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Adland: Searching For the Meaning of Life On a Branded Planet by James P. Othmer

October 14, 2010

At one point in this book, Jame Othmer recalls a moment during which he was overseeing the shoot of a commercial in South Africa. His client was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce the spot, and he looked out on Johannesburg, a city teeming with the kind of third-world poverty that would never be witnessed by most of the Americans who would see the commercial they were shooting, and he thought that something felt very wrong about what they were doing. It wasn’t a breakthrough moment. Not an epiphany, really. Just one of those many moments in his advertising career that made him stop and say, “What the hell am I doing?”

Not that all these moments were about heavy moralizing. The same question came to mind after several hours of debating what kind of swirl made yogurt look the most appetizing. Or when he rented a New York theater and hired actors to perform an elaborate business pitch for a client that obviously did not want to work with the agency anymore. Othmer, like most advertising creatives, asked this question often. For twenty years, he worked as a successful copywriter, then creative director at various globally-networked ad agencies. Then he sold his first novel, and his life changed.

There is so much I can personally relate to in Othmer’s exploration of the advertising world that it was sometimes eerie. The foreign commercial shoots, the ridiculous discussions that surround a food shoot, his description of the Cannes Advertising Festival. Appearances of people that I know, have met, have had discussions with. Working on hopeless new business pitches. The emotional roller coaster of coming up with an idea you love, then having it pecked to death in meeting after meeting. The moral uncertainty of working on products that are full of fat or sugar, or bad for people in any of the hundreds of ways that products can be bad for people. Othmer’s wry humor in describing all of these things had me nodding along and feeling very connected to him.

In the second half of this book, Othmer interviews some of the most enlightened minds of the advertising world on the changing state of the industry. While this part of the book is interesting, much of what they say has been said at the shows and in the trades and on the blogs. To be fair, it would be hard to write anything about the changing state of advertising that wouldn’t seem somewhat dated by the time the book is printed. But the thing that I found most winning about both parts of the book is that, even after 20 years, Othmer still loves his former industry. Yes, he’s a little jaded, a little cynical, a little frustrated, but deep down he holds the people he has worked with in very high regard (the few people I know who have worked with Othmer have had nothing but great things to say about him as well). It would have been easy for him to get out of advertising, then write a book lambasting it—there’s plenty of which to be critical. But instead, he celebrates the industry, celebrates the people, and celebrates the hard work and sometimes brilliant thinking that comes out of it. And I found that all pretty inspirational.

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