Ad creatives: we come in peace

Ad creatives: we come in peace

So we were invited to take our event series The Tech Off to the annual advertising shindig, the Cannes Lions Festival. Well, specifically the new Lions Innovation Festival, which – as a tech company – is right up our street. We’d highly recommend it.

We always give each of our events a name, and this outing was labelled “Creatives vs Coders”. We thought it would be amusing to parody the coming together of marketing & technology as a battle. Obviously, everyone knows that the future of creative innovation is open collaboration don’t they?


As the week progressed it seemed as if the presence of the coders was making the creatives all ‘grumpy cat face’. According to at least one article (in Campaign, natch) the technologists were out to kill creativity itself: “They’re tickling the tummy of the creative lion while slowly pushing it to extinction.”

It seemed as if – in the choice of our event name – we’d put the spotlight on this sensitive issue. AWKWARD!

Anyhoo, we pressed on with our message of peace and Creatives vs Coders: The Tech Off! was a storming success. If you want to see what happened click here.

But it got us thinking, why are the bearded dudes feeling so threatened? Here’s our take…

Rapunzel, Rapunzel

OK before I get a kicking because I’m not “a creative”: I went to art school (fine art, painting), my dad is a sculptor, I DJ, take photos, mix drinks, and write (a lot). Oh and I set up companies that break new industries, and have done since 2001.

So I have a perspective on the creative process.

It’s my understanding that often within an advertising agency the creative is treated somewhat like Rapunzel. That is, locked in a tower and left to do their special creativey thing without distraction from lesser mortals.

ad creatives

The almost cult-like status of ‘creativity’ within the advertising industry is perhaps best embodied by the hype around Cannes Lions itself. But this can seem to be a very tightly defined notion of creativity – particularly when the world around us is being recreated in code.

How about Facebook as a piece of creativity in itself, rather than a pipe down which you pump “creativity” in the form of video, word and image? Arguably Facebook (along with Google) has been the most creative business in recent memory. They have literally reinvented our very culture, on a global scale.

ad creatives

From my perspective the modern world is changing so rapidly that the only way you can meaningfully survive is to be open to ideas from all disciplines. Maths, science, art, engineering, culture, entrepreneurship. Philosopher John Hagel succinctly calls it “knowledge flows”.

In many ways a successful modern creative needs to be part polymath, part Malcolm Gladwell (decoding academia), part entrepreneur, part ecologist (creating an ecosystem of collaborators), and part crazy scientist.

As agency-of-the-year R/GA founder Bob Greenberg said during the week:

“Just as television eventually gave us William Bernbach, David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett, the connected age will yield a new generation of men (and women, thankfully) just as mad – and just as creative, but quite possibly more effective.

Technology as Ad-tech

Another mistake I observed is to see technology only as a series of products, of ad-tech platforms whose algorithms are aiming to steal the creative mojo. This seems to be the source of all the tension.

“Strip away the fake layer of cordiality, and tech and creativity balls-out hate each other. They wish the other would die an ugly, violent death.”

Whilst the advertising industry is indeed being bombarded by VC-funded ad-tech beasts in booze-filled yachts – theirs is not the only way that technology can impact the world of advertising.

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It was welcome to see Jeremy Basset and the Unilever Foundry bring 50 tech startups to Cannes – itself a key feature of Lions Innovation. This is a beacon for forward-thinking companies – a new way to innovate, trying out new ideas, disrupting themselves.

But as Sophie Kelly CEO of The Barbarian Group observes, there is a massive cultural divide between Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley:

“Madison Avenue, at its best – at its most successful – is about being associated or involved in beautiful or famous work that makes money. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, has a very counter-culture mindset overlaid with a rational engineer problem-solution approach to life. At its best – at its most successful – people want to make useful things that positively impact the world and make money doing it

With the introduction of startups into the creative agency world this is a circle that is yet to be squared. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, particularly as startups want to protect their original vision. I argue below that it may well be that the future of marketing is in thinking more like the Silicon Valley types. We’ll see.

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But while technology will surely be “product” and “platform” it is also a creative tool – like language itself. When the colour blue was invented – a technological leap – did painters rebel against it?

Creatives need to see technology as opportunity. Coders are co-creators in a new world which has new rules and new possibilities (as well as pitfalls). It’s a mistake to get distracted by talk of algorithms and programmatic ads when the tectonic plates are themselves shifting, as we discuss below.

As AKQA co-founder and Chairman Tom Bedecarre says:

“The agency world ought to be trying to hire as many Google and Facebook types as tech firms are hiring advertising types, so we can understand each other culturally.

Enter a new Industrial Revolution

In April 2012 The Economist ran a front page article titled “The Third Industrial Revolution”. This was specifically about advanced manufacturing and 3D printing, but I would add big data, cloud computing, connected devices and social into the mix.

And we are at the start of this revolution, a ‘big shift’ which will change how the world works in profound ways. In 100 years Mark Zuckerberg will be seen more like a Carnegie or Rockefeller, laying the railroads for this future world.

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So how are brands built, when the economy – as global research firm Gartner says – is all about the experience? This is an experience mediated by software, and sat on a server. Not only this, the power between consumer and brand has shifted, the sales funnel being ‘blown to bits’.

Brands should serve, not interrupt, as R/GA’s Bob Greenberg says

“If we harness this data in a way that serves rather than betrays the people who provided it, work will become more authentic and relevant, both to the individual as well as to the culture at large”

This idea of service to the consumer will redefine the notion of ‘creativity’. From something (while often beautiful) that interrupts to something that serves a larger purpose and role. And technology will enable and underpin that – a digital service layer between established brands and their customers.

Just look at Uber. They took an established industry, and added an interface and tech layer which makes the entire experience a no brainer for the customer. Ironically the start of the Lions Innovation Festival was ‘disrupted’ (or maybe ‘interrupted’) by a taxi strike – and blockade of Nice airport…because of Uber!

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Think that can’t happen in your client’s established industry? Tell that to the London black cab drivers who have also been striking. This digital disruption came out of the clear blue sky, and rewrote the rules of the industry – no ads for black cabs will change that.

The fact is that consumers just don’t like consuming advertising. The ability to fast forward through TV shows, and services like Netflix mean that TV advertising is most relevant when tied to a ‘big event’ like the Superbowl or the X Factor finals.

And the ongoing complaints about digital ad blockers miss a broader point – if people are blocking your ads, maybe your ads aren’t working.

Salesforce Chief Strategy Officer Mike Lazerow neatly argues:

“The power has shifted from company to customer, and agencies are forced to play in areas that they didn’t care about before—customer service, technology deployment, app development and social networks.”

Taking this position as a starting point, the modern ad creative should be approaching the world like a Silicon Valley entrepreneur – using the tech tools available to create long term meaning for their client’s brands.

Advertising’s King Canutes

Technology is eating the world, of that there is no doubt. It’s a wave which is here, and it is only gaining force – but right now ad creatives appear like a 21st Century King Canute, willing that wave to recede.

The thing is, it’s a great wave to ride – and I’d like to invite my advertising industry colleagues to wax down their boards and join us.

What do you think? Who owns the future: the Creatives, the Coders, or open Collaboration?

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