. Less is more. Pick 15 Primary Prospects and 15 backups. Out of the 15 primaries, pick 5 as your highest priorities. Treat them as if they are already clients. Bring them ideas. Recruit them. Stop spamming the world with your newsletter. Nobody cares about your blog. Let’s get over that nonsense and get back to intelligent, personalized agency outreach.

2. “Clients Want Category Specialists” — Nah. Clients want great creative built upon unexpected insights and great service. They assume you will understand their business and their category. This specialization theory that runs rampant today is not a point of differentiation… it’s a point of sameness. “We’re experts in your category” — could you be more pompous, maybe? Category specialization may get you into a pitch, but it will NEVER win you an account.

3. “Size Matters” — oh, yeah? Tell that to Barton F. Graf 9000 or Baldwin&. Creativity matters. Clients want 6 key people on their account, not 200.

4. “Social Media Creates Inbound Marketing” — Sure, it does. Tweeting out your agency propaganda brings in tire-kickers by the barrel. 999 out of 1,000 “inbound” leads are crap, admit it. And let’s get over this in 2013.

5. “Clients Seek Collaboration” — That’s what they say. But, they really want leadership that listens. Anyone can collaborate; but, few can lead. And even fewer can lead through breakthrough creative. Collaboration is table stakes. Stop selling collaboration and start leading.

6. “Agencies Are Marketing Partners” — Stop drinking your own Kool-Aid. Agencies are vendors. You earn marketing partnership after you help that client achieve business results. Stop selling your agency as a “partner”. Think about how you would feel if a candidate on a job interview claimed they would be a partner at your agency. Partnership is earned, not claimed.

7. “Price Matters” — No, it doesn’t. It never did, and it never will. If they have to ask what it costs, they can’t afford it. If they want a volume discount, send them to Costco. Do your homework up front and stop recruiting cheapskate prospects. Professional Marketing Services are costly. Great creative is expensive. Sell quality.

How to Handle A New Business Inquiry

Inbound Marketing 101: The 13 Questions

The hot biz dev phrase du jour is Inbound Marketing. Agencies are taking great pains to leverage Social Media and converting the prospect leads into inquiries. Sounds good — until it actually works, and you get a new business inquiry. What’s often missing in the Inbound Marketing game is the marketing part. A lot of agencies talk the new biz talk — but their cultures are more of an operational culture than a marketing culture. Except for one or two folks whose livelihoods are dependent on new business — who are accountable for new business results. Most other employees at a creative agency are service and operationally driven. They are mostly billable employees, or part of an administrative team.

There are two types of people and mentalities in the world: Marketing people and Operational people. And I’ve noticed more than occasional friction between the two forces within creative agencies (and  most companies, in general). Too often, the two archetypes are sitting in the wrong seats on the agency bus. Every point of contact in the new business chain is vital — and often in reverse order of management hierarchy. When it comes to Inbound Marketing, your switchboard operator is more important than your New Biz Director. At least, on the initial call. I’ve masqueraded as an inquisitive prospect with some of my client agencies and sometimes I’m baffled that they’re not better prepared to expedite the inquiry. I empathize with the intern that is juggling 8 vendor calls and lumps the prospect inquiry in with that lot.

“Hello, I’m with the marketing department of the Global Acme Corporation and we’re interested in working with your agency. Who can I speak to about our upcoming assignment?”

“Uhhh, I’m not sure, lemme check.”  HOLD MUSIC. “That would be Joe Blow, but he’s out of the office on vacation. Can I put you in his voicemail?”


“Thank kewww.” (by the way, what’s with this baby talk “thank you” that is so popular in today’s young female vernacular?)

Let’s assume the Inbound Marketing call gets to your biz dev person. What do they do with it? Are they so excited to be getting a call or an RFP that they fumble the kick? Do they talk too much? Not enough? Are they asking the right questions? Here are the golden 13 questions of handling a new business inquiry:

 Handling a New Business Inquiry (first call):

  1. How do you know about us?
  2. What are you looking for in a new agency relationship?
  3. What services does your current agency provide?
  4. What communications are most important for you to to develop?
  5. (If not requested) Are you also looking for a Media/PR/Direct/Interactive partner?
  6. (If services have been unbundled) Have you considered one agency to integrate all disciplines?
  7. What is your agency fee range? What is the expected agency revenue opportunity?
  8. Does that include production?
  9. What is your timeline?
  10. What is your selection process?
  11. Who else is part of the selection process
  12. How can we learn more about you, your customer and your goals?
  13. (IF YOU’RE TALKING TO A MARKETING COORDINATOR OR ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT) “Can we set up a 20 minute phone call with the person driving the review”? (Be sure to get his or her NAME!)
And then what? Sit and wait for another call? NO… follow up on that inquiry.

