Book review – Ad Land by Mark Tungate

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As Sigmund Freud so rightly observed “Only a good for nothing is not interested in his past”.

One of the more unfortunate characteristics of the advertising business is that every generation believes itself to be the first.

Or at least every generation believes itself to be the first to break the rules, take risks, create brave work and do anything much interesting.
For most people there is a dim recollection of the ‘greats’ of the past – a sense of what Ogilvy stood for or what Bernbach achieved. However, by and large most people in advertising are supremely ignorant of their heritage and the story that has shaped their agencies and industry.
This is exacerbated by the endemic neophilia that pervades the business – an obsession with the new that is scornful of the very concept of looking at the past to help understand the future.
You are unlikely to find this attitude in many other industries. Architects for example aren’t disrespectful of the past, for them a grounding in the lineage of modern architecture is considered a pre-requisite for practice even amongst the most avant-garde.
That is what makes Ad Land by Mark Tungate (a former Campaign journalist) essential reading for those commited to the future of this business.
Lets be frank, this is a business book from a business publisher. And, in the irritating parlance of the time, it is what it is. Don’t go expecting a romp through advertising’s colourful history with Malcolm Gladwell or Steven Johnson.
But what Ad Land may lack in style it more than makes up for in substance as it chronologically takes us through every significant development in the advertising business, every significant agency and every significant nation in advertising’s history right up to Naked, Droga 5 and bizarrely enough DraftFCB.
And it’s that story that makes the book fascinating reading as it chronicles the birth of the Madison Avenue aristocracy like JWT and Y&R, the emergence of the creative visionaries of the ’50 and ‘60s on both sides of the Atlantic, fully acknowledges the importance of the French advertising tradition exemplified by Publicis, RSCG and BDDP, notes the contributions of the alternative agencies of the ‘90s (like HHCL and Mother) and maps out the great schisms and consolidations of the past century and a half.
Sure some of these stories will be familiar to you, maybe because you work in a place that is proud of its heritage (like Leo Burnett or DDB) or because you have picked up bits and bobs along the way. But for the first time in Ad Land someone has attempted to tell the entire saga, and that’s why this book is significant.
Wherever you work you are part of a tradition that has never placed much store in the traditional. For me it is vitally important to understand what yesterday’s revolutionaries did to shape the business we work in and the work that we make today. In particular how their entrepreneurial zeal and vision provides us with the inspiration and impetus to take this industry forward and change it in the ways it needs to changed. Every great agency that exists today (no matter how dull and sterile it may seem) does so because its founders resolved to change our business at a time when it was tired, lazy, complacent and resistant to change and in doing so showed others the way forward.
Not only is this book a fascinating insight into the people that made ad land a wonderful place to work, it is a kick up the backside to those of us that want it to stay that way by adequately facing up to the challenges it faces.
And while you won’t be giving this book to your father for Christmas, if you work in ad land you will walk a little taller having read it.
Ad Land by Mark Tungate is published on 26th July by Kogan Page.
You can order a copy here.

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8 Replies to “Book review – Ad Land by Mark Tungate”

  1. Thank you for this Richard, great stuff.
    Though I think you’re wrong; I think my father wouldn’t mind having a look at this..

  2. Ok, i’m going to volunteer my ignorance. I’ve been a producer and a journalist and now I work in advertising. And I’m alright with that. So if you were to say “here are the three places you should find out where the f&*k advertising came from” …. what are they?

  3. Godd stuff Richard.
    I particularly like this…
    “Every great agency that exists today (no matter how dull and sterile it may seem) does so because its founders resolved to change our business at a time when it was tired, lazy, complacent and resistant to change and in doing so showed others the way forward”.
    Although I’m not sure this is true (AMV for example never set out to change anything, just to be damn good at it..) but there were enough that did to make sure the industry remained a dymamic one.
    More importantly it highlight the reason behind the mailaise the industry is in.
    How many new agencies/start-ups adhere to this notion of change??
    erm …That would be none then. Have a long hard look around. Most start-ups seem content just to pick at the industry, feeding off the soft underbelly, offering clients the hint of something new, and then bringing the same old stuff.
    There isn’t the appetitite for change. No wonder our cousins think we’re dinosaurs!!

  4. Spot on Jemster,
    My view is that we have endured a decade with a plethora of start ups with nothing fundamental to say and no appetite to change the business.
    The last significant ageny start up was Mother.
    The rest will be footnotes in advertising’s history if they get that far.
    I think you are harsh on AMV – perhaps they did’t have a belief that advertising needed to change and they were the men to do it in the way that DDB and CDP did. But there was a commitment to creative excellence and I think you could absolutely suggest that David Abbott created a distinctly British take on the Bernbach approach to intelligent communications that treated the viewer with respect and rewarded their intelligence.

  5. Wasn’t meant to be hard on AMV…
    my view they were amongst the very greatest practitioners of the art (note the tense!), and so one of the greatest of all ad agencies.
    Abbott set out to be the best, not the most innovative … and for many years AMV were the best. I even heard from BBH that they used to get dispirited seeing AMV on the pitch list.

  6. I’d have to add that their greatness had very little to do with the likes of us…

  7. Right on baby…advertising must be the only creative industry that resolutely refuses to pay homage to its past.
    You mentioned architecture. Think of cinema or contemporary art – all the greats within them know their roots and influences.
    I guess it’s a) because advertising is such a competitive business and whilst it hates putting a flash that says ‘new’ in its client’s advertising believes it has to constantly proclaim itself as new and different and b) it shouts ‘new’ as loud as it can because in reality little of what it does is genuinely new. (If you shout loud enough perhaps sopme people will beleive it.) Almost all is borrowed from somewhere else.
    This then of course links to advertising’s obssession with youth. Once you’re over 35 you must be over the hill – and what any other creative industry adopts that position?
    The funny thing is I sense most clients couldn’t give a hoot. They’re the parents looking on benignly whilst the kids play their make-believe games in the playground.

  8. Oh dear…a copy of AdLand has arrived and my albeit cursory flick through it made me feel disappointed. It really is a cut and paste jobbie and whilst this maybe useful for a student it seems to hardly do justice to our wonderous industry.

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