What will advertising be like in 500 years?

This is an article Rupert Price (Chief Strategy Officer) and I recently wrote for Idealog Magazine. We were asked a simple question. What will advertising be like in 500 years? Now, Rupert and I are not very good at thinking ahead. Even when it comes to what we want for lunch. And 500 years is a bloody long time. But we gave it a go. And then we went to an unplanned lunch. Enjoy.

“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

Bill Bernbach

Change is a very seductive thing and of course very easy to see. However, what this 70 year old quote shows is that although many things change, people don’t.

That is a particularly important point as we time travel 500 years into the future.

What advertising will look like at that distant horizon is based on three questions.

Will choice still exist for human beings?

Will status still be something to be obtained?

Will humans still want to belong or be seen as an individual?

We believe the cornerstone is choice. If human beings still make decisions advertising at its core will not be that different. How that information is conveyed and received will of course change beyond belief. But, the fundamental idea of one thing being better than another thing in your mind will drive your behaviour as it does now.

If human beings no longer make choices and decisions are made by A.I. perhaps we will have to create advertising for machines which is an interesting thought. Where we struggle with this concept is that making things easy for humans only works to a point. People don’t want to all be the same. People are irrational and driven by emotion. I feel like there would be a radical response to daily conformity. Don’t take our word for it, ask communism.

This brings us to our second point. If a hierarchy or society of any kind exists 500 years from now, status and getting ahead will not be that different from today. Now, that hierarchy might be a digital one or your status might be determined by what kind of microchip is under your skin. But, you will still want the best microchip, right? Just a bit better than your neighbour’s one.

We don’t want to be the same as everybody else. That’s just how human beings work. We want to feel like we are unique. We also tend to want to belong to a tribe of like-minded people. These drivers have been a part of us for thousands of years. They will be with us for thousands more.

The question is what will advertising be like in 500 years? Perhaps, we should ask another question. What will people be like in 500 years? If we go back 500 years, how different were people when it came to their desires? Not very different at all.

When it comes to advertising we are often seduced by the new way or the shiny new channel. The truth is perhaps more mundane. Things change a lot, people don’t.

Now, that would have been a great place to end this article except there is another way this could all go. What if people could change?  

After all, we did say 500 years, right? And what we are about to say could easily happen in the next 50 years or so.

As we said, advertising will exist as long as people make their own choices and have their own preferences. But, what if those decisions were made before they were born? What if we are at the birth of intelligent design? For 4 billion years the planet and all species upon it have been governed by the laws of nature and natural selection. However, we can now select gender, we can prolong ageing and rebuild humans through replicating DNA. We are also starting to see ideas like bio-hacking becoming very popular. All of this will only snowball as we learn and do more. It is also not going to just go away.

So, the question becomes, if we can pre-program eye colour and gender, could we pre-program tastes and preferences into our off-spring before they are even born? A human beings education could be paid for using their DNA sequence. What would an idea like that that be worth to a brand? I know, it’s insane. And quite possibly, deeply offensive. But it could happen. Very easily. If you look at how social platforms have polarised and shaped our beliefs and choices could this be the next step?

And, here’s another funny idea. What if, as those crazy kids grow up, they could be persuaded to get back at their parents by changing their choices by changing their DNA to a different brand? 

DNA advertising. I am not sure I like it, but, you heard it here first folks.

Looks like we might need some more office space.

The risk of not taking risks.

“A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”

John A. Shedd

In a recent interview with Empire Magazine, Martin Scorsese said that he didn’t think Marvel Movies were Cinema. As you can imagine this statement caused much gnashing of twitter teeth. So, to explain his position he wrote an article for the New York Times.

This is a paragraph from the article that sums up his position.

“In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many films today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to cinema: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.”

His basic argument is that as risk has been eliminated from film, and by risk he means smaller independent films and offbeat stories, it has been replaced by packaged formulas of certainty that are free of surprise or a strong point of view. As you begin to watch these films you know what you will feel and how much you will feel. There is very little challenging the viewer.

So, the question is why does that matter? I am sure if you asked the producers on the Marvel films that have made millions of dollars they would laugh at you through their cigar smoke.

The simple answer is the word ‘pattern.’ Patterns are very useful and have enormous value. They are consistent and predictable. However, if they have one weakness it is they are very bad at creating anything new. They are very bad at changing how you see the world. And, importantly, they always have a sell by date. So, could the big film studios be the next Kodak? An interesting question, especially if you look at where a lot of innovation and great storytelling is happening these days (Netflix, Apple, Amazon, HBO etc).

