The advertising industry is about to descend on Cannes for the annual Lion hunt. Just a few short weeks after the film festival left town—the poor bar staff will still be sweeping up the crockery. There’s scarcely time for them to dust themselves down and raise bar prices by 50 per cent in anticipation of our arrival.
In terms of glamour, we’re well aware that we are poor cousins to the film folk. No-one waits outside my hotel for an autograph. But here’s the funny thing: the movie stars get all the column inches, yet our work reaches far more people. Our business has a massive global impact—perhaps the largest of any industry. When you think about it, every corporation’s public face has been given a facial by us. I say this not as a boast, but to point out an often-overlooked fact of great significance. For good or ill, our work has great influence; it reflects and directs global culture.
It has, in fact, power that we are only now beginning to fully appreciate. With that power comes responsibility. And, so, while we convene to award the greatest creative work on the planet, we are also mindful of the greater role that advertising could play in the wider scheme of things. I’ve heard it whispered that Bill Clinton is going to suggest advertising can save the world in his speech at Cannes. Not on its own, for sure. But the skills, techniques and understanding of communication that it possesses means that the potential is there, and we all know how badly needed that potential is.
Serving as Film and Press jury president affords me a unique opportunity to see how we are doing in that collective task. In a few days, my fellow jury members and I will have to sit in judgment over our peers but, for now, with the competition still in the future, I can indulge in the luxury of generalities.
Talk of changing the world comes after some pretty far-reaching changes in the industry in these past few years. Just as Ogilvy & Mather is rethinking its whole approach to creativity, so, too, I think is our industry. We faced a global economic retrenchment in the midst of a historical structural shift in our own business. It was an industry-wide health crisis brought on by both external and internal factors. In short, the ad business had a heart attack. Something like that changes you—or it should, at least, if you aim to see many more dawns.
New kids on the block
One change impossible to ignore is the way that globalisation has reconfigured everything.
This used to be a Western game and, for a long time, no-one else could get the ball. Well, that has all changed now. Not just changed, but blown out of the water. There’s hardly a corner of the globe where they are not playing with the ball and beating us at what we thought was our own game. Advertising has blossomed in the new centres. Yes, initially, the ads weren’t very good. But it didn’t take long for that to change. The established areas of the ad world will still keep doing their great work, but more of the new markets are coming in with astounding stuff. Really brilliant work is coming from all the nooks and crannies of the world—from Tunis to Bogotá, from Ho Chi Minh City to Guatemala City.
Advertising is a now a global art that flourishes as far afield as China, Singapore, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South and Central America, South Africa, the Middle East, the Nordic countries and Eastern Europe. As it grows, it takes on local characteristics. Innovation—staggering innovation—is emerging. This can only be great news for our industry.
Awakening the sleeping giants
This global explosion has been accompanied by a seismic shift in the relationship between brands and consumers. Consumers were never quite the passive recipients of culture that the couch-potato cliché suggested; but perhaps they were more content to accept what they were given in the past. Not any more. Today’s consumers have woken up and, like sleeping giants, discovered the tremendous power they possess. Of course, they haven’t fully explored the extent of this yet. It’s latent power and only comes into being when millions of people combine through the online world and social media.
You could say the first warning shot was fired back in 2001, when the people of the Philippines overthrew Joseph Estrada in a text message revolution. That was only the beginning and, let me tell you, governments and corporations are running scared. No-one knows where this is going to end, but everyone with the slightest understanding of these things knows it’s going to be huge. The people have power in this connected world—the most power they or any group has ever had before.
On a simple commercial level, if you upset them, offend their conscience, then you are in trouble. The manufacturer’s worst nightmare is a viral campaign on YouTube saying the product sucks. If the viral is funny, then you are finished for good. The political sphere works much the same way. Over the past year, we’ve had the Arab Spring and other popular uprisings co-ordinated through Twitter and Facebook. Who could have imagined that ten years ago? Who knew? Advertising can help to save the world. Why not? Someone’s got to save it, and pretty soon as far as I can see. So why not the people and the awesome power of the communications business?
Certainly, advertising has raised its game in response. Rather than fight the shift, our industry helps people use the new power they have gained over the media to do good for the world, not just for brands. Memac Ogilvy epitomised that in its election campaign in Tunisia following the revolution. This is what advertising is when it is at its greatest.
