Swimming with sharks and dolphins

These days we’re all about being nice. But whatever
happened to proper bastardry in advertising?

Creatives: when was the last time you a) threw a pot plant b) made an account handler cry c) knowingly took the credit for work that wasn’t yours? I suspect most of you will answer never, never and never…ish. And this is surprising, you see, because there was a time when being a complete bastard seemed to go with the territory. Fictional portrayals of admen, from Martin Amis’s least bad book, Money, to How to Get Ahead in Advertising, emphasised how greedy, cynical and back-stabbing we all were. In fact, even a cursory glance at Money shows that Amis had no idea what being an ‘ad exec’ actually entailed, and chose his protagonist’s job because it offered the most latitude for his main theme: unbridled bastardry. For an industry that claims to be able to influence people, we’re terrible at making them like us.

A lot of this can be ascribed to resentment. We made the mistake, in the 80s, of getting paid a lot for something that looked like quite good fun. As bankers are finding out now, this is terrible PR. Also, many get hung up on the idea that our job is to persuade people to want things that they wouldn’t otherwise want. The image of the adman as the cynical manipulator of unconscious desire persists, even amongst intelligent commentators like documentarian Adam Curtis. But I’ve never been at a meeting where we set out to play upon the sublimated rage that parents feel toward their infants in order to sell them disposable nappies. Maybe that’s how they do it at other agencies, but where I work, it’s mainly me showing an ad to the creative director and asking if it’s ‘any good’ and him doing what I can only describe as a ‘sort of Robert De Niro-face’, that seems to mean yes, before going back to playing with his iPhone.

No, if I had to think of three words to describe the people I work with, they wouldn’t be cunning, greedy and ambitious, so much as nice, bearded and occasionally irritable. Last week that same CD came in wearing a paper watch, that he and his children had decorated with felt tips.

But what’s the point of all this cuddliness? After all, there’s no D&AD award for Most Amenable Bloke. Let us never forget that niceness is not the most important commodity in advertising, talent is. And, this perhaps, was the traditional purpose of bastardry. An agency has an economic imperative to put up with bad behaviour to the point where it becomes a cost. How much they’ll put up with should be in precise proportion to the amount of talent you bring to the table. So if you really want to know how good you are, try going a little Charlie Sheen. Next time you see the account handler, snap his specs in two and watch the tears well in his eyes. Go on, you know you’re worth it.

‘Gordon Comstock’ is an ad creative and blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com

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