George Parker: How Big Dumb Agencies Screwed Up The Ad Industry

October 8, 2010

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post contains naughty words. Some F-bombs, a BS or two and maybe an H-E-double-hockey-sticks mixed in for good measure. If you’re OK with that, read on for an unvarnished take on how the modern ad industry lost its way. If you’re not into the whole swearing thing, click here and come back another day.

George Parker

George Parker

George Parker’s deranged world is overrun with douchenozzles, Tweetnozzles, spokesnozzles and AdNozzles. There’s a Poison Dwarf lurking around in there, too.

Parker takes shots at these despicable characters via the AdScam blog, his online lair. He rants, curses and cracks wise — all while delivering insightful and biting commentary about advertising, marketing and social media.

Parker is old-school ad man. He has lived the “Mad Men” life. He rolled through top Madison Avenue ad agencies. He racked up a pile of industry awards. He made a bunch of money. He has lived in the United States, England, Sweden, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Now he’s takes the occasional consulting gig, writes a book every so often and tosses barbs via his blog. He also takes his show on the road. He’ll be in Minneapolis on Oct. 13, speaking to the Advertising Federation of Minnesota. Tickets are $25 for members and students and $50 for non-members. Event details here.

In advance of Parker’s visit, the Peepshow reached out to ask him a few things about his ad career, his blog and his vocabulary.

Q: You live in Boise?
I moved here from New York about 12 or 13 years ago and every time I go back people say, “Oh, where you living now?” I say, “Boise, Idaho,” and they go like, “Fuck, what do you want to live in the Midwest for?” They’re confusing Idaho with Iowa.

Q: Why Idaho?
I didn’t want to live in California anymore because it’s full of wankers. Boise used to be America’s best kept secret. Unfortunately, now it’s full of Californians who sold their McMansions and cashed out here.

Q: Why do you swear so much?
Because I’m semi-illiterate and I don’t have any other way to express myself.

Q: Boil it down. What’s gone wrong with the ad industry?
You mean you want a “tweet” at 140 characters?

Seriously, though, there have been two changes, two radical changes. One is the advent of new media, which is social networking and the internet and all that bullshit.

The other one that’s more important in terms of what’s happened to the business is what I call the conglomerization of it, meaning that every BDA as I refer to them — Big Dumb Agency — with the exception one, Weiden, which isn’t dumb anyway, belongs to one of four holding companies: Interpublic, Omnicom, WPP and Publicis.

All of these are holding companies are run by bean counters, in other words accountants, and they’re all publicly traded so their major concern is making the numbers every quarter. So the work becomes secondary. Consequently, when you look at advertising today, I think it’s gone backwards in many respects. I know people talk about digital technology and everything else, but in terms of core content — it’s all about content in my opinion — it’s gotten worse. Because it’s all about turning something around quickly, not endangering the account, making the money and then moving on to the next schmuck that wants to give you some business.

Q: What do BDAs do that is so dumb?
They run the companies or the agencies that they hold as if they were insurance companies. I mean the head of Interpublic, who is Michael Roth, came into the ad business like six or seven years ago and he came in from an insurance company. So all he knows is running companies and making the numbers. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of the end product.

It’s all about the expediency of doing deals, making money, cutting these deals where the big groups will work for razor-thin margins. In the old days, if a major agency had an account, they would have it for 10, 12 or 15 years. Now, if you’re lucky, two years. Then it’s up for review and it’s like a feeding frenzy and everybody spends a fortune of money pitching for the account and they have like a one in 10 chance of winning it.

Q: Are there any Big Smart Agencies?
The very best one, without any kind of reservation, is Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, and it belongs to Omnicom, or at least Omnicom has 51 percent ownership. Silverstein in my opinion is the best large agency in existence. Over 25 years, that’s how long they’ve been going, they have consistently produced great work.

