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2009 Leadership Conference, The New Realities of the 4A's, by Nancy Hill, President and CEO, 4A's 

It’s great to be back in San Francisco—on my old stomping grounds—where I spent seven crazy years working at two amazing agencies: Citron Haligman Bedecarre (which later became AKQA) and Goldberg Moser O’Neill (which later became Hill Holliday, San Francisco).

I know you’ll find that this is a serious business meeting for these serious times, not simply an excuse to pat ourselves on the back or to cry on each other’s shoulders.

Like many of you, the 4A’s also has made some difficult decisions over the past year, and I’m very mindful of the time and expense required to be away from your offices. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being here.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year since I took the helm at the 4A’s and we gathered in Laguna Niguel for the 2008 Leadership Conference. I remember thinking at the time that my 26 years working at 4A’s member agencies of all sizes, all across the country, laid a perfect, solid foundation for me to lead the transformation of the 4A’s into the 21st century.

So while I’ve felt totally prepared to transform the 4A’s, in other ways, I’ve come to realize that there’s still so much for me and the 4A’s to learn: From agencies, from marketers and even from detractors of the association and the industry.

From agencies, I continue to be humbled and awestruck by the great work and great ideas that you generate each and every day on behalf of your clients.

And I’m constantly reminded that brilliance isn’t relegated only to shops on the coasts (or in Chicago or in Miami, for that matter), but exists at agencies everywhere, all across the country. I’ve seen outstanding work being done in Pittsburgh, Austin, Richmond, Dallas, Atlanta and Minneapolis, to name just a few.

From marketers, I’m encouraged by your genuine spirit of collaboration and excited by the possibilities and opportunities that we have to continue to work together to nurture innovation and challenge the advertising status quo.

In fact, working with Bob and the ANA and Randy and the IAB on matters as critically important as industry self-regulation, privacy and data retention has been one of the most rewarding experiences of the past year.

And from industry critics, I’ve welcomed the chance to provide clarity and perspective on the real business issues that we face. It’s been important to me that the 4A’s take our critics head on—whether they’re activists, journalists or bloggers—rather than sit back and take the pot shots.

We’ve actively opened up the lines of communication on this front, making it a two-way conversation rather than one that fosters gossip and rumors. So, to the incessantly negative adver-bloggers out there, both anonymous and named: I realize it’s your job to rattle the cage a bit—well-intentioned or not—but I challenge the central premise of at least one blogging provocateur’s claim that all big agencies are dumb or that the 4A’s Leadership Conference is—as it was put so colorfully in a recent blog post—simply an expensive “wank fest.”

In fact, I’d like to personally invite any skeptics in the blogosphere to next year’s 4A’s Leadership Conference.

If I had to chose just two important lessons that I’ve learned over the past year, it’s that the job of the 4A’s—my job at the 4A’s—is to listen with an open heart and an open mind and to learn without prejudice or bias informed by how business was conducted in the past or by what has already transpired.

As a group that was founded in 1917, there’s a lot of history (and baggage)—and lots of legacy practices—at the 4A’s. But I believe in order for this 92-year-old institution to lead our members in the 21st century, the 4A’s needs to stop thinking (and acting) so institutionally, and we need to start thinking (and acting) more like a startup.

From the way we communicate with our constituents to how we deliver our products and services to the kinds of topics that we choose to explore and to confront on behalf of our industry and our members, it’s perfectly clear to me that the 4A’s needs to dust off its cobwebs, shed some of our excess baggage, and stand tall.

For me, that means rolling up my sleeves and getting my hands a little dirty sometimes. It means walking the walk, not just paying lip service to the issues that matter to you. It means … listening more than dictating.

In fact, I’m convinced that the New Realities of the 4A’s is predicated on a more fearless approach to tackling the tough business issues that our industry faces—From the intrusion of unwarranted government regulation to righting the unfair compensation practices of a handful of wrong-headed (but vocal and visible) marketers—as well as diving into the conversations when marketers, like Coke did just yesterday, announce new value-based compensation models that raise as many questions as they answer.

The New Realities of the 4A’s means that rather than remaining purposefully silent and opting out of the hard conversations occurring among those activists and critics who brand our industry as racist or out-of-touch, it’s the job of the 4A’s—it’s my job—to enter the fray and engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue for the benefit of us all.

And the New Realities of the 4A’s is to provide a clearer restatement of purpose that redefines the meaning and existence of this trade association that some have said has become long in the tooth and verging on irrelevance.

