Comment: Banjaxed In America

Sean Boyle.jpgBy Sean Boyle.

I decided to get out of Dodge.

Four years in New York was enough.

Although hard to believe, the place gets a bit boring.

Sure, it's one of the great world cities...a 'must see'.  A city to visit. It spikes you with an adrenaline rush the like of which you've never felt before. But you live there for a few years in a small, boxy, over-priced, one bedroom flat, and it quickly grows monotonous. The excitement wanes when you realize that most of the restaurants, bars, clubs are all the same.  Same food.  Same layout.  Same clientele, give or take.  And nobody's really from New York.  It's just one vast, expensive dormitory city.

If you can make it there, you probably can make it anywhere...but you can probably make it anywhere without having to make it there.  If that makes sense.

People go there to work. They live to work.

And if you're planning to seek your fame on Madison Avenue, beware of that particular career lure. It's an ugly corporate working environment. An advertising city of madmen (and women).
I moved from one massive agency to another just to check this was not an unfortunate and isolated finding.

In the big shops, the contrarian who speaks out is 'a problem'...'not a team player'.

Get rid.

Office politics are rife.  If you ain't good at them, don't bother going. Fear reigns and every place gets wet. You need to smile all the time.

Play nice.  Play fake.  Play dead.

And behind it, people don't much like each other.

Like something Orwellian, they're encouraged to behave like hungry, gnawing rats in a cage.  Departments full of back-stabbers. Be careful using a cuss-word in an internal meeting...that junior account executive just might 'come over all traumatized' and report you to HR. And she'll get away with it too; such is their terror of litigation.

It's disgusting.

Seriously.

There is a disease that has permeated our industry.

Sean Quotes_1.jpgWithin every big behemoth, the back of house people...accounts, HR, finance etc...are now in complete control. They treat the front of house folk...the people who do the actual advertising bit...like shit.

Wanna make a million dollars on your bottom line?  Don't pay staff their expenses for a few weeks...and when you do get round to it, give 'em a cheque (there's an extra few days in there) and we can make money off the money we owe them.  It seems to have gone un-noticed somewhere, that without the front of house people, there's no back of house in this game.

At a dinner in Hong Kong, my friend Jules sits beside the CFO of one of the big four global holding groups.  She congratulates him when he tells her that he has just turned in the best profits of any agency in the history of the ad business.  "You know where we got it?" he chortles with a nudge and a wink..."from the staff!"...as if he was some sort of calculator-banging Einstein.

It's disgusting.

Seriously.

Smiling, guffawing, orthodontically immaculate, over-tanned terracotta warriors steer these various advertising supertankers. Supremely confident, head-nodding, yes men with a distinctly eighties approach to advertising.

Lizard men. Me men.

Look at my beautiful house.

Look at my beautiful wife.

Look at my beautiful children.

Look at my beautiful watch.

Now, let's go to the Hamptons.

Disgusting.

Seriously.

Advertising is broken.
America is broken.


Like its adland, the land of the free is also in deep doo-doo. Politically broken...lobbyists appear to rule the roost.  Spending rages out of control.

Although people tend to scoff at this suggestion, I believe there is a high possibility that Romney will take out Obama come November.  The latter's re-election is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite the best-of-a-bad-lot-buffoon the Republicans have thrown into the ring at him.

Obama is undoubtedly a statesman; intelligent; a brilliant orator who has been responsible for a revolutionary new way of delivering healthcare.  Swedes, Norwegians, Australians, all scratch their heads in puzzlement at why Obamacare is such a big deal over there.  Shouldn't everyone in society - your fellow countrymen - be allowed to get treated and healed of what ails them?  In America, they speak of 'open-wallet surgery'.

And yet for all that, many view Obama as something of a mediocre POTUS.  A lame duck.

Sean Quotes_2.jpgWhen it comes to the economy, the fact that he received a veritable hospital pass from his predecessor has been conveniently forgotten.  Stuff like the de-mapping of Bin Laden and soldier homecomings are somehow done with a lot less pomp and hoopla than if they had happened on Dubya's watch.

