Confessions of a West Coast ad executive

Every time “Mad Men” Don Draper and Roger Sterling visit Los Angeles, they’re always struck by the drastic change in culture: the slower pace, the near-constant sunshine and the fact that people are unimpressed by their job titles. For one L.A. ad exec, that relatively laid-back demeanor is central to the agency culture’s allure. Problem is, the agency culture that drew the exec west is being threatened by agency consolidation and Madison Avenue agencies trying to carve a foothold on the West Coast.

Why’d you go west?
Autos. I had an internship at a major American automotive company and wanted to be in the car business. I’ve loved cars my entire life, and it just so happened that there was an opportunity at a foreign car company in Los Angeles. It was really about the car business, frankly.

As you’ve progressed, have you ever felt tempted to work on Madison Avenue?
No. There was a time that I wanted to move to New York, but it was not because I wanted to make a play at Madison Avenue; it was because I had so much fun in New York. But every time I went to one of my company’s office in New York, I didn’t like it. It scared me. It was a rat race all the time, and you couldn’t get anything done. In LA, I felt like I was getting things done and growing, and the networking was easy. The New York vibe bothered me.

How could you have been working harder in New York but getting less done?
It was working hard for the sake of working hard. People were chasing their tails. There was always gossip. “Did you hear about this person? Did you hear about that agency?” I know that happens in advertising in general, but New York was a big community that couldn’t get out of its own way.

How did that affect the work being done in those East Coast offices?
The end product was still good, but it was difficult getting there. They had a greater talent pool, but there was a lot of movement. People were constantly moving from agency to agency, and it was disruptive. When I went into digital, digital was very hot. Then the dot-com bomb hit, and everyone was in survival mode. There was a lot of selfishness because you never knew if you were going to get cut the next day.

People were leaving all the time, and it wasn’t just because they could. They were leaving to go somewhere because people were hedging their bets on who was going to survive. So you’d be on a project and you could pretty much guarantee that that team was going to change because of attrition.

So how did this differ from LA?
Los Angeles was never really big. The agency culture here was more about the larger-scale offline agencies that at the end of the dot-com bubble survived the best. Deutsch, Chiat/Day, Saatchi became big. They had these loyal automotive accounts that are slow-moving and had never really believed in digital to a point that it was superseding offline, so they had options. Nissan never left Chiat/Day. In fact, when digital started coming back en vogue, Nissan gave them more money.

Whenever I walked into a New York agency, people would talk about which agency was going to make it. In New York, there’s all this talk about agency movement and who won what and blah blah blah. It’s not that we don’t have that out here — we talk about that within the context of the auto industry — but it was that water-cooler conversation all the time. People were obsessed with it. Madison Avenue was gossip central.

Does that culture persist today?
That kind of culture is in the soul of New York, in general. There’s more of that in LA now, but we still don’t have a large presence from every one of those agencies here. The West Coast has definitely become more competitive, and I fear it is becoming a “who’s who, who’s where” kind of environment to a certain extent.

Is that upsetting?
At first, I thought yes. It’s great because there’s more opportunity. From a nostalgia perspective, I liked how it was when everyone knew who everyone else was. Here’s what’s funny: It’s the auto business that’s driving it, which makes me happy.

How do you think New York perceives LA agency culture?
I think they think it’s a joke. There’s a perception that L.A. is only entertainment. Although I do think there’s a lot of respect for the larger shops. Deutsch is a big name in New York, too. Chiat/Day is still called Chiat/Day here. It’s rare that I run into someone who says I work for TBWA. We don’t get too held up on the holding company thing, but that’s starting to infiltrate. It’s going to happen, but that’s part that makes me angry because it’s commoditized advertising in a lot of ways. There was so much creativity when I first moved out here, and it definitely has sort of been marginalized.

What do you mean by the “holding company thing”?
It’s not nimble. It’s a behemoth, it’s monolithic. But the holding companies are very good at following money, and the car companies right now are setting sales records. The holding companies are going at it from a holding company perspective, which is throwing one digital agency or another at the car industry to get more revenue out of it.

How do you see each coast progressing?
In some ways, I see the West Coast becoming a little bit more like the East Coast. You might see more agencies pop up. Look at 72andSunny. You’re going to get more of these East Coast agencies opening up a bigger presence in LA The dynamic will never be the same as it is in New York though. In New York, there will always be lots of of creative work to go after. People think New York first when they think of advertising. They think of LA as third or fourth. I don’t think that will change.

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