Stuart Elliott's Final Column

The industry has reached the end of an era as ad icon Stuart Elliott shared his final column at The New York Times yesterday. In this fantastic piece (see below), he recounts the top 5 changes in the advertising industry over the past 25 years. The ADVERTISING Club will always have a special place in our hearts for Stuart’s spirit and voice in this business.


The Top 5 Changes on Madison Ave. Over the Last 25 Years

FROM the early 1990s to the mid-2010s — almost a quarter-century of fundamental changes for Madison Avenue, and for those who have covered the advertising industry.

There are profound differences from the past; clearly, the astonishing shift from analog to digital ranks as the most disruptive.

At the same time, there are a rash of similarities that could comfort a time traveler from the days when Mitsubishi was introducing the Diamante to affluent auto buyers; or the idea of populating commercials with hip “dudes” to reach teenage consumers was fresh enough to warrant a feature.

Take, for instance, the headline on an article that was posted Tuesday “Droga5 Wins Hotly Contested Sausage Pitch.” The concept of reading about account changes on a website rather than in print might puzzle that visitor from the past, as would, in all likelihood, the reference toDroga5, an agency that was not opened until 2006.

Yet as 2015 approaches agencies are still fighting each other fiercely for business — in this instance, Johnsonville Sausage — just as they did almost 25 years ago. And there are still publications covering those scrums, even if the one named Adweek no longer provides a weekly print edition.

As transformative as recent changes have been for the advertising business — Joe Mandese, editor in chief of MediaPost, describes them as part of “an industrial revolution”— are they more wrenching than the disruption caused by the rapid rise of television as an ad medium in the 1950s? Or by cable television when it crashed the broadcasters’ party in the 1980s? Perhaps.

On the other hand, ad spending is now near or at historic peaks — fueled, to be sure, by growing budgets for digital media — and the industry has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to change and accept (or co-opt) many of the change agents.

“When people say our industry is dead, we are always able to reinvent ourselves,” said Stephen Martincic, executive vice president for global branding and corporate affairs at the agency FCB.

After all, how many major agencies were forced to close during the financial crisis? How many global agency holding groups went bankrupt during the Great Recession? No-spoiler alert: none and none. Compare that enviable track record with how much the automotive, financial and retail industries suffered during those years.

On the occasion of my last advertising column for The New York Times, and with a hat tip to Chris Rock, here, in my opinion, are the Top 5 most significant differences between advertising then and now.

THE RISE OF DIVERSITY MARKETING As America has come to resemble the “gorgeous mosaic” of David N. Dinkins, advertisers responded — slowly at first, certainly — with inclusive, multicultural campaigns. The results of the 2010 census, which showed the Spanish-speaking population becoming a national presence, produced a boom in Hispanic marketing.

And as same-sex marriage becomes more prevalent and accepted, Madison Avenue is running ads with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender consumers in mainstream media, not only in media aimed at this market. This year alone, brands climbing aboard the rainbow bandwagon included Beats Music, Brita, Cheerios, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Heineken Light, Honey Maid, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Clean, Revlon, Starbucks, Taco Bell and Tide.

TV OR NOT TV? Who could or would have thought in the early ’90s that 20-odd years later the hegemony of television, for decades the most powerful ad medium, would be under siege or, at least, in question. Ratings data, the currency of television, is growing problematic because viewership is more difficult to measure when people use mobile devices instead of TV sets; or watch shows online, as streaming video or as video-on-demand. And it is easier than ever for viewers to ignore or avoid traditional commercials; popular streaming services like Netflix are (gasp!) ad-free.

BACK TO THE FUTURE Doubts about the effectiveness of commercials are reviving the trappings of television from a bygone era when advertisers and agencies controlled the programming rather than the networks. Shows are now liberally peppered with brands, which are being integrated into story lines, while cast members interact with sponsors’ products and evenoccasionally pitch in to deliver the pitches.

ADS AS ‘CONTENT’ The interweaving of ad matter into editorial content has accelerated, spawning an industry within an industry that describes itself with terms like content marketing, branded content, sponsored content and native advertising. Whatever the phrasing, the practice represents a bold attempt to further blur the line between editorial material and paid peddling. Are consumers who are now willing to opt in for ads they deem entertaining or informative — witness the billions of “likes” for brand fan pages on Meta and other social media platforms — going to take that in stride, or will the worth of editorial content be diminished, threatening its value?

CONSOLIDATION — AND ‘FRACTIONATION’ It was not surprising that over the last two or so decades, the big on Madison Avenue have kept getting bigger, as has been the case in myriad industries, with agency holding groups like WPP, the Omnicom Group and the Publicis Groupe growing into the proverbial 800-pound gorillas.

What has been unexpected is a countertrend: The success of independent agencies prized by clients that perceive entrepreneurial service providers to be more nimble, less hidebound, more innovative and, with less overhead, less costly. In the early ’90s, principals of one- or two-person agencies would pretend their shops were larger by starting off the phone extensions at 12 or 13. Perhaps 2015 will be when a big agency pretends to be smaller.


  1. James Sullivan @ on January 3, 2015 at 9:59 am

    The AD Club of New York, What an informative post, thanks!