Here's how Obama can lose: he only barely got in the last time.  He got in cos usually apathetic (with every reason) African Americans bothered to come out and vote in huge numbers; the Republican-leaning Hispanics also voted Democrat in his honor; and he secured the young vote - largely on the back of an exceptional piece of online marketing.  Well, right now, the general feeling amongst the minorities is that none of the 'Hope' he promised in 2008 has been forthcoming.  The disenfranchised see him as 'in-the-pocket' of corporate America (what President isn't?).  And the country's young voters, are those that have suffered the most in the recession: unemployment in their ranks is well into double figures; and more youths are out of work today than at any time since the aftermath of WWII.

No matter.

More advertising and marketing money will be spent on the upcoming slagging match than ever before, with estimates ranging in the $6-7bn range.

A guy shoots up a cinema and half the country runs out to buy a gun.

The rest complain that the only reason the carnage was so bad, was that there weren't other gun-holders at the movie who could have taken down the shootist.  Just imagine that scene!  Where's Batman when you need him?

You encounter a graduate from one of the top universities who doesn't know his star sign from his elbow; nor the capital of Canada; nor the five previous Presidents of his own country ("Was Kennedy one?") and he's holding down a pretty cool job in advertising.  He then gets shirty with you when you ask him whether he thinks it's important to like, y'know, know...stuff?

As I read somewhere recently, the trouble with children these days, is that they have a Google answer for everything.  And the same thick school-kids bully their elderly bus monitor and stick it up on YouTube cos they think such behaviour is "awesome!"

When I say thick, I also mean thick, as in fat.  Single serves of popcorn the size of picnic hampers...industrial vats of Coke...a nation predicted to be over 50% obese by 2020 with all the inherent diabetic medical diabolics that will bring.  Australia isn't too far behind.

Housing is still rooted.

I could go on...the still-close-to-the surface racism; bigoted, insular and hypocritical communities marching across the plains under the banner of Christ.

The place is broken.

Utterly.

I suspect there is another major crash on the short-term horizon.  If Europe doesn't get there first, America will bring it down and most of the world will come along for the ride again.

I showed a draft of this article to an American friend of mine in the advertising business.  She read it and proceeded to go apeshit on my ass in a way that would put the Campaign Brief blog to shame:

"It's too negative...you sound like a cranky old man who's been in the business too long. And yeah, New York is full of self-important advertising douchebags, but New York is not America.  Our country is not broken we are progressive and innovative and lead the world in almost everything.  When you're a leader, you fail at things.  We fall down a lot, but we get right back up and fight even harder.  Many of the things the world can't live without - Apple, Google, facebook - all came from America (and none of these were created in New York).  Our dirty laundry fascinates, and is always on display. People want to love and hate us, but that's all ok.  When I go to other countries, I realize how amazing we really are.  Overseas, people don't smile and everyone seems miserable.  I come back home and everyone smiles and says hello and you feel joy.  We are leading the world, trying to set an example and doing the best we can.  And we're proud of it.  Free speech is our bloodline. Oh and one last thing, we are incredibly good looking, have nice teeth and amazing hygiene.  Europeans like you should take a lesson."

Bang!  You Go Girl!

Who wants to argue with an incoming missile attack like that?

Certainly not this smelly Irishman.

Perhaps it is unfair to bash America.

The majority of her populace are indeed good people and I have a great many pals there.

It is geographically stunning.

But I believe The United States is a country that could and should be doing much better.
Will it ever lead by example again?  This young country the rest of the world has looked up to almost since its inception.  One that has guided development and democracy, and ideas and human rights.

Before I left, I took a spin down to Washington DC to see 'The American Idea' as it was originally intended.  It's so inspiring: this work-in-progress of Jefferson, King, Lincoln and the guy the town's named after.  Great men who are probably turning in their statues when they see the direction their country is pointed right now.

