I was lucky enough to be asked to run a seminar at the Cannes Lions festival a few weeks ago. I was joined by the brilliant Paul Bennett of IDEO and John Winsor of Victors and Spoils; Jimmy Maymann, the CEO of the Huffington Post moderated. Each of us gave a short provocation. Here’s what I had to say:
This is our Kodak moment.
We are facing our Kodak moment; a point of inflection where we can choose between two future states: reinvention or the long march into irrelevance. Let me explain why I believe we are at this point.
The context in which we operate - culture - has changed dramatically since this festival began 60 years ago. Indeed, you could argue that over the last couple of decades the rate of cultural change has never been faster or more pervasive.
Yet, if you compare the type of work we made 60 years ago with the work we make today it’s remarkably similar. Yes, the production values have improved, but the type of stuff we make, by and large, is the same.
We’re failing to move at the speed of culture, a prerequisite for the success of any creative industry.
Excellent at the wrong type of innovation.
The great failure of the advertising industry to transform itself has been down to the fact that we’re excellent at the wrong type of innovation: we are living evidence of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. We relentlessly pursue and celebrate the latest ‘new’ way of doing what we have done before. And it is rarely about imaginatively finding new types of things to do with our creativity and to explore new ways to get paid for them.
Real creative bravery.
Now you may ask why bother? Why change?
We are, after all, at a festival that celebrates ‘creative bravery’. And many of us, myself included, are here because we’re paid for by a relatively big and successful agency that does good work but essentially just does ‘advertising’.
Why change if,after all, agencies are still getting paid lots of money to make ads, why the great urge to change to do something outside their comfort zone?
And what if clients don’t want to pay for change, they just want better work?
Well, I would argue we need to display, as an industry, some real creative bravery.
There was a time when we used to be brave and more imaginative. We invented new ways to solve business problems from the soap opera to the creation of Mr Kipling’s. We saw our sphere of influence to be anything that could connect a company with people (and yes, that included the product).
So why in an age full of the magic of technology can’t we invent new brighter possibilities? It’s deeply ironic that the most significant invention to advertising in recent years - search - came from the outside, from the technology industry
We need again to challenge the very nature of how we work, what we make, how we get paid and what we celebrate at events like this. To think about, as Google put it, 10x change not 10% change.
Because if we don’t, I’m convinced irrelevance awaits.
We’re losing relevance with people who care less for brands and ads than ever before and with clients who don’t see what we do as driving growth and profitability. We’re finding it harder to attract the best talent into the industry as we simply aren’t seen as offering the “wicked problems” to work on.
We’re caught in a vicious cycle and we need to break out of it.
To do this we need to break the muscle memory of seeing every business problem as something that can be solved by the act of advertising.
Clients are asking us to grow their business and solve big, tough, complicated commercial problems. Yet our default behavior and niche obsessions with the ad makes the link between the commercial imperative and the creative solution far too weak and indirect.
We have to become more obsessed by the outcome we create rather than the output we make.
When I grow up, I want to be a hacker.
I believe to do this we need to stop being advertising people and instead become hackers. Now when you think of hacker, you often still think of people who break stuff and live outside the law. Not that different from a night on the Croisette then. But that’s not what hacking is about. It’s about something much more powerful. Because when you look at the definition of the hack you find something pretty amazing:
Hack (n.) The most ingenious and effective solution to a problem.
Now doesn’t that sound like something we should want as an industry to grow up to be?
Five simple reasons that hacks are more powerful than ads.
First, hacks, by definition, are effective. They take big complicated problems and break them into smaller problems that can be more easily solved, whatever form that solution takes. They remove the gap between the commercial imperative and the creative solution.
Second, hacks aren’t simply about being media neutral, they are people positive. They solve real problems for people and make their lives in some way better. So we make stuff people care about.
Third, hacks simplify things for people and get out of the way. They don’t feel they have to interrupt you or get in your way in order to be noticed.
Fourth, they are forward looking and imaginative; they have an inherent disdain for the tired solutions of today.
Fifth and finally, hacking is about a predisposition and bias towards speed. It’s about solving a problem in a better, faster and easier way. It fights the tyranny of perfection that far too often slows us down. It lets us move and experiment at least as fast as culture.
We need to rediscover our healthy disregard for advertising.
To grow up as an industry we need to have a healthy disregard for advertising, at least as we know it now. We need to break out of our paint by numbers mentality. A healthy disregard for advertising has always been a common thread in the best advertising people and clients: Phil Knight famously spoke about how much he hated advertising, Google run a million miles away from stuff that ‘feels like an ad’ and I’m convinced that the best work we do at GSP stems from the fact that Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein aren’t ad people but a journalist and a graphic designer who stumbled into the industry. We need to rediscover this disregard. Somewhat perversely, we need less advertising people in order for advertising to flourish.
“It’s not sufficient to do things better, we need to do better things.” — Mark Shayler
So my argument is that we face two interlinked problems. First, we are a cultural laggard - we’re less interesting and progressive than the stuff that surrounds what we do. As a result, we are less meaningful to people and less vital to brands. Second, we have forgotten how to understand and serve our clients’ business problems; we only know how to make the stuff we’ve grown up making.
The confluence of this means we are currently making the slow walk to irrelevance.
If we’re to stop this and seize the amazing opportunities open to us, we need to stop being advertising people, and we need to become hackers.
Mark Shayler put it brilliantly: It’s not sufficient to do things better. We need to do better things.