Sunday, September 20, 2015

The tragedy of the commons applied to advertising



The tragedy of the commons, a term first coined by William Foster Lloyd is making the rounds again and again. This time though a psychology professor called Dylan Selterman from the university of Maryland. In essence, the tragedy of the commons begs the question: What happens when individuals put their own short term interests above the group's long term ones - essentially, it all brings the "disaster" that William Forster Lloyd professed.
As a person who works in advertising, I have seen people and agencies come up with all the tricks in the book which, on the long run, is getting the whole sector to very dangerous results. Some agencies offer free creative services, can you imagine the impact this does to the small studios who have to charge their clients for creative services to survive? Other agencies opted for a steep rebate on media booking, which of course puts the agencies that are faithful to the agreed upon scorecards at a disadvantage.
Pitching can turn into a joke when extra services are offered by agencies which include women and salacious behavior which is "over and above" the strategy and creative offered. Heck, even men are included and if you saw Mad Men you'd understand (I specifically speak of the episode where the "Sal" Romano character gets sacked for refusing to sleep with the Lucky Strike executive).
Ironically, his boss "Don Draper" thought him caring for his selfish interests. Bryan Bratt, the character who plays Sal Romano said:
"Sal could have prevented that by taking one for the team but I don't think Sal was ready for that," Batt said. "The guy was kind of creepy and drunk and it was seedy how it happened. What it boils down to is he's not going to do anything that jeopardizes his position at Sterling Cooper, but when he tried to do the right thing, he was screwed. In one way".
Trying to do the right thing, in advertising, what a hilarity.
I am saddened for one thing, back in 2003 I wrote an article for ArabAd magazine, called "J'accuse" - using Emile Zola's famous piece. In 2015 the article still rings true to its core bottom. I shall copy paste it verbatim as it was written even if there might have been slight editorial changes when it appeared (I am not sure of that, but it is an eventuality). Whereas it is long, please have the patience to read it, it still has complete relevency in today's world.
Especially that it was a piece about the tragedy of the commons as applied to advertising, 12 years ago.
J'attends. Toujours...

 “J’accuse” by Tarek Joseph Chemaly
Originally published in 2003 in ArabAd magazine. 

