Agency president? Try janitor!

I spent some months living with teenagers in the last year. Running a drop-in centre/flop house/pub for friends and co-workers of my son Jonathan The Clevelands House Tennis Pro, at my Muskoka house. Waitresses. Towel girls. Golf kids. You know.

I spent some months living with teenagers in the last year. Running a drop-in centre/flop house/pub for friends and co-workers of my son Jonathan The Clevelands House Tennis Pro, at my Muskoka house. Waitresses. Towel girls. Golf kids. You know.

Early one Saturday morning I encountered a kid I’d never met before in the upstairs hall. He looked at me hard and said Mister Base, do you have any Canned Heat? Yes, I replied. As a matter of fact I do. But Jesus, Canned Heat was relatively obscure in 1968! What the hell is going on here?

The odd and gratifying thing about these kids is they have exactly the same preferences in music that I do. The Who rule. Also the Doors. Bob. The Band. AC/DC. Led Zeppelin. Mick and Keith. Specially Keith. I have just read Shakey all the way through, the bio of Neil Young (who is incidentally huge) at my son’s insistence.

Neil is a sort of rock version of Vincent Van Gogh. Neil would do what Neil wants to do whether anyone listened or not. You get the same drift from Pete Townshend and Keith and Bob Dylan too. You would not say this of, oh, Neil Diamond. Why am I so happy? ‘Cause the people who didn’t seem to do it just for the money have come out on top. In another age, that was called the triumph of art over commerce.

Art moves people, because art tells a truth. Great advertising is more like art than most people think, too. Bernbach, Chiat, Lois, Della Femina, the usual litany of giants did stuff their way because that was the way they believed it was done. When clients demanded crap, they argued. If they lost, they resigned the business.

When Frank Perdue of Perdue Farms told Ed McCabe that his concept for

the campaign It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken was garbage, McCabe looked him in the eye and said You are not qualified

to make that judgment. Perdue backed off, and the rest is history.

One of the best ad guys on earth, Saul Waring of the late, great Manhattan agency Waring & LaRosa (Fisher-Price, Swissair, Perrier) told me recently Barry, things are so bad here in New York that clients are hiring CONSULTANTS to tell them what to tell their ad agencies to do!

When agencies fall under the dictatorship of the accountants and the guys Gary Prouk calls The Wal-Mart Greeters, ain’t nobody going to let a principle, a way of thinking, come between them and a fat cut of the client’s budget. So the people who have forgotten what works hustle the people who don’t know what works to tell them what to do that might appear to work. Go figure why the consultants smell blood in the water.

A pal of mine who was the head of a major international agency branch office here in Canada put it this way: You think you’re the President. THEY think you’re the JANITOR!

Life’s lessons dawn slowly, but dawn they do. Never buy a stereo from a guy called Jake. Never buy art from the janitor.

Barry Base is president and CD of Barry Base & Partners, Toronto. He clawed his way up through four major ad agencies and founded his own firm when still a small child. See highlights of his career to date on an egomaniacal Web site at www.barrybaseandpartners.com.