I launched my advertising career at the tail end of the “Creative Revolution” that began in the 1960s. By the mid-’80s, many of the firms that led the charge were getting acquired or going public, making first-generation “Mad Men” fabulously rich. Those of us who followed in their footsteps used to joke that they ruined the business for us, not only because they set the bar so high but also by revealing just how profitable an ad agency could be.
Clients didn’t like what they saw and forced the industry to begin a slow and steady march towards the procurement department. Today, pencil-pushers negotiate as fine a point as possible on the unpredictable business of creativity, and two-martini lunches have given way to Taco Tuesdays.
Still, in those early days it was a heady time to be surrounded by such old-school excellence, especially since the computer age soon began to encroach on the business, for good and for ill. We went from giant bullpens of pasteup artists building “mechanicals” by mounting typeset text and images onto transparent overlays to cubicles of computer artists doing it all digitally. It didn’t happen all at once, but it was dizzyingly fast.
As beneficial as technological advances have been to speed and productivity, they make me miss the old days. More than once I’ve told a digital native that that the answer isn’t in the box or on the net. You have to think it before you can write it; you must look up and dream before you look down and design.
My industry, of course, is not unique in that respect. No matter the category, the way companies develop, design and deliver products and services continually evolves. But some things never change; in the world of marketing that includes, among other things, how individuals process information, the role that instinct and emotion play in decision-making, and the need to understand, empathize with and relate to people as people. Contexts continually evolve and tools increasingly improve, but human nature never changes.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that respecting that which came before us “…means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors…[it] refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
When I seek know-how on business, marketing or how to speed up my Wi-Fi connection, I’m always keen to learn what’s new from those who “happen to be walking about.” But when I need wisdom and good judgment, I find the longer the span of time between writer and reader, the better. Classics are classic because they transcend time; they’ve earned the privilege of offering perspective that we in the here and now couldn’t otherwise see.
You wouldn’t want to treat a patient out of a centuries-old book on medicine, but you may very well want to advise them out of a centuries-old book of wisdom. In the realm of science and technology, so much of what has been previously written is quaint, outdated and even harmful.
But in the humanities, we’ve probably forgotten more than what we should. We have seen unceasing scientific and technical advances throughout recent history, and those advances have been occurring with increasing momentum. But there hasn’t been a moral advance in 2,000 years.
In my industry, it would be nearly impossible to compete (let alone be profitable) without modern technology. But it wouldn’t even be worth opening our doors without a keen understanding of things that never change. One of the dangers of our age is dismissing everything of old in pursuit of all that’s new.
Even the most modern technology is temporal. Ideas — and ideals — are eternal. In your leadership journey, make sure you take in a steady diet of the old as well as the new. The latest isn’t always the greatest.
Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is a co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
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