Why did you become a creative professional? A copywriter, designer, art director, creative director, video/film director? An ad person, in other words?
At the deepest psychological level, why would you voluntarily join such an unstable, unpredictable, unappreciated, and often scoffed-at profession?
I know why I did. And I’m not proud of it.
I hasten to add that I am proud of the actual work I’ve done over the years. Of helping to grow my clients’ businesses. Of getting paid to solve tough business problems with insightful solutions. And yes, of adding some thoughtful, well-crafted, and occasionally even funny lines to the business environment we all live in.
But between the pandemic, the insane unemployment numbers, and the continuing transfer of advertising dollars from thousands of venues to Google and Facebook, I believe it’s worth looking at how we got here, so we can see a little more clearly where we’re going.
Like all my compatriots of a certain age—like you, in all probability—I spent a lot of my formative years in front of the TV, and that TV was always trying to sell me something.
Sometimes that thing would even include a picture of the very characters I saw on TV, which seemed vaguely magical, as though the characters had somehow popped out of the TV and broken the Fourth Wall.
For example, a cartoon leprechaun would sell you cereal, and when your parents bought the cereal, there that leprechaun would be, right on the box. To a two- or three-year-old with a still-developing brain, this passed for a religious experience.
And where was those parents, by the way, when all this was happening? Either taking care of even younger kids and doing housework, or working, or attending night school, or simply finding themselves—as the TV also encouraged them to do. So they plopped the kids in front of the magical babysitter, where they then would be sold even more things that had pictures of TV characters on them.
Cut to several years later, the small child grew into a larger child and then a college student, who on some level, albeit dimly, realized the profound power and influence that advertising had held over his life.
In fact, many were the times, between parental divorces and separations and constantly changing schools and moving houses, when advertising characters had seemed more like friends than people did.
But what if that power could be reclaimed?
What if, after 20 years of advertising wielding immense power over a person, that person could turn the tables? What if they could wield that same power over not just other people, but the advertising profession itself?
And so, we learned to use Macs and design software. And brand voice and tone guidelines, and creative briefs. And video editing software. And whatever else was necessary so we could do this ourselves, instead of having it done to us.
And now, here we all are. We’ve mastered this craft which previously mastered us, so congratulations to all of us.
The problem is, it’s now a craft without a venue—just Google and Facebook. We’re like carpenters who can design and build wonderful imaginative chairs, suddenly transported to ancient Japan where everyone is expected to kneel on the floor at mealtimes.
So what do we do now?
In the short term, I imagine some of us will become Instacart shoppers, nurses, grocery store stock clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, and other essential employees. I myself made such a temporary transition just after 9/11, when agency jobs were tough to come by. I catered, tended bar, waited tables. I didn’t mind it, to tell you the truth.
But in the long term, something deeper has to happen. We need to focus on using our incredible creative potential to build something new.
Not to sell cereal, or beer, or the latest SaaS/cloud solution, but to sell ideas that change the very way we live, the way we see each other, the way we see fundamental things like money and time and human relationships and our place in the universe.
Call it anti-propaganda, or advertising in reverse.
Who’s going to pay us to do that? For a while, maybe no one. In that case, we’re going have to do it for free, building the world we want to see.
Meanwhile, to survive and support our families, we’ll do our old creative professional jobs as well as we can—for as long as they exist.
But that won’t be forever.