This was never clearer to me than at Cannes Lions, which our company attended for the first time ever last week. Even though Cannes has sprawled into a crucial event for the entire ad industry in recent years, the centerpiece remains the awards, where creative agencies lined up in hopes of winning. And those awards are, at their core, awards for great storytelling in advertising.
We have to be real about our industry. Advertising is, and always has been, content, but it’s content that people aren’t seeking out (hence the practice of media buying). Our goal is to sell a product, not to entertain and delight, and advertising should be designated as “great” when it sells a product, not when it makes people cry (but no reason it can’t do both). We have to admit that we buy our way into peoples’ paths.
That doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate when advertising also is great storytelling. Because, guess what? It’s an effective story that ultimately sells a product, particularly when consumer awareness is low.
And the importance of storytelling in advertising is in danger, because digital is the future, and we’ve been mismanaging our priorities for both tactics and success in digital. Cannes, with its relentless focus on the power of creativity, is a nagging and sometimes bitter reminder of that.
Digital’s focus on “impressions” -- which ultimately make it possible for a whole lot of meaningless things to look good in bulk -- has amounted to a race to the bottom. Right now, digital lacks both the means to capture real human attention as well as a creative canvas worthy of the kind of work that’s made advertising great in other media. Because of these factors, creatives have many concerns that their work -- the work that leads to Cannes Lions awards and the kinds of moments that not just capture consumer attention, but achieve our ultimate goal of selling products -- is going to be further marginalized.
In no way do I want to deck programmatic buying. Programmatic is great, as long as we are programmatically buying real attention in addition to advertising space. And companies are shifting to programmatic because it’s efficient, not because they hate creativity. Just like in that Jef Richards quotation, advertising is a blend of creative and strategy (and “strategy,” I’d argue, now encompasses the technologies we’ve developed and continue to develop). Programmatic buying is a massive asset to that strategy side. But we have to keep the creative side of advertising front-and-center if we want any of it to work.
And we want advertising to work -- it’s our business. Digital opens up an entirely new age of interactive, non-linear storytelling if we do get real attention and use the right canvas. The future can be really bright if we do things the right way.