Image courtesy of Dave Gorman

I have long believed that advertising is not a profession. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not embarrassed about what we do and I certainly have little sympathy with the sentiment of that terrible old joke. You know the in which someone asks that his mother is not told that he works in advertising since she thinks that he is the piano player in a brothel. However, there are a number of reasons why the idea that what we do resembles a profession rings a little hollow.


Firstly you need no specific qualifications to practice advertising, one of the primary criteria for any occupation being seen as a profession. In fact you need no qualifications whatsoever to do what we do and be very good at it. Secondly there are no professional bodies to which you have to belong, that police the profession and from which you can be expelled for malpractice. Sure there are industry associations that agencies and clients are encouraged to join but membership is not compulsory. Thirdly is the small matter of what we get paid for. Where other professional service firms sell certainty we sell only possibility.
Real professions offer certainty because their expertise in a particular area allows them to predict the outcome of their recommendations accurately. That’s true of lawyers, accountants and even management consultants when they stick to the supply side of the value equation.
That simply doesn’t happen in advertising. Expertise and knowledge are valuable but they aren’t really the reason that people use our services or the services of one agency over another. Because that expertise can’t in itself guarantee the effect that creativity will have on customers and the outcome this in turn will have on their business. You can have a feeling for the work and you can research that work but you never really know what is going to happen in the real world. This has never been more true than now because the real media with we work with is no longer television, print, outdoor or even online or search. The real medium we work with is the degree to which people are interested in what our brands are doing and want to engage with it. Try predicting that!
The traditional response to this has been one of denial. To ape the professions in order to add a veneer of certainty and responsibility to what we do. To bang on about accountability, return on investment and wear a lot of very dull grey suits to prove that we are serious.
I want to advocate a return to an industry that believes in sex. Not in our work but in the way that we behave. What advertising people used to understand is that to sell ideas that engage the right hand side of our brains and those of our customers we need to create an atmosphere that is conducive to this – sexy agencies. And in order to land recommendations based on conviction and not certainty we need to build personal relationships with clients based on mutual liking – sexy people. This is the reason that an agency of any discipline gives up its sexy location for somewhere cheaper, stints on the front of house service, or employs talented but dreary people at its peril.
In advertising our recommendations rarely sell themselves, they need help. That is why it is time to dump our pretence at being a profession and recognise that for us all, sex sells. Maybe the idea that we play the piano in a brothel is actually a rather good metaphor after all.
This post appeared originally as a column in New Media Age

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