Mercurial Personalities in Adland
February 2, 2010 by Nate Winter
A couple weeks back, Ad Age published a short news item on the death of veteran adman Guy Day. As president and co-founder of Chiat/Day, he guided the agency to create some of advertising’s most celebrated work, including Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad.
Ad Age’s write up also shed light on Day’s personality with a quote from long-time Chiat/Day production manager Sid Salinger. "[Guy Day] was even-tempered; quick to praise, and slow to criticize. Advertising agencies, by their very nature, are generally peopled by mercurial personalities. Guy's mind was lightning-quick, but his tongue was mannerly and controlled. He was in every sense of the word, a gentleman -- a gentle man."
A colleague here at Pomegranate sent the quote my way and asked my opinion on “mercurial personalities” in advertising. So it got me thinking...
First off, let’s establish exactly what we mean by “mercurial.” In the words of ye olde dictionary.com:
- changeable; volatile; fickle; flighty; erratic: a mercurial nature.
- animated; lively; sprightly; quick-witted.
Ultimately I believe Salinger’s comment is this: while the ad industry in general (and creatives in particular) are known for being flighty and high-strung (mercurial), Guy Day was level-headed and down-to-earth, which contributed to his success.
Are ad agencies in fact “peopled by mercurial personalities”? Absolutely. In fact, I think there are some interesting parallels between the creative personality and the work of an advertising creative. And these parallels begin to explain this mercurial nature.
The creative personality is about a constant search for originality. We want to leave our unique mark on the world as creators. Implicit in our search for newness is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. This explains some of the more tangible stereotypes of advertising creatives: avant garde clothing and hairstyles, interest in obscure music, and other creative exploits. Creatives tend to be early adopters. They tend to be young, since young people are culturally closer to the next big thing, be it a viral web video, a piece of technology, a fashion trend or whatever.
Now let’s look at the agencies that employ these creative people. Ad agencies, when they’re good at what they do, are in the business of ideas. There’s a constant search for new ideas and new perspectives that relate to brands, products and consumers. And the atmosphere is often fast-paced, so the existing instinct towards the next big thing is accelerated even further. In these ways, ad agencies and the creative personality are a natural fit.
And that being the case, the agency atmosphere caters to the creative personality with perks that eschew traditional corporate decorum, like casual dress code and a collaborative, often-social atmosphere. The idea behind this is that freeing ourselves of certain limitations aids the creative process by opening us up to look at products and brands in new and unexpected ways. If we live unencumbered, we can think that way, too.
The description of Day in the quote is so different from the mercurial norm. And I suspect that personalities like Day’s aren’t as welcome in the agency environment as they once were. A calm confidence is powerful in some scenarios, but I suspect it could rub mercurial types the wrong way. Amidst an agency’s beehive of confusion, an even-tempered person whose speech was mannerly and controlled would certainly raise a few eyebrows. And a calm, confident individual could easily be misread as aloof, smug, lazy or indifferent.
But maybe the question becomes this: “How does a collection of flighty people build an agency with longevity? How does it keep itself from becoming old news in the face of something new and exciting?” That’s where Guy Day’s type is vitally important in the ad industry, particularly when it comes to the longterm vision of the agency or a client brand. In order to develop great creative, we need to resist the chaos. We need to look and listen to what’s around us in order to identify original territory and explore it.
I think we’re all capable of harnessing aspects of Guy Day’s personality. So let’s not be afraid to show them. We’ll need to in the long run.