 Following up on the Inquiry (second call):

  • Can we possibly gain access to your consumer research?
  • Can we possibly see a copy of your marketing plan?
  • (If they don’t have one) What are your goals/What do you want your marketing to accomplish?
  • (If it’s a strong prospect) Is it possible to set up a “discovery meeting” – where we can learn more about you prior to a review?

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 cliché, 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.

Hide the Buddha

“We have our principles… and if you don’t like those, we have others”

New Business people have plenty of pitch war stories. There’s the urban legend about how the Aflac Duck came into existence, supposedly on the elevator with the client after the pitch creative failed in the formal presentation. Then there’s the notorious story how BBDO stole the Cingular Wireless account from what was then known as WestWayne (now monikered 22squared) after the selection committee chose the Atlanta independents. Maybe the juiciest of all was the WalMart pitch led by Julie Roehm, choosing Draft/FCB but then having to re-review the account following tales of impropriety, lust and betrayal (ultimately settling in at The Martin Agency). If you’re in New Business, you have a war story — or several.

My favorite centers upon a character named Tim Bayless. I’m fortunate to have worked with many magical personalities in my Gump-ish life: Jim Valvano, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lee Clow, Bogusky, David Lubars, Andrew Robertson, Richard Ward, Doug MacMillan (The Connells), among others. Bayless had as much magic in him as any of them. Tim started an agency on his kitchen table in Atlanta in 1994 and proceeded to build one of the hottest shops in the country within 5 years. He recruited the writer (Jerry Cronin) that created the most famous Nike & ESPN work (at a time when getting talented creatives to move to Atlanta was harder than getting the Olympics to come to town). In his sixth year, he sold the agency to Omnicom. Think about that… a guy with not much else besides gumption, starts an agency alone on his kitchen table and 6 years later sells it to Omnicom for millions. That’s magic.

About 10 years ago, I was helping Tim with Biz Dev. We had just lost the agency’s cornerstone Church’s Chicken account. So Tim ordered me to “call every chicken company in America and tell them we’re available.” We didn’t have to look very far. Atlanta (and the regional Southeast) is the fried chicken capital of the world. Chik-Fil-A became an obsessive target. I badgered their marketing people for weeks. Told them that “nobody will like this Cow stuff you’re doing.” And “The Richards Group is the Dead Poet’s Society” and desperately, “Why is such a civic-minded, community-based company like yours taking jobs and business to Dallas?”  Finally, I struck a nerve and one Friday, they emailed me and agreed to meet with us “soon.”

That same Friday we also received an RFP from Van Gogh Vodka. The RFP arrived in a box with dozens of mini airplane bottle-sized samples of flavored vodkas — chocolate vodka, raspberry vodka, et al along with all the mixing accoutrements — all these flavors at a time when flavored vodkas were relatively new. So, at around 4 PM that afternoon, I sent an email to all agency personnel that we would be “doing research” on these flavored vodkas for the RFP in the main conference room and all were invited. Within 5 minutes, the conference room was teeming with everyone from our Controller (boy did HE need a drink, trying to balance Bayless’ books) to our building’s Janitor. It was a real mix-off, concocting potions previously unimaginable. And we were catching a bit of a buzz.

At one point amidst the all this mixology, our receptionist came into the conference room to alert me of a phone call. I retreated to my office and took the call. It was the CMO from Chik-Fil-A. He said he wanted to come by the agency to meet with us. “Awesome!”  I exclaimed, “when would you guys like to come, what day works best for you?”

“Uh, we’re in Midtown NOW and would like to come by the agency on our way back to the office (their “office campus” is near the Atlanta airport). I’m with Mr. Cathey (S. Truett Cathey, CEO and famously devout Christian) and he’d like to meet you, too.”

“Nanananowww?” I stammered.

“Yes, now. We’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

“Sounds great. See you then. Do you know how to get here?”  I never heard their answer because I was already hustling over to Tim’s office.

