In 1937, just as technology was gathering momentum, George Orwell identified one of its fundamental truths. “No one draws water from the well,” he wrote, “when he can run the tap.” As soon as science gives us an easy way of doing something, doing it the old way instantly becomes a hopeless waste of time, in other words, a hobby. Once you can buy factory-built furniture the only reason to fashion a table for yourself is the arts and crafts impulse, and this, he observed, was the preserve of the “bearded fruit juice drinker”. The effect on craftsmanship is permanent. “In such circumstances,” he said, “it is nonsense to talk of ‘creative work’.”
So what is advertising going to do, now that ideas are available on tap,
in every office? Much has been written about the ethics of purloining ideas from YouTube. No one has stopped doing it. This isn’t surprising for anyone who’s worked on a nightmare brief. The one that’s been through the agency eight times, the one that comes with an apology from the head of planning, the brief that won’t flush.
The first day is ok, you deflect your partner’s ideas, eliminating the obvious. Even the second day has a kind of hysterical calm, like a test match at gunpoint. It’s the third day, when you’re in the desert, the place where careers are really made or broken, and the review appears at 4pm. Suddenly that clip of a poodle playing a bassoon starts to look so very very right.
It doesn’t just make sense for spineless creatives either. It’s an economic imperative. The problem is there in Orwell’s oxymoron: ‘creative work’. Work that is play. On the one hand advertising is an exercise in waste, an opportunity for brands to engage in that most inefficient of behaviours, entertainment. On the other it’s an industry, a multi-million pound concern, a tough market that promises its clients efficiency. Yes it would be lovely if we could all sit round having ideas, maybe playing a sitar, but if you can get it quicker from the net, you better do it alright?
And this will be fine until clients wise up. The net is accessible to all, so why is a brand going to pay an agency millions of pounds to trawl it for them? That there’s an art to the selection of content is the agency’s last claim to legitimacy. But it’s threadbare. Ditch the agency and how will the brand manager know which clip to choose? He won’t need to. As Bernbach said, research can’t have ideas, but it can certainly help select them. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s us or the computers and for the money men that’s a no-brainer. We don’t have to embrace the future, it’s coming for us like a septic great-aunt.
‘Gordon Comstock’ blogs at advertanon.blogspot.com