Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections: Madison Avenue Cheese Factory

It was sometime around 1989 that I started writing a fictional story with the working title Madison Avenue Cheese Factory. I remember writing this story on an IBM Selectric typewriter. I still have the manuscript, such as it is. I think its 15-20 pages of single spacing. If I were to resurrect the story, I would need to do one of two things: 1) accept the retro tone and feel of that time ala Mad Men or 2) contemporize the characters and situations to include technology and digital marketing.

Frankly, the later choice would, I think, result in losing the most meaning. I realize now in rereading that document that there are timeless concepts and there are situational routines that were, perhaps, a sign of the times. It was written as a fictional work, but like most fiction it was based on observations and real experiences. It is kind of like looking at old family photos. Suddenly, you realize how much and how fast things change: cars, clothes, people, occasions and so on.

My story, at the time, was focused on an advertising agency. I was trying to illustrate the characters and situations in the business with some poetic license that I had hoped would present opportunities for a readable story arc. Here are a few highlights as I recall about that story two dozen years later.  

Dorothy Dash – The central character in a mid-sized NYC advertising firm as a young woman account executive. I remember thinking that Dot Dash was a person who had to keep up with details and manage people.

The two o’clock meeting – Dorothy is responsible but is outranked by almost everyone she needs to corral. This is illustrated in the sequence of events around a critical internal agency meeting. The meeting is important but the egos of participants preclude conventional business etiquette. Dot has to call (on a land line phone) the extensions of several of those key players. The Creative guy is absent minded, the media guy is too busy to keep track of time and Dot is charged with keeping everyone on track. Time is a recurring theme in this story. So much time is squandered in the name of waiting, concept development or political maneuvering. The long Martini lunches are generally accepted because they fill time while characters wait for such things as ideas, type, press proofs or client decisions.

Managing Clients – In the agency everyone has very specialized responsibility and expertise. The agency eventually has to come to term with a winning strategy. It generally means convincing the client to take action. The individuals inside this agency are complex and diverse. However, they somehow adapt a singular point of view when it comes to presenting to the client. In this world there are sides. The agency-side is ultimately about selling concepts that will trigger media spending. The client-side is where rational thinking ends up being portrayed as lacking open-mindedness. You see, inside the agency, the client is a moron because he avoids risk. He is more likely to see a downside to a creative direction. The client can also spoil the party by pulling back funds altogether.

The case for supporting a brand – Even in that humble mid-sized Manhattan agency, the argument for advertising had to do with adding value. The client is an importer of cheeses from around the world. The agency believes that a branding campaign will generate interest in the client’s line of products. (The agency firmly believes in mass media tactics. Not even close to a discussion about engaging people through social media platforms.)

The lines might not be as strongly drawn today.  Clients and agency people, I think, might be more collaborative in some ways. On the other hand, clients are less likely to engage an agency as a full-service partner. Indeed, sometimes it isn’t a partnership at all. It’s not about sides anymore. The client-side/agency-side paradigm becomes more like a customer/vender relationship.

Looking over those type-written pages, it is clear that the business of advertising is changing quickly in some fundamental ways – probably for the better.

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