Ad Agency as Change Agent - Op-Ed by Samantha Culp

Ogilvy HK's 2015 "Face of Litter" ad campaign was accused of appropriating the work of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg

Ogilvy HK's 2015 "Face of Litter" ad campaign was accused of appropriating the work of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg

The discourse around brand-artist collaborations, and more generally, the new ways that companies interact with creative culture, often focuses on those two positions exclusively. The brand and the artist. The corporations and the culture-makers.
But this leaves out other entities that have an equally important role to play – namely advertising agencies. Ad agencies and a diverse array of studios, firms, and consultancies in the space between “client” and “world” have been leading forces in the integration of the arts into branding and marketing for decades. And they have a special responsibility to help shape future best practices for the space where these realms meet.
From the “big four” to the global independents, small branding boutiques to digital strategy studios, agencies have always drawn on art and cutting-edge creativity to help capture the public’s attention for their clients. Traditionally, that meant directly hiring the most talented artists, illustrators, photographers, and writers to work for them. Several iconic artists got their start in advertising – see Andy Warhol’s early career as a successful illustrator on Madison Avenue. Over time, as print gave way to television gave way to digital and beyond, agencies have increasingly looked to the fringes of art and creative culture for inspiration, and integrated them in a variety of ways – some less ethical than others.
In 2012, the artist and engineer Golan Levin proclaimed that new media artists are the “unpaid R&D division of the ad industry”, citing a number of high-profile cases where agencies had based campaigns not only on a general style or concept, but an actual technological innovation by a new media artist, without payment, permission, or credit. These appropriations are by no means unique to new media artists, and still happen far too frequently to creators of all stripes. One dramatic example is the 2015 anti-littering campaign by Ogilvy Hong Kong that was almost certainly inspired by the technology and style of “Stranger Visions”, a 2013 DNA portrait project by artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, but did not cite or license it.
Perhaps this proves that what is art today will be advertising in two years time (and this cycle seems only to be accelerating). But a more symbiotic relationship between the two is possible, if leaders from brands themselves as well as the advertisers they retain are committed to honoring artists as colleagues and collaborators, not just ambient inspiration. Advertising agencies are in a unique position to lead with best practices, ranging from real collaborations to decent budgets, equitable contracts to transparent crediting. They can help set the tone across the industry, impacting even the brands that are not their clients.

As the uncertain future of mega-conglomerate WPP makes clear, the ad world is going through its own evolution, and the days of Mad Men are long gone. Agencies that cultivate new and symbiotic ways of working with artists and making meaningful investments in creative culture are likely to be the ones to survive.

Samantha Culp is a Los Angeles-based writer, producer and strategist who spent the past decade in greater China working at the intersection of art, media, and futurism. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Artforum, the New York Times T Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. She’s a co-founder of Paloma Powers, a consultancy developing artist-led solutions for realms beyond the art-world, and of Culture™, the publication and conference exploring the role of brands in creative culture. Recent clients include Apple, Absolut, GE, Gucci, and Netflix.




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