Why Have Admen Lost Their Mojo?

“It’s hard to be a ‘mad man’ in 2007,” said Ernest Lupinacci, who runs a brand consultancy and was a founder of Anomaly, a small agency that’s quickly become one of the leading independent firms in New York. That may also be because there are simply fewer of them; since 2000, according to Advertising Age, ad agencies have lost 18,600 U.S. jobs, or around 9 percent of their workforce. At the same time, the number of marketing consultants such as Mr. Lupinacci have jumped by nearly 58 percent.

In October 1962, Time magazine put the 12 leading advertising men in the country on its cover. These were men like J. Walter Thompson’s Norman Hulbert Strouse, whom the magazine described as “wearing a toothbrush mustache and half-rimmed glasses … In his spare time, Strouse turns out handsomely designed pamphlets on a hand printing press in his elegant triplex on Manhattan’s Beekman Place.” Just as Mr. Ogilvy’s big idea about the Big Idea being central to successful advertising is now antiquated, so too have the space for big personalities in advertising faded.

The implication used to be, if an agency’s chairman was bigger than life, he could inflate your product to similar proportions. A former employee of Mr. Kirshenbaum’s tells this story: “Richard once went to the Bahamas on vacation, and couldn’t get WiFi in his hotel room. They had high-speed wired Internet, but he didn’t want that. So he called the front desk and said, ‘How much to make this entire hotel wireless in under an hour?’ They said, ‘$10,000.’ He said, ‘It better be under an hour.’ And it was done.” When queried about the veracity of this tale, Mr. Kirshenbaum said, “It’s not not true.”

Today, as Mr. Kirshenbaum pointed out at the panel, firms are less likely to bear the founders’ names on the door, and more likely to have a name like StrawberryFrog (or Mother or Anomaly). A big personality can leave the industry and find that his blog has landed him a book deal or television show. Why waste personality on an industry that doesn’t seem to want it anymore?

Would anyone care if 12 advertising executives were placed on the cover of Time today? And it’s almost impossible to imagine an adman (or -woman) being made a Commander of the British Empire or elected to France’s “Order of Arts and Letters,” two honors that were bestowed on Mr. Ogilvy.

“The kinds of personalities and individuals who used to migrate to the advertising industry because of the appeal of working in that industry still exist, but you’re more likely to find them applying for jobs at Google,” said Mr. Lupinacci. “The sensibility of what it means to go work at an ad agency, because of how interesting and irreverent and provocative the industry was—it’s just not there anymore.”

That’s not to say that ambition is dead. The image of advertising in the popular imagination is, it turns out, a hard one to shake and to this day is not entirely untrue. “I thought the industry was so glamorous,” says a 25-year-old former account executive at a midsize agency. “I went to FIT, and my teachers in the advertising and marketing programs were all high-profile. They spun great tales of mingling with celebs at all the parties you see on TV and read about in the papers. And our agency was like high school: all the young kids fucking in the closets. I once got ass on our conference table at 2 a.m. after I stuffed press kits by myself all night. There was also a lot of coke—I once saw an intern cutting lines in the bathroom!”

Indeed, in an industry that, like other media industries, pays a starting salary that’s somewhere in the range of $30,000 a year, a certain level of perquisites is expected. “I used to go on ski trips and surfing camp, and any concert I wanted to go to,” said a former associate media director at a number of large agencies. “Publishers would rent out summer houses for you, and I went to the best restaurants in New York all the time.”

But: “It’s one thing to sip champagne next to whomever at a gala,” said the 25-year-old former account exec. “It’s another thing when you can’t pay your rent.”

In any case, advertising has been usurped by public relations as the industry of choice for those seeking a route to glamour. It’s ironic, of course, because P.R. used to be the industry whose leading practitioners were invisible; a good P.R. agent never let himself usurp his client’s fame. Today, Heidi Montag, one of the stars of MTV’s reality show The Hills, looks pretty behind the desk of an L.A. publicity agency whose founder, Brent Bolthouse, is perfectly content to let the camera linger on his carefully slicked black hair. And thus, a whole generation of teenagers is indoctrinated in the joys of clipboard-holding.

They had David Ogilvy; we have Heidi Montag.