The adman and the ice age

I was amazed at the retrograde thinking from WPP chief Martin Sorrell in a speech reported by the FT. But Richard Edelman, head of Edelman PR, was even more gobsmacked. He blogged:

Now Sir Martin Sorrell is seeking to turn back time to a fairyland that he and other advertising executives knew so well, when media was only old media, when top down marketing prospered, and when control of the message was paramount. Sorrell’s speech… is absolutely stunning in its recidivism.

Among Sorrell’s gems as reported by the FT:

“How do you deal with socialistic anarchists?” he asked, referring to Craigslist, the popular, free classified advertising site that has been threatening revenues at US city newspapers.

“The internet is the most socialistic force you’ve ever seen,” he added….

Well, actually, I think the internet is potentially the most capitalistic force yet invented, empowering the individual and the small business to control their fates and their value.

It seems that Sorrell is defining capitalism as buying up ever more companies, since that’s what he does. But that, I say, is not the essence of the free economy. The individualistic anarchy — the free marketplace — of the internet is much purer.

The internet is not a socialist collective. That’s not to say that we do not end up acting in collective ways. The internet enables societies to form as well, even when they don’t know it — that is, when the data about our activities shows, after the fact, that great minds think alike. Still, the wired are not pinkos.

Sorrell next whines about media giving away content for free:

“They have decided – ‘if I don’t eat my children, somebody else will’,” … adding that he disapproved of giving away content for free. “You should charge for it if the consumer values the content,” he said.

Well, ain’t that ironic? Here’s an ad guy staring incredible new advertising opportunities and availabilities in the face and he can’t see that this is the greatest gift his industry could ever have imagined: the end of scarcity, the introduction of endless competition for ad dollars, lower prices meeting greater effectiveness. Wake up, mate!

Next, Sorrell complains that companies are losing talent because young people don’t want to devote themselves to slow-moving heirarchies. How shall I put this, Sir: Well, duh?

And then, as Edelman says, Sorrell gets to his real bottom line. Says the FT:

Sir Martin said that while his agencies and Google were co-existing, the search giant could make life difficult for the advertising industry. “We are Google’s third-largest customer, but on the other hand they are talking about an electronic media buying and planning exchange,” he said referring to a service where advertisers can buy and plan their own media campaigns without going through agencies.

Says Edelman:

The dirty little secret for ad agencies (and hence their holding company owners) is that the real money these days is made in media planning and buying, a model jeopardized by Google and by the dispersion of media which disrupts advertising price points.

Here is the reality. The peer-to-peer revolution has happened. The genie is not going back into the bottle. Paul Saffo, technology futurist,who addressed Edelman’s management meeting on Tuesday morning in Washington, said,

“We are shifting from information to media. Media is information when it is embedded into our lives. The mass media order that came in the 50s with the advent of television is shifting to personal media. Mass media brought the world to us on a one way street. Now in the era of personal media, you must answer back, you must be engaged. There can be no bystanders in this revolution….” . . . .

So there you have it, Sir Martin’s fervent wish that the world returns to a walled garden of proprietary content, a well manicured lawn and beautifully tended flowers where marketers reach consumers through saturation advertising or direct mail or other one way push tactics versus the Saffo/Jarvis/Gillmor view of a chaotic world of continuous discussion, learning from the crowd and remixed media where companies must cede control to gain credibility. To me the choice is as clear as Berlin before the fall of the wall and the Berlin of today.

[Full disclosure: I was brought in to run a panel at the Edelman management meeting in Washington yesterday.]

: FRIDAY UPDATE: The FT sums up the reaction to old Sir Martin’s daydreaming.

  • One thing I love about the Internet is it is nothing but capitalism — a completely free market, dynamic in every way. In fact, socialism is dead as a threat because of the Internet.

    That said, I’ve written in my blog before, even recently, is craigslists great weakness is its socialistic tendencies.

  • Interesting because Edelman is one of the most reknown thinkers today in PR. Anyway what does Steven D. Levitt have to say about the truth behind free advertising these days?

  • Lee

    It’s a shame that Sorell isn’t embracing change. New technology and emerging media will likely bring exciting and great new opportunities for creative advertising. Perhaps there needs to be a changing of the guard…

  • Having spent some 20 years in the WPP family, I am confident that Sir Martin’s remarks do not represent the views of many of his employees nor the capabilities of the firms that fall under his aegis. The world’s second largest ad holding company does have quite a bit happening on the digital media and peer-to-peer fronts.

    And, of course one would expect Richard Edelman (a friend and former employer) to weigh in given his firm’s independent status and competitive position in the market. Now wouldn’t it be fun to bring Richard and Martin together for a tete a tete? Sir Martin would request Charlie Rose as moderator, while Richard would opt for Arianna Huffington.

  • Craig has got a great background and is truly on of the Internet Pioneers… he was there before most of us even knew what the web was..

    [[[One thing I love about the Internet is it is nothing but capitalism — a completely free market, dynamic in every way. In fact, socialism is dead as a threat because of the Internet]]]]

    You are perhaps right here, taking into consideration all indices and any other factors.. there are no age limits.. kids have the facility to watch porn… you need any answer… you can check the internet for info… if needed you can even copy and plagiarise… now these are some factors that don’t come under capitalism but under socialism…

    Not that it makes any difference… but there has to be some curbing not that porn or plagiarism matters, it happens elsewhere as well… but with having free access and a free market means we have to cope with these things as well… the fact it is free doesn’t mean much… the fact it is dynamic is indicated by the contextual ads which keep changing..

    You are probably right when you say there is no control… that is the best factor of the internet.. but even that has its limitations… (there are sufficient lawsuits to prove that)… so I am quite lost as to the capitalism part.. it is definitely a bit more freer than other sources – perhaps you are right there..


    PS.. You have a great blog!

  • Corporate profits aren’t an indication of functioning capitalism. Monopolies are corporations that tend to have high profits yet they’re the antithesis of free market capitalism. In fact, productivity enabled by the internet has the Fed worried about Deflation (think Moore’s law applied to shoes).

  • Jeff:

    Note the title of Richard’s article, “Sir Martin, Tear Down That Wall.” It’s certainly catchy but terrible misleading. What you and Richard and friends fail to see is that Communism was replaced with a system grounded in the rule of law. I don’t think you/he truly understand the “anarchy” part of the internet at all. It REALLY feels good that all this stuff is free. There are thousands of geeky kids that will surely help you rationalize the benefits. But bottom line, without some boundaries on intellectual capital, eventually NO ONE EATS! That includes you.


    – Amanda Chapel

  • Mike G

    When I was at Leo Burnett in the mid-90s we joked that Leo’s slogan “We will make the best creative in the business, bar none” had been changed to “We will PLACE the best creative in the business, bar none.” That pretty much sums up the shift in priorities at the big boys, Sorrell’s empire included.

  • I think I disagree with Amanda’s statement on “no one eats.” It’s such a generalization , it’s hard to take too much issue with.

    But the great thing about free markets is they are totally dynamic. They adjust. The freer they are, the faster they adjust. The freer they are, the more people who eat (just to keep with the over generalizing theme).

    There are plenty of laws to deal with the bad actors — child porn and all that — we don’t need any more laws.

    Free minds and free markets.

  • Oh, Shanks. Thanks!

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  • Sorrell has been sowing the seeds of digital doubt for quite some time.

    It has been a nice week for introspection by the regal elite of the UK’s ad agency bosses. Perhaps taking his cue from WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell, Lord Saatchi has also been discussing the strange death of modern advertising. See: dead flowers on advertisings grave.


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