Burnett/NY play says a lot about state of advertising

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What’s next?  A couture line of advertising-inspired fashion?  

That’s the sort of question one finds oneself asking in the wake of the news this week that Leo Burnett’s fledgling New York office is getting into the theater producing business.

Yes, it’s enough to make one wonder whatever happened to advertising — the business we thought, perhaps mistakenly, that Burnett and a whole bunch of other agencies were supposed to be about.

But now it appears ad agencies have begun to shift their focus.  At least a bit.  Now we hear the leaders at shops such as Burnett/New York talking about stuff such as content curation and the need to be wherever something related to the business of entertainment is happening.

Yes, whatever happened to advertising?

While we ponder that burning question, consider what Burnett New York, a shop of about 20 people and one major account, Chobani yogurt, has found to focus on while it looks for more clients.

$100,000 to mount play about life in New York

The agency has solicited all manner of real-life stories from all kinds of New Yorkers via the Web site NewYorkwritesitself.com and massaged those stories into a play called “8 Million Protagonists” that will debut on Nov. 1 at a small off-Broadway theater in lower Manhattan.

Burnett, in conjunction with co-producer the Village Voice alternative newspaper, is putting up $100,000 to mount this production about life in New York City. To what end, you may ask?  Well, that’s the question that was left unanswered to a large degree in the press information disseminated by Burnett this week.

So we were left to ponder possible answers.

Could this stab at theater production possibly yield some juicy creative concepts for new Chobani advertising? Will dabbling in the cutthroat world of legitimate theater production perhaps sharpen the negotiating skills of Burnett/New York executives the next time they sit down to iron out a contract with a new or existing client?

Perhaps.

But more likely, this attempt at producing theater is another way of reminding  New York and any potential clients who might take note that Burnett is indeed open for business in the city and keeping busy on the theatrical boards while it waits for the next big piece of business to land on its doorstep.  A piece of business that might actually require the agency to get back to the business of producing advertising.

But wait a minute.

Is it just possible that this exercise in theatrical production is really Burnett/New York’s way of confessing that they’re bored stiff being merely hacks who create advertising that’s supposed to make people buy a lot of stuff they don’t really want or need?  Why bother with advertising when they can be making real art?

What heresy, you say? Well, maybe. Maybe not.

What’s happening to art and craft of advertising?

But there is a sense that the art and craft of advertising isn’t what it was decades ago before the ad business lost its focus. Before the advertising business became more interested in whining about how agencies get no respect from clients and about how ad budgets have been squeezed to the point where it’s impossible to do great work anymore.

To which we say, balderdash.

Sure, we don’t doubt for a second that Burnett/New York will have a blast being in the theater business in the nation’s theater capital — if only for a few weeks.

But what about advertising?  If they have as much fun as we suspect they might in this new theatrical endeavor, will any of the small band of folk who comprise the Burnett/New York staff ever really be interested again in focusing on the art and craft of advertising? 

Maybe that’s the brutal truth we’ve been avoiding facing head on. Maybe ad folk really are bored with it all.  Maybe advertising is over.  Maybe we should just run 30-second shots of products on television over and over and over again and hope that people want to buy them while the ad folk are off doing theater, creating entertainment content and having a blast as true, creatively-fulfilled artists.

This is scary stuff, folks. Maybe even as scary as some of the stories theatergoers will see acted out on stage when “8 Million Protagonists” debuts in New York.

But while theatergoers are soaking up all that entertainment and art that Burnett is providing, will anyone — anyone at all — be asking the tough and troubling question:  Whatever happened to advertising?

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com

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