Risk on the other hand is very good at creating the new. Mr Scorsese argues in the article that Hollywood is now making the same film over and over. And, if you look at how many indistinguishable franchises there are in Hollywood these days he may have a point. It has become a pattern that is predictable.

Now, if you are a brave man or woman, you might argue Scorsese is old school and doesn’t get it.

But, I would disagree. I think he gets something very important.

Like a great chef, he knows that risk is an ingredient that is required to make a new recipe. A great example of this is one of the world’s greatest chefs, Ferran Adria. He ran the globally renowned Michelin 3-star restaurant elBulli. Even though it was reported that the restaurant had a waiting list of a million people, elBulli would close for 6 months of the year because Chef Adria vowed never to repeat the dishes he created each year. This time allowed him to innovate and take new risks. Financially, it makes no sense but artistically it does. You don’t get to greatness by doing the same thing over and over. He understood standing still leads to atrophy and eventually death.

I also think Mr Scorsese and Chef Adria fundamentally understand the difference between profit and growth.

A pattern can make you a lot of money. But, only risk can give you exponential growth. Spiritually, artistically and financially. Only risk can help you see new things or make your world bigger. Risk can keep an industry alive. Risk can innovate and change the game. Risk can give you something that didn’t exist.

Risk is very hard and scary and the only thing that can get you somewhere new.

Risk is the alchemy we all believe in but so few of us are brave enough to use.

This is a tension I have seen in many companies throughout my career. The need to change but being paralysed by the pattern that got you this far. I have spent countless hours in meetings that are pantomimes about changing without changing.

Only 12% of Fortune 500 companies are left from 1955. I always wonder how many perished because of the risks they didn’t take. 

To paraphrase William Faulkner, we desperately want to swim for the horizon but are unable to lose sight of the shore.

Advertising. So, what happens to once upon a time?

“There’s always a story. It’s all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything’s got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”

Terry Pratchett

In his excellent book ‘Blowing the Bloody Doors Off’ Michael Caine tells the story of meeting John Wayne at the Beverly Hills Hotel on his first trip to the United States. The great actor gives him some advice about what he should and shouldn’t do when he becomes famous. He tells him not to wear suede shoes. When Michael Caine asks why, John Wayne tells him that when you are famous you will be at the urinal and the guy next to you will see you. They will do a double take, turn to you and say hey you are Michael Caine. And piss all over your shoes.

It is no accident that Michael Caine is on many talk shows. He is an excellent storyteller. Storyteller’s are valued on late night talk shows because of one simple fact. Stories, unlike almost anything else, emotionally connect with everybody. All the demographics you like.

Yet, storytelling in advertising has become an uncool word. This is something advertising loves to do to itself. Forget what works, let’s find something shiny.

For many it has become associated with what some would call old ways of doing advertising. Although, if you listen to Les Binet and Peter Field there is a desperate need to go back to this kind of creativity. From their evidence at the IPA, trying to build a brand with short term thinking rather than creating a consistent narrative that connects with consumers emotionally is doomed to failure. Especially, when the economy takes a dive.

I also think storytelling has become unfashionable because of the obsession to make all content as short as possible. Try telling a joke very quickly and see if people are laughing at the end. The result of all this is many bits of online content that look like charmless 1950’s billboards. Cheap and uncheerful.

Another reason it has become uncool is because our industry has tried to replace it with stupid jargon-words like story-making and the even more ridiculous story-doing. This is because our business seems to think that telling stories in other ways, be it online or using customer experience is vastly different. The channels might be, but the desired result is very much the same. Feeling and connection. This is something advertising often forgets with new media channels.

While we are doing the very important job of labelling things, Netflix is spending 11 billion dollars on telling stories and Amazon is about to spend 7 billion dollars to do the same. I would call that a ringing endorsement that gives us a hint of where things are going.

So, why do stories matter so much in advertising?

Take this photograph. It was taken during the London terror attacks. Apparently an advertising agency strategist (I think named Paula Bloodworth) looked at the picture and noticed the man on the right was still holding his beer while running away. From that came the brilliant line ‘Nothing beats a Londoner.’ She saw the story in the picture. She saw something that data would not have seen in a photograph of a London terror attack.