In the center of the agency, in the “public area” of BaylessCronin sat a large Buddha statue/fountain. The Buddha symbolized all of the agency’s manufactured new age values: peace, tranquility, spirituality, mysticism. It anchored the most visible and central spot in our feng shui space. It was the star of the show, the belle of the ball. The flowing fountain was symbolic of the lifestream of the agency and our values.

I barged into Tim’s office. “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news.” Tim never wanted to know bad news. “What’s the good news?”

“Chik-Fil-A is coming to the agency to meet with us,” I blurted.

“Awesome. What could be the bad news?” Tim cackled.

“They’ll be here in 8 minutes. The CMO and S. Truett Cathey. What are we going to do? Everyone’s getting hammered in the conference room.”

Tim took all of 5 seconds to respond. It was the single most brilliant answer to a question I’ve heard in my entire ad agency life.

“Quick, hide the Buddha.”

The 7 Deadly Sins of Advertising

Weakness in the Shadows of Strength

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from the great Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, “I can resist everything except temptation” (scripted from the play, Lady Windermere’s Fan). We’re all human — each one of us prone to temptation and the foibles of this earthly experience.

Ad agencies are merely the sum total of the humans that inhabit their halls. 90% of an agency’s inventory disappears nightly via the elevator. When the sum of the parts of that human total exceeds the whole, a creative agency is in a position to catch lightning in a bottle — to be magical. It is this elusive magical elixir that seduces agencies, tempting them to succumb to their weaknesses.

Recently I ran a reference check on an ECD and while speaking to their former Account Planning partner, I asked him what this particular candidate’s strengths were — and then I asked about their weaknesses. The Planner’s answer was enlightening (that is his job, after all): “his weaknesses are merely shadows of his strengths.” That was a simple but seismic insight.

Our weaknesses are merely shadows of our strengths. This applies to all people-first companies, like creative agencies. Human nature is fairly predictable. Chaucer taught us through his Knight in Canterbury Tales that there is “nothing new under the sun” (turns out that even this message wasn’t new as it appeared first in Ecclesiastes 1:9). So what can we learn from our weaknesses in trying to grow our creative agencies? What temptations will most likely to lead to demise? What sins do we commit that may ultimately lead to our death?

The Seven Deadly Sins of Advertising:

Pridethe excessive belief in our abilities. There’s a fine line between confidence and pride. We often demand that our people “take pride” in their work. This is a strength that is shadowed with weakness. An example are the ridiculously self-important and self-promotional case studies that appear on agency web sites. Not only do they reveal strategies to our clients’ competitors, they often make it seem like our clients couldn’t succeed without us. We make it seem like we have some special secret sauce that other agencies don’t. Another example is the way we put silly TM’s on processes that are pretty much self-evident and use fancy words when simple ones will do. Agencies don’t appear humble, even if their people are. It’s like we’re all seduced by our profession, as if we think we’re on Mad Men, or something. Makes me want to get out of Biz Dev.

Envythe desire for others’ status or abilities. Is this a wannabe business, or what? I mean one crappy little designer, Bogusky, takes an 18-person shop and makes them a global creative superpower and everyone thinks they can do it. I guess anything is possible, but it took Alex 10 years to become an overnight sensation. And it required tireless devotion and a deal with the devil at the crossroads with Robert Johnson for that to happen. Agencies should focus on what they can be the best at in their region and pursue that. They should talk their core target and invite others to listen in. They should have a simple, humble mission and stick to it. We’re an envious industry — when there’s a big public account review and we’re not in it, we secretly hope that NOBODY wins it. It reminds me of being a college basketball coach. Those guys open the USA Today in the morning and hope they see that everyone lost the night before.

Gluttony— or in the old days when language was elegant, profligacy. The inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. McGarry/Bowen comes to mind. Sure they’re on a roll now. But, just wait — pride and gluttony goeth before the fall. How is it possible to win all that business and service it diligently? But, let’s scale this sin down to the local and regional level. So many agencies get caught up in new business “activity.” They call it a “numbers game.” Tell that to your new client — that they were a number, welcome aboard. Guys sometimes call me and say that they can’t do their job properly because they’re “in 4 pitches this month.” What? It’s hard enough to pitch ONE properly. Not to mention pitch one and keep your current clients happy at the same time. We wind up just hoping that the line coming in the front door is slightly longer than the line going out. Gluttony also destroyed agency compensation models. It got so bad that clients hire consultants to monitor their agency’s financial efficiency. And it spurned entire gumshoe departments known as “procurement.”

