OZYMANDIUS

When I was at art school in New York, all cars were American.
And all American cars were made in Detroit.
There were no foreign cars on the streets.
Maybe once a year you might see an English sports car: Jaguar, Sprite, MG.
But these were so rare people would stop and point.
The very term ‘car’ meant an American car.
Not some tinny piece of foreign crap.
A real car.
And the only place making real cars was Detroit.
And because they were the only place making cars, they never changed the basic concept.
Just changed the styling a little bit every year.
Fast forward to the UK, earlier this year.
I was watching a TV programme about Detroit.
It now looks like the devastated city of Hue that Kubrick recreated for Full Metal Jacket.
Nothing but the deserted remains of massive, empty, burnt-out buildings.
The gutted concrete carcasses of giant assembly plants.
The insides dead and echoing, water dripping through decaying, broken roofs.
Everything valuable stripped out.
The floors cluttered with rubble and debris.
This is the set for a horror movie about the collapse of a civilisation.
The only signs of life are small bonfires here and there, with the jobless and homeless sitting round them.
What happened?
How do you go from the only-game-in-town to extinct, in a few decades?
Well in retrospect, like anything, it’s obvious.
I was there when it started.
But none of us knew it at the time.
You can only see these things afterwards.
Volkswagen.
That was the tiny crack in the wall.
The only foreign car anyone bought was the VW Bug.
But that wasn’t a threat, because it wasn’t really a car at all.
It was just a joke, ‘a pregnant roller skate’.
A cheap piece of junk for students.
Students didn’t need a status symbol.
They just needed transport: A–Z.
So students drove them around, and that became the VW brand.
The car of the counter-culture movement.
My ex father-in-law was an art director on Madison Avenue.
He was like all the Mad Men: shiny suits, thin ties, aspired to owning a Cadillac.
But the culture was changing.
Suddenly all that stuff was for the fat cats.
And he didn’t want to be seen as a fat cat.
So he grew his hair long, switched to jeans, and bought a VW Bug.
That’s when Detroit began dying.
Right then, when the middle class began switching.
But of course Detroit didn’t even notice.
They carried on doing what they’d always done.
Same-old floor pan, same big engine in front, same-old rear-wheel drive.
Keep the same basic solution, just change the bodywork every year.
Bigger fins, more chrome, bigger headlights, new-shaped tail-lights.
Just restyle it a little bit every year.
So the styling, the execution, got better and better.
But they never thought about the basic concept.
And that’s how Detroit died.
Maybe there’s a lesson there for us.
Maybe we’re behaving like Detroit.
We’re concentrating on the execution of what we do, the styling.
And right now, the execution is better than it’s ever been.
We make commercials costing literally millions of pounds.
With computer graphics, we can do anything we want.
We can make ads with impossible sets and a cast of millions.
And, because execution is everything, if we can’t be bigger we must be newer.
So the constant search is for new styles of execution.
Techniques that no one has used yet.
It doesn’t even matter what it’s for, as long as we’re the first or the biggest.
Because execution has taken over from idea.
In fact the execution is the idea.
Styling has taken over from thinking.
Just like Detroit, everything has to be ‘newer and bigger’.
And, just like Detroit, everyone’s a little dissatisfied with the result.
Maybe, like Detroit, we’re at the beginning of a change.
Maybe, like Detroit, the change will happen gradually at first.

And maybe, like Detroit, by the time we notice it will be too late.

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    Of course I agree, and like most valuable lessons, the cause can always be found in human nature itself. Too many people mistake “new” for “different”, let alone “better”…
    I think a lot of this is due to the digital community (sorry to generalise), who are transfixed by the perpetual novelty of new applications, devices, models, etc. Very few – that I know of – step back and evaluate “solutions” or ideas from a purely (and realistic) human prespective.
    It’s really not that hard to do.

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    It’s an interesting point that nags at me. Both my grandfathers and my father had their own businesses in industries that no longer exist due to technological advances. Will the agency world go that way and how should we morph ourselves to survive the next 20 years?
    So will my kids look at me in the same way I do my Dad thinking how could you not see your demise coming! Probably!

