It’s been an eventful few weeks for Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP. “Sorrell will carry torch in relay for London Olympics,” the latest headlines buzz, only a couple weeks after they reported “Sorrell claims Cannes judges could have been pressured into block voting,” which in turn was only about a week after they disclosed “Sorrell faces shareholder vote against his £6.8 million remuneration package.” If some other scandal were to break next week, I’d say we’d have a terrific telenovela on our hands.
Somehow, he has managed to score headlines on three things that matter to me: sports, advertising and money. (They’re not the only three things that matter to me, but hey, let’s be honest). All three things are capable of bringing people to wonderful highs and desperate lows. All three can do incredible good, but all three can fall victim to corruption and cause great damage.
At the end of the day, the wins should all be based on merit, right? Compensation should be commensurate with contribution and returns. Awards should be won and not coerced. The Olympics should offer a level playing field. Nothing about any of this seems very fair.
Yet at its core, advertising is all about unfairness. It is about creating unfair advantage for a brand, product or service, that in turn yields mind-share or market-share that is disproportionate to its own unaided reach. Advertising creates this unfairness to produce visibility beyond the borders and networks of the business itself, and to create relevance for the audience that may not have otherwise existed, or been considered.
Where we start to get into shaky territory is when advertising serves masters other than the brand and that brand’s audience. Healthy competition to encourage and inspire better work is good for everyone involved. But for many agencies, the unspoken point of it all is “win awards.” Our industry was exposed a little while ago for submitting scam entries, a well-known practice for years. Yet while you’re out winning awards, procurement is squeezing your agency’s margins to the point where they almost don’t matter, so do whatever you can to keep your staff costs low, but your own paycheck and perks healthy. It’s no wonder many have lost sight of what made advertising rewarding and fun to begin with.
Look, I don’t believe for one second that anyone here is in this business for true altruism. We all want to create the next famous, game-changing idea. We all want to make money. Advertising can do all this. But with all this power comes a great responsibility. I think if we shifted our focus back to the point of advertising, which is, well, advertising, then we’d see work that was richer, we’d be richer and we’d have fewer of these silly debates about awards, compensation, and gaming the system.
Because finally, the work would be worth it. Then we’d have a torch we’d be happy to pass along.
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