AdMan: Why I don't endorse advertising as a worthwhile industry

Steve Henry, the advertising legend behind “You’ve been Tango’d” and other iconic ads, on why he quit the adworld

Oliver Burkeman, in his great Guardian column, wrote recently about “bullsh*t jobs” - jobs that, if they disappeared, nobody would be any worse off.(Other than the people pulling in frequently very fat salaries for doing the job, of course.)

For instance, he quotes David Graeber as saying “I’ve never met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit”.

I was thinking about this as the advertising industry failed to make much of a mark (again) in the Guardian Media 100.

As it happened, I came into said poll - at number 97. Although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it’s ever cool to be voted in at number 97 in any poll.

Stewart Lee once called a show “officially 41st best stand-up” after featuring in one of those cheap archive-looting shows. (Although to my mind, he’s definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, in the top 37 or 38.)

I think if I’d been voted 97th best twerker in South Kensington I’d probably be quite chuffed… because my twerking needs some help.

But when I got depressed about my low ranking (having never been in the list before at all) a friend consoled me by pointing out that only two people from advertising were in the list – Philippa Brown, a very big cheese at Omnicom, and Sir Martin Sorrell, the cheese ne plus ultra at WPP.

Several people featured who USED to be in advertising.

For instance, Adam Crozier now of ITV, David Abraham now of Channel 4, and Nicola Mendelsohn now of Facebook.

I wasn’t actually in the list for any of my advertising achievements - I didn’t make the list even when my agency was about the coolest agency in the world.

Because I don’t think the Guardian likes advertising much - and to be honest, who can blame it? Most marketing is an unnecessary pollutant and a criminal waste of money.

To the extent that I wonder if Mr Burkeman would classify it under “B/s”.

A friend of mine, knowing my disillusionment with the industry, sent me this the other day.

It’s a long blog (about 3,000 words) but I think you get the gist of it from the title, don’t you? 

Here are some quotes from the first paragraph of the blog -

“I want to work on an actual product people want to use.”

“I want to explore more new technology and ideas not gimmicks.”

“We never do any interesting work.”

“We only care about hitting financial targets.”

“I don’t feel like I’m learning.”

“We never push back and tell the client their ideas are shit.”

The blog continues very compellingly in this vein – for 3,000 words

Giving us almost as comprehensive a list of negatives as you’ll find in Shakespeare’s “Tir’d with all these” sonnet - the so-called suicide sonnet.

Personally I tend to feel rather guilty about my part-time involvement in advertising - like Shakespeare’s lines about the “expense of spirit in a waste of shame” from a different sonnet - the so-called post-coital sonnet.

As you know, he was referring to sexual guilt - the feeling you get when tidying up the handcuffs and wondering if the chocolate sauce stain will ever come out.

But I’m talking about that feeling of having irrevocably thrown away something of great value.

One’s talent and energy I mean, rather than the key to the handcuffs.

But the point is this - advertising COULD be a very worthwhile industry, if marketing budgets were spent on making brand customers’ lives better in some tangible way.

Rather than throwing the budget at some interchangeably invisible lifestyle imagery.

Which neatly explains why I left full-time employment in advertising myself a few years ago and co-founded a company called Decoded - which teaches people “code in a day” and which was the reason I just squeezed into The Guardian’s list of the 100 most influential people in the media world right now.

To my eternal delight I came in just above David Bowie - who’s had a sell-out exhibition for the last 6 months, and his first new album in 10 years.

Funnily enough, he worked in advertising early in his career before leaving it.

There’s definitely a trend here.

Steve Henry was founder/creative director of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, the agency voted Campaign’s Agency of the Year three times and Campaign’s Agency of the Decade in 2000. He has won most of the major creative awards, including the D&AD Gold Pencil, the Grand Prix at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the British Television Awards, and the President’s Award at Creative Circle (twice).

In 2008 he was included in Campaign Magazine’s inaugural Hall of Fame, a collection of the 40 most influential people in British advertising over the past 50 years. He now works as a creative consultant.

Steve has just launched Decoded, a ground-breaking programme that promises to teach anybody code in one day.

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