Nonfiction: They’re Not ‘Mad Men’ Anymore. But the Ad Business Is Still High Stakes.


It may be a mug’s game to figure out which industry has suffered the deepest damage at the hands of Silicon Valley; if you’re reading this in print, you’re holding another example of a business under siege. But Auletta works hard to get us to care about the fate of ad folks, despite our diminished interest in them or our distaste for what they do, because of their essential role as suppliers of the dollars that fuel the media ecosystem. If you “follow the money,” he writes, you’ll understand the importance of advertising and the significance of the threats against it, and maybe value it more, or at least disdain it less.

Auletta surveys the tumultuous, treacherous ad landscape through the framework of frenemies. Not only are Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley frenemies, but so, too, he declares, are ad agencies and their marketer clients; agencies and media companies; traditional and digital media companies; agencies and consultancies like Accenture and McKinsey; agencies and software firms like Adobe and; and, perhaps most telling, advertising and consumers. The easier it becomes for the public to zip, zap through and avoid interruptive ads — through innovative technology like ad blockers and streaming video — the madder, and more anxious, the mad men (and women) grow.

Yet as dire as their fate looks, some flowers bloom amid the gloom, taking the edge off the book’s pessimism. A respected industry strategist, Rishad Tobaccowala, tells Auletta: “People say we are dinosaurs. We are not dinosaurs. We are cockroaches. Everybody hates us. Nobody likes to see us. But cockroaches have outlived everyone. We scurry out of corners. We soldier on and hire people with different skill sets.”

Auletta details the adaptive behavior — new types of agencies; reviving the sponsorship model; embracing data-driven, two-way marketing based on individualized relationships — while suggesting that, at the biggest ad conglomerates like WPP, the money for such substantive changes exists thanks to still-respectable margins (“a relatively robust 15 or so percent”). And he weaves into his narrative evidence of the wealth the business can still produce.

For instance, one conglomerate’s chief executive “spends much of the year at his home in Palm Beach.” The leader of a large agency has a “glassed weekend home perched on 200 acres overlooking the Hudson River” along with an “8,000-square-foot Chelsea loft.” And a well-known industry consultant sells his company for potentially as much as $207 million, hosts a $400,000 dinner at Cannes, buys a Tesla, gets rock-star treatment at his favorite restaurants and arrives at a meeting “sporting his Christmas tan from Turks and Caicos.” There are martinis aplenty scattered among the pages of “Frenemies,” lending a nostalgic touch to the forward-facing proceedings.

Alas, “Frenemies” can’t avoid a pitfall common to such topical books, in that some of what’s chronicled has been overtaken by events between writing and publication. The most notable example: In the book, Sorrell is “secure” in his top role at WPP and “unlikely to step down anytime soon” — but he did, suddenly, in mid-April, after an internal investigation into alleged misconduct. It’s disconcerting, given how much Sorrell figures in “Frenemies,” to read of him telling Auletta, “I will stay here until they shoot me!” It’s ameliorated, though, by a newsy tidbit: Several years ago he negotiated “to sell WPP to Warren Buffett, but they did not see eye to eye and the discussions amicably collapsed.”

That’s a shame, if only because it’s fun to imagine how Buffett — whose holdings at Berkshire Hathaway include Geico — might have approached the ad business: “Marketers, save 15 percent on your campaigns with Geico WPP.”


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