Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet

 
 

Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet

"With a unique blend of humor and insight, Othmer guides us through this rapidly changing business and lets us see the direction in which it is headed. A must read for any student of advertising."
-- Rick Boyko, Director, VCU Brandcenter

"Advertising is an industry like any other, except it changes our planet daily. James Othmer, one of my favorite writers, takes you inside that world and makes the people and places real. You can dislike these guys, but you can't ignore them. They make sure of that."
  --Seth Godin, author, TRIBES

"I've been in advertising more than twenty years and spent countless hours trying to tell people how insane and hilarious and exciting and pointless and fascinating it all is. Now all I have to do is hand them this book."
-Jamie Barrett,
Creative Director/Partner Goodby Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco

"Othmer's struggle to do the next right thing in a business predicated on greed, lust, envy and sloth makes for an enlightening
as well as entertaining read."
                                                                    -Steffan Postaer
                                                                    Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, 
                                                                    Euro RSCG Chicago


Adland promo 2009

Since James understands we like to pre-read before ordering stuff, here's an excerpt from the book he kindly sent along.

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Turd-shrinking cat food.

This was what me and six relatively sane adults were talking about, or getting an education about, at seven o?clock at night, hunkered over a tinny speaker phone as siren wails rose up from the gloomy crevasse of Madison Avenue seven floors below, drowning out the voices of six other presumably sane adults, enlightened turd-shrinking cat food experts all, hunkered over a tinny speakerphone of their own. In Tokyo.

It's a big deal over there, a Japanese-accented speakerphone voice told us, the shrinking of the animal turds. I thought that this is probably because they live in cramped quarters in Japan, tiny, immaculately maintained structures where every extra fecal milligram matters. I thought for a moment about the brilliant, white-smocked team of scientists and chemists who had been charged with creating the product -- the careful measuring the various turds with calipers, comparing and contrasting shape and consistency to previous samples ? and I decided that their job was only slightly more humiliating than the one I was about to be given.

As the briefing continued, I began to conjure a product demo. I envisioned an animated shot of the inside of a cat's intestine, where an alarmingly-enflamed log magically shrinks, changing from an angry, large, home-wrecking orange mass into a tranquil, adorable little lavender-colored turd that wouldn?t think of encroaching upon one's precious Japanese personal space. I thought of Turd vs. Godzilla, engaged in mortal (to the extent that shit has a life) combat, high above the flashing video billboards of the Ginza District.

Maybe, I thought, we could ask the animators behind The Power Puff Girls to design it. That could be cool. Then, a more rational part of me thought, No. It would not be cool. It could never be even remotely cool. There is nothing cool about cat shit or, for that matter, anyone who has anything to do with the calibration of its size or shape or the style in which it might be animated.

Technically, I was in this meeting because my new boss, a Manhattan-based, French global creative director liked the doctoring I had performed earlier in the week with a Brazilian hairball formula script. I wish I could remember more details about the Brazilian hairball formula script (did it involve a thong, caipirinhas and hairballs at Carnivale?) but sometimes the brain does the conscience a favor and builds a wall around moments that can potentially destroy the soul.

Technically, I was there because my Brazilian hairball scriptectomy was all the proof my new boss needed to get me on the phone with a group of people from an island nation six thousand miles away who were breathlessly waiting to hear my thoughts on how to save their bullshit cat shit commercial.

But the real explanation for how I ended up in this meeting is much more complicated. Twenty years worth of complicated, the short version of which is that a once enthusiastic and promising young copywriter turned cynical, existential creative director, was in his mid-forties and burnt, his 125 year-old telcom client gone (recently absorbed by another telcom client with an agency of its own), the person who courted, hired and championed him long gone, and his employer had run out of places to put him.

More than once I had mentioned to the manager of the creative department that, if there happened to be another round of layoffs coming, and if they were looking for volunteers to take some kind of package, I had a ?friend? who might be interested in starting another chapter in his life.

