Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Chutney Conversation

A random chutney stall off of the internet, earlier today.

In the wake of this year's tax bill, I've taken a three month contract back in an advertising agency. The gaps between my agency stints get longer and longer as my writing career actually starts to make money, and every time I leave an agency I hope it's for the last time.

This one will be. I know it will. It has to be.

Because after only five weeks in the job, I'm having The Chutney Conversation with my new colleagues. And that wont do at all.

The Chutney Conversation is in one way uplifting - it points the way to a better world. The problem with it is that in doing so, it points out the flaws with the world we're in - particularly inside ad agencies. So while it's fine to have The Chutney Conversation with old friends, who know what I'm like, it can actually be invasive and dispiriting - even quite upsetting - for new people, and I think that's rude. And if they don't get upset by it, they probably think I'm a bit mad - and that's even worse.

The Chutney Conversation - or my side of it I should say - perhaps it's the chutney monologue - goes like this:

These days, I spend my summers doing book readings and beer tastings at a variety of food and drink festivals up and down the country. I enjoy doing these events a great deal.

After I've signed a few books and tasted a few beers, I can relax and wander around the festival. And it feels like Christmas. Everyone there is a small producer keen to promote their wares. There are organic butchers, gifted pie makers, adventurous cheesemongers, bubbly Indian housewives hoping to turn their curry sauces into something a supermarket might discover and stock. And most of all, there are chutney makers.

I talk to all these artisans and try a few samples of their food, and I usually buy a curry sauce or a marinade or a bit of cheese even if I don't need any. But I ALWAYS buy chutney. We have cupboards full of it at home.

The range of chutneys, their ingredients and flavours, is always astonishingly diverse. They have little bits of cracker for you to try some, and the flavours set your mouth alight. And the chutney makers talk with such passion about how they started this as a hobby, and then realised, you know what? I'm good at this, and I'm going to make more of these chutneys and I'm going to sell them, and while I hope to make enough money to live on, if I don't make as much as I did in an office, so what? I'm happier than I ever was during a PowerPoint presentation or conference call.

After two or three of these conversations, you end up walking around a food festival on a natural high, walking on air. Everyone is so positive. Everyone is so friendly. Everyone is so keen and passionate about what they do, and in tiny, tiny ways, each of them is making the world a better place.

And then I come into an advertising agency and I see young, attractive, intelligent, energetic, motivated people, voluntarily tying themselves inside their personal hamster wheels and running for all they're worth, expending energy on pointless conversations and arguments, spending nine months at a time, seventy hours a week, working on something that will eventually be a thirty second TV ad that people will forget, or sneer at, or feel patronised by. Very, very occasionally, one of these ads might make them laugh, or inspire them - maybe one or two a year do this, and the last one that truly added anything to our collective lives was Compare the Meerkat.

While some of these ads might create wealth for the companies who pay for them, it's hard to see who's reaping the benefit - advertising has lost its shiny allure and agencies work on wafer-thin budgets. TV stations face plummeting revenue as budget is increasingly moved to invasive, in-yer-face internet ads. And punters face a relentless barrage of messages that - if they're successful - make you feel slightly more discontent with your life than you did - because only if you create need, desire and unhappiness in a country where most of us already have too much, can you persuade us that we need to buy more.

For every tiny, microscopic atom of happiness that a jar of chutney brings into the world, every showing of an advert creates an atom of negativity that blows it away. And there are more adverts around than jars of chutney, and more people making them.

People in advertising would not only be adding to rather than reducing the sum of human happiness if they switched from making adverts to making chutney, they would feel happier and more fulfilled in themselves, knowing they were not wasting their considerable and inarguable talents on something that is at best worthless, at worst damaging.

If you don't believe me, go and talk to a man behind a chutney stall at a food festival.

That's the chutney conversation. You can see how it might upset people in ad agencies if I've only been working with them for a few weeks.


  1. I thought that was the folk music and lawyers discussion.

  2. So it boils down to this:

    Pete: Working for an ad agency sucks. You should see how happy someone selling chutney is at a beer festival. Beer festivals are great, I love them.

    New Co-worker: Yeah, too bad you couldn't get paid for doing that every day.

    Pete: What are you talking about? I'm only here for 3 months. I write about beer the rest of the time and get paid to go to beer festivals. In fact, I'm going to grab a snack. Chuntey? I got cases of the stuff at home.

  3. Yeah, that about covers it! you can see why I feel a bit mean.

    On the other hand, they seem to find working in an ad agency marginally less soul- and society-destroying than I do...

  4. Sue "Just One More"April 2, 2010 at 10:09 AM

    Oh Peter - look at the research: 67% of "exotic" chutney purchases are made by ad folk (aka desperate foodies), but clearly in their desperate attempt to regain a sense of living in the real world they are spreading a little happiness...I say "aaaahhh"..

    Oh and my husband uses your books when working on making beer ads, so love your audience (as they say in planning departments)

    He he XX