In the restaurant world sit-down restaurants generally fall into a few different categories. For simplicity's sake this post focuses on two types to which I think parallels in advertising can be drawn.
It's an oversimplification, sure. But this is a blog not a term paper.
The first type is full-service casual restaurants. These are usually part of a chain and can often be found a few yards from another, similar restaurant. The prototypical example of this is Olive Garden.
Olive Garden serves middle of the road food. Food that people seem to enjoy because as long as they're not food snobs. You've probably heard some derivative of "Those breadsticks, oh those breadsticks! And the endless soup and salad bowl. I simply cannot get enough Olive Garden." (Maybe you haven't if you didn't grow up in the Midwest like I did.)
It's a brilliant marketing concept. Giving people exactly what they want. Essentially a home cooked meal prepared by someone else, to the tune of $7 plus tax and tip. Of course it has way more sodium and fat and everything else than you would make at home. But it's food people want to eat. Often lots of it. And the quality is consistent regardless of location.
And Olive Garden is not alone in this perfectly homogenized food game. It's joined by a legion of other fast-causal restaurants that give people what they want without a lot of thought. We're talking the Red Lobster, Chili's, Applebees, Hooters, and TGI Fridays (really anything owned by Darden) of the world. And while the food might not be mind-blowing, it is passible as sustenance.
Meanwhile, what seems like worlds away in a culinary sense, is the second type of restaurant: fine dining establishments. And the top of these are restaurants that have or are attempting to garner a Michelin Star or a few. (The Michelin Guide also happens to be my favorite advertisement of all time because it transcended being just an ad. From a humble scheme to sell tires it became the most respected authority on where people need to eat. Pretty incredible.)
Michelin starred restaurants are not the easiest to get in to. Or to approach. Or afford. But they are consistently interesting, daring, and high quality. Oftentimes toeing a fine line between dining and event. They take huge risks. They develop techniques. They polish themselves so that they become the envy of chefs across the globe.
They lead the world of food rather than existing in it.
Extrapolating from my time working in and studying adverting I think this metaphor can be extended to our industry. With agencies substituting for restaurants. Creatives for chefs/cooks. And work for food. (The main difference being that no one needs advertising to live. Unlike food. But how easy would our jobs be if that was the case?!)
These days most agencies seem fine with being a full-service casual restaurant. Which is understandable. From a business perspective it even makes sense. There's a reason fast-casual restaurants exist. Not just exist; flourish. They're big, bloated, and flush with cash.
And within those restaurants there are people who truly care about the quality of the product that goes out. But that product is always compromised because it's only trying to be a certain level of passible. Good enough to not leave people retching, sometimes even 'good' but never remarkable. The product of mass production and compromise.
That's the way most ads come out. They might be fundamentally palatable, but not necessarily something people want. Work that took a lot of effort but is largely glossed over because there's plenty of other things to focus on These work best when they're pushed out over and over and over. They are bland but ubiquitous.
When you consider what is possible in advertising it's easy to assume that most people are reaching for the next level but that doesn't seem to be the case. Most people are beaten back and reduced to pale imitations of themselves. Told that originality has no place. That copy or visuals that have been changed but that's okay because it's just advertising anyway. This is the mass-production way of viewing things. The end product is nothing special. It is a means to an end. And that end is selling product, public perception of advertising be damned!
And maybe that's fine for some people. Even though 90% of advertising ends up as wallpaper and we know that boring, safe stuff doesn't work as well as the bold, exciting stuff.
However, there are agencies on the other side of things. Trying and succeeding to work work that is consistently tasteful, exciting, and great. They're the same 5-10 names pretty much everyone talks about. And I don't think for a second that this type of work is easy. It takes bravery to wade out into the waters of the unprecedented. It takes bravery for someone in an agency to stand up and tell a client no.
To tell them that they'd rather kill the work and find a solution to suit both parties, rather than produce middle-of-the-road mush. Agencies that develop a style and product that is distinct for their clients. Even when the client just wants something that's been done before.
This is a very scary proposition but it's what turns out the work that people love. And the public at least tolerates.
Here's one more thing to consider about the restaurant/agency parallel.
The styles and dishes developed at the highest levels of each industry slowly eek their way into other restaurants. Even to the most pedestrian chains.
(A bit like how Meryl Streep explains fashion in The Devil Wears Prada.)
I believe this is the saving grace of Michelin Star restaurants and "good" ad agencies. The reason for being slightly unwilling to compromise. It makes the expense and extravagance somewhat permissible because they are affecting culture en-masse.
To be completely honest I don't care which side of things agencies and clients choose to be on. As I said earlier there are obvious advantages to being bland and boring and profitable. (The profit being the obvious advantage.) It's a fine way to make a living if a living's all you want to make.
But I don't care about just making a living. So even if 98% of agencies are content with producing full-service casual work, I'll keep trying to make something of Michelin quality (not that I'm anywhere near there yet). And I'll do it until I'm kicked out of every single agency and have to have a go at something completely different.