The ad industry won't change for good until it hits rock bottom

Back in the mid-90’s Jay Chiat was simultaneously scoffed at and envied for attempting to create the ad industry’s first “virtual offices.” The theory went that being untethered would give people the freedom to work where and how they wanted.

Well-intentioned though it may have been, the employees at the time hated it because it was forced upon them. I read countless articles during my research that recounted horror stories. Jay Chiat played hall monitor, forcing people to move if they dared sit in the same spot two days in a row. So unique and revolutionary was his vision in 1993 that the only way employees accepted it was through sheer force.

But even then it wasn’t enough. In both the L.A. and New York offices, employees revolted. This passage from a 1999 post-mortem in Wired magazine illustrates my point:  

After six months, a counterrevolution was in full swing in both offices. In LA, people took to using the trunks of their cars as file cabinets, going in and out to the parking lot, in and out. There had been discouragement against this, "but people just ignored it," says one staffer. Rabosky took over an entire meeting room, declaring it "my office until somebody fires me." Eric McClellan, the New York creative director, did the same back east. The LA office eventually started using sign-up sheets for assigned spaces. People stopped returning their portable phones and PowerBooks, stashing them in their lockers at night. Gradually, makeshift desks were put in place. Desktop computers began arriving in the LA office. The media kept gushing about Chiat's virtual adventure, but by the end of year one, the whole "grand experiment" was already wobblier than a Gaetano Pesce chair.

This also miscalculated the human need for direction and leadership. Despite what Chiat assumed, people want to see a strong captain at the helm, and they want to know the ship has a rudder. (I’m using ship lingo here, since Chiat Day still likes to be seen as revolutionary pirates  despite having been owned by mega holding company Omnicom since 1995, which was long before I was ever in advertising.)

Shortly after selling out, the Chiat office in L.A. relocated to a fancy new building in a different part of town. Far from being a virtual office, this one expected you to be there at all hours of the day, earning the Chiat Day and Night nickname. Designed by Clive Wilkinson, the building more like a brightly colored Soviet prison than an ode to creativity. I can only assume the architect is a sadist. How else would one explain erecting a building that allows little natural light in a city that gets more than 280 days of sunshine a year?

Inside, the building was no less depressing, styled more like a factory but with fun accoutrements, like a giant tank filled with exotic fish (that are replaced monthly because they die all the time) and a cafeteria, and basketball court. You have cubicles, kind of, because they aren’t closed. Psychologically this mass of metal and cheap wood screams “you are a cog in a machine,” but tries to temper it with flair, assuming cheap food and a basketball court as well as the obligatory video game/foosball distractions no one ever uses because they are too busy working non-stop are considered flair.

Incidentally, TBWA\Chiat\Day L.A. has lost so much business over the past decade that the last time I was there, most of the building was being rented out to other agencies. Omnicom Media takes up a large portion of the building, too.  

This is obviously a worldwide issue, and Chiat is not the only guilty party. They do make a powerful illustration of a fundamental problem. Both virtual and factory versions of Chiat never took into account what their employees actually want.

Let’s begin by what employees actually wanted: Inclusion. Diversity. And compensation.

Inclusion:

What good is carving out a space for people from all walks of life if you are simply going to discount or ignore their opinions and reject their ideas in favor of your own?  While we take it for granted that a lot of CD’s do this, I’ve known a few CCO’s who aren’t satisfied with the work unless they wrote it. It’s insulting and demoralizing to an entire creative department. Of course, everyone is too scared to say this to the person in charge. And the few times people have had talking-to’s it hasn’t changed the situation. So people just bounce and go somewhere else, hoping it’s a little better.

Inclusion goes beyond superficial differences. But like superficial differences, the people in charge of hiring have to be open-minded enough to accept different ideas because we are an idea business.

I’m not about to speak for the transgender creative community or my black creative director friends. However, I will go out on a limb and say that having your ideas get presented to the client and produced is more important, than having a gender-neutral bathroom. Or your place as the token black creative at the table  How included are you really if inclusion only stops at your physical presence?

Diversity

It’s obvious the advertising industry doesn’t champion diversity but not in the way most people are thinking about it right now. Do me a favor: Forget the four award-winning ads that come out every year and force yourself to watch network TV for a few hours. The commercials you see will appall you. Not because they suck. But because they suck in such a homogenous way, it feels like the same middling hack made them.