So forget about reading and digesting the 4A’s long and convoluted mission statement. All you need to remember is this: The 4A’s statement of purpose is to provide leadership, advocacy and guidance to the advertising community. End of sentence.

The management team at the 4A’s and I have thoughtfully reorganized the association to better align our services with that new statement of purpose, and worked to break down the nearly century-old silos that have existed at the 4A’s.

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to travel all across the country and to meet with agencies of all kinds (and of all sizes and of all specialties).

In fact, 4A’s staff have met one-on-one with over 350 of our members at least once over the past year, and what was confirmed during many conversations with all of you is something that I’ve always known in my gut was true: Our name, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, is a bit of a misnomer, and undercuts the New Realities of what the 4A’s is today.

Yes, our perspective has historically been viewed exclusively through the lens of American business. But in today’s deeply intertwined global economy, it would be naïve and self-defeating to retain such a narrow, domestic focus.

Indeed, to isolate ourselves and to ignore what so many of our member agencies already know—that is, there’s virtually no such thing as American-only business anymore—is to more quickly push the 4A’s to obsolescence.

To that end, I am happy to announce that we are opening up our own borders and offering a new type of membership in the 4A’s: International Associate Membership, which is non-voting, and will be offered for the first time beginning this summer.

Next week, I’ll meet with leaders of the European Association of Communications Agencies (EACA) to talk about the structure and dues arrangement for their agency members outside the United States. From there, we plan to meet with the other organizations around the world to quickly expand our offering.

I believe this is an important next step for the 4A’s, and a natural evolution of where our industry has been heading for some time. And, it’s what you, our members, have said—over and over again—that you need in order to better serve clients who are now digitally enabled to do business globally, and to develop alliances with other agencies throughout the world that can eventually lead to new business opportunities.

The details are still being worked out, but I’ll be sure to keep you informed of all further developments.

As for the “Association” in our name, it’s a term—to me—that has always felt simultaneously too self-important (like a yacht club trying too hard) and at the same time too clinical (like the American Medical Association).

I much prefer to think of the 4A’s as an industry community, one that embraces all comers—regardless of pedigree—from all walks of life, from all areas of experience and expertise.

Which leads me to “Advertising Agencies.” Ugh. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with members who tell me, “But we’re not an advertising agency.” Or, they ask, “What about media? Digital? Public relations? Direct marketing? Experiential? Social media?” The list goes on and on.

Like the narrow focus imposed by the “American” in our name, the phrase “Advertising Agencies,” too, belies the fact that our industry has changed dramatically in recent years, and changed definitively since the 4A’s founding in 1917.

While “advertising”—certainly—continues to play a large role in the businesses of many of our members, that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the myriad service offerings that our member companies provide.

So once and for all, I’d like to dispense with the name, American Association of Advertising Agencies, and from this day forward, let us be known simply as the 4A’s.

It’s what we’re known as to our friends and colleagues. It’s how our trade press identifies us. And it’s the brand name that we’ve collectively developed—and cherished—over 90-plus years that in itself truly represents the diversity and genius of this great industry, and is more inclusive of all aspects of our members’ businesses.

Plus, if GEICO (formerly known as the Government Employee Insurance Company) or AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) can drop their cumbersome and misleading formal names in favor of their more concise and more precise acronyms as their brands, then certainly the community association that represents the marketing communications industry can do the same thing…

I think we can all agree that the New Reality that looms largest for all of us is the economy. And how we, as a community, will fare in this “new normal.”

“It seems probable to me that in all of our economic life, the element on which we are inclined to place too low an estimate is advertising.”

That’s a quote from a speech given at the 10th annual meeting of the 4A’s, in Washington, DC, by then-U.S. President Calvin Coolidge, on October 27, 1927.

As I prepared for my remarks today, I spent some time going through a treasure trove of materials in the 4A’s archives. And while I know it’s critically important not to get hung up on the past, it’s only through the lens of history that we can fully appreciate where we’re going. In re-reading President Coolidge’s speech, I was struck by how—more than 80 years later—our business is still fighting for greater respect in the public sphere.

OK, I know some of you—Jonah? Suzanne?—are thinking, “Get over it.” But bear with me for a minute while I state my case for advertising, especially in this economy.

“When we stop to consider the part which advertising plays in modern life … we see that basically it is that of education. It informs [us] of the existence and nature of [products and services] by explaining the advantages to be derived from their use and creates for them a wider demand.

“[Advertising] makes new thoughts, new desires, and new actions. By changing the attitude of mind, it changes the material condition of the people.”

