Monday, October 3, 2016

The Linchpin of the Modern Economy

Advertising began as an industry something akin to land speculation. 

The first agencies would purchase blocks of space in newspapers and periodicals, and then generate profit by selling them piecemeal to businesses wishing publicize their wares. 

Originally, companies would provide their own advertising message – just as people who purchased land in the old days would contract to build their own houses. 

This is why neighbourhoods originating before the middle of the twentieth century, have residences that usually look much different from one another. 

But just as latter-day land speculators build houses before they sell off real-estate in parts, ad agencies began to employ in-house writers, and then illustrators also, to provide content for clients in the periodical-space sold off individually.

Given how advertising removed the “place” from “market”, it is appropriate that the industry got its start practicing in microcosm the age-old practice of land speculation. 

From such relatively humble origins, advertising long ago grew into the linchpin of the modern information/marketing economy. 

Advertising is quite rightly identified with corporate capitalism: revenues for this sector are estimated to grow to 660 billion dollars (U.S.) in 2016, most of which is spent by private business.  But governments also spend heavily on advertising. 

The U.S. government is ranked fortieth as the biggest advertising organization, but in the U.K., the central government is consistently in the top-five of advertising entities. 

Public-service announcements are not the only type of advertising related directly to the political system. As a rule, such advertising is supposed to be non-partisan, but governments implicitly or sometimes explicitly use them to promote their own very partisan agendas. 

There are also the fortunes spent on campaign advertising throughout the world’s democracies – more than four billion dollars in the current U.S. presidential campaign alone – which are counted as private-sector advertising, resulting from the transaction of political parties and ad agencies. 

These are avowedly and doggedly partisan in nature, of course, and campaign advertising is of greater consequence to politics in a way out of proportion to the actual funds spent on them. 

Often, campaign-advertising through mass-media is traced back to the 1960 presidential election which brought John F. Kennedy to the White House, or in the vote which brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency twenty years later. 

However, high-level politicians’ involvement with advertising agencies goes back decades before that, to ad pioneer Albert Lasker’s involvement in the U.S. presidential campaign of Warren G. Harding, which Harding won in a landslide, later appointing Lasker to be chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board. 

It exaggerates only a little to say that politicians treat their pollsters’ words as though of a divine. Policies are now calibrated mainly for the purpose of winning office next time around (again, with the help of the marketing industry). 

In order to gauge public opinion on behalf of political clientele, the marketer must be treated as trusted aide, as important or more so to an elected leader as a cabinet minister or legal adviser. We see once again that advertising and marketing executives, at the very least, have insider knowledge of another crucial domain of modern life — the political process. 

For many “Madmen” the opportunity to have the ear of powerful statesmen and to influence public policy has been more important than making money. 

In some cases at least, the two went together: Dalton Camp (1920-2002) was best-known as a newspaper columnist but, earlier in his career, was an advertising campaign advisor who helped Richard Hatfield become the longest-serving premier of New Brunswick during the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Camp did his campaign work pro bono, but in return, his advertising firm had a monopoly contract on all government advertising done by the province. 

Advertising is the application of fine art to the business of persuasion. This is by no means a novel thing. On the contrary, in past times, art was usually employed for this purpose. 

It is the modern practice of selling "handmade" visual products to an abstract marketplace which is a novelty. 

But as works designed and drawn for advertising purposes are not “done for their own sake”, they are considered mere “illustrations”, not real art. 

Nevertheless, many “real” artists have made a living through advertising work. There is a definite case to be made that, in terms of simple dexterity in technique, commercial artists and graphic designers, whose work is bought and sold in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, are more talented than most “conceptual” artists, whose work may sell in the tens of millions. 

Qualms expressed either for the payment of vast fortunes for what are, on the one hand, inanimate objects; and on the other, the wounding of the integrity of an artist who goes to work for amoral corporations, are secondary to the reality of advertising as a creative enterprise. 

Creativity became an essential part of the process, as it became evident that the mass audience responded all the more to pictorial and emotive content, rather than didactic and cajoling text (as was common before the “creatives” entered the picture). 

This occurred when magazines were still the dominant mass medium. So it is that a novel type of speculative enterprise, evolved into the organizational crossroads for each sector of the engineered economy.

Former Madman.


The modern ad agency fulfills its original function as a broker of space for all the mass media: originally printed periodicals, then radio and television, and latterly, the Internet.

It thus has intimate knowledge of all the media processes, not even possessed by professionals and personnel in each sector, in regard to the others. 

The agency acts on behalf of clientele — namely all the biggest private industries, representing the widest possible range of products. These agencies are thus exposed to the mechanics of many businesses, which in ease case remain mostly obscure and half-understood by outsiders. 

In addition to the privileged knowledge held by admen and woman, of the media business in particular, and industry and commerce generally, there is the industry’s involvement in politics. 

Marketing and advertising, long central to the conduct of political campaigning, more recently became essential to governance itself. The lucrative patronage received by ad agencies in exchange for their getting politicians in office, may even be less important to marketing professionals, beside the clout they acquire through their knowledge of public opinion. 

And, as advertisers provide the content for media campaigns political and commercial, they bring together these central facts of modernity with the creative class as well. It isn’t only graphic artists and illustrators whom ad agencies employ for persuasive purposes. According to author Mark Tungate, “advertising is a springboard for creative talent. The list of writers and film directors who have worked in advertising is long and illustrious: Salman Rushdie, Fay Weldon, Len Deighton, Peter Carey, Sir Alan Parker, Sir Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry... I could go on... and on. The French creative director Olivier Altmann, of the agency Publicis Conseil, once told me, 'Working in advertising is one of the few ways you can be creative and make money at the same time.” (Adland: A Global History of Advertising, Kogan Page, p. 4).

A more direct link between “commercial” and “high” art, was seen in the activities of Charles Saatchi, the Iraqi-born British co-founder (with his brother Maurice) of the firm that bears their name (although they were both forced out in the 1990s). 

Saatchi & Saatchi was one of the first ad agencies with a global reach. Not coincidentally, it was also heavily involved in politics. It came up with the slogan used by the British Conservative party in the 1979 vote, “Labour Isn’t Working”, which helped bring Margaret Thatcher to power. 

Standing at the intersection of commerce and politics.

Even before the agency’s founding in 1970, Charles Saatchi was an avid art collector. By the 1980s, he was supporting the work of the “Young British Artists”, such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. 

Their conceptual work included a shark submerged in a glass tank filled with formaldehyde (overseen by Hirst), or a very untidy, unmade bed (of Emin’s). 

These and other words sold for millions or even tens of millions of pounds. Saatchi’s initial support for, and purchase of, these conceptual artists could be looked upon as a cagey investment, if nothing else. Often investing just a few thousand pounds to acquire the works directly from the artists, Saatchi often sold them at auction for many multiples of the original purchase price.

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