The latest installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.
If you remember, in last week’s episode, I explained the balls out, diamond hard, number one tactic to be unfailingly employed by any wannabe Mad Man anxious to climb over the fetid backs of the competition on the way to three martini lunches, five star hotels, and black on black, diamond encrusted AmEx cards… One must develop, fine tune and hone to a razors edge, the ability to lie with absolute conviction at the drop of a hat. And why not, when all the BDA’s and their respective holding companies have been doing this for years?
As the CEO of the first BDA, Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (known to his drinking mates as Nero) quickly discovered, in order to survive in the Madison Avenue trenches, an agency must develop a chameleon like ability to move on to the next flavor of the month in its never ceasing endeavor to be at least one step ahead of their clients in terms of any kind of accountability based on results. Now, thanks to the advent of New Media and Social Networking, the “Fog of War” has become even denser. The current meme du jour branding-wise is all about engaging in “conversations” with consumers. To the point where these poor unfortunates’ are so enthused about “The Brand,” they are actually persuaded to become “The Brand.” I have to confess, I don’t quite see how this works, but, I am told by the people who write about this shit that these Orwellian drones will then see “The Brand” as an extension of their character/soul/lifestyle and therefore be driven to achieve a relationship that persuades them to put Oprah on hold and dash out to pick up a dozen tubes of the miraculous Preparation H Hemorrhoid Cream, they have just read a 140 character tweet about.
The point is, it’s just the latest version of smoke and mirrors jiggerypokery that most ad agencies have been engaged in since Nero did his thing all those centuries ago. It simply requires the ability to produce the next white rabbit from the top hat of branding. At the time of writing, (this chapter was written over a year ago) two of the most awarded and highly praised digital/new media campaigns of the last few years are the “Subservient Chicken” and “Where’s my Whopper” efforts for Burger King. This is because they have garnered millions of hits, clicks, views, likes, friends, and all the other primarily meaningless measurement numbers (or as MBA wankers refer to them “metrics”) that drive the advertising trade press to paroxysms of delight and many column inches of praise every time they report on the latest campaign featuring “The King” with the plastic head, dancing chickens, and irate, overweight Burger King customers threatening to burn the place down if they can’t get their Whopper. It is apparently of little matter to all these boosters that of the seven biggest fast food companies in America, Burger king is losing massive chunks of money, market share and closing franchisees at a much faster rate than its competition, whilst CP+B, the Burger King agency responsible for these campaigns, continues to collect accolades for its work… And even more surprisingly, continues to pick up new clients who are anxious to get some of that “New Media – Social Networking” magic which has done so little for Burger King’s sales.
Which only goes to prove… I honestly have no fucking idea what… Except perhaps that the William Goldman quote I used at the beginning of this rant should apply not just to Madison Avenue, but to business in general. We can only hope that one day, corporate America will finally come to grips with the realization that advertising is the least quantifiable and certainly, the least forecastable, of all the tools in their marketing arsenal. I doubt that they will, but if they do, perhaps this will be the first day of the last days of the Big Dumb Agencies. But, as Zippy, the Pin Head would say… “Nahhh.”
Update: Since this was written, Burger King has fired CP+B, their agency, after seven years of shitty performance which has driven their sales into the dust. In true hubristic style, CP+B announced that they had not been fired, but had in fact, resigned the account. Alex Bogusky has taken his $30 million pay-out and gone to live in a shed at the bottom of his garden, where he takes tea with the Dalai Llama while discussing how to save the unwashed masses of the world from the evils of fast food. It could only happen in the ad biz!
As inevitably as it occurs in Hollywood, Madison Avenue continues to believe it knows everything about everything. And what it doesn’t know, it can easily buy for substantial amounts of money, and then offer it to anyone dumb enough to bite. It’s all part of the BDA’s totally integrated, synergistic, holistic Chinese menu of communications options. Most of which are wrapped in the shiny tinsel of “datametrics.” Which as I have pointed out is far too often merely a measurement of transient popularity, even notoriety, rather than effectiveness. Jennifer Modarelli, a very smart lady who runs White Horse, a digital marketing agency, has summed it up wonderfully… It isn’t the act of measuring that’s the issue; it’s what we’re doing with the numbers. Our obsession with meaningless but easy-to-calculate success metrics is a bit like the guy who loses his keys in the garage but looks for them in the living room because the light is better in there. Dead right, Jennifer.
I will leave you with this thought about the latest efforts by the Adverati to legitimize the world’s second oldest profession. Whatever its practitioners might claim, advertising isn’t a science, and it certainly isn’t an art. To paraphrase yet another, long dead, famous person… It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
I will attempt to wrap up this conundrum in the final chapter. (Oh God, Piers wants to know… Will we ever get there?) When, with unfailing arrogance, I shall look into my crystal ball for clues to the future. And, although that venerable orb is often cloudy, through the application a lethal combination of diamond hard numbers taken to several decimal points and the application of generous dollops of vaporous bullshit, I may have some surprising answers.
Then again… There’s a Seventy two, point three six percent chance I may not.