“Make it funny and smart.”
Those were words the ECD used to instruct us junior creatives lucky enough to find ourselves working at hot-creative shop Fallon. We knew we were having more fun than people at other agencies in town but, at the time, we had no idea we were having the most fun we would ever have in our career.
Where the hell has all the fun gone? I have a few theories…
It wasn’t planned.
At Fallon, I worked under amazing talent like Bob Barrie, Joe Duffy, Dean Buckhorn, Scott Vincent, and Mike Lescarbeau. Their finger prints were all over the work hanging in the hallways and filling the award books. For a young art director, this was hallowed ground.
Ironically, most of them ended up in advertising by sheer fluke. Myself included. And, as my career advanced, I came to realize most of the brightest, funniest people came into the business through a back door that was unplanned. The eclectic backgrounds and paths made for a wildly diverse and entertaining culture. And this diversity found its way into the work.
Some writers were articulate and thoughtful… others blunt and provocative. The art directors were meticulous typographers and graphic minimalists. They were also funny. Witty is a better descriptor. Their humor had wit. It was intelligent and tasteful and made you smile. And I firmly believe it’s because they were interesting people who found each other interesting.
Everything was funnier then.
It was late 90s and all things considered, my life and the world around me felt funnier. Comedians, TV shows, and movies were funnier. So were ads.
Advertising was more interesting because it entertained. It delivered a reward for your time. This is a simple concept that has been largely forgotten by content creators and marketing gurus. (I can’t imagine anyone at Fallon referring to their work as “content.” Content fills things. The work coming out of Minneapolis defied being contained in existing buckets.)
Of course, we benefited from Doyle Dane Bernbach and all the creative shops that followed their lead. But we carved out our own style that reflected the idiosyncratic personalities of our motley crew.
Fun falls down.
In corporate or agency culture, behavior trickles down from the very high-up. In my case, it poured down.
People at the top were witty and they weren’t shy about showing it. In fact, being funny was an unspoken prerequisite admittance into the culture. Humor was encouraged and praised.
Then, somewhere around 2010, the spigot dried up, as if Spinal Tap morphed into a reality show. Marketing clichés and buzzwords like “campaign synergy” and “ecosystem” became the norm. It was like MBAs who were possessed by old salesmen had filled the offices and all the dart boards and nerf ball nets went out to the dumpster.
A laugh in the wilderness.
Fast forward to 2013 and I’m freelancing with my now partner at a small agency in San Diego. We’ve been paired up as a team and introduced to each other for the first time, asked to create a campaign for a jacuzzi brand. (Yes, I know Jacuzzi is a brand, but that was the problem.)
So there we sat, camped out in the agency “War Room”, its walls covered with printed pages of market research, strategic diagrams and persona maps. One item in particular stood out in this flack field of brand jabberwocky: a highlighted spreadsheet with the heading “Hot Tub Penetration.”
The word choice was probably nothing more than the unintentional use of a marketing buzz word by an earnest account or strategy person who apparently didn’t or couldn’t see the humor in the double entendre. Nor could anyone else in the agency for that matter… not even the CCO, who was the wittiest of the bunch.
My partner and I sat there, delighted to stumble upon something so juvenile and amusing, unable to pass the opportunity to refer to it often as we shared our work. Not only did it become an insider joke and catch phrase to refer to the general demise of agency culture, but it was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I share the hot tub story to make a point. Not how juvenile my sense of humor is, but the fact that if the two of us were not sitting in that room together, the humorous moment would never have happened.
Humor is spontaneous. It just happens. Which is part of the delight.
Now that we all sit alone at our computers, working remotely and sharing stuff in the cloud, we have lost our humor. There isn’t any opportunity for it to happen.
I used to sit in another creative’s office and shoot the breeze for two hours, then work for twenty minutes. This was not negligence, but just how creativity works. Creative people are nonlinear thinkers and they need to roam a bit before finding an interesting angle on things. Organized work has historically tried to domesticate this feral process — lowering its effectiveness in the process. Add data analytics and automated campaigns into the mix and nobody’s cracking a smile.
Certainly not having fun.
He who laughs last, laughs best.
So here I am, in the year 2020, sensing a growing sentiment that our industry (Is it even called “Advertising” anymore?) as well as the whole world of business in general is taking itself way too seriously. And in the process, creativity is being ruined by formulaic and ridiculously dull approaches towards problem solving.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a brief that included the words witty, funny or humor.
Admittedly not everything is, or should be funny. That’s not the point. My concern is that our world is becoming less and less self-deprecating because marketers fear anything funny would diminish the legitimacy of their brand.
I really can’t say what led to us to lose sight of something so human as having a sense of humor. How we’ve come to see our vulnerabilities as a character defect instead of a common character trait.
Especially in an industry that’s historically famous for having humor.
To quote Oscar Wilde: “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
We are due for some laughs… some wit. Especially in these unsettling times of Covid-19 and post-truth politics. After all, one of the best coping mechanisms to get us through hardship in life is humor.