EVERY GENERATION FACES ITS TEST. Ours in the ad biz came with an industry slump last year. Now our test results have come back. How did we do?

Um... maybe we should sit down first.

Past generations of Ad-Men seized upon tough times to build empires and topple giants. A Southern beverage boosted advertising during the Great Depression while America’s #1 soft drink cut theirs; today Coca-Cola is the global brand, while Moxie’s dominion encompasses vast swaths of... Maine. During the energy crisis 1970s, those funny Japanese cars got mileage out of their gas mileage—and the fact that they were actually better Made in Japan, to boot. Now it sure isn’t Honda or Toyota that’s the joke.

Today’s leaders have seen opportunity in lean times, too: the opportunity to lay people off and control costs after the hot 90s job market. Some of this is plainly unavoidable—magazines are thinner, TV ratings do continue to sink, the easy dotcom dollars have dried up. But all that means is that parts of the business have stopped being so fat that a team of Barbary apes could seemingly make money at them. (I actually freelanced for one—Bonobo Chimp DPP Worldwide.) Isn’t there one CEO with the, well, moxie to see a tougher marketplace as a chance not just to get smaller, but to get bigger, too—Coca-Cola bigger?

Megamoguls have spent the past decade welding together titanic agency networks in pursuit of new galactic synergies. Where are the full page Wall Street Journal ads from just one of those Adzillas saying, “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for! With the greatest army of advertising experts under one roof on earth, we know how to take advantage of lean times to grab market share—and keep it when times get better. Join us or die!”

The hinterlands are full of Fallon McWannabes, creative shops that hope to make Provo or Portsmouth the next destination for creatives and Cannes Lions. What has one of them done to say, “Here’s your chance. We’ll do brilliant, hip, brand-igniting work for you, while your big competitors are too scared to spend you into oblivion like they normally would. By the time they wake up to the threat, you’ll be famous and so will we.”

NOW, YOU MIGHT SAY THAT the reason you haven’t seen announcements like these is that they’re overpromises—ad agencies shouldn’t make extravagant claims about what we can do, they’re just not credible. Yeah, like everything we said for the last century about face creams with Wrinkle-B-Gone® and cigarettes with Ultra-Menthol for a Smoother Cough™ and how Toiletpaper.com would save the planet was grounded in stark, objective reality.

Either we do believe that we hold our clients’ success or failure in our hands—in which case it’s crazy that we’re the last industry on earth that doesn’t advertise our capabilities—or else we admit that we really don’t know anything. That there was no value to building those globonetworks after all. Sorry to have kicked up such a fuss about branding and all that stuff. Just ignore us next time we get started.

Hey, I don’t think that about me. Surely we don’t think that about us... do we?

Where is the leader in our business who believes as completely in the power of advertising as Steve Jobs must believe in Apple to work there for free; as Herb Kelleher believes flying is still fun, as Ray Kroc believed in the specialness of special sauce, as Roberto Goizueta believed that water was an iniquitous poison that only Coke could protect you from? Where is the big ad guy (or gal) who doesn’t just contemplate ways to shave another .1% off his costs, but who looks at the state of our industry and our market... and thanks God he’s alive right now?

Fig. 1 If only Moxie had kept putting marketing dollars into great ideas like the famous Horsemobiles, it'd still be #1 today.

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