US Diary by Sean Boyle

US Diary by Sean Boyle

I’ve decided to get out of New York. Four years is enough. Although hard to believe, the place gets a bit boring. Sure, it’s one of the great world cities…a must-see, a city to visit. It spikes you with an adrenaline rush the like of which you’ve never felt before. But if you live there for a few years in a small, boxy, over-priced, one bedroom flat, it quickly grows monotonous. The excitement wanes when you realise that most of the restaurants, bars, clubs are all the same. Same food. Same layout. Same clientele, give or take. Nobody’s really from New York; it’s just one vast dormitory city. If you can make it there, you probably can make it anywhere; but you can probably make it anywhere without having to make it there – if that makes sense. People go there to work. They live to work. If you plan to seek your fame on Madison Avenue, beware of that particular career lure. It’s an ugly corporate working environment; a city of madmen (and women).

I moved from one massive agency to another just to check this was not an unfortunate and isolated finding. In the big shops, the contrarian who speaks out is ‘a problem’, ‘not a team player’. Get rid. Office politics are rife. If you ain’t good at them, don’t bother going. Fear reigns and every place gets wet. You need to smile all the time.

Play nice. Play fake. Play dead. And behind it, people don’t much like each other.

Like something Orwellian, they’re encouraged to behave like hungry, gnawing rats in a cage. Departments full of back-stabbers. Be careful using a cuss-word in an internal meeting because that junior account exec just might come over all traumatised and report you to HR. What’s more, she’ll get away with it too; such is their terror of litigation.

It’s disgusting. Seriously. There is a disease that has permeated our industry. Within every big behemoth, the back of house people: accounts, HR, finance etc are now in complete control. They treat the front of house folk, the people who do the actual advertising bit, like shit. Creaming them at every opportunity. Shafting them.

Wanna make a million dollars on your bottom line? Don’t pay staff their expenses for a few weeks and when you do get round to it, give ’em a cheque (it buys an extra few days) and we can make money off the money we owe them. It seems to have gone unnoticed somewhere, that without the front of house people, there's no back of house in this game.

At a dinner in Hong Kong, my friend Jules sits beside the CFO of one of the big four global holding groups. She congratulates him after he tells her that he has just turned in the best profits of any agency in the history of the advertising business. “You know where we got it?” he chortles with a nudge and a wink…“from the staff!”, as if he was some sort of calculator-banging Einstein. It’s disgusting. Seriously.

Smiling, guffawing, orthodontically immaculate, over-tanned terracotta warriors steer these various ad supertankers. Supremely confident, head-nodding, yes men with a distinctly eighties approach to advertising. Lizard men. Me men. Look at my beautiful house. Look at my beautiful wife. Look at my beautiful children. Look at my beautiful watch. Now, let’s go to the Hamptons.


Like its adland, the land of the free is also in deep doo-doo. Politically broken, lobbyists appear to rule the roost. Spending rages out of control. Although people tend to scoff at the idea, there is a strong possibility that Romney will take out Obama come November. The latter’s re-election is by no means a foregone conclusion, despite the best-of-a-bad-lot-buffoon, Paul Ryan, the Republicans have thrown into the ring with him.

Obama is undoubtedly a statesman; intelligent; a brilliant orator responsible for a revolutionary new way of delivering healthcare. Swedes, Norwegians, most Europeans, even Irish people, scratch their heads in puzzlement at why Obamacare is such a big deal over there. Shouldn’t everyone in society – your fellow countrymen – be allowed to get treated and healed of what ails them? In America, they speak of ‘open-wallet surgery’.


‘Right now, the feeling among minorities is that none of the hope Obama promised in 2008 has materialised’ – Sean Boyle

Yet for all that, many view Obama as something of a mediocre POTUS. A lame duck.

When it comes to the economy, the fact he received a veritable hospital pass from his predecessor has been conveniently forgotten. Stuff like the de-mapping of Bin Laden and soldier homecomings are somehow done with a lot less pomp and hoopla than if they had happened on Dubya’s watch. But how can Obama possibly lose in November?

Firstly, he only barely got in the last time. Usually apathetic (with every reason) African-Americans bothered to come out and vote in huge numbers; the Republican-leaning Hispanics also voted Democrat in his honour and he secured the young vote, largely on the back of an exceptional piece of online marketing. Well, right now, the general feeling among the minorities is that none of the hope he promised in 2008 has materialised.

