The fundamental principle of the industry hasn’t changed. We are there to create connections, to inspire, to educate, to sell. But how we do it has changed. The rules have changed drastically. It was an industry built on assumptions, that there was only a certain amount of media that people would consume and the disruption of advertisement – whether in a magazine or on a radio station or a television channel – consumers kind of accepted that. That was the price they paid for giving them great content or programming that they wanted. But then technology changed. You can’t necessarily just spend your way into consumers’ attention; you have to earn your way into their attention. That’s a great thing for the industry, because it stops us being so lazy. … It puts the onus back on us to be more interesting, more strategic, more relevant – back on us to just be good again. A lot of the industry is panicking because we’ve sort of backed ourselves into a corner. It was all ticking boxes. It became very formulaic. That’s why advertising had this bad reputation. I love the power of this industry, and I love some of the thinking that comes from this industry, but a huge proportion of it sort of goes through the motions.
Advertising has become fundamentally lazy?
It’s not like we don’t work hard. People work all the time, work weekends. I wrote [in Esquire]: No industry has worked harder at being lazy. We’re doing the same thing over and over. And it gets harder and harder – the consumer doesn’t want to be interrupted. I mean, I’m in advertising and I fast forward through the commercials. There are whole industries built on technologies to avoid what our industry creates. If that isn’t a wake-up call that we need to be better, and smarter, and more tactical and timely, and more in sync with the consumer, I don’t know what is. But when it’s done well, it’s second to none. There’s myriad great examples of brands that have been built on the back of great advertising; pop culture referecnes that are built on advertising. … I’m not singing from the hilltops that our industry is going to disappear. But I’m saying that it has to reinvent itself. … Our industry has some of the best, diverse thinkers. If we just point it in the right direction, we can do wonderful things. It’s not just creating effective advertisements, or new products, but also contributing to raise awareness for some of the biggest social issues.
What are some of your favourite ads recently?
Old Spice took a dying brand and just contemporized it immediately. That became as much pop culture as it was a success in the boardroom. … What Dove did about “Real Beauty” is really interesting. … Dos Equis, the most interesting man in the world. The winners, now … it isn’t the person who spends the most. That’s what it used to be. There’s so much advertising on television that I find just lazy, just so lazy, I’m like why are they doing that? ‘People like cute kids, let’s just put cute kids in ads.’ There’s nothing discerning, or interesting, or ownable, or sincere, or authentic. Some people still go through the motions. Those that don’t, win over the consumer.
You mention Dove, but with social media there is now so much more conversation around brands, people calling them out. Every time Dove does a “real beauty” ad, consumers complain – more loudly than ever, it seems – that Dove’s parent company also makes Axe. Do you worry about people’s perceptions of advertising for being hypocritical, or lying?
There’s no question, everything’s transparent now. ... A brand that owns a portfolio, not every brand can stand for the same thing. … Each consumer has the power of their wallet and their voice. They can exercise that. If they think the positive messages of Dove should be erased because Unilever also sells Axe, what’s the winning strategy there? They shouldn’t take that positive messaging?
With 2013 drawing to a close, what do you think the next year holds in store for this industry?
I wish I did have that crystal ball. ... We’re getting back to the basics of great storytelling, more transparency, more social good – the body language of a brand has to match what’s coming out of the mouth, more and more, and that’s a good thing. … It’s going to be hard for some of the generic agencies. It’s going to be easier and better for some of the premium ones. I’m not saying all big agencies are bad and all small agencies are good, it doesn’t work that way. It’s the quality of the work, the leadership, and the intentions. But I feel it’s going to be less glitz and more strategic rigour in the work. That’s something that’s imperative.