In recent years, I have presented the history of Chicago advertising and public relations as a guest lecturer for Ron Culp’s DePaul University class “Chicago Agencies: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow.” While the students’ learning has been a focal point of my lectures, my own learning was piqued while preparing for my early January 2015 presentation, when I discovered an interesting “rhyme” in the advertising industry’s illustrious story arc.

At the dawn of the U.S. advertising industry in the 19th century, the agency business was a mind-numbing transactional process. The ad agent was a space broker; ads were simple bulletins handed back and forth as commodities. Agencies operated like banks, with tellers, clerks and clients who paid a straight commission.

Pictured: this is a 1874 illustration from Cook, Coburn, & Co., which demonstrate the transactional process of placing ads, with tellers (far left), clients (center), and clerks (far right).
This 1874 illustration of Cook, Coburn, & Co. reveals the transactional process of placing ads, with tellers (far left), clients (center), and clerks (far right).

When I think about this process, an 1874 illustration of Chicago’s pioneering agency – Cook, Coburn, & Co. – comes to mind. As the sign above the counter proclaims, all the client needed to do was provide an ad and the agent would place it in any newspaper in the country. As proof of placement, tear sheets would come in from, say, the Pittsburgh Gazette or the San Francisco Telegraph, and clerks would place them in the slots along the wall along with the original ad. These stacks of tear sheets were the metrics of their time.

Ken Krimstein, an award-winning copywriter and creative director who serves on the DePaul faculty, is similarly drawn to this illustration. “The mass publication of newspapers was a fairly new thing—people were just trying to get in there, in front of people,” he says.

The first steps in bringing the creative process into this commoditized environment took place at the turn of the 20th century. Ad agencies started employing copywriters and illustrators. They researched audiences and tested their ads, which were emotionally vibrant and bursting with creativity. Advertising pioneer Albert Lasker’s “unique selling proposition” dominated the industry. Iconic brands were created and differentiated, and agencies were hailed for their creativity. Advertising bore no resemblance to the newspaper notices of years past.

Fast forward to the Internet age. Advertising has reverted back into a digital transaction. Today’s Google AdWords and pay-per-click packages operate like that late-19th-century work room at Cook, Coburn, & Co. With ad placement algorithms and sophisticated analytic software, advertisers have been willing accomplices in the re-commoditization of the process.

Consider, for instance, a company that pays for 1,000 clicks on their banner ads. Digital metrics roll in via smartphone. Instead of vying for newspaper space, companies compete for spots at the top of Web search results in frenzied bidding that is finished within hundredths of a second. Advertisers place significant focus on the transactions: It’s a creative race to the bottom. Back in the 19th-century newspaper days, Krimstein says, “it was a real estate land grab, and it still is today. There is still a widespread belief that if companies chase the technology, they’ll find the audience.

This is why the illustration of Cook, Coburn, & Co. is incredibly striking. It’s a mirror from the past, a foreshadowing of the present. When I shared this with Krimstein, he said he felt the same way, describing it as “a graphic depiction of the cyberspace conundrum world that we live in now, with that wall extending to infinity almost in all dimensions.” Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Pinterest, Instagram, websites, blogs, e-mails, texting—you name it, advertisers have tried it. “We have zillions of social media delivery devices today,” Krimstein says, “and everyone is trying to figure out how to monetize these delivery devices. This is similar to what the first generation did.” By catering to digital media and focusing on the number and scale of ad placements, the creativity that took root at the start the 20th century has been taken out of the picture.

Krimstein and I agree that ultimately, history is repeating itself—and for the better. Creativity and differentiation are the keys in successfully connecting with audiences. Regardless of whether companies target people every second of every day, they still need to connect on an emotional level. That’s the value. To stay ahead of the curve, today’s agencies are reimagining their creative. They are cultivating authentic, innovative messaging. And once again, advertisements find space not only in Web banners and pop-ups, but also in the hearts and minds of audiences. I’m sure that Albert Lasker is smiling from the Great Beyond.

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