Lustinordinate craving for pleasures of the body. Why did you choose advertising as a profession? Let’s face it — the babes are hotter than anywhere else. Admit it, you horndog. Maybe the bigger question is why do all the hot babes get hired by agencies? I’m sure I’ll get hateful comments branding me as a sexist or a pig (or maybe both, if I’m lucky). Whatever. Chicks dig the longball.

Anger— also known as wrath, it’s manifested when an agency spurns love and opts instead for fury. You can spot an angry agency pretty easily. Doesn’t matter how big or small it is. The receptionist sets a condescending tone. Your parking is not validated. The pizza’s cold. People appear stressed, overworked and challenged to keep up with their tasks. The under-staffed team hasn’t received bonuses in years. A few people make all the money (usually fat, white guys in the suburbs). Only a few opinions are valued. Anger can also often be subtle and passive-aggressive, more difficult to recognize and decipher. Haters appear to be lovers. Lovers appear to be haters. Nobody knows who not to trust. We’ve all worked somewhere like this at some point.

Greed — or,Avarice. The desire for material wealth or gain while ignoring the spirit. Don’t get me wrong — material wealth is fine. We’re all in this to make money. It’s the ignoring the spirit part that is deadly. So, whatever happened to Pro bono? It’s all but gone from the industry. And when we do it, it  STILL comes with an ulterior motive: “If we can’t win awards on Pro bono, then why do it?” Huh? Think about the hypocrisy of that statement. How many agencies are truly integrated into their communities? How many align themselves with institutions, educational and otherwise? You always hear the bullshit line, “the soul of the agency” — and then you look at the client list and they sell booze and fast food. Don’t get me wrong, booze and fast food are legal and part of the great capitalist dream. But booze is the third leading cause of death in America and poor diet is not far behind. We often get paid to help people kill themselves. We glorify the temptation. That’s our craft. So, at least be penitent on your way to the bank. The most successful people I’ve known in this business treated their career and their agency as if it were a vocation — not a profession or a mint.

Sloth — I love that word. It just sounds so much like it is, almost onomatopoeia. The avoidance of physical work. Agencies expect to “get to the next level” (they rarely define what that actually means) as if they are simply entitled to it. Everyone wants to succeed, but few are willing to prepare for success. Bobby Knight said that. He probably stole it from Chaucer, who probably stole it from one of the Prophets. I’ve noticed that there’s a high correlation to agencies that talk about “getting to the next level” all the time and ones that are barren and desolate at 5:15 PM (unless it’s freelancers in the creative department fixing the mistakes and revisions of the FTE’s). And it’s funny when the FTE’s complain about how hard their job is. It’s friggin’ advertising! Go dig ditches for a week, then come back and explain how difficult your agency job is. Fat, drunk and strategic is no way to go through life, you horndog.

Positioning Your Creative Agency for Growth

How to Get to Your Value Proposition

I hear and see so much about agency positioning these days. It seems as if agencies are constantly re-inventing themselves to adapt to market conditions. So I thought I’d weigh in on this topic since it doesn’t seem to take Einstein to opine on positioning.

When discussing a positioning for a creative agency, I’ve found it helpful to consider these three questions first:

  1.  Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’/prospects’ business?

These questions should lead the discussion and bring some clarity and simplicity to the process. Positioning a creative agency for growth is an arduous and daunting task. Without the proper structure and road maps it can also lead to frustration, bitterness and worst of all, paralysis.

Can you articulate who you are in one or two sentences? Can you explain why you are different – truly different — in ONE sentence? And NOT how you think you are different – but the reality of your point of differentiation. Do you have a point of differentiation? Finally, do you understand your value – what it means to your clients’ businesses? Do you have a value proposition?  Can you state it simply? Can you articulate it in an interesting way? In a creative way? Your value proposition will be at the core and essence of your positioning.

Let’s look at what a value proposition is NOT:

  • A process. It’s not a TM of some special proprietary mystery procedure.
  • A self-promotional rally cry, also TM’d
  • A place or region (“Texas-sized solutions”)
  • People. Talent is not a positioning. Everyone says they have the best people.
  • Products. Cookie-cutter solutions. Offerings. Widgets. Technology. Disciplines.
  • A Mission.
  • Creative or “Creative-driven” (this is assumed, it’s like ketchup brands talking about being “tomato-driven”)

All of these elements are part of a creative agency’s value proposition, but none of them can stand-alone or hold up as THE POSITIONING.  Worse, over-reliance on any one of these elements becomes oversimplification. A position should be as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler (paraphrasing Albert Einstein).

When embarking on any positioning exercise, go back to basics. I like referencing Jim Collins’Good to Great”.  This bestseller is on the bookshelf of every CEO in America. Most have implemented its recommendations at their companies. It has been the “positioning bible” of the past decade. I remember in 2004 at BBDO, we were pitching Delta Air Lines. When we advanced to the final three — their CEO Jerry Grinstein sent the agency two copies of “Good to Great”. Until then, I kind of scoffed at business books that claimed to solve company-wide issues and problems in one easy read. But, then I learned that MOST CEO’s of major companies were forming hedgehog councils and treating Collins’ tome as gospel. Marketing directors began talking about Bhags.

The crux of  “Good to Great” is the Hedgehog Concept. It looks like this:

Collins uses the word “world” in the lower left circle. But for our purposes, we can effectively substitute the word “class” or even “region”. What is your agency best-in-class at? Or what can your creative agency be “best-in-class” at? What can you own within your class? What positioning is unique and “own-able”? If it is not own-able, it’s not a powerful positioning. That does not include “share-able” or “borrow-able”.

What are you uniquely passionate about? What drives your economic engine (where do your clients place the most financial value)?  What can you be the best at within your class? Dialogue centered on these questions lead to lively discussions and healthy debates. Monday morning meetings are ideal for engaging in such banter.  But at some point, you need to put a strategic stake in the ground. Don’t allow these positioning discussions to dissipate into paralysis of analysis. That happens all too easily when the first client emergency arises on your desk.

There are, essentially, two kinds of agency archetypes:

  1. Those that solve problems (stop the bleeding)
  2. Those that create opportunity (add revenue)
The first type requires COLLABORATION. These agencies stress collaborative processes. They reflect their clients’ cultures. They are problem-solvers; therefore they need to understand the problems. They speak the clients’ language. They are not usually entrepreneurial or independent. They stay in the present and address the now. They ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?” and “What are your marketing objectives?”.

The second requires LEADERSHIP. These agencies stress thought leadership, and cultural “curation”. They are opportunists, therefore they need to understand potential. They take risks (educated and strategic risks, but risks nonetheless). They make language new for their clients. They have their own culture. They are independent and maverick. Because they are ahead of the curve, they create revenue opportunities for their clients. They make them money. They ask questions like, “What is your vision for your brand?” and “What’s the one thing you would do for your brand if you thought it was possible?”.

Most agencies try to be both. And as a result, they are neither.  Of course, both types of agencies are collaborative AND leaders in various junctures of the marketing process. But I’m talking about how they tell their story and what they do best – that’s their value proposition. Identify what your creative agency does best.  Where do you shine? Where do you play best? In short, don’t pick a fight you can’t win.

If you remain steadfast and disciplined in your positioning discussions, you will arrive at an insight that is compelling. You will discover your true identity. It will be an epiphany. It will give you goosebumps. It will be that “aha” moment. The germ of your insight will lead naturally to your positioning.

But, start by trying to answer the 3 questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why are you different?
  3. What does that mean to your clients’ and prospects’ business?

Advertising in the Garden of Good & Evil

How Agencies and Brands Feed Each Frenzy

A curious and somewhat troubling inertia is pressing upon the advertising industry today. It represents a conflict as primary and epic as Milton’s Paradise Lost and Genesis 3. The conflict is, essentially and literally, Good v. Evil. In the beginning, God didn’t really want us to know the difference — He omnisciently wanted to wait on that one for another 4,000 years or so. But, the low-hanging Forbidden Fruit dangled seductively from a particular tree. That sacred, yet grasp-able tree, according to the Bible, was The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil. Its nectar produced Godliness, Godly knowledge. The knowledge of… good and evil.

We look to our institutions for leadership, to provide valuable knowledge. We award degrees for levels of knowledge — various degrees in various degrees. Institutions: universities, churches, hospitals, banks and the like don’t reflect society. It is their purpose to lead it. They must remain as constant as the northern star. They are our true compass. Institutions tell us things and we believe them, sometimes as gospel. If our governing institutions tell us that Osama bin Laden was assassinated, for example, we believe them. Even if a body or photographic evidence do not exist. We believe them. They lead us and they don’t stoop to our level by providing proof. (As an aside, did you ever notice that assassinate has two asses?)