Storytelling is how you get somewhere new. Stories let you connect impossible things. It is how you invent characters and new worlds. Stories make sense of what is but they can make you see what isn’t there yet. And most importantly, they make you pay attention. That has enormous value.

As I have said, a great story cuts across all demographics. That is ridiculously valuable. It also makes people want more. It can be episodic. Game of Thrones has been going for 8 years. Going forward, I think advertising will need think a lot more about how stories can continue.

Stories are also how human beings naturally entertain and talk to each other. And, I think, as we have more and more channels to speak to a consumer, many brands are forgetting this simple fact. Tone is one of storytelling’s greatest strengths. One of the great dangers for brands going forward is they will be omnipresent, yet perfectly impersonal. All the information at exactly the right time with none of the charm. Will that be enough? We will see.

Perhaps you are still unconvinced. OK. Well, let’s create a very good product that everybody wants. Let’s give it excellent customer service and fantastic distribution. Let’s also give it a very good price. So far, so good.

Now, let’s give it some competition that has exactly the same attributes plus a story. The moment this happens things start getting weird. People start saying imprecise things, like our product is fine but it’s a bit boring. It has no vibe or it’s a bit soulless. There is no personality. And that is because people are irrational. They make decisions based on emotion rather than facts. We make choices based on how we feel. We think we don’t, but we do. Take the biggest purchase people make in their lives. A home. What do people normally say when they choose a home?

It just felt right.

That is why storytelling works and matters. Because it is the perfect vehicle to convey emotion. And emotion rather than logic is how we make decisions.

That, and the fact that very few boring people make it onto chat shows.

Advertising. Swimming with clowns.

“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere.”

William Shakespeare Twelfth Night

This is a plea for naughtiness.

Naughtiness is defined as mischievousness, prankishness, a type of disobedience.

For about a year I have had this re-occurring thought. Has creativity become a formula because of how ideas have to serve so many media channels? Useful, practical Swiss army knife ideas versus impactful, sharp steak knife ideas. This thought pops in my head every couple of days. It comes from something I wrote a couple of months ago. I wrote creativity can make nice patterns but its real value is that it can break patterns. This makes creativity dangerous but also priceless because almost nothing else can do this for a business.

Recently, I hired a team who had been retrenched. One of them told me they had taken a clown as their support person to the retrenchment meeting. He instructed the clown to make balloon animals while he lost his job. When the team told me the story I laughed for about ten minutes. So, we hired them.

For me it demonstrated two things, creativity can change the rules of any situation and it can get your power back when you have none.

I was thinking about this as I descended through the brown air tightly hugging the very organised Singapore. I was here to judge Spikes Asia.

It is a strange thing to watch 150 case studies in a day. Eventually, you are hypnotised by the same structure, same set-up, the results etc. They all look the same. But, every now and then, something comes along that is so clever or funny that it breaks through the pattern and packaging. Or, somebody in the room changes your mind with their perspective. They break the pattern in your mind. That’s the strange thing about creativity. It can break something and make it better at the same time.

My mind wondered and I started to think about patterns. I asked myself what pattern could be broken in our creative world. Here’s a thought. Case studies all look the same, don’t they? We have reached a strange optimum 2 minute efficient way of telling our stories. Set up. Problem. solution. Data. Results. Huge buzz was created. Millions of channels. The structure and restrictions of the case study dictate a pattern we now follow.

I decided to apply clown theory to the problem. What if you gave case studies to a clown? How would he or she present it? In person? A bad video with boards and charts? Would the clown attack the jury in the bar with a squirting flower? All risky strategies, but boy, they would be fun. And you would remember the work wouldn’t you? Maybe somebody should try it. It would be chaos but it might get us somewhere new. And like I said, it would be fun.

Spikes Asia 2019 Direct Jury with a clown

This kind of thinking is where the real power lies for creativity. We are scared of it but we love it. It’s dangerous but it’s where we want to go. Why else would a small story in NZ go right round the world? The simple answer is that in the worst situation you can imagine career wise, somebody saw an opportunity to change everything for the better. They didn’t follow the rules. They made new ones. They said fuck it. The thing we all want to say at least once a day.

In our business, we talk about creativity a lot. Most of the time it is used to solve problems efficiently. It is practical. It is useful. It is effective. It is clever. But, there is another type of creativity, a creativity that is mad, unpredictable and breaks every law. As a jury member said to me over dinner, advertising used to have more naughtiness and more strange characters. It is our super power. We should never lose it. And maybe we need a bit more of it these days. Anybody can make sense. But, madness is often what you need to go somewhere new. And then, it is no longer mad.

