AKQA Executive Creative Director talks futurism in Adland.
On Wednesday 8 May 2013 many of London’s advertising professionals will descend on BAFTA for the APA’s The Future of Advertising… In One Afternoon – a concentrated conference that will take the pulse of an industry in a constant state of flux. Speakers include luminaries from various cliff faces of advertising with specialisms in areas like production, creativity, technology and social media.
Duan Evans, Executive Creative Director at AKQA, will be one such figure taking to the soapbox with his thoughts on where the business of advertising is headed. His talk is titled (somewhat provocatively) The Future of Advertising… Is Not Advertising. We interviewed him about the future fetish the industry seems to foster and why it’s not necessarily a good thing.
Bugle: Why the paradoxical speech title?
Duan Evans: At AKQA we don’t necessarily look at the work we create as advertising and I don’t think it is. That’s debatable because we’re paid by our clients to make their brands famous and things like that. But we don’t believe in just broadcasting that brand and trying to sell things to the consumer.
We believe in connecting a brand to a consumer through some meaningful connection, where the consumer gets something good out of the relationship. We believe a brand has got a bigger role to play than just flogging biscuits or whatever; they can actually play a positive role in society and to the consumer.
What sort of brands have done this recently?
I think Oreo have done some amazing stuff lately [for example, their Daily Twist campaign]. That, to me, is quite traditional advertising – copy, image and post – but they’ve done it through the right channels with the right tone. They’ve talked to their audience, connected, used social issues and elevated all that to make something that’s potentially beyond the way advertising’s been done in the past.
Is the ad industry justified in its obsession with new technologies and innovations?
Everyone’s looking at the future. But I don’t think it’s [the most important thing] trying to figure out what’s next. I think it’s trying to figure out what’s right for the consumer. The landscape changes. So as long as you’re adapting to that landscape then you’re doing what’s right for the consumer. The idea and the consumer is still everything. I don’t think a great piece of work has ever come from saying “here’s a technology. How do we best create an experience around it?”
What do you think about that race to use a technology first for that buzz of novelty?
There’s no point. We have a saying here, which is: “It’s good to be first. It’s better to be best. It’s best to be both.” So if you can do an idea first that’s good, but if you can do it first and someone can do it second and better then it’s not good. You should create the best idea, do it to the best of your ability and then put all your chips on the table and back it.
It’s not about gimmickry. Consumers can see through that. You’ll get a spike, but we believe in creating things that are genuinely useful. You can’t do that by creating a first for the sake of it. It’s got no purpose.
So how important is the channel or format that advertising is delivered in?
Without great content you don’t have anything. More content’s downloaded in a year now than was played on all the channels in American history up to [the year] 2000. So it’s madness.
Will the 30 or 60-second format [continue to] be relevant? Probably not. There might be a use for it but I think you can see from online... We just created a great piece of content that’s half an hour long for the internet. It’s called The Chance: Undiscovered. It’s a documentary about eight young footballers and their search to go pro. It’s the highest rated piece of content we’ve done and it’s a story that connects. It’s the first time I’ve seen positive comments throughout about how inspiring the film is and how they wish Nike would create more long pieces of content and turn it into a series. That’s great to see. The perception of what people want from channels is changing. The internet’s not all about short pieces of content anymore.
How does that affect the way production companies have to work?
We work with many production companies for different projects. For me, they’re at the sharp point of that shift. I guess the question is will some production companies try to go a bit more digital?
They’ve adapted to understanding web content – not just understanding web content as cheaper content to post on Facebook or whatever but understanding the way we might filter it. I think there’s more thinking in the production companies. We still use those guys to help us solve a problem.
The question, really, is will they need to become fully digital or will they stay just making [video] content? And I think there might be a specialism in content. I don’t have the answer for that one because I can see it going both ways, really.
It’s down to the DNA of that production company. What do they want to do? Do they want to keep making content? Do they want to change, diversify, make longer content, documentaries or whatever their ambition is? But they can’t try and be all things to all men. I’ve seen that time and again – companies that say they want to be one thing but really you can see in their eyes what they want to do. They just wish they could keep doing that thing.
Do any changes or trends worry you?
I’ve seen a lot of brands that want to work directly with production companies because they’ve got the idea from their agency and they know how to make it. That’s scary for agencies. Agencies are thinking “hang on. That’s our concept, part of our big platform and we should be involved.”
But, equally, there’s lots more work being done in-house at agencies.
Absolutely. It’s breaking in every way. So there’s all sorts of content being produced directly. We’ve got a film team here. We’ve got really good motion graphics animators. So we produce a lot of that content – the lower-level content, you may call it – but that content is connecting and serves a real purpose.
Then we’re seeing brands like Red Bull. They create a lot of their own stuff, from a feature film to a blog post. Then some brands don’t want to go near it. There’s a whole range and that’s why I think the playing field’s exciting. There is room for everyone, but it’s all down to what you really want to do as a production company, agency or brand.
How do you hope the future of advertising will shape up?
In 30 or 40 years from now, if I make it that far, I don’t want to sit back and look back on advertising I’ve made. I want to look back on things I’ve created that were genuinely useful, had some meaning, and were liked. So what excites me is the opportunity to do more work that has a deeper connection. I know it sounds pretentious, but I truly believe that the most exciting thing is the opportunity to create more work that has some meaning, some impact on the world.
So advertisers can’t preach to consumers anymore?
They can’t do that. Brands that treat people like morons are becoming irrelevant. And it’s brands that don’t even see what they’re about that are becoming irrelevant. Look at Kodak. The founders of film, photo production, the image and they went out of business the year after Instagram sold for a billion because they didn’t realise that the industry they were in was actually capturing and sharing moments – not film. The same with production companies and agencies – it’s about understanding what you want to do, sticking to that vision, but being nimble and adapting.