As last year’s fracas between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien showed us, when it comes to the late night talk shows in the United States there is a great divide between the major players. On one side is Leno the generalist who has an obsession with the numbers, while on the other is his only real head-to-head competitor of the past 17 years, his erstwhile pal David Letterman, who is someone more concerned with the quality of what he is presenting to his audience. Leno’s Tonight Show is and always will be the ratings winner between the two because his approach of being broad, simple, and inclusive means he will, by definition, have a wider appeal; whereas Letterman’s Late Show will continue to draw a smaller viewership (around a million households fewer than Leno) largely comprised of devotees of comedy because he and his writers work on honing their craft and then beat themselves up if he senses they are delivering anything other than the highest standard possible. At the end of the day (well, night), it’s obvious that the TV networks see things the way Jay does and feel if a host wants to fret over the sharpness and intelligence of the content, that’s his problem. All they want is to attract as many of the right demographic of folks who will be receptive to their advertisers’ messages so they can charge them as much as possible per minute, and if obvious and comforting does it then that’s all they’ll care about. It’s simply a business and they don’t owe anyone anything, including quality. See where I’m headed with this analogy? No? Well, in any event, here we go.
Creative Directors in advertising are faced with a challenge that is often not spoken about in wide circles: the agencies, and sometimes the client brand managers, demand that they continually bring in awards for the work, but at the same time harp about the mission to capture the most eyeballs and recalls as possible. They desire quality that will be recognized by peers and aid their own PR efforts, but quantity that will guarantee financial results. In other words, they want Jay Letterman of Tonight’s Late Show; someone that rarely exists because how can you consistently create something of mass appeal that is truly clever enough to deserve special distinction from jaded specialists in the field? It’s a challenge that drives creative people who deeply care about what they produce more than a little batty and the leaderships’ attitude on the matter is quite unhelpful and unrealistic.
Anyone who has interviewed for a CD position at a major agency will tell you that often one of the first questions asked is the unfortunate, “How many major awards have you won recently?” closely followed by, “Which campaigns that won awards do you like the most and why?” These are the same agencies, by the way, that like to wave a hand and publicly proclaim they have no interest in accolades as they are exclusively focused on results for their clients, but the other hand is busily shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars entering all the categories of every show around the world. If you don’t perform on that front and become the hackneyed Leno, then they might limit how far you go in your career. However, if you don’t generate clear results in this harsh new world of measurability, you’re also going to find they may likely suspend your career — sometimes permanently. Not exactly a situation that helps with inspiration.
So, at the end of the day, if you complain that 90% of the ads and campaigns you see is pure schlock and you can’t understand how professionals who proclaim to be creative allow such to go out the door, remember the lesson: when it comes to a choice between quality and quantity, the executives, be they in an agency, corporation, or a television network, will always go with the numbers.