The Agency: A "Personality Market"?

In the course of my research in the last while, I’ve been reading about the history of the advertising agency. A big theme that keeps emerging was first described by Tunstall in 1964 about advertising agencies in the UK:

“People who move into advertising from other jobs often notice that agencies have an atmosphere all their own. This is the atmosphere of the personality market; individuals must sense the mood of others”(Tunstall, 1964, p. 17)

Managing the expectations of others and “getting along” is paramount even today. In his study of a Swedish advertising agency, Alvesson (1998)says:

“The advertising worker, when not extraordinarily successful, faces more pressing identity problems that most other workers. Personality, personal relationships — with clients, but also within the agency — and ability to give a trustworthy impression is seen as crucial”(Alvesson, 1998, p. 991).

I take this to mean that managing your identity is as important as doing good work. You must be perceived as “truthworthy” above all. What does your agency consider a “trustworthy” employee?

I argue in the chapter I’m writing right now that the “good advertising worker” conforms to what David Ogilvy says is important:

“When I was the chief executive of my agency, I always took home two briefcases, and spent four hours reading their contents. Not much fun for my wife” (Ogilvy, 1982, p. 46).

Or what Mayer describes as life in “Ulcer Gulch” AKA Madison Avenue:

“Every night the brief and attaché cases go home stuffed with work because the advertising man (sic) is paid for his production, not his time, and the industry expects every man to do his duty whether he is in the office or eating lunch, on the commuter train or in the bosom of his family” (Mayer, 1964, p. 10).

When your agency is a “personality market,” the best marketers are those that comply with this image of the “good advertising worker.” Any indicator of “clock watching,” according to Mayer is “a cardinal sin.”

In my work so far, this image of the “good advertising worker” has many implications for working time, how its understood, what it symbolizes, and the practices around it.


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