Friday, April 13, 2012

Sam Spade on Madison Avenue.

David Brooks, the self-described "moderate" columnist for "The New York Times" has a really brilliant op-ed in today's paper with a title I simply couldn't pass up. His piece is called "Sam Spade at Starbucks." You can read it here, unless the Times' firewall intervenes.

Brooks' column is about idealism, but the need for idealism to be grounded in the hard, often brutal realities of life. I think Brooks' thinking has direct bearing on many of the issues and mania in our business.

What Brooks is talking about is the idealism of so many to attempt to change the world through extra-governmental intervention. Things like micro-loans, colorful wrist bands, and KONY videos. We embrace these acts while ignoring that these sort of efforts will fail to have lasting impact if bigger, institutional, structural changes aren't made.

The key sentences from Brooks--and I urge you to read his entire column (it should take you less than four minutes)--are these: "...there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on."

Now here's where I think the parallel to our business comes in. 

A lot of energy and time is spent in our business doing things that "show well." We chase after awards and build our reputations on things with a high-sheen of pangloss. We seem to have no appetite as an industry for work that does the hard infrastructure work that most companies need.

We don't laud and applaud the hardheadedness, the hard-boiledness that it takes to win over clients and effect change in their organizations. It's much more glamorous to send a lion or a pencil to yet another Scrabble ad or burrito restaurant in Tulsa.

This is not just about my personal disdain for the supercilious and superficial nature of the Awards-Industrial complex. 

It's about people who think the industry is about apps and toys and gimmickry. 

As I have said many times before in this space and in others, most client organizations don't even know what business they're in or what it is they sell. Our job is the tough job of defining, demonstrating and disseminating meaning.

It's the devil in the details. It's the quotidian. It's the acknowledgement that not all brands are cool and are going to do neato stuff.

Work, as a wise man once said, is work.