Ad agencies contemplate change as world evolves around it

Nancy Meyer’s What Women Want was the initial spark of curiosity that pushed me toward the field of advertising. However, it was Goodby, Silverstein and Partners’ 2005 anthem spot for ice cream maker Haagen Dazs that made me fall for advertising.

 The creative reflects all elements of a premier brand television spot: picture-perfect shots of movement in nature; pithy copy that hits just the right note; and music that captures a sense of rich emotion and inspiration that drives home Haagen Dazs’ sustainability-led mission. 

Fast forward more than 10 years later. I’ve been practicing advertising and marketing communications for the better part of a decade. From B2B public relations to brand strategy and planning to consumer media strategy — my hands-on experience has left me wanting more from the industry I joined immediately upon college graduation. For me, it’s about strengthening the value of the work and diversifying the talent behind it. 

I long for more diversity in an industry that still fights the ghosts of Don Draper and Roger Sterling. As a Millennial and Korean-American adoptee raised by two white working-class parents, brands provided an armor of sorts. In the way that Don Draper’s Hershey bar was a respite from his poverty-stricken home, brands were my own way to fit in and stand out when I thought necessary. 

And I admittedly loved Mad Men, but I only recently came to the conclusion that creator Matt Weiner did not intend to glorify the “Golden Era,” but rather meant to demonstrate how little has changed — not only in advertising but across American society. The recent executive turnover at J. Walter Thompson is simply the latest example of long-standing issues of racism and sexism facing the ad industry. 

My perspective on the role of brands evolved as well. They’re no longer just an organizing principle to make sense of ubiquitous products lined up on a shelf. They’re a deeper promise that sends ripples one way through the supply chain of a global economy and in the other direction through the consumer value chain of a global community. Today, as consumers, we’re far more aware of both the positive and negative consequences that follow a brand’s decision. And when it comes to diversity and the ad indusry’s reputation, it’s past time to make better decisions. 

On March 22, Jeff Goodby — one of the men whose work on Haagen Dazs inspired my leap into advertising — led a talk on “How Vandalism Will Save Advertising.” He, like many others, urged agency executives to embrace creativity to keep the industry relevant in search for top talent. At one point, Goodby said: 

Like vandalism, good advertising is loud, fun and still there the next day.

He goes on to say:

Do things that people appreciate, that are big, that they see and that stick in their heads and make the most of the media channels we’re looking at. Be brave — we’re all going to be fired in the end by people or time.

Ironically, the Haagen Dazs campaign by GS&P resembles very little that is “loud” or “big.” In fact, it’s quiet and understated. And I didn’t consume it on TV. I watched it, just as I did today, on-demand from the Internet. 

As a media convert, I like to imagine this is what Mr. Goodby meant to say:

Invest in media that people want to consume, that is engaging, that they see and makes them want to watch, read, or play again and share. And make the most of the product you’re working with. Be humble – the industry’s greatest leaders are yet to come.

Lastly, Mr. Goodby’s suggestion to act like a “vandal” is tone-deaf at best. If a minority or other outsider proposed such an action, outcry would soon follow from both the masses and advertising elite. 

Ultimately, tackling diversity may require ad agencies to look beyond its own industry for help. Take for example, Sam Altman, president, Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley accelerator fund best known for backing Airbnb. Altman says:

Look, I think that diversity is actually not has hard as people think it is. We just track and reach out to as broad of a set of people as we can and make sure we fund plus or minus the rate that apply. I think white guys say the problem is much harder to solve then it is. We can solve it.

The closing line of the GS&P Haagen Dazs anthem spot reads “The beauty of [the brand] is what we put in, but also, what we leave out.” In the case of Haagen Dazs, the copy refers to ice cream. However, it doesn’t translate very well to advertising. 

The industry has long recognized that its people are the products and their ideas build its best agency brands. For the thousands of agencies around the globe, it’s time to stop leaving people out. It’s time to invite and include more people into the industry. Only then can the advertising industry achieve beauty and value worthy of the modern-day brands it purports to serve and create. 

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