Bland strategy — the state of contemporary advertising
by HJ Lombard (@cadmus_photo) Cannes Lions recently concluded, which means the air has been redolent with the aroma of Mediterranean ocean breezes and self-congratulatory BS.
Cannes justly recognised the outstanding work done by Spike Jonze for Apple, as well as the delightfully colourful Nike “Nothing beats a Londoner” campaign. There was also deserved applause for the Palau Pledge campaign. Ultimately, these bright spots merely illuminate the general gloom. As others have pointed out: Cannes has become a festival rewarding self-reverential rehashes of old ideas. Following the stream of beach-and-bubbly selfies on social media emanating from Cannes, one could even be forgiven for thinking it was less a celebration of excellence than self-indulgence.
The writing on the wall
In Cannes, everything might appear rosé but, outside the French Riviera, we can see the writing on the wall. The advertising industry is in trouble. You can look at the big numbers (such as Procter & Gamble cutting US$200m on digital advertising last year, with plans for 2018 to lay the scalpel in even deeper), or you can simply look up from your desk and notice the retrenchments and ‘restructuring’ all around you. More to the point, you can look at your own media consumption habits: how many great ads (hell, even just good ads) do you see …or are you, like most other people, ignoring or actively blocking advertising?
Let’s skip the reasons and get to the blame. Who did this to us?
I realise this doesn’t correspond with the gallery of usual suspects: gluttonous media companies, greedy clients, ‘disruptive’ (can we stop using all forms of this word, unless we’re being sarcastic?) tech companies, and overzealous consulting firms.
For decades now, large swathes of the advertising industry have jumped on one bandwagon after another in order to define what we offer as being something other than creative agency. We’re media merchants; no, we’re tech specialists; no, we’re digital experts; no, we’re strategists. With each iteration and new fad, we’re convincing clients and other industries that they can do what we do. So, look at that rogues’ gallery above: is it their fault the ad industry has diligently been emphasising the value of media, technology and strategy to the detriment of creativity?
At the moment, we’re witnessing many ad agencies tying themselves into knots to be tech companies and strategy consultants. In the process, creative departments are robbed of vital oxygen as budgets shrink and creative agency culture dissipates.
Is it any wonder most advertising falls somewhere on a scale from bland to god-awful?
How do we fix this?
(If your answer is “AI”, we can’t be friends.) Ad agencies need to stop being ashamed of offering creativity as their prime speciality. It’s our USP, for crying out loud!
If I could launch an agency today, I would make the mission statement one word: creativity. I’d walk into every client pitch with a simple message: “Give us your brand and we’ll give you an original advertising campaign.” When asked how, I’d say: “Because we’re advertising creatives; there’s some crazy voodoo shit* that happens when a group of us turn our focus on a single objective — brand in one side, creativity in the middle, original advertising out the other end. Sure, you could go to a consultancy, but all they’ll give you is ‘strategy’: brand in one end, and bland out the other end. Or you could hire a tech company and they’ll flog you an app or gadget (based on technology so ‘cutting-edge’ that it’s been around for at least a decade and nobody else could make it profitable). Or you could try something in-house and hope you don’t shoot yourself in the Pepsi with a Jenner. But I have a better suggestion: You do you, we do great advertising. Focus on your core business and we’ll focus on ours, which is to show your product or service to the world in the best possible light. Why would you spend your precious advertising budget on a company that isn’t 100% committed to making advertising?”
While I’m sitting by the phone waiting for investors to flood me with offers to start this agency, you could get a head-start by reminding your clients what you’re best at… and then start producing the work to back up the claim that nobody can do the magic that we do.
*Crazy Voodoo Shit might just be this new agency’s name.
HJ Lombard (@cadmus_photo) has been writing professionally for 19 years. He’s worked in political PR, media publishing, and advertising. Over the years, he’s gathered some experience, a couple of grey hairs and a few opinions.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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