The romance and unhappiness of advertising

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” – J.M Barrie, Peter Pan

If you are not fond of romance and unsubstantiated belief you should probably stop reading now.

This week I have started to notice a wave of articles on how people in advertising are unhappy. I have also recently read an article where Sir John Hegarty said that we as an industry have lost our courage.

Now, every article I read attributes this to less time and how busy we are. They also mention costs being slashed, integrated campaigns and the sheer complexity of advertising today. And I am sure it is all true. And if we go back ten years I bet we would find articles just like it.

However, while I was reading these articles I began to think it might be happening because of something else.

Hegarty spoke about losing courage. Courage doesn’t just appear or disappear. It comes from belief. A belief that perhaps you can surpass yourself. That you can do it. This belief is invisible. It is not on a balance sheet. It is a strange kind of inspiration that comes from within. It allows you to do more than you think you are capable of. An agency only reaches beyond itself when this spark is inside its people. It is also the secret fuel that keeps agencies alive.

Courage and bravery only exist though, if there is a quest or cause you believe in.

So, as much as I agree advertising has become more complex, what strikes me when I talk to creatives around the world is this weariness they have. It’s like a soldier at the front who isn’t sure who or what they are fighting for anymore.

The strange thing about this is that ideas have never been more important. Everybody wants them and needs them. Yet, the people that have them right around the globe are writing blogs about feeling defeated and unhappy. A bit odd don’t you think?

So what is going on? My view is that many creatives don’t know why they are doing what they are doing every day.

Now the bean counters may say the answer’s a pay cheque. Of course.

However, the reality is that if you want somebody to surpass themselves, work weekends and into the night, to push and to care, do the impossible or create something that nobody has ever thought of, they have to have belief. And courage will only occur if that person believes in themselves, or at the very least, the flag above their heads.

Look at any great agency. Speak to anybody that worked there. They will tell you they believed in something bigger than themselves. They can’t always explain it or articulate what it was but this belief drove them on. For me, it has always been the agency had a truth at its core. I realise you may be laughing at this. I mean truth in advertising. That’s crazy shit. However, if you are a creative you will know what I mean.

The first place I ever truly experienced this belief was an advertising agency called TBWA Hunt Lascaris in South Africa. It is hard to explain because I worked there at the worst of times and the best of times. Yet, while I was there I always believed I could surpass what I had done anywhere else. For almost 30 years it has produced creatives who have gone around the world and done great things. And I would venture way beyond anything they thought they could do.

It was like our DNA was injected with courage and belief while we were there. My only explanation is there was this deep commitment to the work. And I don’t mean in a poster on a wall kind of way. The whole place had your back. You felt like you could go to the edge. Once this code is in your DNA it allows you to feel if an agency has a creative truth you can believe in the moment you walk through the door. The day I walked into DDB Auckland I felt the very same way. I knew I would be able to surpass myself as I walked in. It makes no sense, but it does to me.

This creative centre or truth is the strange ingredient I think many agencies are losing. It has no inherent value apart from being priceless. Not understanding its worth has created many agencies that are now just factories or depots.

A creative director phoned me the other day from overseas to talk because he was fed up. This is the line he said that stuck in my mind. My agency wants me to believe, even when it doesn’t.

This is what is happening. It would seem creatives are losing their belief. And when that happens, why would they have any courage.

Many might read this and think it is rubbish or won’t make a difference. I think you are wrong. Advertising is obsessed with all the threats outside of itself. Yet, the biggest threat it is ignoring, is that it may have simply stopped believing in itself.

We have to change this. Being resigned to an imagined future with a large dollop of word weary cynicism will not fix this. We need to believe again. We need to believe in our stories, our strange quests and, most importantly, ourselves. We need to love ideas and put on our armour and fight for them. We need to be brave again. We need to believe we can fly again.

  • Damon Stapleton is the chief creative officer of DBB NZ.
  • This story was originally posted on his personal blog, Damon’s Brain.  

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