Big Apple Living
In Manchester, I have never got out of a cab and walked because I thought it would be quicker. I have never arrived at our office in Deansgate wearing a woolly hat that I’d had to buy on the street because my ears were so cold and the pain so great that I could have cried any second.
I have never left the house for work carrying a week’s washing for the laundry because my ‘luxury’ apartment had no space for a washing machine.
When I was working in New York, I did all of those things fairly frequently.
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy living in ‘the world’s greatest city’ – because a lot of New Yorkers are pretty cool people, even if many of them don’t originally come from there. But I did develop a strange attitude to the place.
I liked it in thin slices. Except that, like the pastrami sandwiches at Katz Deli (where Harry met Sally), it doesn’t really come in thin slices.
More crucially though, as Joni Mitchell once observed, I found that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and New York certainly taught me to appreciate how good our major cities, like Manchester, are.
However, a lot of people have asked me about the differences between the creative industries in the UK and the US. ‘Isn’t American advertising just awful?’ they say.
Despite speaking sort of the same language, the US is a foreign country. So the main differences, especially in business attitudes, are cultural. From an agency perspective though, there are a few points worth bearing in mind.
First, the market is huge – and so are client spends. In turn, agencies receive levels of fees that would make your nose bleed. But they have to work for it, and not necessarily in the ‘delivering brilliant solutions’ department.
There may be no official aristocracy in the US, but it is far from a classless society, and that’s reflected in a highly stratified business environment.
So, second, a great deal of agency energy is expended in jumping through hoops, and working your way up through approval loops, for client staff who are second-guessing more senior decision-makers.
“So what’s new?” you might say. However, the US remains a much more vengeful society than our own, and the strange blend of the conservative and aggressive that’s prevalent in other aspects of American policy can also create a ‘blame culture’ in business.
So, third, US clients and agency staff are understandably cautious – especially when employment rights are next to non-existent. (It’s an undertow that, I feel, is quite alien to the positive social thinking that made Manchester justly famous and gave birth to the Cooperative movement.)
However, that’s not the real reason we Brits often feel that much of American advertising is ‘rubbish’. Sure, there’s a penchant for direct salesmanship that can make us squirm. But there is great advertising in the US. It’s just much harder to achieve there than it is here. And no, it’s not the clients’ fault.
Put simply, the market is huge. And litigious. So, almost any ‘original concept’ you can come up with has been thought of before. And someone somewhere – probably in your clients’ market – has done it, run it and, worse, trademarked it. With more territory fenced off and less wriggle-room for error, it’s little surprise that US agencies and clients often opt for more generic solutions.
So, let’s be thankful for the lifestyle we have in the UK and the creative freedoms we enjoy. Who knows, with the coca-colonisation of the world, they may not last long.
For more of Pete’s views on Manchester and Manhattan, see www.vivaciti.info. All New York imagery courtesy of Roben at raphotography.co.uk.