Sure, 'good' advertising is about selling stuff – but are you really OK with that?

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock

It is an often overlooked fact that during our short time on this earth, many of us will dedicate the vast majority of our adult lives to our ‘careers’. Think about that. Often over loved ones, cherished moments, weddings, births, deaths... for some of us, our careers will frequently take priority. I’m no exception.

Why accept this kind of near sociopathic behaviour? I’d like to think for the majority of us, it’s because we truly care about what we do and the work we make. In a way, that work defines us, as much as we define it.

So here’s a thought. When we’re on our death beds, what are the things we’re really going to cherish from our careers, and what are the things we’re going to forget about? For my generation especially, that millennial blur between work and play has meant more than ever this is a question that is almost a de facto north star.

Industry vet Patrick Collister’s considered thought piece [Why work that sells stuff – not just worthy creative – should be called ‘good’ advertising] got me thinking. While well-argued, it pissed me off. It makes a crucial assumption: we take on cheaper, lower-paying ‘worthy’ work in order to absolve our sins for the ‘down and dirty’ ‘day-to-day’ advertising we’re involved in. It’s outdated. It’s just too old-school.

I don’t buy it. Why can’t all our work have an impact beyond just sales? Why can’t the good stuff be part of our day-to-day? I understand that we work on the hard business end of the creative industries, where art and commerce collide at the speed of light. But aren’t we limiting our potential if we’re told all we’re good for is to act as glorified sales agents? Just ‘selling stuff’ is doing ourselves a disservice.

Spoiler alert: I’m ‘new’ to adland, unlike Patrick, so forgive me if I come across as naive. I’ve had a career that has spanned TV commissioning at Channel 4 to running video departments at digital publishers such as Dazed Media and Vice Media-owned i-D. Throughout all these roles I’ve been driven by a desire to reach audiences at scale with meaningful content.

I didn’t dream of working in advertising as a kid, like many of you might have. But I did fall in love with the idea that, through mass communications, you could change the way people saw the world. For me as a British Asian, that’s really important. The power of people understanding your point of view was my MO growing up. That desire runs so deep within every fibre of my being that it drives me forward. It excites me. It’s part of who I am.

I’m mandated to try and help my clients sell more products. That’s a given. But ‘good’ advertising for me is the same as any ‘good’ communication. It makes a mass audience sit up and listen and debate and discuss. Those are the base level ingredients for anything that can be called ‘good advertising’. And in order to get there, you have to put some of your own personality and being into that work to give it meaning.

Even though I respect David Ogilvy, patron saint of advertising, and his devotees reminiscing about the good old days of Clangers, Smash TV commercials and lunchtime pints – where you ‘sell or die’ – times have changed. Every single piece of work we put out has to be not just ‘good’ but ‘amazing’ in order to succeed in the ultimate sense.

The good old days when ads were ads and ad people were ad people are over. If the level of our ambitions, soul and desires is just to 'sell stuff' for corporations, it will end in failure in the long term, both for clients and us personally.

The power of advertising in 2017 has gone way beyond just ‘selling stuff’. It can legitimately change and challenge people’s points of view in the most emphatic ways. And so, that should always be our ambition if it is to be defined as ‘good’.

Take P&G’s latest work on ‘the talk’. It’s gone way beyond many TV shows and online videos. And that has to be considered as ‘beyond good’. It’s nothing short of ‘amazing’ because it actually reflects a world that I see, and others might not have.

Let’s not let our ‘day to day’ be just about ‘good old fashioned advertising’. Otherwise we’ll most likely end up searching for meaning elsewhere in life, leaving our work meaningless.

Let’s not settle for 'how things should be done' and the idea that 'we can't make any difference anyway outside of that bit on the side’. We can. We’re in a position of influence and power to do something. No matter what the client is, or task at hand. If you don’t put yourself into the work – the work means nothing. And if it means nothing – are you really OK with that?

Ravi Amaratunga Hitchcock is WE ARE Pi's head of content and head of the newly founded Pi Studios

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