This is also the way other institutions, like churches, work. They insist that God is a mystery. There’s no physical proof of a god. There doesn’t need to be. Oh, I know there were a bunch of miracles in Italy — and a shroud exists. But, religious institutions demand that we maintain this sort of blind faith. Medical institutions claim there is no known cure for cancer. We believe them. Academic institutions deem what is and isn’t valid and useful knowledge by their curricula — nobody questions that. It’s mono-cultural and flat — this is this and it is what it is: your education. Now go out into the world and make something of yourself. You are cast east of Eden.

Advertising agency people don’t consider their industry institutional. They’re too maverick, too iconoclastic. Conversely, people outside of our industry view us as if we ARE an institution. They talk about us as if we’re really important — like we actually do have an institutional effect on society. Or at least they blame us when we are negligent in our messaging. Our clients get class-action lawsuits when the beef we advertise as real beef is just 38%, uh, beef. Some women blame anorexia on advertising. Yes, we have that kind of institutional control over society. This is how we deal with it: we reflect society instead of leading it. We insist on proof.  We claim knowledge — intimate and insightful knowledge. We reflect society — we take it and give it right back.

Except this is how it all really works in advertising: some brilliant creative mind sifts through all the crap from research and focus groups (anything can be proven with statistics and then immediately disproved, as well) and creates something somewhat magical — an idea. Then everyone goes back and rewrites revisionist history — building a bullet-proof case for that idea that even Columbo couldn’t crack.

How else could today’s advertising be so violent? I got whiplash watching the Super Bowl spots this year. Has advertising ever been so gruesome? How about the new Alec Baldwin ads for New Era caps? That’s supposed to be funny? A Red Sox fan getting punched in the face by a Yankee fan is funny? We are reflecting society — not leading it. Agencies would like us to believe that they tested a modern 3 Stooges routine with the target dummies in focus groups and they came out with the insightful knowledge that Betty White and Abe Vigoda getting smacked down into the mud is funny. Our knowledge told us that violence is funny. Unexpected violence is REALLY funny. Shame on us for reflecting society in such a self-serving and evil way. No wonder some women blame us for anorexia. How do brands allow it? I liked us better when we airbrushed naked women on the ice cubes in liquor ads. When sex and violence was subliminal, it was cool. It’s just way too obvious today.

On the other side of the fulcrum of this inertia is the trendy way brands and agencies are hopping on the “cause” and “purpose” bandwagon. I mean, even Gucci is into cause marketing. Give me a break. How many alligators do they kill per year? I suppose their customers want to feel good about themselves despite their conspicuously narcissistic species-endangering consumption. And I suppose brands also realize how disingenuous and mindless their advertising appears so they may be trying to overcompensate with cause initiatives. But even those initiatives reflect society rather than lead it. Agencies always brag that they can change or motivate certain behaviors. What if they actually did this for good instead of evil?

Let’s look at the Volkswagen brand as an example:

A few years ago, VW hired Crispin and unleashed a new mascot upon the great autobahn of life. He was named, “FAST”. I can only imagine how this happened — Crispin told VW that they understood how to connect with young people (the Truth campaign) and they understood how to sell them cars (Mini). They probably told them there was a huge, untapped youth market for VW and they knew just how to suck them in. Young people want to go FAST. Hence, this creepy mascot named FAST was born. They probably went into focus groups and came out with the precious insight that young people like to drive fast. This is neither responsible or institutional. It reflects what’s bad in society instead of leading it. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine a greater disconnect than that of the Volkswagen brand and the concept of FAST.

Fast forward to this year’s Super Bowl. A wonderful and humane Volkswagen commercial produced by Deutsch entitled “Darth Vader” (who ironically looks strikingly similar to the FAST mascot). It made VW owners and prospective owners feel good about their car and themselves. So how does that lead society? Just the other day I was driving on a crowded midtown street. Suddenly, my lane was blocked by a DPW truck filling a pothole. I had 20 yards to stop or change lanes. In my rear view mirror I saw the driver of the car in the left lane motioning me to cut in front of him. He slowed down and allowed me to change lanes without incident. It was a Volkswagen. He didn’t care about FAST. He just wanted to do good. Do you think it’s possible that VW’s advertising might have influenced that random act of good? I wonder.