But I was told, No way. After years of thinking I was going to get laid off, I was suddenly, if not indispensable, worth keeping around. Maybe I wasn?t an ad legend but I was a ?writer's writer?. An ?in-house poet?. And suddenly deemed beloved, ap> by someone who mattered. It's as if they thought that anyone talented or crazy enough to want to leave a high-paying job in this economy must be truly special and just the kind of person they couldn?t afford to lose.

The plan, I was told, was to put me to work as the North American Creative Director for our huge packaged goods client -- A.K.A. the world's largest maker of stuff you put in your medicine cabinet (not to mention turd-shrinking, hairball-eliminating cat foods) --where there was plenty of work and a short term need for senior leadership, until another assignment came along that was a better fit for my skills.

So there I was, thinking, This cat food is not about the cat at all. It's all about the owner, who could care less about what chemicals his beloved Tuffy-san ingests as long as the turds are tidy. Thinking, These people are incredibly stupid, but then again they were smart enough to figure out how to make me fix their Honey I Shrunk the Turd spot. And thinking, In addition to going to People Hell for this, now we?ll surely have to do time in Pet Purgatory.

And this favorite, even though I knew the answer: How did I end up here?

I looked at the account guy next to me who multiple degrees, had done some kind of fellowship in London and had a sharp, seemingly rational mind. Then I looked at the creative team across from me that had been led to believe that the cynical old bastard across from them was going to become their boss, their unwanted mentor, two funny, talented and much abused young men, one of whom had hung out in college with the guys who made the film Napoleon Dynamite and who could make art out of an email newsletter about a Central Park kickball league, and I wondered what they thought of all this, Why were they here?

Here's what happened: In twenty years I went from earnest, wide-eyed junior copywriter to big agency golden boy to disillusioned, bitter, corporate burnout, then, briefly, back to golden boy, then to capable veteran and finally back to corporate burnout, but this time without the bitterness or disillusionment. Because really, there is no reason for a rational adult to be disillusioned with advertising. With medicine, or art, or the Peace Corps, maybe. But saying you're disillusioned with advertising is like saying you're disillusioned with politics, or the porn industry.

What did we expect, fulfillment?

During my career I survived some 14 rounds of layoffs, downturns in the industry and the economy, takeover threats, IPOs, 16 creative directors, 13 CEOs, the demise of one great agency and the ongoing collapse of another.

For this I was given more money than I ever would have made in my father's well-intentioned career of choice for me: mason's laborer and, if I played my cards right, bricklayer.

Because of advertising I got to travel the world and meet many smart, talented and powerful people, from CEOs and artists to Four-Star Generals and Carrot Top.

Because of advertising I got to follow and occasionally lead and make hundreds of friends for life. And I got to dedicate too much of my life than I?d care to acknowledge thinking about things like turd-shrinking cat food.

After 20 years of shoveling concepts into the idea furnace, I was done.

It helped just a bit that I had recently finished a novel and had gotten an agent. This was indeed promising but I had finished novels before and had agents before, one of whom died, one of whom quit weeks after I signed with her, and one of whom told me that she was leaving the industry to go to clown school *1. So it's not like I was all set or anything.

*1 Perhaps the lowest point of my literary career was when I asked her if she could, "You know, do both.? Represent me in between tiny tricycle riding and clown makeup application classes." As long as she remembered to take off the red nose and giant floppy shoes for face-to-face meetings it was cool with me. This was also, in some ways, a high point. Because if you're still compelled to write after your agent has abandoned you for a remote chance at a career in the circus, it's not because you think you're going to be a bestselling author. It's because you like it.

Near the end of the conversation with the Japanese, I looked up to see everyone on our end of the call staring at me. The turd baton was about to be passed to the U.S. team, and I was to be its anchor man.

"Do you have everything you need?" asked someone from the other side of the world. I shook my head yes, but couldn't stop myself from asking, "Does anyone?"

From ADLAND: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet by James P. Othmer, coming from Doubleday in September 2009. All rights reserved.
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