When, in August 2001, I decided to make my career shift from engineering and economics to the world of advertising, I was mainly lured by the promise that the “ad world” would be fun, stimulating, adrenaline-filled and oh-so-exciting.
Right before I made my move I got an advice from a very close friend of mine who is a veteran of the advertising industry in the US, he said: “T., advertising is an ego business, go there for the fun, and remember not to take anything personal.”
Being the stubborn person that I am, I kept the advice but little did I follow it. Well, whereas I did go into advertising for the fun, the part about not taking things personal eluded me.
The reasons behind that will be explained in this piece. I must mention however that, whereas I am not the best-placed person to criticize the inner workings of the advertising industry, I did arrive to the point where even I – at the bottom of the ladder – am feeling too much political interference and that it’s really a jungle out there. So let us all beware.
Where do I begin to expose the situation?
Perhaps by talking about the domain I used to work in before advertising: Research, that is. According to my limited knowledge, the main characteristic that makes any research credible is the degree of objectivity it involves. In that case, could anyone explain how come the ownership of research and statistic agencies related to the advertising world so biased and skewed?
How can we expect honest, straightforward, and credible results when the stakeholders behind the research would want to “pull the blanket” to their own side giving the kind of result that would please their clients and their immediate “allies” forgetting all about how the results would affect the industry in the long run.
Or perhaps one must begin with the media. Ah, those… The rationale nowadays is becoming “give me exposure, any exposure, and I’ll be your sucker.” But is anyone noticing that “any exposure” does not necessarily mean reaching the desired target audience? If you get a few ads for free in some obscure publication at the low-end of the spectrum, isn’t that actually degrading rather than enhancing the image of the client?
Should I remind anyone about the famous “rate card”? Anyone remembers that? It seems the only reason for its existence is precisely to forgo sticking by it and therefore completely ignoring it.
And the result, may I ask? Well, the result is that any amount of cash can be “blown up” to suit your needs. You can show off in front of the mother agency abroad or your international client by convincing them that you have spent an obscene amount of money therefore increasing your “billing” vis à vis the client – while, under the table, a different sum of money is being pocketed and exchanged.
But it seems too innocent to blame it on just one party. All the protagonists in the advertising world are being, directly or indirectly, part of this free-fall we seem to be experiencing.
The agencies are too worried about their commission that they’re ready to comply with whatever the client wishes, no matter how ridiculous it is and no matter how much it goes against the general positioning, or general common-sense.
Those who have decided to throw a punch below the belt and therefore decided to forego about their commission, are worried about the “volume rebate” media houses are ready to offer them – leading once more to the entanglement of the justification of the money spent and how efficient it is in targeting the correct audience. But when money-back is related to frequency of ads, then who’s counting?
The media houses are. Delayed payments to the media houses due to nonchalance are the order of the day as if everyone is working by the famous Egyptian IBM adage (Inshallah, bokra, ma’alesh). Interestingly, this lack of cash does not show when it comes to the personal spending habits of agency bosses – money is only stingy when it is work-related.
I am not sure if these days really existed or they are the embellished product of the remembrance of the people who were talking to me, but it seems there actually was a time when ethics was respected in the business. Again, I have no way of verifying this, but my own experience seems to be that there is little ethics left in the market. And unless there is a general awakening, there seems to be little hope to throw a pitch at salvaging what is left of the industry’s integrity.
Speaking of pitches, does anyone notice how these are won? Every time a pitch is lost, I always hear the word “political reasons”, but when a pitch was actually won it was always attributed to the “use of correct media strategy and clever creative.” Humbug! Pitches, lost or won, are sadly the product of preferences, personal favoritism, corporate “favor”-itism (à la scratch my back and I will scratch yours), sectarian backgrounds and the oh so ubiquitous “who knows who.”
Hurdled in the middle, and below these spheres of influence, are average people belonging to either “client-servicing department” or “creative department” who abide by the Arab proverb “Me against my cousin, and me and my cousin against the foreigner.” Too busy to prove that either one of the departments is the backbone or money-generator of the industry; these individuals forget that they actually have to unite to stand front to the general slump of their livelihood or – for those like me – the reason behind a potential pleasure.
Creative people – me included – are too ego driven and so self-imbibed to see beyond their noses. Also, most of the time we are too ignorant about the market, have very little knowledge but assume otherwise, and draw concepts from an education and a background alien to the consumer we are targeting.
Client-servicing people are so afraid to lose the client who might be swayed by any other agency, and so they are ready to compromise all the strategy that has been discussed because the client “wants a bigger headline, a different body copy, and a more prominent logo and 50th year celebration mascot.”
So an easy solution would be for the creative people to listen more to the insights of the client servicing department, who – in turn – should listen less to clients with poor advertising education and who are stuck in the “reclame” era of hard-sell strategies and who keep on assuming that the market “is not ready for such kind of things.”
In my opinion, the only people who are not ready are the clients themselves, and in extenso, the client servicing departments who back out in front of anything original because “the client thought it was too daring.”
Whereas “too daring” is certainly a matter of personal definitions, and most of the times is unjustified, I did hear some aberrant reasoning during brainstorms including an advertising based on “counting sheep to sleep” in Saudi Arabia – a concept totally unheard of there.
Plagued by money, political (In the real and fictional sense of the world) influences, power struggles and other such defects, the advertising industry is on a downward-spiraling loop. What is sad however is that people like myself have left very successful careers in other domains to fulfill their dream in an industry whose inner workings are just as nasty as that “Auctioning and tender committee” in the governmental body they used to work in.
If the advertising industry resembles the bureaucratic red-taped world I have left, then certainly there is no “fun” in the industry, and I believe it is my right to “take things personal” – both of these facts negate my friend’s advice to me before joining the advertising world.
Giving this piece the same title as the most-celebrated article in history and which Emile Zola wrote in “L’aurore” on Jan. 18, 1898 is not a coincidence. I still believe that advertising can be “fun.” I still believe that the industry in an act of total revamp can rise from its ashes; maybe this is why the name “Phoenix” was given to the much-coveted advertising awards.
In a recent encounter with one of Lebanon’s advertising greats, he plainly told me that advertising is a dying industry. He even advised me to go back to engineering if I can. Convinced that our generation cannot experience another breakthrough in advertising like the one that happened in the post-war Lebanon in the early nineties, that same person expressed a hope that there will be a renewal in this ailing industry through a revival of the conscience, and certainly a lesser influence of the money factor as represented by the media-addiction which is currently being experienced.
If people don’t know about the above-mentioned facts, then they should. If they do, then it’s a shame for not exposing them earlier.
Who will be the forefront runner in the reshaping of the ad world in the region, I know not. But I will end this piece in the same manner as Zola did, with the words: “J’attends.”
I am waiting.
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