That is the creativity that frightens us. That is also the creativity we all want. And that is why we need more clowns.

They take you laughing into the deep water.

Advertising. Phineas Gage is a strange story we should all know.

“One can be master of what one does, but never of what one feels.”

Gustave Flaubert

September 13, 1848 was not a good day for Phineas Gage. Until that day, the handsome 25 year old had worked his way up to the position of foreman. By all accounts he was very good at his job. Shrewd and capable. Somebody you could depend on to get the job done. But, unfortunately on that day none of these fine qualities would help him. He was working with a four-foot iron rod to tamp down some blasting powder. And through sheer chance, the iron bar created a spark as it struck a rock. This sent the iron bar straight up through Gage’s left eye and clean through his brain. Apparently, the rod landed 30 or 40 feet away from the unfortunate and now one eyed Mr Gage.

And now the good news. Phineas Gage, incredibly, was fine. Yes, he had lost an eye and had a massive hole in his brain. But, apart from that he was fit as a fiddle. Later that day, he would walk into a doctor’s office saying, “Here’s business enough for you.”

I was fortunate enough to be told this unbelievable story by Rupert Price our urbane Chelsea Football Club loving head of strategy. The reason both Rupert and I are interested in Mr Gage is because of what happened to him next. You see, although Mr Gage showed no physical side effects, there were some other changes.

He was unable to control his emotions or make choices.

His intellectual abilities were fine. He could think, but could not make decisions.

150 years later, Dr Antonio Damasio would examine, analyse and scan Gage’s skull. His conclusion was that Gage’s post accident brain was unable to process emotions and was therefore unable to make decisions.

In other words, you cannot make decisions without the ability to experience emotion.

Think about what that means in our business. If there is no emotion, there is no decision. If there is no decision, there is very little point to advertising.

I hear too many people talk about emotion like it is a nice to have or perhaps part of old fashioned advertising. Apparently, there are better ways now. Really?

Let’s take an example. Buying a house. The biggest purchase most people ever make. In the beginning, our nice couple will do research, they look at suburbs, measure the rooms and talk to experts. You know, rational stuff. Yet, what do they invariably say when they are asked why they bought that specific house?

It just feels right.

The idea that a lot of decisions are purely rational is a myth. A myth, many still believe because that is how they think they make decisions. A myth that has a massive impact on our business. You can have all the facts but without emotion there is one thing missing. The ability to have a preference. Because quite simply you don’t care.

And, when you don’t care about something, no matter how available, rational or effective it is, you don’t notice it. That something becomes invisible. These days, there are many short term choices that are leading brands to reach parity with one another rather than becoming a far more desirable p-word. The preference.

I would argue advertising needs that like a hole in the head.

Advertising. 450 million dollars for peacock feathers.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.”

Leonardo da Vinci

This is Salvator Mundi. The world’s most expensive painting. It recently sold for 450 million dollars at Christie’s in New York. Most experts thought it would get to about 200 million dollars. They were very wrong. However, the gigantic sum paid is not the most startling facts about this masterpiece.

What is far more eye-watering is many don’t believe it is real. Many experts feel that it was done by Da Vinci’s workshop rather than the master himself. If that is the case the paintings value drops to 1.5 million dollars. My hands get a little sweaty writing that sentence. I don’t know why, it’s only a 448.5 million dollar gamble.

The first. The last. Original. The one and only. The genuine article. What is the value of specialness and exclusivity? Why is being distinctive so important to us? Why does it matter? I believe it is inherent in human beings to want to be different to everybody else. It might be a skill you have learnt. A story you can tell. An instrument you can play. Or, something you have collected. But most people attempt to have something that makes them different or if you prefer, interesting. Think of the last dinner party you were at. Who or what do you remember? Invariably, it was a story that somebody told that made you laugh or shake your head in disbelief. Or, an outrageous act from somebody who was a little drunk and perhaps had a serviette on their head. Either way, whether it was surprise or emotion being different is very good at disrupting the banality of polite conversations and bland pre-dinner snacks. In short, it gets you noticed.