It's hard to know where to start...I have spoken before of the need for a new 'ism' in the world...maybe an America that is bankrupt in so many areas can shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over. For if there is one country in the world that still truly has the brains and the brawn and the can-do-spirit to restructure, reorganize, reinvent and reinspire, it's probably the United States of America.

Sean Boyle is a cranky old man who has spent too much time in advertising.  Most recently he was the Global Head of Strategy for Gillette at BBDO, New York.  He has also worked as a Global Head of Planning at JWT, New York and was a member of The Worldwide Planning Board at Saatchi & Saatchi, based in Asia.

17 Comments

Leon said:

Seanie, your words reverberate like only truth does.

Orthodontically Perfect said:

Great article Sean. I think elements of this are happening everywhere, but America is
the perfect magnifying glass. Look at the rise of the Tea Party and how politically polarised Australia has become in recent times. It's ideological warfare to the extent that logic and common sense have not only fallen by the wayside, but become seemingly absurd to those indoctrinated. The media feeds off it, making matters generally worse.

As for our industry, don't even get me started on agency remuneration, added bullshit, pitch facilitation and procurement agencies. Its too depressing. That said, I'm still naive enough to believe that somehow, my next campaign is gonna jump through all those hoops and be killer. In the end, hope is what gets us all up the morning.

Now I need to go file my expense claims...

haha said:

the office politics thing is rife in any big agency, NY or here. they should teach ass-licking in art school.

fun read by the way.

ole said:

Love it. More from the cranky old man please.

Albert Scamus said:

Come and do an article on Singapore next. At least in the USA some of the wankers are smart.

Terry said:

A brutally honest piece. I wish I had your guts to say it as it is. Good on you.

NY said:

America's great at advertising itself. New York especially.

But when you actually get there, it's not what you imagine. The novelty wears off after a year.

I do feel you.

Mike said:

Yup. America is competely screwed. The corruption is so endemic that it is actually legal to bribe politicans. They call it lobbying. But yes, America is also the number one place that we look to fix things, invent things, be on the cutting edge. So that makes the rest of us screwed too. It's important to realise that it's not Americans that are the problem - it's their political culture. Although ultimately the only people who can fix that are indeed the people.

Anyone who thinks the Republocrats or the Demopublicans are going to fix things is in for a nasty surprise. The real solution would be for a mass vote for a third party. Any third party will do., Greens, libertarians, it doesn't matter. Just don't vote for Romney or Obama. Yes, Obama is better than Romney. But the speed you fly off the edge of the cliff shouldn't be the issue right? You should be more concerned with the fact that a) there's a cliff and b) you're flying off it. The miniscule differences between the two big party's policies on anything important (financial reform, corruption, and yes healthcare) mean there is no real choice. And without choice you don't have a functioning democracy.

Rant over.

MB said:

I like Sean, I worked with him for a bit. He won't remember me, but he was one of the most impressive people I've met in advertising. But a lot of what we as 'creative people' complain about is so shit. We are part of a business, the business of selling stuff to people. We innovate, create, change, even copy. But at the end of the day all of us would be flat broke on our arses as unmotivated 'artists' (the real ones are already doing it) if their wasn't someone to set up a meeting for us, look after the bills, manage our work flow, do our time sheets and hand us our cab charges.

We work in an industry that outsiders marvel at and watch shows about. They spend their free time with friends talking about what we do at work - could you imagine a semi-serious Gruen version of accounting? Our job even at its most shit is way more fun than most. Salaries are going down, yeah, because there is a massive over-supply of people wanting to join this magic party. Supply/demand - it's first-term year-10 economics, kids.

There are bean counters in every company. There are some companies that are just about counting beans. People need money and it makes the world go round, so these people who know how to handle it for us are important. Do you call your personal accountant a fuck head, back of shop arsehole when he tells you you can't claim the beer you bought at Cannes?

Life is like any game that must be played - you can play like a prick or you can play nice. But you if you don't train at it and play as hard as you can, you won't get anywhere. I think that Sean has played hard for a long time and done very well, and I get his frustration on many things. But I don't think the advertising industry should be a special place where everyone plays nice and lives a fun, happy life doing what they want – it's called work for a reason. The people who have the good situations have gone and created them for themselves. They worked the hardest, kissed the most arse (or told them all to fuck off) played the game the hardest and I can't image they were nice to everyone all the time.

Save your fun times for friends and family, make sure that when you aren't at work you have a great time. And if all the bars and night clubs are full of the same boring people, then you need to look at yourself and where you spend your time. Once you power down your Mac and sign off for the day, you can do whatever you want. What time of day you do that is entirely up to you.

Marc said:

America completely screwed? Please...

lover not a hater said:

'I moved from one massive agency to another just to check this was not an unfortunate and isolated finding.'

come on dude, you're a smart guy, Big Isn't Beautiful, and there's no surprise there.

There is some great energy and creativity in that city, but you need to get out of Midtown, mate. But then you don't necessarily get the big money salary or those trips to Cannes you like.

Surprise me and don't join yet another big agency. Go start something, do some good, have some fun (take your own advice, it was good advice
http://www.psfk.com/2010/03/jwts-sean-boyle-on-10-steps-to-fix-advertising.html

Lead by example. Be the change. You get the gist.

Yankee said:

I agree. I'm American. I wish I wasn't.
We suck.

AEM said:

Come out to California where people actually make things - TV, movies, music, software, hardware, sporting goods, wine. It couldn't be more different. Not to mention mention trees, mountains, sunshine, innovators, entrepreneurs and the ocean.

JWT then BBDO on Gillette? What exactly were you expecting...?

Have you been following the news/politics/innovation etc in Australia or Ireland recently? It's not exactly all 90210 original series over there...

Yuri Gagarin said:

I love SeanyB and have worked with him for several years.
One thing I can say for sure. He's not smelly.
He was a CKOne man at the time but hopefully he's moved on to
something a bit less ubiquitous.
What is your scent now Mister B?

master-batey said:

I loved your rant: Witty. Insightful. And prose-posefully crafted.
My only comment is: why the sudden disdain for the game which you were once a master of?
How did the same business which so richly rewarded you with mucho moola, molls and mirth leave you so twisted?
Did you meet your match after one meeting too many?
Or realize one morning that what we all did was just crap?
The miles from Ireland to Singers to Sydney to New York couldn't have been all bad.
All you need is a good lie down, before packing your bag for you next ad gig.
With bills to pay, you'll be gagging for it.
Again.

THE BEST A MAN CAN GET said:

YUP, : "JWT then BBDO on Gillette? What exactly were you expecting...?"

Mark G said:

Sean, thanks for making me realize I wasn't totally insane when I resigned from a planning gig in NYC in the depths of a recession.

One comment really struck a chord: "In the big shops, the contrarian who speaks out is 'a problem'...'not a team player'."

That's partly why, in my opinion, planning in the US has never fired on all twelve cylinders. My early career was in the UK...where dialecticism is ingrained in the culture...and conforms with the uber-smart thoughts of M.T. Rainey (i.e. 'in order to be effective, planning needs to be a source of provocation, rather than mere reinforcement').

Though many US agencies pay lip-service to such a thought, I really feel the reality is very different...provocation and disagreement can be a death-sentence for many a planner in the US, however deftly and diplomatically handled.

The only solution is to 'seed' a contrarian thought and allow the recipient to believe they came up with that idea themselves...but since the contrarian thought invariably involves 'apparent' risk, even that strategy is far from successful.

But such issues, for me, are also compounded by the total lack of humanity and demands for 24/7 accessibility I observed in NYC. My last boss said, 'just because you're on vacation, doesn't mean you stop working.' And boy, did she mean it...my limited vacation time was totally consumed with totally unnecessary requests for help.

Though I'm now as poor as a church mouse, I've never regretted leaving that environment. Thanks again.

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