Iain Murray: Admen don’t win friends – they just influence people

Recent research shows that people don’t like advertising professionals. Even if true, who cares? It’s the ad people are supposed to respond to, says Iain Murray

It’s not easy to shock an audience of advertising professionals: they are hard-bitten men and women, gnarled from life on the unforgiving frontier where desperate seller meets obdurate buyer. Brendan Ryan, however, has pulled it off.

In his valedictory address as chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, he told the organisation’s management conference that he feared for the industry’s future. Ryan, who is also chief executive of Foote, Cone & Belding (better known as Footsore and Bleeding) in New York, told the throng: “It is a tough time, no question about it. Candidly, I worry that respect for and in our industry is not very high these days.”

He urged his listeners to “regain control over the whole new-business process” and cited instances of account reviews in which agencies sign agreements that “all rights to any ideas, any thinking, any anything become the property of the prospective client” in exchange for a nominal fee for such speculative creative work.

“To me, the ultimate insult is to be given a ‘tip’ of $5,000 [£3,400] to cover my expenses,” he said. According to the New York Times, Ryan drew appreciative laughter from the audience by dismissing that payment with a quick reference to his backside.

There’s nothing like a jocular reference to one’s rear to win the warm approval of onlookers. It’s something Tony Blair should try more often.

But what really had delegates squirming in their seats was Ryan’s reference to a disturbing opinion poll: “A recent survey of the general public, in Advertising Age, showed advertising professionals were rated well below lawyers, auto mechanics and, most appallingly, members of Congress. That’s not good.”

At first sight, true, it doesn’t seem good. But, on reflection, does it really matter what the public thinks? Any self-respecting adman or woman should be busy getting on with selling things, rather than craving the esteem of the fetid mob. Of course, everyone likes to think that he or she is at – or near – the top of the social order, which naturally means being at least 20 places above lawyers, but a sense of self-worth counts for far more than the findings of pollsters.

We all know that some occupations are despised by the public. Journalists are heartily disliked and, as the late Auberon Waugh was fond of pointing out, usually feature in popularity polls just ahead of badger-gassers. Estate agents are cordially loathed, and, before they were replaced by computers, so were bank managers. Nobody likes salesmen. Few care for plumbers or indeed any members of the artisan classes who routinely suck their teeth, shake their heads, and tell you that an about-to-be-botched job is going to cost you an arm and both legs. As for the legion of new occupations created by local government, who gives a fig for any of them? Who, outside the grim municipal buildings where they go about their mysterious business, has any time for, say, lesbian outreach co-ordinators?

But if there is one thing worse than dislike, it is indifference. Not so long ago, nobody wanted to know about accountants; if one walked into a crowded room and let it be known what he did for a living, he soon found himself alone. Not any more. Since Enron, accountancy is cool. Conjuring up bogus company names, shredding documents, and generally concealing a life of skulduggery behind a facade of pin-striped respectability, sounds like fun.

Any advertising people who worry that the public doesn’t think highly of them can console themselves with the thought that, in this democratic age, no one thinks very highly of anyone. Within living memory doctors, teachers, and even policemen were looked up to. Aggressive egalitarianism has cured us of that. Nowadays, we are as likely to punch a doctor on the nose as we are to shake his hand. The only people who command a measure of admiration are pop idols, sportsmen and sundry celebrities – and usually they are elevated only for the satisfaction to be gained from knocking them down.

Advertising people should know better than most that surveys are at best unreliable and at worst downright misleading. For one thing, wealthy, intelligent, middle-class people – whose opinions must count for something – tend to avoid contact with pollsters, giving a wide berth to street interviewers and leaving their home telephones switched to the answering machine. For another, street and telephone interviews often result in random or ill-thought out answers. Moreover, face-to-face interviews with polite ladies who smile encouragingly over their clipboards tend to encourage interviewees to provide the answers that they think will be best-received. These, and other well-known failings of surveys, should provide some comfort to those who are found to be poorly regarded by the proletariat.

Even the discovery that car mechanics win greater approval t

han advertising professionals amounts to little. It is, after all, rational to feel better disposed towards the man who mends your car than the one who persuaded you to buy it in the first place.

Among the many perfectly respectable reasons for taking up a career in advertising, the prospect of basking in popular admiration ought not to feature. As the old joke has it: “Don’t tell my mother I’m in advertising – she thinks I play piano in a brothel”.

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