I feel in a world where discussions are often about effectiveness, distinctiveness is often neglected. In advertising, especially these days, we often talk about what must be done, we speak far less about how it must be done. I can speak from experience when I say tone is often what trips up campaigns. We all know what the work has to do but how different or distinctive it needs to be is where you often run into tricky issues. Efficiency is important as is effectiveness. But here is the conundrum. That efficiency often comes from very inefficient and human qualities. Emotion, confidence, risk, surprise and a touch of drama. Without it, there is very little distinctiveness and consequently less efficiency. So, although many are trying, it would seem efficiency and difference are very difficult to separate. I think this quote from Rory Sutherland explains the puzzle perfectly.

“Like a peacock’s tail, advertising is not really about efficiency…A large part of advertising’s power comes from the fact that it is perceived to be expensive, and is broadcast at a wide audience in mass media, thus conveying a seller’s confidence in the widespread popularity of what is being sold”.

Or, to get back to our expensive painting, let’s look at it another way. In a strange turn of events, you have become wealthy and remarkably good looking. You have been going to expensive dinner party after dinner party. Each one, has had great food and wine, fantastic hosts and impeccable service. Tonight’s party has been no different until the host says to the gathering that behind the curtain is the last known Leonardo da Vinci. He unveils it to loud gasps. It would be a showstopper. You wouldn’t remember any dinner party before that and guess what you would be talking about at the next one?

So, perhaps, a Da Vinci is just a peacock’s tail to some ridiculously, wealthy billionaire (it was actually bought by a Saudi Sheik) with a permanent tan and fantastic white teeth. That’s what he looks like in my head anyway. Is he completely batshit crazy?

Actually, that is the wrong question.

The right question is what is genuine difference worth these days?

And the answer to that is another question.

What is a peacock worth without its feathers?

Creativity. Gentle anarchy never hurt anybody.

“There is no greatness where there is not simplicity, goodness and truth.”

Leo Tolstoy

There is probably a weird German word for it. A word for that strange feeling you get when you see an idea and it makes you happy and jealous at the same time. I looked at my phone screen and saw this picture. It is a picture of a see-saw that goes between the Mexican and American Border. This simple idea lets children play with each other even though they are separated by an impenetrable steel barrier. Think of the anger. Think of the pain that exists on either side of that steel line in the sand. Think about the intelligence and heart that creates an idea that lets people have fun in that barren and unforgiving environment. An idea, that does not break the law, but simply overcomes the law. An idea, that proves just how limited rules can be.

It was created by two architects, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. Their beautiful intention was to bring people together through design. As you may have guessed, I really like this idea. It has power, playfulness, humanity, humour and simplicity in equal measure. But most importantly, it has a gentle anarchy at its core. Great ideas like these have this essential creative point of view. There are no rules. Reject the world as it is or how others tell you to see it. Realise you have the ability to make the world the way you want it to be. And, it will be fun or at the very least, unboring. Gentle anarchy. This point of view can be scary for many. But without it, almost nothing will change or move forward.

Think of that famous 60’s photograph of the the anti-Vietnam war protester putting a carnation into the barrel of a military policeman’s gun. Gentle anarchy. It’s a gun. No it’s a vase. The power you thought you had is gone. It’s a wall. Nope, it’s a children’s playground. The power you thought you had is gone.

Transformation. Fundamentally, this is the super power creativity has. This was how the world was and, hey presto, now, this is how the world will be. It breaks patterns. It changes boundaries. It gives us new pictures. Instantly.

Nothing else does this. This is why creativity is so important. Many strong and brutal things can change the world but invariably there are casualties. Creativity takes the fear out of change. It can shift power effortlessly and elegantly. It can also make you smile in the middle of all the madness.

Creativity can change the world and nobody has to get hurt.

Advertising. Making it mean something.

“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”

Terry Pratchett

After Cannes, I found it difficult to write anything. It felt like everything had been said. It had been dissected in a million different ways. There is a frenzy after Cannes to explain what it all means. And normally, I would be right there. This year, I needed a moment. I tried to move on and ignore it all but something kept gnawing away at me. I felt I needed a rant but I didn’t know what I wanted to rant about.

While this itchy-scratchy feeling was happening I walked into an old camera shop my son Jake had found. He had bought an old 70’s 8mm film camera for 35 dollars. As a smug former photographer, I told him he would never find film or batteries for a camera that old. He proved me wrong – in a single morning. Walking into the store was like walking into my past. Kodak, Ilford, Nikon F3’s on the wall. I don’t know why it amazed me but it did. It was like finding a beautiful old Ford Mustang in amongst a whole lot of bland Ford Mondeo’s.

