Creative Destruction: How Advertising Is Swallowing the Creative ClassS

The real creative fireworks at Creative Week came at the end of this morning's "Creative Renegades" panel when Colleen Decourcy, a creative, said that she didn't really love creatives.

"I think creative people are interesting," she clarified. "I think creative departments are shit."

Well. Can you imagine? With that, fellow panelist Gerry Graf—the only man in a 100-yard radius wearing a tie (with tennis shoes, to be fair)—declared "I'm done!" and walked off stage right, with a wave. At first it seemed that he had to be joking, but he didn't come back. He was so offended by the statement "creative departments are shit" that he stormed off the stage, in a huff, never to return*. There was a bit of nervous laughter, and the panel wrapped up without him. Impolite, yes. But he had taken a stand on behalf of his cherished principle: creativity is not something to be mocked.

Gerry Graff makes Skittles commercials.

***

Advertising likes to speak of itself as a "creative" industry. Whether you buy this or think it's bullshit is largely a philosophical matter. Rather than forge ahead with endless bickering on the subject as usual, I decided to see what advertising's finest creative minds had to say for themselves.

As your connected young brand influencer friends have no doubt told you, it is "Creative Week" in New York City right now—a weeklong fiesta of panels, open houses, and awards shows, all honoring the "creativity" of the advertising industry. Who can go to all of it? Not me, god willing. I chose two of the most creative-centric panels, in order to hear from the Finest Creative Minds of Our Generation (Advertising Edition) just what all this creativity really means to people whose job is, fundamentally, to sell beer.

The first was "The Creative Suite," a "deep look at creativity and the Chief Creative Officers who live it every day." Every day. This was "the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees of creatives," according to our host. At the City Winery on Varick Street yesterday afternoon, the crowd was not quite sparse, but not quite what you'd call a crowd. Crowded enough for a panel discussion, at least. It was the type of crowd that would be referred to as "hip" by, say, Forbes magazine, a smattering of young people and t-shirts amid the grownups, a distinct prevalence of open collars, and virtually no ties. One audience member, William "Spaceman" Patterson (who had held a vague series of television, music, and advertising jobs) chatted with me about the future of the music business, in which everyone will need "a story—real or concocted."

The panel's moderator was Facebook's Carolyn Everson, a small tan woman with the bright white hair of the Khaleesi princess on Game of Thrones. The five creative guys on the panel represented the sort of outward diversity that the ad industry achieves so well: the bald guy, the Indian guy, the guy with dreads, the lovably gruff grownup white guy. The bro position was played by Dave Clemans of an agency called Taxi, whose adult frat-boy look and constant stream of empty positive affirmations would have qualified him as the heartthrob counselor at a teen summer camp.

"It comes down to understanding people," Dave said. "It's really cool... Steve and I were just rapping about this last night..." Dave said. "I said this before and I really believe it: culture is everything," Dave said. "If there is any new craft in the industry, innovation is the new craft," Dave said. "It's about assembling the right team—the 'Make It Happen' people," Dave said. "Ideas are acorns," Dave said. "They're only powerful because that acorn becomes an oak tree."

"The biggest award I want is my kids' smiles," Dave said, before I stopped writing down what Dave said.

Advertising rhetoric is notable in that it uses the language of art to describe the activities of business. I interpret this as the purest sort of propaganda, though it could more generously be interpreted as a sort of subconscious maneuver to invest a dreary business activity—selling things—with a more noble and attractive sheen. The panelists talked endlessly about the "culture" of their various agencies, an interesting word choice to replace "H.R. activities." Talk of advertising agency employees coming up with ideas for advertisements to help make money for clients is verboten; the process is one of "creatives" manifesting "creativity." In this world, that creativity exists in a bubble, allowing it to be admired and marveled at by peers without making the dreary connection to its actual societal function. The Most Interesting Man In The World, yes; the fluctuations in the market cap of Heineken International, no.

"The worst thing for a creative person is to work with people who think they are, but aren't, that good," said Lee Garfinkel, chief creative officer at the massive agency Euro RSCG. I can think of far worse things for creative people—being unable to make a living off their creativity, for example, or being forced to channel their creativity into marketing—but this should be understood as the ad industry version of creativity. It's a $153 billion industry in America, and it's getting larger every year. It requires a constant infusion of new talent to keep the machine running. And the ad industry, it is clear, is waiting to scoop up all of the failed starving artists when they get tired of starving. On the topic of recruiting new ad talent, the dreadlocked Jimmy Smith (who constantly referred to ads, ad colleagues, tech products and many other decidedly non-dope things as "dope") said, "If they aren't in schools, we gotta go to the poetry lounge, or the kid putting up an art piece."

Watch out, artists. If you think Corporate America is watching you, you're right.

***

Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo is more suited to a Martian poetry slam than a panel discussion at 9 a.m. It's dark, with purple mood lighting, and the seating consists of large round leather-backed booths linked by metal walkways, forcing you to network, whether you like it or not. Someone spilled coffee on someone else by the free breakfast area. "I know how much blow you were doing in the 90s," someone said to someone else.

No matter. "We're making a bet on Brooklyn," the Creative Week organizer said this morning. "We think Brooklyn is a creative hub." (Watch out, Brooklyn.)

This morning's panel was "Creative Renegades," meaning people who had peeled off from large agencies to be creative in their own firm, or somewhere else. Black leather-pantsed Colleen Decourcy, from Socialistic, and Ty Montague, from co:collective, both represented the socialist language that weirdly permeates this non-socialist industry. Colleen the Socialist, ironically, is not a fan of social media, because she thinks it's still "nascent" and doesn't really have its shit together yet.

"I'm sure the first thing that came out of the Gutenberg press wasn't that great," she said.

"The Bible?" asked the startled moderator.

"No, I'm sure there was a lot of crap before then..."

"No, I think the Bible was the first thing."

There was quite a bit of talk about various agency business models which has no direct relevance here except to highlight the fact that Creative Week consists at its core of businesspeople discussing business. "There's $100 billion worth of opportunity in the marketplace," said Jae Goodman, the boyish creative director at CAA. His jeans were neatly rolled up at the bottom, exposing several inches of sock. As an example of the ease with which he's able to execute amazing creative ideas in his current job, he told a story about getting Willie Nelson to cover Coldplay on behalf of Chipotle.

To trump that, Ty Montague told a story (which sounds apocryphal but is apparently true) about the ad agency JWT inventing the grilled cheese sandwich in order to sell more Kraft cheese. Nifty, sure. The grilled cheese sandwich: the pinnacle of the advertising industry's creative history.

I'm willing to accept that.
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*Update: Nick Summers, the moderator of the "Creative Renegades" panel, tells us that he was informed beforehand that Gerry Graf needed to leave ten minutes early, which coincided with his abrupt departure from the stage at the moment of insult. If so, Graf's timing is impeccable.

[Image by Jim Cooke]