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    Gavin,
    I don’t think advertising will disappear anymore than cars disappeared.
    But, to Craig’s point above, people mistake novelty for thinking.

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    Having spent a bit of time in Detroit I can add what a disturbing place it is to be and how the city is in perpetual shock to see their industry and (more importantly) their reputation so decayed.
    I’ve thought before that perhaps its is strange that many clients, often the big multi-nationals, themselves facing the same challenges as Detroit cars – yet they so often turn to the “big dumb agencies” who in turn are pre-occupied with their own Titanic slowly sinking and having to re-invent themselves.
    The future? I don’t think there is a recovery within these companies themselves, innovation tends to be created outside big companies and so they can of course survive but it requires agency-land to be humble enough to take a look out the window (which Detroit never did) and be prepared to work with new companies in new ways and learn new things. Or else they will likely fall the same way of Detroit.
    The industry is far

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    I interestingly saw this documentary by Johnny Knoxville, ‘Detroit Lives’ he visits this so-called dead city only to discover it’s recent rejuvenation. It also picks up on alot of what you mentioned Mr Trott:
    http://www.mlive.com/entertainment/detroit/index.ssf/2010/09/video_johnny_knoxvilles_detroi.html

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    think i want to move to Detroit for space to grow.

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    Mr Frumafret,
    I watched a bit of that video, it looks good.
    I’ll watch the rest tonight, thanks.

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    Advertising isn’t dead.
    It’s just changing shape.
    That’s why we all gather here.
    Dave keeps the torch of a great idea
    burning in us because one day
    the future is going to be
    an explosion of brilliance and
    I want to be there when it happens.

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    Funny that the Detroit doc Frumafret posted was part of an ad campaign for Palladium Boots. We’ve come full circle!

    Kevin, your post made me think of us all dressed in white robes, gathered around cult-like!

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    Funny how we all think differently.
    I was thinking more Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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    Dave,

    Curious about your headline, I did a little digging.

    Seems Ozymandias could be an egalitarian comic hero or a
    poetic ‘King of Kings’ warrior, or an ancient culture slain to its legs.
    So “How does this relate to your story?” I wondered.
    Are you addressing the Tin Gods of advertising to look at the mighty car industry forewarning them like Noah, that a great flood
    of change is about to be unleashed on a self-assured and smug unsuspecting community or are you saying they’ve already missed the boat? Either way, I noticed you spelt it Ozymandi-us, not Ozymandi-as, and suspect you did that for a very good reason.

    My take on your story is the -us is a warning that if industry does not pull its socks up and become more eco-friendly within the time limits set down by the Kyoto agreement, all is lost, and the best thing we can do is buy a ticket for Mars.

    Consumerism has to change to encompass global issues.

    Or is it Ozymandi-US- Meaning look what has happened to the USA. How the economy has been brought to its knees of recent years, how Georgia Atlanta is still a mudheap since the floods.

    Here’s an opportunity for the ad industry to take the lead.
    Impose new laws that commit manufacturers globally to adhere to international manufacturing policies for a greater good.

    Only one problem.
    Profit.

    To make that work,
    manufacturers will have to work together
    instead of against each other.

    This heralds the death of competition
    and the rebirth of brand integrity per se,
    meaning brand, position, what you stand for.

    if this becomes key to success in the consumer’s mind,
    everyone wins.
    Rubbish brands will decline,
    Socially conscious brands will rise in value,
    everyone becomes enriched.
    Even the manufacturer.
    It’s a Golden Cash Cow,
    because nobody wants our planet to die,
    but manufacturers have to sit around a table and
    get together to make it work.

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    Hi Kevin,
    I think you may be giving me too much credit.
    I was referring to Shelley’s poem about hubris.
    http://www.internal.org/Percy_Bysshe_Shelley/Ozymandius

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    I was watching this and your blog popped into my head. I think you might like it, its the underground bugs making life out of the carcass of Detroit.

    http://www.palladiumboots.com/explorations