Advertising as a Practice in the Humanities

One of the creative directors I most admire is Ian Mirlin, co-founder of the legendary agency Harrod & Mirlin, and someone I consider a friend and mentor. Ian once said to me, and I paraphrase: “Advertising should be a practice in the humanities.” A profound statement. I would build on that to say that advertising, when truly done well, is a practice in liberal arts, social science, applied arts and technology.

What other profession requires trained writers, art directors, psychologists, business managers and technologists to work together in order to induce and change both individual and mass behaviour? Where else can you go from designing and observing research in human behaviour to developing strategy, to writing prose and poetry, to graphic design and applied art, to pop culture, to advanced film-making techniques — all while learning how to run an entrepreneurial business? Where else do you get to directly influence the behaviours and perceptions of millions of people without running for public office?

And as our friendly neighborhood Spiderman likes to say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We have an inherent responsibility as marketers and advertising folks to wield our considerable influence consciously, and hopefully to the benefit and not the detriment of society. Which leads to the final quote for this post, from Bill Bernbach, one of the great madmen of the 20th century: “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”