Sir Martin Is No 'Sparklepony'

CANNES, FRANCE--Sir Martin Sorrell has outed himself as a Burner, having attended the Burning Man Festival three out of the past four years with plans be there this year.

Sorrell disclosed his fondness for the event during a Friday conversation at the Lumiere Theater at Friday's Cannes Lions Festival when he sat down with Marian Goddell, CEO, Burning Man Project to discuss what the ad industry can learn from this "mixture of carnival, Glastonbury and Disneyland."

Sorrell's favorite exhibit is a five-year pro-bono effort that brought a full 747 airplane shell to the desert. He even washed dishes during his tenure, avoiding the dreaded derogatory term "Sparklepony" to describe nonparticipatory visitors who don't follow community guidelines.

No word on whether he is a "Moonwalker" known as someone who aimlessly wanders around the grounds in a dreamlike state and sometimes lingers long after the event has ended.



Back in the real world (well, Adland anyway), Sorrell says advertising is going through massive disruption with the six holding companies finding themselves under tremendous pressure, which sometimes results in "irrational behavior."

"You have to think of creative disruption," he says. To him, Burning Man is a great example of this sought-after creative disruption. Every year, some 80,000 people take four weeks to build and then deconstruct a "pop-up" city in the desert near Reno, Nevada, for the Burning Man Festival. It is a metaphor for what is going on with our industry, says Sorrell.

Goddell discussed the Festival's history and ethos in depth, outlining the group's 10 principles, including radical inclusion and “decommoditization” policy. "You can't sell the experience, it isn't for sale," she says.

To extend the engagement, attendees are encouraged to spread kindness over the year. She also hopes to launch similar movements globally. The event is completely self-reliant. You must bring everything with you except ice and coffee, says Goddell.

Sorrell joked about the guideline installing two boxes of leadership, one with festival leaders removed to a small disconnected box set "in the attic." They are effectively disconnected to the real box of leadership. "The holding companies should institute that one," he says.

Goddell has studiously avoided branded partnerships, but the project is now exploring sponsorship. In the past, attendees have playfully, but perhaps illegally, ripped off corporate brands, such as Budget, Starbucks, and Burger King, for art and guerrilla messaging purposes.

"My secret vision is of unbranding," says Goddell. "That is the area I would like to see. I am doing something in the world that could use powerful brands behind it, but someone sees a gift that makes a change, people are going to want to talk about it," she says. Word-of-mouth is more powerful than a logo.

She speculates about a cat food company helping the festival cats would spark curiosity about the mystery behind the gesture rather than knowingly see through messaging the responsible party.

"We aren't against brands. It is how you use them," says Goddell. There is an opportunity for the ad community to understand the magic behind this event. "The proposition is global change. They feel hope and humanity." She explains there is a difference in bringing a community together when there isn't a brand mediating the experience.

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