Rebel Without A Clause


Avi Dan

August 10, 2016

When asked in an interview last week about the lack of gender diversity in the ad business, Kevin Roberts, Chairman of ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi said that the debate about gender equality is over. He added that [the lack of women in leadership roles] is not a problem.

Roberts, who resigned following the furor that his comments created, was an unorthodox corporate CEO. His style was that of “management by hyperbole” – an enfant terrible, not shying away from controversy. He once rigged a Coca-Cola soda machine so it would look like he was “shooting” it in a bottler conference when he was General Manager of Pepsi-Cola in Canada.

There are few mavericks left in the C-Suites on Madison Avenue. Being provocative is harder in a corporate culture defined by the Political Correctness clause. Jerry Della Femina, the legendary ad man whose provocative behavior has been limited to blogging from eastern Long Island of late, was considered outrageous in his day, largely because he was. Naming a book about advertising “From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor” after a proposed line for a Japanese electronics company, was outrageous when it was published in 1971, but today’s sensitivities would render it scandalous and not publishable, at least not under that title. Society has both raised and lowered its civility standards simultaneously, and maybe that’s why no one’s trying anymore – it’s just too much work.

Della Femina’s book defined the advertising industry, and it was the best recruitment ad ever written for it. He portrayed the advertising biz as a magnet for rebels, where “it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on”, as Jerry said in another occasion, a quip that would probably land him in a lawyer’s office today.

Rebelliousness and fun are the fuels of creativity and innovation, and both are in short supply right now on Madison Avenue. When Jay Chiat told his namesake agency, which created the ground-breaking “1984” ad for Apple, “Let’s see how big we can get before we get bad”, it was a defiant rallying cry to his rebellious troops. When I asked Dave Droga what is his ambition, he replied that his hopes… [for] Droga5 was to influence and inspire other agencies. And, he added, to shape the culture, to continue with socially responsible work, and to continually innovate. These high aspirations are may be audacious and even outlandish, but that’s the way innovators think.

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Charismatic leadership has been defined in various ways, but a common thread across definitions is that charismatic leaders motivate people by creating a vision that revolves around some set of meaningful higher ideals or values. Being a maverick is more than just having an idea or a hunch, it is about taking real risks and achieving in a way that is unique and unexpected.

That model fit the independent, private agencies of yesteryear. The transition from private firms to public companies under the holding company model meant an evolution to a more neutered system. The principal concern of the advertising conglomerates is income predictability. Volatile rebels were out and any-color-as-long-as-it’s-beige leadership started emerging on Madison Avenue. Risk became a dirty word.

However, agencies must change. The days that you could count on the majority the revenue promised to you on January 1 being there by Christmas are gone.  There are fewer agency of record arrangements, and even the largest, most established agencies are forced to fight for their revenue project by project. Agencies will need a new breed of leaders, bold and more forceful, more willing to play offense and take risks.

Everybody agrees that the agency model is underperforming. The problem is inertia. Few on Madison Avenue are willing to spend the time, the energy or the money to change things. And, to be clear, change is not a matter of size – it’s a matter of attitude. The advertising industry needs leaders like Della Femina, Chiat and Mary Wells Laurence, visionaries with brilliance and the audacity to knock your socks off.


This article was written by Avi Dan from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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