Q: What do they do right?
They refuse to compromise. When they first started off, if they picked up a piece of business, they would present a campaign and if the client turned it down they’d say, “OK, we’ll go away and come back in two weeks.” And they’d present it again and if the client turned it down they’d say, “OK, we’ll come back in two weeks.” If the client turned it down again, they would tell the client to fuck off.
Most agencies would say, “We’ll keep coming back every two weeks for the rest of your life until you fire us.”

Silverstein has certain standards. It’s run by people who really refuse to compromise when it comes to doing substandard work, whereas most agencies, which as I say are run ultimately through the holding companies and bean counters, will compromise like hell.

Q: What do you think of “Mad Men”?
In those days it was exactly as “Mad Men” portrays it, which was we drank, smoked and fucked our brains out. But we did some good work, too.

Q: What are your thoughts about the Twin Cities ad industry?
There’s some really good work coming out of there. If you go back to the Fallon days, there was some amazing work. Minneapolis was one of the first to break the New York-Chicago mold. There were agencies in L.A., but they were really just service offices for the New York shops. Minneapolis was one the first to actually generate a homegrown independent agency business that wasn’t merely a service office.

Q: Is social media over-hyped?
There’s a lot of wishful thinking there. The thing is if you want to address an audience, first you’ve got to identify the audience you want to address. When you’ve done that, you look at the tools that are available for you to address that audience. Then you look at what it’s going to cost you to do that. Now, if you go through regular advertising channels, that is network TV or cable TV or whatever, you know that’s going to cost you a big chunk of change and with diminishing returns. The return on that investment is going down and down.

So of course the big thing now is everybody is saying, “You’ve got to be on social media, you’ve got to be on Facebook, you’ve got to create friends, you’ve to be on Twitter, you have to engage in conversations.” That’s all very well and good, but nobody to this day, as far as everything I’ve read, has actually given me a proven answer that say, “Yes, if you invest like $200,000, you’ll get this type of return.”

Q: You’re not persuaded there is actual return from social media?
I’m not saying you should ignore them. All I’m saying you should look at them, not with suspicion, but just be sure money you’re spending, you’re not just pissing it away because that’s what everybody else is doing.

Q: What are your thoughts about content marketing?
I’m always quoting Howard Gossage, the famous advertising guy based in San Francisco. One of my favorite quotes from him is: “People don’t read advertising. They read what interests them. And sometimes that’s advertising.” That fucking sums it up for me.
With content, it doesn’t matter whether you put it on the fucking head of a pin or a giant billboard in Times Square. If it’s shit, nobody’s going to read it. But if it’s relevant to then, then it will get their attention.

Most everything today is based on execution, not ideas. Thanks to the horrors of CGI, you take a car and put on top of Mount Everest. But who fucking cares?

Whereas if you look at the Volkswagen snow plow commercial, which I think is one of the best ever made, it’s just a Volkswagen going up a snowy road and the snow’s coming down and the wipers are going and it just grinds on for like a minute and at the end he pulls in behind a big giant shed and the shed opens up and the lights come on and a giant snow plow drives out and the voice over says “Did you ever wonder how the guy who drives the snow plow gets to the snow plow?”

That’s fucking brilliant, you know? I don’t need to CGI a car on the top of the fucking Empire State Building or something. The snow plow ad is such a logical, beautiful proposition. And I don’t see commercials like that anymore. I see things that cost millions to shoot, but there’s no there there.

So everything depends on what the content is. The problem with most Big Dumb Companies as I call them, distinct from Big Dumb Agencies, is they have dumb people responsible for content. Because unless senior management signs off on some kind of social networking program and hires the right people to do it or just says, “Joe in the fucking sales department can do that on the side,” it looks really bad.

There’s this great con game called branding. You see, branding isn’t selling. Branding is about getting your name out there, getting people to like feel positive towards you, to like increase your brand awareness, blah, blah, blah. It’s got like nothing to do with selling. And Big Dumb Agencies have gotten away with this shit for years. All you have to is go any Big Dumb Agency website, read the first two or three pages and it’s all about fucking branding. It’s never about selling.