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Middle managers should write more books: Thoughts on James P. Othmer’s Adland

August 24, 2009

AdlandJames P. Othmer’s Adland is a humble book and you should buy and read it precisely because it is a humble book.

In its humility, it is an absolutely essential antidote to much of what currently passes itself off as thought leadership. It is the opposite of guru speak.

You can’t swing a dead paradigm these days without hearing advertising being dismissed. The problem with this isn’t that advertising isn’t guilty of any number of sins– ranging venality to inanity–which could plausibly justify its dismissal. The problem is that the people who feel the need to dismiss advertising also feel the need to distort advertising to the point of parody.

A recent blog post which otherwise seriously attempted to discuss the viability of the advertising concept of the Big Idea in the age of small media invoked Don Draper as a representative of contemporary advertising. To restate: a recent blog invoked a fictional character from 1961 as representative of actual advertising in 2009. This is a little like someone attempting to enter the health care debate by referencing Doc on Gunsmoke.  (The sad thing is, I think there may have been a point beneath the parody.)

Here’s the deal: if I don’t trust your descriptions, I don’t trust your prescriptions.

I trust Othmer’s descriptions. It is not that Adland paints a happy picture of advertising.  The industry Othmer describes features a sadly recognizable mix of foot-dragging and bandwagon jumping, ethical queasiness and intermittent inspiration.

The triumph of Adland is that he writes about his own experience in large old-line agencies with honesty and detail. In these passages, he writes as what we used to call a “do-ru”–i.e., as someone actually responsible for doing work.

He switches from memoirist to  journalist, making a valiant effort to talk to the actual people doing the actual work that is contemporary advertising. He gets out there into the trenches. Is it his fault that the trenches in this case are conference rooms with lemon fizzy water and really good bagels?

He writes about a 2000 pitch in which Y and R –venerable or vestigial, depending on your perspective–scrambled to keep an account in the-then nascent digital age. He writes about what it is like to do a big commercial shoot on the beaches of Normandy and in post apartheid South Africa. He describes the feeling of trying to please a roomful of vulgar millionaires who have made their millions selling fried chicken. He takes the now received idea that the average consumer is bombarded with three figures worth of messages a day and catalogs his actual experience as a recipient of messages over the course of twenty four hours. He visits Leo Burnett, the people who gave us Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury Dough Boy; he also visits the people who gave us the Subservient Chicken and the amazingly successful viral campaign for Trent Reznor.

In its humility Adland does precisely what George Orwell said writing should do in Politics and the English Language.  He refuses slippery, self-serving abstractions. (Some readers may wish for Othmer to tease an ethical system out of his experience. I didn’t.  For that. there’s John O’Toole’s The Trouble With Advertising.) He insists on language that describes recognizable, compromised, nuanced, sometimes cheery reality.

You might still dismiss advertising.  Othmer did. He quit the business to become a novelist and journalist.

But you will dismiss the industry as it actually exists, not as the punchline at a social media conference.

Available Sept 15.  Shout out to @commongoodbooks for the Advance Reader’s Copy

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Lauren Gould permalink
    November 17, 2009 7:59 pm

    It is my pleasure to invite you to join us for a special book signing event for author of The Futurist, James P. Othmer in celebration of his new book release ADLAND taking place on Tuesday, November 17th from 8PM-10PM at Dish bistro & wine bar located at 947 South Lake Blvd (Rte 6N) in Mahopac, NY.

    DISH
    invites you to attend
    a special signing event for

    Author of the Futurist
    JAMES P. OTHMER

    ADLAND

    TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 17th, 2009
    8PM-10PM

    DISH
    947 South Lake Blvd (Rte 6N)
    Mahopac, NY

    RSVP to rsvp@workhousepr.com

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