How the NBA's controversial one-and-done mindset is changing the ad industry

In the midst of March Madness, it’s appropriate to think about how the NBA and NCAA’s “One and Done” rule has changed the game. You may remember that it used to be possible, albeit unusual, for outstanding basketball players to skip college altogether and go straight to the pros. That’s what both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did. But the powers that be decided it would be better to force young players to spend one year in college – or cooling their heels – rather than let them go straight to the NBA.

The new rule has had a profound effect on college basketball. Gone are the days when players like Bill Walton, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird stayed until their senior years and coaches used those four years to mold teams in their image. The teams that played a particular and distinctive style of basketball led by coaches like John Wooden and Dean Smith and Bob Knight are, by and large, a thing of the past. Coaches are prized for their ability to recruit a player for one year and build a team around him that has one shot at the Sweet Sixteen if not the Final Four. “One Shining Moment” truly is just that.

So why, you might ask, am I writing about this in a publication focused on advertising and marketing? I believe it’s because the same phenomenon is presenting itself in our business. We have our own version of “one and done” and the results are potentially every bit as pernicious to our game as they are to the college game.

Roving bands of millennial creatives move from agency to agency without any desire to put down roots. In fact, it’s so common that a new company exists to help them in just that endeavor. "Wanderbrief" sources short-term jobs for young creatives worldwide in exchange for a plane ticket, room and board. It may be the ad equivalent of “will work for food,” but so far, they claim to have 6500 takers.

Creative rock stars sell themselves to the highest bidder for pitches and individual campaigns. They might even stay for a year or two. But not long enough to put their personal stamp on an agency. I recently read that Joe Staples, creative director extraordinaire, is leaving Wieden & Kennedy after twelve years. Twelve years! Who does that anymore?

Yes, there are still agencies defined by the smarts and style of one great mind. David Droga, Gerry Graf, and I would include my boss, Trey Laird. But it seems that’s now the exception rather than the rule. You can’t look at an ad and immediately know which agency it came from. There are no recognizable agency styles.

The result is that young creatives don’t yearn to work at a particular agency in order to hone their craft under one amazing leader. For all they know, the ECD will be gone within weeks or months of their arrival. Rather than apprentice as art directors or copywriters and reflect the very differing ethos of an Ogilvy or a Fallon or a Riney, they build their books at ad school and the results are stylistically similar.

I’ll admit that this may make me seem old-fashioned. I need to remind myself that with something lost, something is always gained as well. Young stars of the hardwood still offer thrills in March and April. And in the midst of a great game, it really doesn’t matter if their loyalty is actually to a high draft pick number rather than their alma mater.

In the case of our business, there’s an international community of ad people and cross-pollination when it comes to cultures, languages and nationalities as never before. Few great ad creatives toil in the same vineyard for a decade or two, let alone an entire career. They carry their talent, excitement and experiences from agency to agency. But I still miss seeing the distinctive blend of design and copy that immediately signaled its origin with all the style, grace and intention of a Michael Jordan jump shot.

Claudia Caplan leads strategic relationships at Laird + Partners. She tweets @ClaudiaCaplan

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