To Love and to Hate Working in Advertising

I often get asked: “But do you love your job?”

This is unsurprising as I must often look and seem stressed, exhausted and stretched. For my birthday this year my staff selected “Angry Birds” as the theme because, so they imagine, I am often lightly seething.

In fact this isn’t so – although I do have a hard edge these days. Required, I think, in the kind of work I do. Confidence is just arrogance dressed up in a bow, so I prefer determination. To be and stay determined does not require, and may be hindered by, felicitousness. And so I understand why people misunderstand this aspect of me.

My ex-wife used to find it difficult to understand how I could “love” being in advertising, running an advertising agency. She laughed when I described a piece of work as “beautiful”. To her – and to many people – advertising is the purest form of hollow labour. Toiling away to help evil corporations sell products to people who don’t need them, and can’t afford them.

Apart from providing some insight into the “ex” part of the preceding paragraph, this is a point of view that I share to a surprising extent. I work hard to exclude advertising from my life. I never watch TV or listen to the radio; I install banner blockers and don’t buy the newspaper. If I could install some kind of film on my car windscreen that could detect and blur billboards I would.

What the hell, then, am I doing in this industry?

You see I think what we do in digital advertising – or should I rather call it “advertising in a digital age” to borrow a familiar moniker – is somehow different. Yes, we service the same clients. And in some instances we market the same products. And, at our worst, we borrow advertising models from old traditional marketing thinly coated with a layer of pixels.

I can only explain this difference based on where we have emerged from. The digital marketing industry is populated by misfits and vagabonds. Wander through an agency and you’re likely to find people who studied to be interior designers, pilots, scientists, engineers, estate agents and philosophers (and that’s just my agency).

This has always been the case. I have often felt that we offer a refuge from the real world – both of advertising and everything else. I have seen people’s faces light up, sometimes with the passing of some time, as they realise they have at last escaped a life of drudgery.

This is exactly the kind of pompous self-regard people outside of advertising hate about us. They laugh at us giving each other awards and lounging on our beanbags in “brainstorms”, pretending, as they see it, to be the artists we are deficient in talent to become.

But again I must protest that digital is different. We are not, generally speaking, graduates of marketing programs and advertising schools. Or even art colleges. We are misfits. We are vagabonds.

And I’ve thought about this a lot: do I love the fact that we are trying to digitally replicate failed advertising models? Of course not. I don’t even love the fact that we are trying to replicate successful advertising models. We are better than that.

And that is what I love. The striving to be better, to invent new things, to not rest or stop until we have completed the revolution that the internet has brought into the world. Or our part of it, anyway.

To build an organization with these lofty goals is a challenge and demands passion and determination. To transform an industry that is set in its ways from many years of doing the same old thing is, at times, a task too great to imagine. To keep ones humility and sanity in a context with its fair share of champagne and gold medals is a daily practice.

But in a world in which no-one wants to consume ads anymore; in which CEO’s have lost patience and faith in their marketing departments; and in which the consumer has more and more of the power; in this world I don’t think the task of re-inventing marketing and the organisations that make it could be in better hands.

So, yeah. I love my job.