Zero insight. Zero uniqueness. The same Millennial Mantra is used: You’ve Got This. Why? Because it’s all from the same brief. Doesn’t matter if it’s for an investment firm, an indoor paint, or a subscription box for prepared meals. You’ve got this.

Just like inclusion, this represents zero diversity of thought as much as it does skin color and sex. It’s not only that we hire the people who look like us but we hire the people who think like us, too.

There is a shop here in L.A. that goes out of its way to very loudly announce how many people on the color spectrum they have hired. But they all happen to fit the same “bro” mold. How exactly are you diverse when everything you do is the same?

And by the way, diversity also includes age. In the past two years, I have known more people over the age of 40 who have been laid off than people at any other time. And with them goes the chance at mentorship from people who have experience in favor of uniform thinking from a group who are too young to know they are being duped into giving up the bulk of their lives in favor of basketball courts and paid gym memberships—for a lot less.

Compensation:

Obviously you should ask and get as much money as you can. Not only because it shows you know your worth but because agencies have no compunction about forcing you to work when you should be allowed to take time off.

We’ve all heard stories about people being forced to cancel their vacations because of an “important,” assignment. I’ve got those beat. I was flying home to be with my mom after she called to tell me she had six weeks to live, when an ECD asked if I could come up with ideas for a behind-the-scenes video that the client had no interest in making. A few short years after that, on a Thursday afternoon, I received a text message at my father’s funeral in a state five hours flight away, asking if I could be in the office on Friday.

It’s also important to keep in mind that with few exceptions, ad agencies can and will lay you off with the least amount of tact possible.  Last year an agency laid off more than five dozen people. It’s been well known for a few years that they are being shall we say, phased out, as the client moves more and more of their business in-house.  

From what I was told by people who were let go, the creative resources manager—the one whose job is to listen to your concerns and grievances—took a leave of absence the month prior to this, showing up only on the day everyone was given their pink slips. This means that everyone in the creative department who surely knew something was going on, had no one to talk to about it. I also want to stress that the word “compensation,” doesn’t only refer to salary. Compensation also comes in the form of free time, as opposed to “free” time where it’s a night or a weekend or vacation but you are still supposed to be “on-call,” as if you are a brain surgeon.

With the pandemic forcing everyone to work from home, I am being a bit more forceful in putting a sharp dividing line between on and clock and off. I’m lucky in that the place where I am working now is good about respecting this. Others feel like they are on the clock more, not less.

Again, this comes back to respect. I am less inclined to trust an agency who prides itself on spending money that could go into the pockets of its employees on forced team-building offsites when they don’t respect what teams actually do, or the work they come up with, either.

I have a theory that the industry as a whole continues to discount what its employees want. because solving these issues wouldn’t make for a big PR splash and there would be no glowing articles written in Dwell or Wired about the superficial shiny object they are trying to use to distract everyone from how miserable this industry has become.  

But in a way, that’s giving them too much credit.

The industry will only change when it hits rock bottom. Until there are no more wide-eyed recent grads willing to work 90 hours a week for beer on tap (or at least the promise of working from home till the end of the year) there will be no incentive.

And by the way, you may be enjoying the hell out of working remotely with only your team. You might even be relaxed enough to keep your camera turned off most of the time. Just remember,  you may not be out of mind, but you are out of sight. In the holding companies’ eyes, you’re one less problem to worry about.

I am glad to see that a lot of people haven’t fallen for the virtue-signaling that comes from changing your avatar or making some hollow pledge or holding yet another diversity and inclusion seminar featuring the same grifters who transitioned from working in the industry to getting paid to state the obvious. Make no mistake—they are grifters who are monetizing at your expense. If true diversity and inclusion were ever achieved, they’d be out of a job.

Keep the distrust going.

I am also heartened to see more people leaving the holding company monstrosities to start their own shops. Unlike empty slogans and seminars, voting with your feet and your wallet shows actual courage and real conviction. At this point, none of us could do any worse than the holding company agencies currently leasing out half their building space to keep the lights on.

As much as Jay Chiat’s virtual office was a failure, at least it challenged people to, you know, think different. You will never get to different if everyone thinks the same.

 

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Excellent