It’s all a long way from the world of Mad Men and the three-martini lunch. Viewers love that show, but only because it is long gone. That lost world where ad guys are hucksters, there to sell people stuff, filled with creepy creatives and the unctuous account guys churning with the pure joy of putting one over on each other, on society and, of course, on the consumer. While that ethos is long gone, we are just starting to learn how to use all that selling energy, and the power that accompanies it, to build a better world. We’re partners with our brands in ensuring their survival, not just their day-to-day profits. What’s the point of profit today if the world we all depend on is gone 30 years down the road? Consumers want to do good as they spend. If they can donate a dollar each time they buy some bottled water to plant more trees in the Sub-Saharan desert to prevent soil erosion, then they will.
The digital world confronts us with the vision that everything is possible. Great creative work will meet the challenge presented by that reality by spurning rationalism in favour of a riot of feeling. Science has shown that our mind isn’t just between our ears. Our hearts and our guts are riddled with neurons. Great advertising has always appealed to the heart and to gut instinct; we just didn’t know why. This year, the work that has more gut impact, more heart impact and more emotion is going to win over the rational work. Clients often want the rational work, but with more and more of them attending Cannes, they are starting to see that it is raw emotion coupled with unexpected brilliance that wins.
The undiscovered country
I want our clients to see that shining brilliance. One of the more gratifying developments of recent years is the number of clients attending Cannes. A third of delegates last year, so I’m told. (Clients, eh? All they care about is awards!) It means they get to see first hand the kind of work that wins. They will see their competitors go up and accept Lions and they will ponder. But, most importantly, they will see work that will simply blow them away. When they get home, they will call their agency and demand work like that. That’s good for us all. It raises the bar for the whole industry, putting us into a creative arms race. What could be better for an industry that sells ideas? After all, we know that when our ideas bring home golds, they also bring in gold. Creatively awarded work, it was recently proven, sells 11 times harder than work that didn’t earn such recognition.
Award-winning creative goes off the edge of the world into the unknown. It takes risks. The advertising that will be recognised this year will run counter to the trends. It will be the work of the weirdos and strange birds, the folks who are raw talent or who have the courage to act like it. And it will be work for brands that had the courage to buy something that clearly zigged when everyone else zagged.
Of course, this creates no end of problems for the jury. That’s the problem that has me most excited—and most nervous—this year. I have to shut up and listen, and not just to the black and white, but to the great and the horrid. As president, I have to urge all jury members to pay attention to the middle ground, to the grey area—for me, that is the technicolour area. It’s where the most interesting conversations take place. For example, how do you judge with an understanding of local nuances, local culture? How do you evaluate work that no-one has ever seen before? How do you judge work that doesn’t fit within your frame of reference?
We start by looking for the incredibly new ideas—the things that we never see when we glance in the rear-view mirror—but we don’t stop there. Even the most original work is useless if it doesn’t ring the till. That certainly makes the bar awfully high. Work that wins at Cannes, especially this year, has to be both unprecedented and deeply in tune with our emotions. The work has to surprise us and connect with us, all in the same moment. Are we brave enough to do that? Are our clients? I hope to answer “yes” once Cannes is over, but I’m wary too. I’m not so naïve to think that we’ll find much of that. We will see plenty of weird, quirky work, but the stuff that has the spine of human connection will be rare.
A brave new world
All the same, my feeling as we approach the festival is one of optimism. I sense historic developments, some of which I have been discussing here. The work we’ll see this year will be better than it has ever been before. The creative renaissance at Ogilvy & Mather is happening all over the industry. Every year, the competition for each Lion grows fiercer. Brands are starting to understand that creativity isn’t an indulgence. It is, instead, as crucial a part of their business as a manufacturing plant or supply line. Our clients have joined us in a push for greater and greater creativity—creativity that pervades the entire business. I expect to hear them crying for better work just as loudly as the creatives.
And there will be a step change in the quality of the work. It won’t only be brilliant at selling products, but will reveal the stirrings of those sleeping giants. It will point the way to a brave new world of advertising, where the formidable power of the business to focus and direct cultures marries with the growing power of social media, as well as the growing confidence and self-awareness of the consumer.
We now find ourselves in a pivotal age when technology and the different ways of telling our narratives will help us unlock the potential, which is ultimately going to change the world. Every year at Cannes, some old advertising hand will come up to me after perhaps one too many vodkas and tell me with a sigh that the golden days of advertising are gone. This year, I will tell that person: my friend, those days you lament were no golden age, they were the silver age. We are just about to enter the golden age. It will shine so bright, you will need to buy a new pair of aviator shades.
Tham Khai Meng is the worldwide chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather and the president of the Film and Press juries at Cannes this year.
This article was originally published in Campaign UK on 15 June.