I’m eight years ahead of you, Labatt

'Labatt Brewing Co., frustrated by what it calls the 'flawed business model' of the advertising industry...' - The National Post, Nov. 7/01
You want to talk flawed business models?

‘Labatt Brewing Co., frustrated by what it calls the ‘flawed business model’ of the advertising industry…’ – The National Post, Nov. 7/01

You want to talk flawed business models?

So you work for this huge corporation and one day they say good news Harry you don’t have to wear a tie any more and put you in charge of the Advertising Department, or maybe it’s now called the Marketing Department or The Brand Development Department, because nobody really wants ‘Advertising’ any more, like nobody wants, say, gonorrhea.

They also mention you are to immediately develop and produce the biggest marketing/advertising/branding/promotional concept in the history of megabucks, so you’d better get busy.

Because nobody ever told you anything about ideas or art or words or pictures and where they come from, you ring up the 10 biggest ad agencies in the world, and line up six weeks of lunches, breakfasts, dinners and presentations, to decide which 1,400 experts you’re going to pay a seven-figure monthly retainer to in order to fulfill your corporation’s mandate.

One day, on the way to a lavish lunch at Le Couchon d’Or with four ad agency VPs whose area of expertise is Planning for Planning, you pass a small café where a single, unemployed mother sits scratching away at a notepad while her baby daughter howls in a bassinet under the table. You pay no attention. She is J. K. Rowling, and she is writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

In late 1993, almost a year after I closed the more-or-less traditional ad agency I owned and was chairman and creative director of for more than two decades, I ran a double page spread ad for myself and my new virtual agency in this magazine. Never mind the headline. The subhead was taken from an article in The New Yorker of Oct. 11, 1993, about Andy Berlin, the ex-president of DDB Needham, New York. It read:

‘In Berlin’s view of the future, the traditional ad agency is dead…’ ‘Agencies are still in the Hollywood-studio mode, but the economy isn’t there to support it anymore…we just haven’t got to the independent producer stage yet.’

In the copy, I wrote: ‘Scrounging the kind of money to feed a traditional agency set-up in today’s broken-down economy forces the traditional (or in Andy’s vernacular, ‘dead’) agency manager to do and not do several things.

First, you’ve got to accept practically anybody’s business on practically any terms, just to keep the body warm. And working with dreadful people on dreadful terms is not conducive to having a nice day…

Secondly, you’ve got to sell and charge for only the talents of those you employ, and nobody else, even if the dream talent, the perfect solution is quite obviously available down the block at one-tenth the price.

You gotta dance with the ones you brung, over and over again, although the hottest stars and starlets are amazingly available for a spin ’round the room, and for a song at that.

And thirdly, you still have to cut frills like senior, experienced staff and run with some people you can’t really trust to sit the right way ’round on a toilet seat. About there, Unbundled starts to make sense.

Arguably the most gifted and entrepreneurial media people, research people, production people, packaging people and consultants of every stripe are now structured independently, and work a la carte.

So today, you have your pick of the perfect partner for each and every dance. Just in time, too, because today, every dance is different. Folks, everything is a project…there are no clients any more, only projects.’

That was eight years ago. In the interim, I suggest to you things have gotten worse, not better, for the trad ad agency manager, owned offshore, badgered weekly to deliver fixed and generous profit targets no matter what account losses befall. I love my ex-Canadian-branch-office-agency-president friend’s line: You think you’re the president. Head office thinks you’re the janitor.

Eight years ago, a lot of ad people like John Burghardt and I were already restructuring our affairs, going virtual, so we could make ad campaigns all day, every day, and not feel like the janitor. We should have called whoever at Labatt who said, just last month, ‘This is about fixing an industry that is in need of complete restructuring.’ I guess they didn’t read my ad. Or the piece about Andy in The New Yorker.

For the record, J. K. Rowling made fifty-eight million dollars personally last year.

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.