That excerpt is also from President Coolidge’s 1927 speech (and honestly, who knew that our 30th President was such an advocate for the advertising business).

The argument that a 1920s President makes for advertising rings as true today as it did back then, and it’s especially relevant given the parallels that we face in our uncertain economic times.

I’ll go a step further: It’s precisely in these uncertain times that advertising not only helps to increase market share and mind share for marketers, but it can sustain these gains over time, compared to marketers who decide to cut back their ad spending in recession.

We’ve seen this proven time and again, and it was covered in a persuasive article by James Surwiecki in The New Yorker, just last week.

I would add that the power of advertising goes beyond simply educating or shaping desire.

Advertising, at its best, functions as a two-way mirror that absorbs and reflects our culture, our values, our truth as a people. What’s not to love about this great business?

It doesn’t help much, though, that in a recent Harris Interactive survey, 66 percent of consumers said advertising agencies have at least some responsibility for the current economic crisis that we’re in because we (advertising professionals) caused people to buy things they couldn’t afford.

Not financial institutions. Not mortgage brokers. Not the U.S. government. Not even themselves. Advertising agencies bear the blame for the fiscal crisis because of … advertising.

Imagine that? Advertising agencies causing the crippling of the economy because we stimulate consumer desire and consumer demand. Who says advertising doesn’t work?

It would be almost laughable if it weren’t so seriously disappointing that the common perception of our business in the United States continues to be so negative for so many people.

And the fact that there’s virtually no current depiction in popular culture or media of what it’s really like to work in the business leads some people—consumers, clients and employees—to believe that the era of “Mad Men” era persists.

By the way, I really wanted to love “Trust Me,” and I had high hopes that, finally, there would be at least one television show—anything—that showcased what it’s really like to be in the trenches at a contemporary agency. But like most viewers, “Trust Me” failed to capture my attention.

So what are we doing wrong? And how can we get people excited about advertising again…or at least excited for the first time?

Or as Agency Spy put it so succinctly, “Let’s get the sexy back.”

A better answer, I think, lies in the concerted efforts by the 4A’s and the entire industry to provide a greater level of transparency and diligence in the way that we recruit, train and develop our talent, particularly diverse talent.

It seems to me that a real, tangible commitment to diversity and inclusion—coming straight from the top—is our most powerful tool to win the hearts and minds of the next generation of agency leaders, and at the same time become more inclusive, and more relevant.

“How have we as an industry, and as individual agencies, discharged our responsibility to our fellow human beings,” namely African Americans?

“The Federal Equal Opportunity Commission has told us this. The New York City Commission on Human Rights has told us this. It is high time we told ourselves—and did something about it.”

That’s an excerpt from a thoughtful and prescient speech titled, “A Look in the Looking Glass,” given by former 4A’s chairman Jock Elliott at a past 4A’s annual meeting.

It may come as a surprise to some that Mr. Elliott’s words were spoken in 1968, but it should be downright shameful to us all that the exact same words still apply today, in light of the continuing lack of minorities at agencies—specifically African Americans in middle and senior ranks.

So what’s the 4A’s going to do about it?

That’s the question I was asked the most in the run up to New York City Council hearings last fall, and it’s the challenge that I continue to wrestle with following the January release of Cyrus Mehri’s dismaying report on the continued lack of African Americans in agencies today. I’ve heard this concern all over the country, not just in New York.

“[Diversity] is not a fad. It’s not an idea of the month. It’s central and it’s linked very directly to the business strategy. That is the case in great times and in more challenging times.”

That’s Eric J. Foss, chairman and chief executive at Pepsi Bottling Group, quoted in a February 14, 2009, New York Times interview. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Foss.

Let me briefly outline what the 4A’s has already done:

For nearly 40 years—shortly after the original New York City commission hearings in 1968 and spurred on by Mr. Elliott’s cri de guerre for agencies to fight on the diversity frontlines—the 4A’s has sponsored a highly successful, national internship program, the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program (MAIP) to provide promising students the opportunity to get valuable, real-life experience working at 4A’s member agencies across the country.

Our success rate has been tremendous, including MAIP alumni who have risen to the ranks of creative directors, heads of broadcast production and digital thought-leaders.

Today, the MAIP alumni network boasts more than 1,600 members, and despite the tough economy, this year we’ve placed 106 interns at 61 participating 4A’s agencies.

And coupled with MAIP, the 4A’s has raised and disbursed more than $2.5 million in scholarship funds—to students wishing to study creativity and media arts—through the 4A’s Foundation, thanks in large measure to the generous contributions of 4A’s members and friends.

