The half-truth of ‘good old days’ and ‘advertising is dead’

Many ad agency veterans lament the loss of what they recall as glory days of advertising. Depending on their vintage, they could be referring to a period between the 1970s and 1990s, maybe up to the early 2000s. And then there are others who claim ‘advertising is dead’.

I was a rookie in advertising in the early 90s so I can lay claim to be part of the veterans club. I carry a lot of positive memories of that period as it genuinely gave me a lot more job satisfaction and pride about the output than most of what I was involved in during the later part of my career. The decline in quality of output perhaps started from 2005 onwards for a combination of triggers and reasons: the splintering of ad agency services, the industry short-selling their value in a bid to undercut competition, the rise of digital advertising and its ramifications in terms of skill sets, the lack of CEO involvement among advertiser companies, the focus on ‘need it now’ than ‘need it to be good’ – to name a few.

In the effort to showcase the days gone gone by as ‘glorious’ in every aspect, I am reminded of this quote:

It’s not just advertising, every industry has insiders believing that the past was better in every which way. Songs are an integral part of Indian cinema; every decade produces work which has both critics and fans wondering about the decline in the quality of lyrics or music. The decade which they refer to as the ‘golden period of Indian cinema’ (surely not the 80s) would have its share of what would have been considered sub-par work. But having seen the change in the way ad agencies functioned in the 1990s till about 2012 I too feel that the average output from ad agencies was far better back then.

But that does it mean everything was great back then? Definitely not.

Here are some observations on advertising back then & now:

The ‘good old days’ too had their share of mediocre ads: As a rule, most advertising output is mediocre, bland and goes un-noticed. It is true of now and back in the pre-digital world: only a handful of work bubbles up to the top to be noticed and appreciated. Beyond advertising, it is true of any form of popular culture – be it movies, music, books or even journalism. Most of what’s out there is just white noise.

Media and market conditions were different: The percentage of above average work was perhaps higher back then as the scope to produce a well-crafted, sound, clutter-breaking interesting creative was better for these reasons (a) media clutter was less and platform proliferation was not as mad as it is now (b) there was relatively more time to craft a creative piece – be it a print ad or a television commercial so the creative team had the luxury of time (which is critical) for ideas to be thought through and executed well (c) senior management with truck loads of experience (and willingness to back an idea based on instinct) were involved in advertising decisions. But market forces, societal trends and media consumption patterns were different back then. One could afford the ‘pause that reflects‘. It was customary for an ad agency to take a week to come up with an idea for print ad. The execution would take longer. Such deadlines are perhaps unheard of these days, where an idea expected the same day, if not the hour.

Work starting past 10:30 am, leisurely lunches, late nights in office, weekend work and last minute execution of a pitch or campaign were common ad agency practices back then. Some of them were definitely not healthy but were justified as the share of ‘work done right, work done to satisfaction’ was definitely higher than what it is today. Agencies managed to convince clients that only two of the below options could be delivered:


In today’s context, marketers have come to believe (rightly or wrongly) that speed is paramount. They maybe influenced by all the talk of moment marketing and viral content so much so that the pressure on the ad agencies to see everything as an opportunity to put an ad out has become second nature. Buzz is the priority even though by its very nature it is ephemeral.

In the early 90s, providing options for creative was virtually unheard of, at least in the top agencies with a reputation for good creative. Agencies could push back on unreasonable changes (copywriters were known to refuse change of a single word and art directors were wary of increasing logo size) because the relationship with the client was at another level. However, not all was kosher back then too. Twenty years ago, things had changed so much that agencies agreed to ridiculously low retainer fees and unreasonable pitch demands. Big name clients calling for a huge line up of pitches was common. In 2002, I remember reaching the pitch venue at the allotted time in the evening only to see that the agency slotted before ours hadn’t even been called in. Prospects asking agencies to come in to present at 9pm (when they had already been waiting for hours) and skip the preamble and slides to show ‘just the creatives’ was common. So I can’t help feeling that rose-tinted glasses should be done away with when looking at back at the ad business.

Brands invested behind a campaign idea for longer periods of time: I wonder if ‘theme advertising’ and ‘tactical advertising’ are distinctions now – everything seems tactical (or topical) in nature. Back then, it was customary to create one thematic campaign and let it run for at least a year. It is plain common sense to allow for one message to sink in after repeated exposure. Consumers can barely remember one thing from an ad. Now we have the equivalent of throwing several tennis balls at once at the consumer in the hope that at least one will be ‘caught’. But in the bargain, the consumer fails to grasp even one.

No, advertising is not dead, it has adapted: the business of advertising is commercial art. Businesses cannot survive and brands cannot be created without advertising. I feel such statements are made just to gain attention or to sound sagely – just like management consultants who make annual predictions like ‘83% of enterprises who do not have a brand purpose will cease to exist by 2026’ knowing full well that no one is going to check such when the time comes. As I have said before ‘new advertising is old advertising at heart‘ as good marketing communication aims to appeal to the human instinct which has not and will not change for eons.

An overview of the fundamentals: my presentation to MBA students in Bangalore.

Advertising, like many other businesses has been disrupted in a short span of time. Every player in the ecosystem is learning and adapting on the job without formal training. In today’s ‘digital advertising’ there’s a lot going on which seems detrimental to creativity or at least is an impediment to producing meaningful creative work which makes business sense. The obsession with vanity metrics, the desperation to forcibly associate a brand with news of the day or occasions such as Women’s Day or Earth Day, the lack of investments behind a thematic idea for a sustainable period of time can all cause frustration to those who’ve experienced a more long term approach to brand building. But that cliché about change comes to mind. In the beginning of the ‘digital advertising’, work from ad agencies involved web banners, page takeovers and other truly intrusive form of advertising. Thankfully while those have reduced the new emphasis is on hashtag driven social media campaigns, long-format web films and such like. So there’s been a ‘progress’ of sorts in digital advertising itself, while still retaining the core aspects of classic advertising: audio-visual impact, relevant creative in the right context using the right medium and such like.

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