Why great brands start by looking within.

By Mark Bubula, President & Co-Founder, Friends & Neighbors

Back in the 1990s, as an eager college student, I read The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators, by Stephen Fox (first published in Britain in June 1984 by William Morrow and Co. Inc.). I was an advertising major at the University of Illinois and The Mirror Makers was required reading for all ad students. In fact, David Ogilvy claimed: “Every student of advertising and every practitioner must read this book.”

To my surprise, it wasn’t very flattering of the industry (or American culture)—and not terribly motivating to a young ad student. On July 28, 1985 the Chicago Tribune summarized it as follows:

“The colorful history of American advertising is splendidly told by Fox…. The book becomes a sad story as it reaches the 1970s, a decade of mergers that produced 11 big advertising bureaucracies and of consumer and governmental response to the excesses of advertising`s more freewheeling, idiosyncratic and creative periods. The result is the boring advertising we see today: vignettes and slices of life – lookalike ads and commercials showing people enjoying the product that mirror, in Fox`s words, an ‘American culture beyond redemption – money-mad, hedonistic, superficial, rushing heedlessly down the railroad track called Progress.’ The goods continue to move, but something is missing.”


Fox was not the first, and certainly is not the last, to bemoan the state of the advertising industry. Many have followed since, and the industry has been declared “dead” a myriad of times. So much so that many agencies go to great lengths to not even call themselves “ad agencies” anymore.

Yet, the industry rolls on, with its ups and downs, merits and flaws, and continuous quests for redefinition.

So it’s in that grand tradition of redefinition that I suggest it’s time for a new interpretation of “Mirror Maker”. A far more positive, hopeful and helpful definition that not only inspires better creative, but inspires the industry and its clients to think and act differently.

We as branding professionals spend a lot of time thinking about and studying our clients’ customers. Who are they? What do they think? What do they want? What are their drivers? Need states? Values? Passions? Problems? Fears? How can we reach and inspire them? And today we have more tools to answer those questions than ever before.

But what about our clients?

Fact is, we spend far less time and have far fewer tools to learn about our clients. Who are they? What do they think? What do they want? What are their drivers? Need states? Values? Passions? Problems? Fears? How can we reach and inspire them? All equally relevant and potentially inspiring questions that we should be focusing on as much, if not more so, than customers. A radical idea, perhaps, for a brand strategist to suggest. Isn’t that just navel gazing? Aren’t we then just talking to ourselves? Doesn’t the customer/consumer always come first?

The short answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. The client matters, their motivations matter, their culture matters, their values matter. Simon Sinek tells us to start with “why”, and that “why” comes from within.

But how? How do we start from within?

Simple. Start at the beginning.

All companies and their brands have a story to tell. And nearly all started as someone’s brainchild. A precious idea that has been cared for, nurtured, guided and loved since its inception. Blood, sweat, tears and personal assets have all been poured into these ideas in inspiring, unquantifiable and deeply personal ways. And the result is a fervency to their professional passion that now goes well beyond just making profits.

It can often be very hard to trace a company’s, or brand’s, history back to that moment of inception and unearth the story with pinpoint accuracy and understanding of its nuance and context. Companies often lose sight over time. In some cases they have evolved so far away from that creation story that there’s seemingly no going back. But more often than not, the key to unlocking a company’s future is rooted firmly in its past. After all, a company’s essence isn’t a new concept you can ask the creative team to fabricate out of thin air. It’s a foundational and human truth that requires hard work to unearth.

That’s why I believe our job as branding professionals is to be the new Mirror Makers. Professional outsiders that dive deep inside organizations and use tools based in the social sciences like anthropology, sociology and even archeology to hold up that special mirror that reflects back the best parts of who they are/have been since their humble beginnings. Not distort. Not manipulate. But reveal what their brand truly is at its core and what it stands for, so that employees and consumers alike can fall in love with their brands all over again.

Because when a brand no longer treats its customers like customers, and starts behaving more like a person—thinking and acting based on a core set of its own very human values, people with similar values connect with it on a far deeper level.

So let’s all grab a mirror, and hold it up to our clients’ brands (and maybe ourselves while we’re at it). Then start delivering more of what this industry needs—and what consumers ultimately want: authentic brands that reflect what they value, too.