The disenfranchised see him as ‘in-the-pocket’ of corporate America (what’s new?). The country’s young voters have suffered the most. More youths are out of work today than at any time since the aftermath of WWII. No matter. More money will be spent on the upcoming slagging match than ever before, with estimates around the $6-7 billion mark.

A guy shoots up a cinema and half the country runs out to buy a gun. The rest complain that the only reason the carnage was so bad, was that there weren’t other gun-holders at the movie who could have taken down the shootist. Just imagine that scene. Where’s Batman when you need him? You encounter a graduate from one of the top universities who doesn’t know his star sign from his elbow; nor the capital of Canada; nor the five previous Presidents of his own country (“Was Kennedy one?”) and he’s holding down a pretty cool job in advertising. He then gets shirty with you when you ask him whether he thinks it’s important to like, y’know, know…stuff?

As I read somewhere recently, the trouble with kids these days, is that they have a Google answer for everything. The same thick school-kids bully their elderly bus monitor and stick it up on YouTube because they think such behaviour is “awesome!” When I say thick, I also mean thick, as in fat. Single serves of popcorn the size of picnic hampers, industrial vats of Coke, a nation predicted to be over 50 per cent obese by 2020, with all the inherent diabetic medical diabolics that will bring. Housing is still rooted.

I could go on. The still-close-to-the surface racism; bigoted, insular and hypocritical communities marching across the plains under Christ’s banner. The place is broken. Utterly. I see another big crash on the short-term horizon. If Europe doesn’t get there first, the US will bring it down and most of the world will again come along for the ride.

I showed a draft of this article to an American friend who also works in advertising. She read it and proceeded to go berserk on me: “It’s too negative. You sound like a cranky old man who’s been in the business too long. And yeah, New York is full of self-important advertising douchebags, but New York is not America. Our country is not broken. We’re progressive and innovative and lead the world in almost everything. When you’re a leader, you fail at things. We fall down a lot, but we get right back up and fight even harder. Many of the things the world can’t live without – Apple, Google, Facebook – all came from America (and none of these were created in New York).

“Our dirty laundry fascinates, and is always on display. People want to love and hate us, but that’s all okay. When I go to other countries, I realise how amazing we really are. Overseas, people don’t smile and everyone seems miserable. I come back home and everyone smiles and says hello and you feel joy. We’re leading the world, trying to set an example and doing the best we can. And we’re proud of it. Free speech is our bloodline. Oh, and one last thing, we are incredibly good looking, have nice teeth and amazing hygiene. Europeans should take a lesson.” Bang! You Go Girl!
Who wants to argue with an incoming missile attack like that? Perhaps it is unfair to bash America. Most Americans are indeed good people and I have a great many pals there. It is geographically stunning. But I believe the US is a country that could and should be doing much better. Will it ever lead by example again? This young country the rest of the world has looked up to almost since its inception. One that has guided development and democracy and ideas and human rights. For all our European jiggery-pokery, we in Ireland still clutch tightly to her apron strings.

Before I left, I took a spin down to the capital, Washington DC, to see ‘The American Idea’ as it was originally intended. It’s so inspiring: this work-in-progress of Jefferson, King, Lincoln and the guy the town’s named after. Great men, who are probably turning in their statues when they see the direction their country is pointed right now.

It’s hard to know where to start…I have spoken before of the need for a new ‘ism’ in the world. Maybe an America that is bankrupt in so many areas can shake the Etch-a-Sketch and start over. For if there is one country in the world that still truly has the brains and the brawn and the can-do-spirit to restructure, reorganise, reinvent and reinspire, it’s the US.


The world lost one of its best recently. A mother to two beautiful kids, Millie and Luke, and a wife to Chris – as good a bloke as you are ever likely to meet. Louise was also a dear friend to me and many others. We went to the College of Commerce in Rathmines together and both started work in Wilson Hartnell in June of 1987. She went on to be one of the great media minds of her generation and expert on all things radio. She had spells at FM104, Emap in Britain, Cork 96 and Broadcast Media Sales (BMS).

Quick with a smile and a laugh; for me, her greatest gift was her empathy. Whenever you spoke to her, she always listened intently to what you were saying: never interrupting, never judgmental. Her reply would always make you feel better for having had the chat: words of support, advice, a point-of-view that guided or entertained or just made you feel loved and wanted. A one-in-a-million girl has been taken from us, way before her time.

Sean Boyle is a cranky old man who has spent too much time in advertising. Most recently he was the global head of strategy for Gillette at BBDO New York. He has also worked as the global head of planning at JWT New York and was a member of the Saatchi & Saatchi worldwide planning board, based in Asia.

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