I asked Barry the owner if he ever sold anything. He said he was selling two film cameras a day and processing about 20 rolls a day. And, he said with a smile, all to young people. I asked him why he thought that was. He eloquently said you can shoot 300 photos with a smart phone, but it’s too easy. It all looks the same. He laughed and said it becomes meaningless. You don’t think. So you don’t care about what you have done. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

Maybe it’s because I was in this strange back to the future store but his words stuck in my head.

So here goes. Here is my rant.

Firstly, there was a lot of great work at Cannes, as there always is. And having a purpose as a brand can be a powerful force when done authentically.

But there was a term I heard recently: Woke washing. Another was Sadvertising. You will see a huge amount of this work is winning these days. But that wasn’t the itch for me. The itch that needed to be scratched was the attempt to use purpose (often tenuously with very little connection to the product) to evoke the same sad emotions over and over again. And yes, I understand the world is not a happy place right now and that brands can play a massive role in changing it for the better. If they are being authentic. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Volvo’s Epic Split would still win a Grand Prix these days. You know, just something funny, clever and well made. Something that is designed to sell stuff. I mean that is the business we are in, right? Selling. I wondered if we as an industry are painting ourselves into a very narrow corner where having a purpose is rewarded far more than building a brand. (I know some will say that can be the same thing but I think that it is only true for certain companies). I wondered if the advertising of a company whose only purpose is to make great cheese could win anything of consequence. I wondered if we now have a very set pattern of success? A pattern that will be broken. Because, mark my words, that is what creatives do.

Or, in the words of Barry. “It all looks the same and feels the same. He laughed and said, it becomes meaningless. People want it to mean something. They want it to be a bit hard. And, most of all, they don’t want to be like everybody else.

I think I am going back to the store to buy some film.

Advertising. What if nothing is changing?

“Creativity doesn’t wait for that perfect moment. It fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”

Bruce Garrabrandt

There is an advertising urban myth about a company needing to sell more baby powder. Basically, all the brightest and the best would come into a room each day and try and brainstorm how they could sell more baby powder. They would look at communication, distribution and pricing. At the end of each day a cleaner would come in and clean up the room. While she did this she would listen to what they were saying. At the end of 3 days very little progress had been made in selling more baby powder. The cleaner could see everybody was a little crestfallen so she gave them her idea.

Why don’t you just make the holes bigger?

The question is always how you change the game. And the answer is usually made up of two words. Creativity and simplicity. You will find these two qualities in any answer of value.

However, changing the game and talking about change are of course two very different things. One of the funniest things in our industry is to watch people take on the cloak of the grim reaper. One of the safest positions you can take in our industry is that everything is about to die. This has been said every year since I got into the business. Bob Hoffman wrote a brilliant piece about this phenomenon in Cannes recently: https://campaignbrief.com/bob-hoffman-dying-at-cannes/

In it, he shows how speaker after speaker talks about how we are all dying if we don’t adapt. Or, how advertising is dying. Or, that massive change is on the horizon. Run for the hills. For the love of God, we have to change. Otherwise we are all going to die. Now, of course if you get to the end of these talks you will find most are selling something. And nothing sells quite like impending doom.

I guess the real question is what is changing and what isn’t. The idea of change has always fuelled our industry. The restlessness this brings is a good thing. But, it can also be a false prophet. So, I thought I would look at all this through the lens of an excellent article I read recently. For me, it highlights the fact that in the end we always come back to the need for creativity. That is what never changes. It is almost always the solution you return to over and over. And more importantly, it’s how you change the game and make giant leaps when everything else eventually gives you parity.

The article is by Jay Patisall in Forbes magazine called The Cost of Losing Creativity. Please do yourself a favour and read it. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forrester/2019/06/19/the-cost-of-losing-creativity/#2f061d79703a

In it he argues that the industry has commoditised brands and homogenised experiences. Here is what he had to say about how customer experience has become too similar to make a difference.

The issue is that the work looks, feels, and behaves too similar. The industry obsession for meeting every customer need and want for ease and convenience by using technology has left little room for creative differentiation. That has come at a cost. The front door to your brand is a web or app experience that is virtually indistinguishable. Fashion experiences look the same. Quick-service restaurant and coffee apps allow you to order ahead and skip the line. All airline apps allow travelers to check in, manage travel, and use a mobile device as their boarding pass. What can make one brand different from another when the experience is built from the same common technology platform, designed to solve the same user or category need, and programmed for the same two devices? Creativity.

