‘People have to be more aware of bullshitters’: Why there’s a push for more realism in advertising now

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If you spend any time on Twitter or LinkedIn you’ve likely seen viral posts from advertising stars who pitch themselves as experts on anything and everything in the ad world. Want to be a better copywriter? Here’s a list of carefully curated tips to help. Need help managing your workflow? They’ve got a solution for that. Feeling a creative block? You’re doing it wrong, but don’t worry they have an answer for you. 

You know the type of person I’m talking about — if this were any other year you’d have seen them on stage at SXSW or Cannes but instead you’ve probably watched them on a Zoom webinar, if at all. In advertising, there’s long-been a “fraud problem” in that the industry has a surplus of poseurs or bullshitters, as Shareen Pathak put it in 2017, who get by spouting ideas about how to make the industry better, but often they aren’t doing the real work in the weeds or even c-suite.

That might be changing now as agencies are undergoing massive changes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Early on in the crisis, agencies cut out any remaining frivolous spending but that hasn’t really been enough to mitigate the fallout from the coronavirus.

In recent weeks, agencies have undergone another round of layoffs (last week, storied creative agency Wieden + Kennedy had to cull 11% of its staff). Now, with a recession in the works, paycheck protection program loans running out, ad budgets shrinking and brand marketers focused on short term results, agencies have little time — or patience — for anything not in direct and efficient service of returns.

“People have to be more aware of bullshitters now,” said an agency exec, adding “People have to be more risk averse due to tighter margins and bullshit ideas tend to be more nebulous, and therefore not as tied to accountability/reality.” 

If you ask agency employees about the industry fakery they’ll also tell you they’re fed up with it. Katy Wellhousen, senior account director at influencer marketing agency RQ, said that some industry circles refer to these industry types as “Prophet Twitter” or “people sermonizing what are usually quite basic tenants of the industry as a way to appear almost philosophical in the way they look at advertising.” And with everything happening in the world now there’s very little tolerance for that type of colleague or boss, according to Wellhousen. 

“We all need to see a little bit more of realism,” said Wellhousen. “Experience, aptitude and even talent in some ways can be easily faked — it’s the people we have real relationships with (whether online or off) that we will trust and respect in a time where no one knows what’s going to happen in our world today, tomorrow or six months from now.” 

Without the merry-go-round of industry events, where big ideas are lauded on stage or in-person office meetings where charisma can win the room, it’s more obvious when people are bullshitting to get by, explained one creative. Prior to the pandemic, people could glob onto someone else’s idea in a meeting or pretend to contribute to a project by pontificating big ideas without contributing meaningful work. Now, any lack in contribution is clear. That coupled with employees feeling maxed out or burnt out at home has made agency employees less likely to tolerate empty calorie behavior. 

“Lofty vision statements that have fallen out of favor — I think those worked in a ‘normal’ world because companies had the luxury of really thinking about what future progress looks like one, two or three years down the line,” said Jake Goldstein, senior business development manager at Code and Theory. 

“But the reality is that during the pandemic, everyone is focused on the now and the types of real tangible solutions and ideas that will help them succeed at this moment,” Goldstein said. “That type of tactical, real-time problem-solving is what they need to actually leverage to have a future.”


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