‘Most people hate ads’: Confessions of a disillusioned agency strategist

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

Fraud in advertising is real. For a long time, agencies have been staffed by people that are often just in it to prove they know what they’re talking about. There are few divisions where that’s more apparent than in the strategy department. Strategists have long occupied a tenuous role inside agencies: Theoretically, they’re supposed to help clients tie back creative to long-term goals of actually selling stuff. But with digital marketing being what it is, strategy often becomes a code word for bullshit based on “data.”

In this edition of Confessions, where we trade anonymity in exchange for honesty, we spoke with an agency strategist fed up with the house of cards his role is based on. Edited highlights below.

What is the thing bugs you?
We all need to just be aware that most people hate advertisements. We sort of convince ourselves that the work we make is good. I think maybe two agencies make good work in this industry — you know, where you see an ad you actually enjoy. Everyone else doesn’t.

How does it happen?
We have this problem where our relationship with our clients has so many people whose entire job it is to interfere with a pure thought. I will forever believe that whatever the idea, even if it doesn’t immediately appeal to your business interest, it has merit. We’re so caught up with the stories we tell being so neat and tidy and conforming and servicing a person that they’re far removed from reality. It’s maddening.

What accounts for this?
People on the client side and on the agency side, you have to constantly legitimize your existence. The other day, we killed a script because someone noticed something legal. That person needs to do that, otherwise they’re not worth their paychecks.

What about metrics? A lot of data was supposed to solve for this.
We have these new metrics which are sort of related to the work, related enough that we can now measure response. And we have more testing. But testing is ridiculous. We test taglines as if Joe Schmoe has any ideas on what works. But it’s the same “don’t get fired” philosophy. So if something goes badly, they can say “well, it tested well.”

Do people who enter the industry now have this feeling?
I don’t think it turns people off from advertising. For younger people, advertising is Snapchat ads. They don’t know any better. Come on. The people who write best practices on working with platforms, they work at Facebook, Snapchat. They’re telling you the best way to use their platform. It’s such a conflict.

Do you think most people are self-aware?
I’d hope they were. I’d hope people feel frustrated. I’m at the point now where I’d only work at a handful of agencies. If I had to work anywhere else I’d leave advertising. There are only so many brands are worthy of advertising. It’s comical how much money pharma spends on advertising. They do so many workshops. You think anyone gives a fuck? They are buying their product because they have to. The best places to work are the realest places. I don’t trust anyone who posts any earnest shit on LinkedIn. Everyone is convincing themselves they love their jobs so they can get the next gig.

What’s the biggest BS that’s cooked up by agencies?
Brands on social are bullshit. Brands trying to give too much to their product on social are. Something I struggle with as a strategist is I have strong feelings about brands and the emotions they should elicit in you. The number of times I’ve been asked to construct a communications journey is crazy. Come on. You think someone will go from a banner ad to a website? It’s a weird perfect utopian hypothetical to make a chart. Yes, there are basic rules. But the level of detail we’re asked to get into is bullshit. The funny thing is I can bitch about this for days.

Go on.
We had someone go to SXSW this year. How have we not called off this shit? Someone gave a lecture on how they went to some seminar. And went to some dark matter physics session about how someone discovered electricity. And someone reported back how that session and the takeaway was how agencies should explore big ideas to discover small. I felt like saying, note that the person didn’t discover electricity by going to a seminar. We need more doers.


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