If Advertising Is Dead, Why Do They Keep Digging It Up?

Last Updated Nov 17, 2010 6:15 PM EST

Fast Company's Danielle Sacks published a much-blogged story today with the modest title, "The Future of Advertising." Unsurprisingly, Sacks believes Madison Avenue is on the cusp of extinction:
Over the past few years, because of a combination of Internet disintermediation, recession, and corporate blindness, the assembly line has been obliterated -- economically, organizationally, and culturally. In the ad business, the relatively good life of 2007 is as remote as the whiskey highs of 1962.
Uh huh. If you're getting that deja vu feeling, don't worry. The business press writes a story proclaiming the Death of Madison Avenue once every five or six years. In 2010, it was simply Sacks' turn to write it. (I've done smaller versions at least twice in the last three years, here and here.) The stories are an interesting phenomenon because no matter how often they're written, the advertising business steams on, from strength to strength.

Here's a brief timeline of premature obituaries for the advertising business:

  • Nov 16, 2010: Just one day before the Fast Company story, New York adman Jon Bond told Forbes: "The structure of the holding company is outdated. It's inappropriate for today. ... You go into any of the traditional agencies and it feels like death warmed over." (That's an odd statement for a man who sold his agency to a holding company, where it continues to thrive.)
  • 2005: New York magazine publishes an infamous profile of David Lubars, in which the new creative director of BDDO stressed over the difficulty of dragging his massive, old agency into the future: "Half of America will have broadband by 2006 ('That's a fact, not some futuristic bullshit') ... the ad agencies that didn't get it risked 'getting flushed down the twentieth-century toilet.'"
  • 2005: (A banner year for ad biz obits, apparently.) In Ad Age's "The Chaos Scenario," Bob Garfield eulogized "the collapse of the old media model" and advertising's "downward spiral": "Shawn Burns, managing director of Wunderman, Paris, looks at the 2005 upfront (TV's ad selling season) and sees "the last strand of the rope bridge." Needless to say, this year's upfront was as healthy as ever.
  • 1999: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles svp Leslie J. Stark delivers a speech to Brooklyn College titled "The Death of Advertising": "... the grimmest scenario is one in which the traditional advertising agency becomes unnecessary, even obsolete ... that is, once advertisers can talk directly to their consumers and do some -- and eventually all -- of the planning and creative work in-house, work which they used to pay agencies to do for them." Advertisers still pay agencies to do everything for them, obviously.
  • 1998: Adweek expended some angst because agencies believed they might be supplanted by management consultancies. Didn't happen.
Sure, the business has changed. But it hasn't changed that much: The giant ad agency holding companies are bigger and more powerful than they were before, and they employ more advertising executives than they did before. So next time you see one of these think-pieces on how the ad agency life will go the way of buggy whips and whale-oil lamps, remind yourself that in 1975, WPP (WPPGY) CEO Martin Sorrell was finance director at Saatchi & Saatchi. Thirty-five years later, both Sorrell and Saatchi are in rude health. It's only the business journalists who can't seem to see that.

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Image from the Boston Public Library on Flickr, CC.