Selling sand: an unsettling year in the life of a creative ad agency

June 20, 1993|By Neal Lipschutz


Karen Stabiner

Simon & Schuster

339 pages. $25 Advertising agencies live their capitalism raw. You win a big account, you add to your staff. The account deserts you for another agency and, quick as they were hired, the new people were gone. A change in marketing directors or a bruised corporate ego can spell a precipitous decline in business. And then, just as fast, fortunes can turn back up since there are always companies willing to listen to an agency pitch its ideas.

In an era in which seemingly unassailable corporate behemoths (IBM, Sears) have stumbled and so many fiftysomething middle managers find themselves forcibly separated from lifetime employers, the precarious lives led by ad agencies may carry a disturbing message for the economy writ large: Security in a job or in a business relationship seems to be a thing of the past.

Even in the topsy-turvy world of advertising, few agencies ride the waves like Chiat/Day, those irreverent and talented folks who have brought us the Energizer Bunny commercials and the "Bob's Road" spots for Nissan (a driver's fantasy about open roads and special treatment that featured road signs such as "No Parking Except for Bob").

In a business whose object is to blend pop art and commerce, Chiat/Day "creatives" have perhaps blurred the line the most, although creative freedom can't ever be complete as long as the client pays the bills and has to approve everything. So a lot of creative advertising isn't creating: It's convincing the client that the ads are worth paying for.

Journalist Karen Stabiner lucidly describes the gobs of time and money and brains and sweat that go into getting just right those 30-and 60-second assaults on our consciousness we know so well as television commercials. Reading about the drive and desire of the ad people chronicled here, you'd be excused if you thought their quest was for the Holy Grail rather than the Nutrasweet account.

The built-in insecurity of the world of "creative" advertising people, who don't like to think they are simply manipulating images to sell things, comes to the fore in a beautifully rendered scene at the Belding Awards dinner to celebrate West Coast advertising agencies. Ms. Stabiner writes: "The people crowded into the lounge were proud of the compressed universe in which they had to function. The thirty-second spot or half-page ad was a discipline, not a diminishment. . . . The Beldings celebrated the advertising agency as if it were a studio that just happened to produce very short features."

Ms. Stabiner was given long and broad access to Chiat/Day and its executives, and she concentrates this book on the eventful year of 1990 -- a time of leadership transition amid an economic recession that threatened the firm's very essence.

We meet Chiat/Day near the height of its achievements, having established itself as an agency that would not do pedestrian work, where the "creatives" wouldn't buckle under to the business types, the account executives. The agency's immodest slogan was "good enough is not enough." The author writes: "Chiat/Day's work was memorable not because it was repetitious or insistent but because it rattled consumers -- and often clients -- who thought they knew what to expect from commercials."

In 1990, founder Jay Chiat wanted to step away from the day-to-day leadership of the firm and create an international presence for it. Thus, the running of the agency was handed to a new generation. The tale that unfolds finds resonance in all sorts of businesses: the mantle of leadership doesn't fit easily once the charismatic Mr. Chiat steps back; there are divisions and resentments.

Then the recession hits and the Chiat/Day executives scramble like those in so many businesses to keep profit margins intact in the face of declining revenues and bleak prospects for new business. There's a familiar litany of layoffs, wage freezes and a deepening hunger for new business while the executives attempt to keep employees motivated despite the lack of financial incentives.

In the award-filled world of advertising, Chiat/Day in 1990 was named agency of the decade. But that honor seemed to have the same impact as being on the cover of Sports Illustrated so often has on athletes -- it was a jinx. Jay Chiat figured companies thought the agency of the decade must have all the billings it could handle, but the opposite was true.

While providing an engaging and sympathetic picture of the talented men and women who comprised Chiat/Day, Ms. Stabiner doesn't place them and the agency effectively in the larger context of the changing advertising industry. There's no discussion of such challenges to the industry as the trend toward price promotions instead of brand advertising, competition from non-traditional firms and the fragmentation of the mass audience for commercials, thanks to cable television and the videocassette recorder.

There's also no talk of the morality of advertising, of whether "inventing desire" helps or hurts a society. The book accepts the notion that the ad business is cool.

And while 1990 was a busy year for Chiat/Day and the players were intriguing and intense, the narrow focus makes the book sometimes feel like a too-long magazine article: There's just not enough heft for hard covers.

Still, Ms. Stabiner certainly knows advertising and the high-anxiety attempts to capture and keep new business. She writes: "For all the talk of research and strategy, these men were TTC in the business of selling attractively arranged sand as an appropriate foundation upon which to build a commercial enterprise."

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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