Read our new manifesto
22 - 26 March

Festival for a rapidly changing world

Topics include: Direct to consumer / E-commerce / Data & privacy / Martech

'As an industry, we continue to grind and to de-value experiences outside of agency walls': The rise (and fall) of the advertising robot

Credit: Pixabay

My advertising career started like a lot of people that I hear about -- and that is to say, without an ounce of forethought or planning. I was an English major/musician looking for a job that wouldn’t make me miserable. My only real requirement was that I couldn’t entertain a job that forced me to wear a coat and tie everyday. I somehow met a pretty girl in advertising and that suddenly sounded like the perfect job for me.

I wound up going to The Creative Circus and learning the skills of the trade, and beginning my transformation into an advertising robot.

What do I mean by an advertising robot? I mean that I became obsessed with advertising -- It’s an easy cult to get drawn into -- I learned about the Ogilvys and the Bernbachs and the Boguskys. I horded old CA and One Show annuals as if they were sacred religious texts. I read Hey Whipple! Squeeze This, and I stopped thinking like a rational, thoughtful human and started thinking like a well-trained creative advertising automaton.

Advertising robots begin brainstorming sessions like this: “Remember that campaign that Coke did in ‘96? We need to do something like that, but different.” And just like that, originality dies. That’s the danger of Advertising Robots. Their work is derivative and regurgitated. Instead of “Just Do It”, they bring in “Go Get It.” Instead of “The Campaign for Real Beauty,” they bring in “The Campaign for Self-Worth.” It happens. I know because I was that very robot. I would dig through One Show books and borrow headline constructs, or creative strategies or art direction styles and think that my job was to take it far enough away from the original execution that it felt original once again. And, sadly, that strategy allowed me to win my fair share of awards and get into all of those award books I had so coveted.

As my career progressed, I realized that the guys I respected weren’t taking old thoughts and making them seem original, they were creating wholly original ideas (how novel?!).

In advertising, we have a tendency to become insular. To source ideas from the industry. And to spend so much time working that we can’t find inspiration anywhere else.

That all has to change.

At our agency, we’ve decided that work for work’s sake is the root of advertising evil. It leads to uninspired, check-the-boxes, put-the-chicken-in-the-bucket thinking. And to the rise of powerful advertising robots. So we’ve gone out of our way to embrace work-life balance. We’re serious about everyone getting out the door at 6 p.m. every day. And we don’t work weekends. The result is a well-rounded team.

When we interview, we ask applicants what they have in their lives that they are more passionate about than advertising. And we look outside of the portfolio to find signs of curiosity and passion that would never show up in an ad execution.

We are in the middle of a pitch right now that would be a big win for our agency. The tendency of ad agencies would be to require all hands on deck to make things happen: Thanksgivings would be ruined. Employees would be angry. Spouses would be furious. Children would be disappointed, and Advertising Robots would rule the day. Instead, we wouldn’t consider anyone not enjoying his or her Thanksgiving.

I want everyone to be gathered around a table. I want them to endure their crazy uncle’s antics. I want them to hear about the latest tales of their weird sister. And I want them all to endure really awkward political conversations, before adjourning to watch football and fall asleep. I don’t want this because I’m a particularly nice guy...I want this because that’s where the good stuff happens. That’s where observant minds make unnatural connections. I know that someone will come back from Thanksgiving with a story or an observation or an insight that will help us win the pitch. So I am not going to add to the creation of Advertising Robots. I am going to encourage people to create their own connections and solve their own problems in ways that they have never been solved before.

The best ideas in advertising never come from Advertising Robots. They come from free-thinkers who make non-linear connections. Yet, as an industry, we continue to grind and to de-value experiences outside of agency walls. For the good of the business, we need to stop this madness. We need to give the creative mind space to create. We need to find smart people and give them the opportunity to create culture, not steal from it.

I would throw in some David Ogilvy quote here about how a great ad can only be as original as the inspiration that it came from, but that would be derivative and Advertising Robot-like. So I’ll just leave it here. And go enjoy my Thanksgiving.

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable. He tweets @JoeParrish

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis