What’s the difference between a war and a massacre? Madison Avenue Manslaughter (LID Publishing, Inc., Sept. 2015), a new book from Michael Farmer, paints a dark picture of today’s advertising industry. In the view of the author, a business strategist with 25 years’ experience of consulting to the advertising industry as Chairman of Farmer & Company LLC, today’s agencies are in a “strategic trap, caught between fee-cutting clients and profit-hungry owners.”
Farmer describes how the industry has changed from the heady days of the 15% commission system of the 60s and 70s to fees managed by procurement executives who too often consider agencies high-cost suppliers and question advertising’s value-add. Competing pressures of remuneration, globalization, new ownership, shareholder value, and digital and social media, according to Farmer, have brought about a decline to agency life.
“Returning to their daily routines,” Farmer writes, “ad agency people put on a brave face, struggle with increasing workloads and demanding clients, and feel like players on a losing team, unable to break out or at least pull even with their clients as respected, secure partners. The advertising business, which was once one of the most fulfilling and glamorous of industries, has become a grim sweatshop for the people who do the work.”
Now, I’m a radical optimist. I look at the work coming out of the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, I see new technology emerging from Silicon Valley, I experience daily how social media has made direct marketing a true reality, and I think there’s never been a better time to be in the creativity business. We live in a VUCA world—one that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous—and a VUCA world needs leaders who are radical optimists. I once asked a group of 20-something students at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University what they thought VUCA means? Their response was Vibrant, Unreal, Crazy, Astounding. Welcome to the SUPERVUCA world! And that’s the kind of energy and vitality I expect to see in our profession.
His book pulls no punches, and the 10-step transformation program Farmer suggests agencies adopt to bring renewed strategic vigor and relevance to their organizations is a clear-headed one.
If I differ with Farmer in tone, I agree with his larger point that the industry is experiencing seismic change and now is the moment to embrace wholesale transformation. Madison Avenue Manslaughter is a smart, tough, and valuable book.