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‘We do advertising and we are really good at it’ – Y&R’s David Sable on his pride in the industry


By Stephen Lepitak, -

September 26, 2018 | 7 min read

In recent years, the advertising industry seemed to lose its sheen to those working within it. There was a lot of moaning and hushed tones when people were asked ‘so what do you do?’ at parties. That was never more evident than during Cannes Lions when the traditional ‘mad men’ grumbled about the rise of tech companies like Google, Facebook and Microsoft’s presence at the self-proclaimed ‘Festival of Creativity’.

David Sable

David Sable on why advertising shouldn't be a dirty word

One ‘mad man’ who is loud and proud about his involvement in the industry is Y&R chief, and industry legend, David Sable; “I’m proud to say that I have never wavered from my pride of being in this industry and from being an adman so the joke is, we turned away from it. Part of the reason is that there were people in holding companies who were reading about major holding companies as Mad Men and they would talk about ‘Math Men’ instead, which was nonsense,” he states with glee.

“Does Amazon sell maths, or do they sell advertising? When I met with them, I wasn’t talking to the maths director, I was talking to the advertising sales guy. If you go to Facebook, what are they selling? Advertising. So the joke is that everybody monetizes on this thing called advertising and yet somehow people in our industry go embarrassed about saying that they did it. My view is that we do advertising and we are really good at it. This notion of maths and targeting and data has always been a part of this industry,” he continues around the ability to understand and sell to consumers.

Asked why advertising had become a dirty word to many, he states his belief that it was because the monetization element through the industry and the value and scale of the companies involved meant it lost the creative sense of itself.

“You have to look at what the value of those companies were. Google’s value is not driven by their advertising. It’s driven by the view that people have of their algorithm, their use of digital, whatever. They make money by selling advertising. We don’t look at it as we sell advertising, we want to be like them. We want to be all about the algorithms, we want to be about all that data, so we leaned into the wrong thing. Instead of embracing things and saying ‘this is great’ we made them enemies, frenemies, whatever it was, instead of saying ‘how do we learn from that?’,” he continues, adding that it comes down to three important elements; creativity and telling a story, Innovation and how to convey a story and technology, which allows the story to be relayed and reach audiences.

“So to me, innovation, all that stuff; Facebook, Google – they are all innovations. They are not technologies. They use technology and they apply technology, but they are not technological companies. They didn’t create the technology, not even close. They are just using software. The complete disassociate we have with reality when we look at these companies is beyond my understanding. They are awesome, but they are not technology companies. They are innovators in communications and how to spread the story. And who knows what comes next?”

Despite his skepticism, Sable is pleased that there is now more opportunities to “bring great stories to people” in the current day-and-age and is enthusiastic about the opportunity now available to tell stories, be it in advertising, film or any other medium.

“We build these things up and down – it’s branding, it’s not branding. We have never been in a better place where we need to be selling our brands and the products and having the opportunity to target better and to understand our customers more because we have more data, which should give us more insight. But we also have to think more than ever before because there’s more data. The notion that we have to think less because there is more data is exactly the opposite of the truth. You need to think way more. The issue is not how much data there is, it’s how little data there is that you need to use. Where are the key pieces? How does that make you smart? We don’t do that anymore and we don’t learn from the best.”

He concludes by talking about the irony of tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon in turning to traditional media to communicate with society when they have a crisis.

“Think about the advertising they have done that includes TV, outdoor, print – so what do they know that you don’t know? Are they doing that because they want to give money back to traditional media? Do you think they give a shit about giving money back to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal? Are you nuts? They do it because they know there’s impact in it. They do it because they know that and then it gets written up by the rest of the media or broadcast out or streamed out or blogged out, it gets out there and that’s the beauty of it because there’s a third-party endorsement that is very powerful and impactful. Not because everybody in the world sees it, not because it’s old fashioned or not old fashioned. It’s because it has impact and they know the impact is greater than that page and that has always been the truth. Go back 50 years, people who would post ads like that in the NYT would also get picked up by every paper in the world. Now it’s picked up not just by the papers but by social media – so they know where to start the conversation. It doesn’t mean we all have to start the conversation in the NYT, but if you’re Facebook and you’re doing that, that is a great place to start it because there is an implied prominence and creditability to doing that and that then takes on a life of its own.”

He finishes with the summary; “So maybe it’s not so old fashioned after all.”

Advertising still has a long way to go, if this Mad Man is correct in his assessment of its ability to still tell a story and connect brands with consumers in the process, through a multitude of means.

This interview was conducted prior to the news that Y&R was to merge with VML by WPP to form VMLY&R.

The Drum Advertising Awards are now open for entry.


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