I know a common criticism that gets tossed at the 4A’s—and at your agencies—is that the pipeline for entry-level, diverse candidates has existed for some time, and has yet to resolve the dearth of African Americans in middle and senior ranks.

Clearly, an open door is not enough. And it isn’t.

Last year at this meeting, I announced the 4A’s role as a founding partner of Howard University’s Center for Excellence in Advertising.

Unlike previous programs that focused on entry-level candidates, CEA is designed to recruit and train diverse mid-career and senior executives from within advertising and from other industries with transferable skill sets, and to help identify opportunities for them in this business.

I’m happy to report that the program is getting on its feet, and its first major event will be held in New York City on May 14, and features President Barrack Obama’s chief campaign strategist David Plouffe.

Adrianne Smith—or should I say the very formidable—Adrianne Smith, executive director of the Center of Excellence in Advertising, is here at this meeting, and I encourage you to introduce yourself and get involved with CEA.

Last year, I made two important appointments to the 4A’s management team:

First, I named David Prince as senior vice president in charge of talent development. Part of David’s responsibility is to help me and the 4A’s to move the discussion of diversity to a place where we can have open and honest conversations—to put it out in the open rather than on the fringes of the industry.

To that end, this afternoon David will lead a panel of industry talent who will speak about their own experiences in our industry, the obstacles they have faced and what they believe we can be doing to address those barriers head on.

And like the International Associate Membership I just announced, I’m pleased to also announce that the 4A’s will begin an Educational-slash-Institutional Associate Membership that will allow students and faculty at colleges and universities to gain access to the 4A’s.

This non-voting membership is designed to help feed the pipeline of diverse candidates and better connect the 4A’s and our members to the creative community as it continues to evolve.

And second, I named Chick Foxgrover (who presented “The CIO’s Perspective” at yesterday’s SAMs workshop) as chief information officer of the 4A’s.

These are both new positions, and both are emblematic of the New Realities of the 4A’s, as we raise the standard of technology and training expertise at the association.

In the coming year, look for the launch of several new training and development programs from the 4A’s, as well as a wholly revamped Web-communications platform.

We’ve already made a number of changes in our programming and service offerings:

From our highly successful new business Webinar series, so ably run by Tom Finneran, who oversees our agency management group;

To the online collaboration system implemented by Marsha Appel, head of 4A’s research services;

To the various new studies on digital and media, run by Mike Donahue;

To the recent, successful talent union negotiations overseen by the 4A’s Kathleen Quinn;

To the invaluable and critical advocacy work performed by Dick O’Brien and his staff in our Washington office on issues as far-ranging as advertising to children to Internet privacy;

The past year has been an incredibly busy one for the 4A’s. And I’m proud of our hardworking staff.

I’ll also add that the work Dick and his team focus on in our Washington office have been integral to the 4A’s service offering that has allowed our community to thrive. They are advertising veterans and are keyed into the important players and issues of our community in ways that few other organizations can be.

You can find a comprehensive recap of all of the work that the 4A’s has performed on our members’ behalf in our annual Year in Review, which is not printed but is available on our Web site.

Last, it wouldn’t be a speech by me, if I didn’t spend just a minute or so talking about my favorite subject: Technology.

Like many of you, I lived and worked through the highs of the dot-com boom, with the IPO frenzy and fabulous startup parties, as well as the lows of the subsequent bust, when abandoned Aeron chairs rolled down Battery Street like so many tumbleweeds.

I’ve often said that living through the tech boom and bust in San Francisco was the million-dollar experience that I wouldn’t pay a nickel to repeat.

However, out of that experience, I think, we all became much savvier about what’s real and what’s just smoke and mirrors when it comes to technology. And to managing through a tough economic environment.

I’m not sure that I would have believed you—back then—if you told me that digital communications would evolve from e-mail and text to rich media and video and then back to essentially text, again (see Twitter and Google).

In some way, I suppose, the New Realities of the 4A’s is having a sort of “Benjamin Button” moment. The 4A’s may be 92 years old, but with each passing day, the hearts and minds of those of us who work on your behalf at your industry community are growing younger, more fearless and more at ease with technology.

The past year has been challenging and complicated for us all—harrowing at times—but always, always an opportunity to learn and grow, and hopefully will lay the ground work for us to emerge in a brighter day.

We have a lot of work to do, and a very jam-packed agenda, so let me say thank you and let’s get to work.

Nancy Hill 

Nancy Hill
President and CEO

2009 Leadership Conference

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