Since 1991, Stuart Elliott has taken an in-depth look at the advertising industry for The New York Times, casting a critical, though enthusiastic, eye on the major players in the field.
The New York Times' headquarters has a security guard to keep trespassers out and a cafeteria to keep reporters in. The cafe is sparsely populated at 11:30am, affording Stuart Elliott the opportunity to fill up an entire long table with nothing but himself, his Diet Coke, and his enthusiasm.
Elliott is one of the most authoritative voices in the world of American advertising, despite never having worked for an ad agency. In an industry populated by countless hipster "creatives" and young go-getters, he has maintained his spot on the crest of the breaking wave of innovation well into his AARP years. His persona, as one might expect from the Times' advertising columnist, is that of a more mature, more intellectual, less gimmicky Donny Deutsch.
After a youth spent entirely in Brooklyn and its public schools, Elliott ventured out into the wide, wide world to attend Northwestern, where he received a bachelor's and a master's in journalism at the Medill School of Journalism. "That was my first major exposure to the rest of America," he says. "That was one of the reasons I went out there: to see what the rest of the country was like."
He landed a job at the Rochester (NY) Times-Union on the suburban staff, covering school-board meetings and zoning hearings. After five years, he moved to the Detroit Free Press and found himself on the advertising beat for the first time.
Clearly he had found his niche. The world of marketing has become so ingrained in him that he measures his time in Detroit in terms of the progression of brands. "I was covering ... Stroh's Beer, which at the time was still in existence; Kmart, which at the time was the largest discount retailer in America; and Kellogg's, which at the time was the biggest cereal company. And I guess [it is] again now, after many years in the wilderness. ..."
This almost unconscious ability to launch into discursive back stories of corporate maneuvers that extend backward for decades is ultimately what has allowed Elliott to assume his title at the Times. "If you cover business news for any amount of time, all the players change around a lot, and the lineup gets shuffled quite a bit these days," he observes. "Products, brands, companies [are] all rapidly changing now."
He left Detroit to return home to New York to write and edit for Advertising Age, the industry's standard-bearer. Five years later, he jumped to the Money section of USA Today, where he had an opportunity to write consumer-driven advertising and marketing stories designed to appeal to a broader base of readers. "We'd write about the fast-food wars, the beer wars, the cola wars, the car wars, and everything else," he remembers. "We used to joke that the consumer products were to the Money section what Clint Eastwood, Goldie Hawn, and Burt Reynolds were to the Life section."
In 1991, The New York Times, recognizing his journalistic prowess, if not his joke repertoire, recruited Elliott as its advertising columnist. Over the course of his career, he has played a large role in pulling advertising coverage out of the bowels of the business sections and onto the front pages of consumers' minds. The industry has evolved, too, forced to integrate itself ever more cleverly into the psyche of consumers around the world.
"It's changed in the most incredible, fundamental, drastic ways that nobody ever would have dreamed of," he says. "Consolidation, globalization, integration - all the 'tions' are mounting up into quite a pile."
Advertising executives say that the coverage of the industry in the Times is vital because it is the publication read most closely by many of their clients. Allen Rosenshine, worldwide chairman of BBDO, calls Elliott "one of the best" in his beat. "He has a good sense of the absurd, and there's a lot of absurd things that go on in our business," he says. "He sorts out very well the wheat from the chaff, the bullshit from the relevant."
Rosenshine, who has been the co-subject of a profile by Elliott, also says, "He balances very well the need for skepticism with the need for promoting the industry."
In fact, Elliott's irrepressible interest in his subject is tempered by a perfect reporter's pitch - he is able to spout wisdom gleaned from years of experience without appearing to land on any side of the great debate over advertising and PR's role in popular culture. Discussing the Armstrong Williams scandal, he muses that paid coverage today pales in comparison to the early days of television, when a show didn't even make it to the air unless it was bought and paid for by a corporate sponsor.
Today, he says, the fragmentation of the media, an increase in consumer savvy, and tireless activist groups that want to "pull back the curtain" on advertising have all combined to make the traditional practices of marketing communications virtually obsolete. The rise of holding companies has forced PR and advertising agencies to stop competing and "play nicely together in the sandbox," as Elliott puts it - not only in the interest of corporate profit, but also in recognition of the new creative techniques necessary to penetrate the 24-7 haze of media messaging.
"There was even a time when jingles from commercials would become pop songs," he says. "They would play them on the radio, they would be released as 45s, and they would make the charts."
Those days are long gone, but Elliott's beat has only gotten more interesting. No amount of journalistic detachment can conceal his fundamental zeal for his job. When complimented on a recent story about product placement in movies, he recoils in mock horror. "Please! Don't call it that," he cries. "It's 'branded entertainment.'"
The New York Times, advertising columnist
USA Today, advertising and marketing reporter
Ad Age, magazine beat reporter and deputy NY bureau chief
Detroit Free Press, business reporter and advertising columnist
Rochester Times-Union, suburban reporter