Is Advertising Having An Identity Crisis?

Reporting from Advertising Week, Patrick Coffee’s Adweek article Should Ad Agencies Even Be Called Ad Agencies Anymore? notes several ad professionals who feel uncomfortable with the term “advertising agency” for one reason or another.

“Lets stop calling ourselves ad agencies, because advertising is such a small part of what we do.” — Deutsch’s Winston Binch

For reasons unexplained, Binch actually prefers the term “marketers.” You say tomaytoh, I say tomahtoe, let’s call the whole thing off.

“The word ‘advertising’ feels limited, but the word ‘agency’ can be a lot of things.” — R/GA’s Chloe Gottlieb

Okay, sure, I guess?

“We don’t go out and pretend that we’re a brand or media agency…(we) turn around and crank out anything at massive global scale.” — Accenture Interactive’s Jeannine Falcone

“Turn around and crank out anything” isn’t what I want to put on my CV. Just my opinion.

It is most definitely true that ad professionals have problems defining advertising, and agencies often trip over themselves when explaining what they do. Why? I think there are several reasons:

They Are Regurgitating Jargon

Ad professionals feel a lot of pressure to seem modern and cutting-edge. As a result, when new forms of jargon become popular in textbooks or industry press, pros adopt it without questioning value. What does regurgitating advertising jargon sound like? Here’s a quick example I made up off the cuff: “Our agency strategizes, conceptualizes, and delivers innovative media-agnostic engagement solutions that help brands build conversations across platforms.” There’s nothing particularly inaccurate about any of those words, but it could be written in a much more simple and straightforward manner.

They Do Whatever They Need To Do To Make A Buck

While they may not say it so bluntly, the business model of many modern agencies is to “turn around and crank out anything,” as said above. “As cheap and fast as possible” would be proper to insert in there, as well. They can’t stand the idea of losing an opportunity for a project, so their identity is whatever it needs to be to get the billable hours. It’s no surprise “advertising” and “ad agency” become vague and wishy-washy with this mentality.

They Are Ashamed Of Working In Advertising

Many ad pros, particularly on the creative side, see themselves as artists and writers who have to sully themselves doing advertising to make a living. Among these folks, advertising is often “storytelling,” “creating culture,” or other things like that. Advertising may do those things very well at times. But it’s not a complete definition.

So What Is Advertising?

Call me frightfully old-school, but I believe advertising is a form of persuasion created on behalf of a business or organization. Ad agencies move people to act favorably towards a product, service, or cause. Strategy, concept, design, and writing all have the ultimate aim of persuasion. “Brand-building” is persuading audiences over time to see one brand as preferable to competitors. Media, research, data, creative, and account service are all roles that increase the effectiveness of the persuasion. And “brand-building” is persuading audiences over time to see one brand as preferable to competitors.

An advertisement may be entertaining, provocative, emotional, inspiring, or educational. But it must persuade. I don’t have an identity crisis about what I do for a living.

Mark Trueblood is a senior integrated writer available for freelance or full-time work. Visit his portfolio at