Advertising’s creative vision is old fashioned

The industry struggles to adapt to the rise of brands that target consumers directly

John Gapper

David Droga’s choice to open the Cannes Lions advertising festival this week was telling. Mr Droga, whose Droga5 agency is feted for its work for clients such as MailChimp and the New York Times, showed off a four-minute advertisement that it made for a Christie’s auction last year of a Leonardo da Vinci painting, “ Salvator Mundi”. “If it’s too long for you, I’m sorry,” he said defiantly.

The ad, filmed on a hidden camera behind the painting, displayed the auction house’s visitors looking on in wonder, with some weeping. So then, people watching a rectangle on a wall for a long time and being moved by the artistry on show. It felt like the ad industry’s ultimate fantasy.

Making emotional, unhurried visual ads is Mr Droga’s speciality, and the kind of thing that wins trophies in Cannes. But most debates this week were about technology rather than art — six second Snapchat video ad formats, behavioural targeting, artificial intelligence, “dynamic creative optimisation” and suchlike. This rapid-fire world of online ads is a long way from his ideal.

That tension between art and commerce in marketing is intensifying. “Good advertising makes you feel something; you come out changed,” Mr Droga declared. But most advertisers simply want to find people as efficiently as possible and persuade them to buy things, whatever the format. That leaves the copywriters and video auteurs at agencies feeling unloved.

The online and mobile revolution has encouraged a golden period of creativity for television — Netflix will spend as much as $8bn this year on dramas such as House of Cards, with long, sophisticated storylines. Meanwhile, advertising is crammed into smaller slices, with creatives such as Mr Droga and John Hegarty, co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty crying out in pain.

Marketing creativity is not dead, but it needs to be reinvented. The most interesting inventions in Cannes this week were not ads but new ways to reach consumers without making them pause in front of a screen. They included a playful machine devised by J Walter Thompson, which dispenses free Kit Kats to travellers in São Paulo airport if their flights are delayed.

Or take what Yum China did when sales at its KFC outlets sagged because Chinese millennials were not enthusiastic about an old fried chicken brand. A consumer goods company would traditionally have used two tactics in that situation — changed the flavour or changed its advertising. Yum did a bit of both, but most of its effort went into delivering the product differently to consumers.

Its main investment was a loyalty scheme tied to a mobile phone “super app” on which 120m members can pre-order food, choose the music in KFC restaurants and play a version of the Onmyoji fantasy mobile game with their friends. KFC even delivers food to members on some high-speed trains.

Yum could have employed a traditional ad agency but turned to the Chinese operation of Isobar, a “digital transformation” agency instead. “The medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist, wrote in 1964. That maxim has carried over from the television age to the digital one. The way the product is delivered is a form of creative marketing.

A consumer product used to be a blank canvas on which an ad agency painted a picture for buyers — the distinction between Brand X and Brand Y had something to do with how they tasted but more to do with the feeling the ads evoked. “In the old days, you created a vision and tried to get the brand to live up to it,” says one ad executive of his agency’s work for companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

Smaller brands that have gone direct to consumers via the internet, such as Dollar Shave Club, were quicker to realise that things were changing. The brand is more embedded in the thing itself — whether it is authentic, craft made and inspiring, rather than sugar water on a shelf. Even if the product is mass produced, like fried chicken, it must come to consumers freshly.

It follows that less money is invested in big, evocative brand advertising of the kind that Mr Droga extols, and more in finding and engaging the sort of people who already like the product. Mobile display advertising is more like search — something simple and direct, targeted and “retargeted” (the ads that follow you around wherever you browse) at chosen individuals.

There is still a place for creative advertising as the cornerstone for a digital campaign that offers versions of the same message in little pieces. But money is scarcer for grand visions: P&G, under pressure from slow sales and activist investors, is cutting $400m from agency fees over the next three years. Anything on which the return cannot be measured is vulnerable.

One ad executive in Cannes worried at the industry being “juniorised” — that cheaper copywriters would be substituted for big thinkers because there was not enough in the kitty for the magical. Mr Droga will be fine, but those who follow him should think creatively about their future careers.

This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian national.

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