By my calculations, next year is the 25th anniversary of the film How To Get Ahead in Advertising, in which Richard E. Grant plays the suave Dennis Bagley, a brilliant young ad executive who gets besieged by a big problem.
From the mercurial director of Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson, the movie is undoubtedly odd, at times poignant, occasionally funny, admittedly a bit all over the show but still relevant a quarter of a century later.
For those who haven’t seen it, the plot centres on the frustration Bagley feels trying to create a campaign for a new pimple cream. He gets strung out by the challenge and suffering from obsessive worry, develops a nasty boil.
The unsightly boil then morphs into a head, complete with eyes, ears, moustache and garish personality. It speaks only to Bagley whilst the rest of the world remains oblivious. Eventually he is admitted to hospital to have it removed. But the boil then takes over the real Bagley and he becomes the personification of a shameless, selfish ad man.
This caustic satire also provides a probing look at how the advertising industry perpetuates some of the worst things about capitalism, despite the fact Bagley’s efforts have earned him a country home, flash cars and beautiful, loving wife (played by Aussie Rachel Ward).
I won’t disclose the ending but suffice to say when the boil emerges, she starts yearning for a simpler time, one where Bagley hasn’t been corrupted by the worst excesses of the industry and sold his soul to get ahead.
It’s a film that’s a bit dated and isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, I’m not even sure if I should recommend it. But if all you do is watch the YouTube clip then you’ll see three things to consider as you try to get ahead in your own chosen career.
Be creative in every situation
Go create something. Do something original. Help create a working environment you can tell people about with pride, today and in years to come. Invent. Develop new ideas and share them. Write hot and edit cold.
Never lose perspective
To quote Lindsey Redding: “It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling. No ultimate prize. Just a lot of faded, yellowing newsprint…a lot of framed certificates and little gold statuettes. A shit-load of empty Prozac boxes, wine bottles, a lot of grey hair and a tumour of indeterminate dimensions”. So don’t take it all too seriously.
Never bring your work home
Well, that’s a tough one because sometimes you just have to. I never heard of anyone who won a pitch because they refused to work weekends or the night before. The point is valid though. We aren’t curing cancer, so park the hucksterism at the door as you arrive home. Your friends and family will love you all the more for doing so.
And here’s one that isn’t in the YouTube clip...
Do something good
At its best, advertising is about more than selling. It's about solving problems, making life easier for people or helping them make big life decisions. So enjoy the people you work with. Be proud of what you do. It's hard to think of any industry full of so many smart and interesting people with contrasting backgrounds. So challenge yourself to be questioned by them because it will only make you a better person.
Check the film out if you want but, hey, be warned, I don’t even work in advertising, I’m in PR.
- Kelly Bennett is managing director of Eleven PR and is leading brand activation, experiential and PR services for the TBWA\ network throughout Asia Pacific. He is also the deputy chair of the CAANZ Marcoms Leadership Group.