In other words, there comes a point where through technology or just about anything else, you reach an experience plateau where everything becomes the same again. You and your competitors become the same again. And then, you have to differentiate again. For that you need ideas. You need creativity to change the game. It would seem as long as there is competition or choice this will always happen.

Take television and content. Recently, Disney and NBC have taken their content back from Netflix. The game is changing and to be fair there are many scenarios that could play out in the future. But just for fun, let’s take this information and run with it. Disney (I believe the app is called Disney Plus) and many others could soon have their own apps that consumers will be able to access in a variety of ways. This means in the future you could have a multitude of apps or platforms on your screen. And hey presto we are back where we started. Not unlike today with a multitude of television channels to choose from. What was once radically different will become familiar again. This cycle is far more true than radical change.

So, the question becomes how will all these streams of content differentiate from each other? My guess is a few people in a room trying to come up with ideas. No matter what labels are used or what impending doom men in cool trainers tell us is about to visit, this always seems to be the answer.

It is ironic that the one thing that actually creates change, doesn’t change at all. Creativity.

It knows eventually it will get the call after all the talking and posturing is done. It knows it is the only architecture that will let you leap again and again.

Just like the holes in the baby powder, the answer is always staring us in the face.

Advertising. Talent is never a single malt.

“Everybody has talent, it’s just a matter of moving around until you have discovered what it is.”

George Lucas

Talent. It’s one of those words. Like the word, creativity. Everybody nods and agrees that you need it. These days, everybody, says they need talent desperately. What is also perhaps true, is that the changing structure of our business, from consultants to in-house agencies and everything in between means all sorts of people are perhaps figuring out what this word actually means for the first time.

The question is, what is it?

Part of the problem is the word. It is all encompassing and generic. Talent may be an ability an individual has. However, it is also a lego block you can connect to other lego blocks to build something far bigger.

The trick is how you put the blocks together. And having an idea of what needs to be built

So what’s the problem? Well, lately I have seen a few car crashes. Certain companies hiring people that are plain wrong simply because they have the word creative on their CV. These companies have done this over and over for the last couple of years. And judging by the turnover of staff, it must have cost them plenty.

The question is, what is it they don’t understand?

The answer is pretty simple. They don’t understand what they need. They also don’t understand that creatives are not all the same. They have different skills which have to be managed and blended together. It doesn’t just work all by itself. Especially, if there is no culture of creativity in the company.

Creatives are like the game Tetris. They fit together in a multitude of ways. And when they do, they unlock far higher levels. They are capable of incredible leaps and doing the impossible. When they are just seen as manpower or resource they unlock far less. And to extend the metaphor, that is how you reach game over.

Bill Bernbach understood the value of connecting creatives over 50 years ago. He was the first to put an art director and a copywriter together. He understood you would get far better work if you got this combination right. He wasn’t looking at individuals but puzzle pieces that fit together. This idea over the last couple of years was often said to be old-fashioned. However, if you go and look at where ideas come from in almost any organisation you will find a couple of people in a room with laptops, or post-its or pads trying to come up with ideas. They might have different titles 50 years on but what they do is not that different.

Bernbach realised that finding a single individual that could have a range of different, brilliant ideas every day, then potentially sell those ideas with exuberance and then make all those different ideas equally well is very rare. More than that, he really understood the power of combinations and what they can unlock. He understood what I call the power of bounce. You see this strange power in improv theatre. The golden rule for actors is no matter what the other actor says you have to say ‘yes and’. You have to build on the idea.

Actually, it’s not a strange power. We have seen it for years. Lennon and McCartney. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Elton John and Bernie Taupin. Or, modern comedy writing versions. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Or closer to home, Flight of the Conchords. Together these duo’s create what one of them cannot. They fuel each other and support each others ideas. Having ideas can be a lonely business. Another person that gets you and is willing to go on a crazy journey with you is beyond value.

Finding those combinations though takes time and needs to be nurtured. Many right now are not taking the time. They are just hiring the right amount of people for the desks in a room. Even if they are great, they may not be the answer. Imagine the football team Barcelona made up entirely of Lionel Messi clones. He is arguably the greatest player that has ever lived. How many matches would that team win? My guess is not many if he is the goalkeeper.

Raymond Chandler once said there are no bad whiskeys. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.

And in our business, which has always been a team sport, the greatest whiskey of all is talent. And that talent, may begin as a single malt, but if it is to truly succeed, it should always become a blend.