Full-Service vs Fine Dining.

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.

Inside The Clutter Factory

“We’re always looking for new mediums and places that have not been used before — it’s an effort to get over the clutter,” Mr. de Echevarria said.

“But,” he added, “I guess we end up creating more clutter.”

The New York Times recently ran an article about the ubiquity of advertising. The total "duh" summation of the article: advertising is all around us. 

Though there were a few nonsense quotes in the piece, it was a good reminder of what advertising is up against from within its own ranks. (This is before comparing it to literally every form of superior media including, but not limited to; internet videos, TV shows, books, magazines, bits of paper littered on the ground, "true" art, etc.)

The problem is that advertising is the only thing that has permission to go everywhere. Someone puts up a piece of graffiti on a wall, it might come down. Someone puts a horrible advertisement on a wall, it stays up as long as the owner of that space keeps cashing checks. This is well tread ground (since Banksy's missive about advertising has been thrust in our face no less than a hundred thousand times) but the point still hasn't permeated the staid environments of agencies and businesses. Somehow.

This is despite the fact that we have the most potential to do something noticeable. We are simultaneously more visible and more willing to produce wallpaper than any other medium.

More money goes into advertising than anything else. Hell, blockbuster films now how marketing budgets that outweigh the costs of production. Myspace is spending roughly 2/3rds of their acquisition price on their marketing push. And my coffee cup comes with an ad for T-Mobile on it every so often. Most, if not all of it, is complete shit.

It's squandered potential. Squandered equity.

I understand the degree of difficulty it takes to get anything through the modern advertising process. The layers of approval, of thinking,  re-thinking, un-thinking, and re-thinking again. But I also look at the very small pile of good work that gets produced and applaud it. Study it. Wonder how that got sold around the same time the terrible commercial for Competitor Brand did. 

There's no clear solution to how to make this happen. Make marketers stop wasting the space, the gift of exposure we're given. But that doesn't mean we should stop trying.