Island Life by David Slack

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When Muldoon was still Prime Minister, I became a suit in an advertising agency. I would call it an accident, and I'd rate it as one of my more regrettable ones.

I had a part-time job in a pub in Wellington and I was getting towards the end of my law degree. Young women would come into the bottle store. I would talk to them. One of them was named Mandy, and she would come in quite often to pick up supplies for the ad agency where she worked. The agency sounded glamorous, the people she worked with were glamorous and she was glamorous. See if you can guess the reason I asked her one day as she was heading for the door: "So, do you have any part-time jobs there?"

A week later I was a part-time courier for my new best friends at the advertising agency.

At that point, the idea made sense. I'd be making a bit more money; I had a nice little desk in a room full of filing cabinets; the people were fun to be around and because there was no particular code of office conduct for a young student with a motorbike helmet in an advertising agency, I could pretty much act as I liked. We all got on famously and I rode all over Wellington fetching artwork and transparencies from one building to another. The only flaw in the scheme was that I was still going to lectures a few hours each day, and that meant that your super-urgent package might be sitting on David's desk for a bit of a stretch while he was in Kelburn. No worries, though. They soon learned to call up New Zealand Couriers if they had to.

What made the job more interesting was that the offices were a couple of floors below the National Party Head Office. Their ad agency was a couple of floors below that. Being 1981, a lot of Thinking Big was going on. Being 1981, there was also a degree of civil breakdown being fomented by the Prime Minister, and there was often protest activity outside the building. I would probably be the only person filmed for TV news that winter wearing a bike helmet in the middle of a Springbok tour march who was actually on his way to deliver artwork.

They were happy, simple days.

Then I got The Offer. I was sitting at my desk by the filing cabinets one lunchtime, tucking into my slice of quiche and reading my free copy of the Listener when one of the Suits strolled in. He said "How are the studies going?"

"Fine." I said.

"When do you finish your degree?" He asked.

"Next year." I said.

"And then what happens?" He asked.

"Then I queue up with everyone else for a job as a law clerk." I said.

"Looking forward to it? He asked.

"I suppose so." I said.

"Did you ever think about working in advertising?" He asked.

You can join up the dots.

What I didn't know then but I surely know now is this: just because someone offers you a job, don't assume it's in your best interests to take it. Pretty bleedingly obvious, I'll admit, but when you're flattered to be asked, and relieved to know you don't have to go through a whole lot of interviews where they might turn you down, well, it can be a little seductive. Also, Mandy still worked there.

You can probably also join up the dots about how someone who ended up being a speechwriter enjoyed life as a suit - sorry, Account Executive - and not, let's say, a copywriter. Within 18 months I had changed careers and I knew I didn't ever want to work in advertising again.

I can see now, looking back on it, that I also got into the business because I'd been fascinated by what they did. They say it doesn't pay to watch sausages being made. In this case, I think what shocked me wasn't so much the sausages as the people making them.

I met all kinds of nice people in the business: entertaining, lively, witty people; thoughtful and considerate people. But I also encountered some human beings who just made the whole experience untenable. Sure, you'll find disagreeable people in any office. But the advertising business has some real shockers. Take your pick: self-absorbed; venal, galling; insincere; not to mention the usual pride/envy/gluttony/lust/anger/greed/sloth packages.

These were not people you would want your daughter or your marketing budget to meet.

Seeing the sausages being made left me with less respect for the business, but it didn't put me off the ads. I still liked seeing good work, and I still admired the creative talent that lay behind them.

Or at least I used to. These days, I mostly use the mute, and flick past the advertising pages.

Yes, they made ads that sucked 20 years ago too, but not so many, and the pretentiousness factor was way lower. I don't see nearly as many New Zealand ads using the wit or wry humour, or imagination they once had. In fact I see scarcely any. Some of today's ads make me wonder what the people who are making them really know about the world around them. Their image of a typical New Zealander seems to be a fashion designer living in Ponsonby.

I realise this may be a demographic issue: Of course our tragically hip ads don't appeal to you, you sad old git. You're on the other side of 40 now and you no longer count.

But I don't think that's the whole answer.

There's an absence of ideas and a degree of self-absorption in ads today that suggests to me that a lot of the people in the creative departments these days don't know all that much about, oh: life; people; places; western culture; non-western culture, or anything that happened in the world before the first episode of Friends.

That leaves them stuck with making knowing in-jokes about the process of making ads and the media in which they're being broadcast. You can dress it up as post-modern or ironic, but for the most part, it strikes me that these people don't actually have terribly much imagination or some kind of general knowledge to spark their ideas.

I think that's a problem. Ads play an influential part in our popular culture. If they're good, they'll manage to offer something worthwhile: fresh ideas, for example, or an interpretation of some aspect of life that's intelligent and interesting. Yeah, I know, they're just supposed to shift products. But they can't help but play a larger role than that. In this consumer society, any ad implies something about the things we value, or the values we hold.

I'd feel a whole lot more comfortable about the work that's being turned out if I thought it was being done by people who possessed a little more insight and perception.

I got to thinking about all this the other day because I picked up a book in Dymocks called The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR by Al and Laura Ries.

They maintain that public relations does a much better job of selling than advertising. That's what you should use, therefore, to build a brand. They offer some big examples: Starbucks; the Body Shop; Wal-Mart and Red Bull. All of them have been built with virtually no advertising. It's a theme that they appear to beat to death over 300-odd pages. I didn't see enough there to bother taking it home, but I'm persuaded by the idea.

I think it's true to say that people are more skeptical of ads today. I think it's true that advertising is losing impact. And I think that's true in part because a lot of the folks who are making them need to be a little more thoughtful about their messages.

But here's the thing that gives me pause: if Ries Snr and Jr are right, and I think they are, you can expect to see an outcome that I don't much relish. You'll see a bunch of scary human beings not unlike those from whom I fled screaming when I exited the ad business smearing their greasy mitts all over the "free" media.

Too which you might rightly say: In other late-breaking news, Hitler invades Poland. Yes, the news media already suffers the depredations of spin doctors and image handlers. But this will be as nothing compared to the onslaught you can expect if every ad-man and his wolf-hound decides to take this path.

The movie and TV and music business people have already half-strangled the media with this whole celebrity culture business. I fear it could get much worse. And I know a bit about it. I once had a job in PR.