The Future of Advertising… In 1600 Words

March 11, 2015 / Features

By Don Grant

Cultural critic Don Grant attempts to digest what was said at The Future of Advertising... In One Afternoon.

Every industry, trade or profession has its own jargon, and the advertising world has its own shifting sands of words and phrases that are constantly being updated. Out go blue skies, ducks, envelopes, boxes, game changers, ball parks and helicopters, as being so yesterday, although there are few stragglers who insist on playing catch-up. My own world of Art, of course, has its own jargon, and uses words to try and mystify outsiders with a string of arcane -isms, such as Constructionism, Divisionism, Stridentism, Indigenism, Luminism, Neo-plasticism and Post-painterly Abstractionism, but also utilises such terminology as ‘subverting traditional hierarchies’, the over-used ‘zeitgeist’ and ‘iconic’, and the elusive ‘otherness’. I adopted the brace position and waited for the car-crash of media jargon that I was about to hit me head-on.

The first thing I learnt was that ads aren’t called ads any more - they are called Content, and that the Future of Content turned out to be more about the current state of advertising in relation to technological nougat and digital bells and whistles, than what lay ahead. I was brought up in a world when apples, blackberries and raspberries were still fruit.

This year, there was a completely new cast of speakers from the world of advertising, marketing, media and technology, with Steve Davies the head honcho of the APA giving his customary introduction. We were treated to another John Hackney ProFile film featuring James Bradley from 750mph, (presumably so-called after the speed of sound), with moody B+W photographs by Lewis More O’Ferrall and even moodier Ry Cooder-style bottleneck slide guitar, at half the speed of sound. This was followed by Tim Lefroy, le grand fromage of the Advertising Association, talking about Challenges and Opportunities, and railing against any form of government interference or regulation. He admitted that of the £16bn spent on advertising in the UK, remarkably little hit the spot, and consumers were pissed off with being bombarded with intrusive and patronising crap.

Call me a sceptic, but, when I was a nipper, scientists would peer into the future and tell us what the world would look like in, say, fifty years time. We were to be whizzing about on little hover-scooters, or in flying cars, railplanes and maglev monorails and, back in the home, the kitchen was packed with gadgets and run by robots. Anyone can predict what we will all be doing in 2050 with impunity, as many of those who do give a hoot will be dead, and those that aren’t, will have forgotten. Amy Kean Head of Futures, Havas purported to follow the brief with her talk ,’Advertising & Chemicals - studying consumer psychology to get a glimpse of the future’, but ended up telling us how things are and not what they are going to be, with reference to millennials with nomophobia suffering from physical pain, levels of oxytocin, a neurohypophysial hormone and the increase of dopamine in the brain. They are not unaverse to using electroencephalography, or ‘brain-hats’, to determine what stimulates our minds when shown various ‘content’. Scary stuff.

Luke Ritchie from Nexus Interactive Arts was ‘super-excited’ about interactives and how an ad, sorry, content, feels and not looks, and, if personal to the consumer, he or she will buy in, as it embraces addictions, because ‘Emotion is Everything’. He talked about open source codes, no downtime, mashable tech, Raspberry Pi PiFace Digital plugs, combining the physical and digital worlds, storytelling in different spaces, and insisted that the mobile is the ‘glue’ and also the ventura through which everything in our lives will originate or flow. He added that “web VR is coming!’ and that really was ‘super-exciting’.

Next up were three Virtual Reality evangelists looking for all the world like three contestants from Blind Date, being interviewed by Alex Reeves from The Beak Street Bugle standing in for Cilla. Henry Cowling from UNIT9 VR, Karl Woolley from Framestore and Daniel Cheetham from Happy Finish, all agreed that VR used to be rubbish, but, in the past year, enormous technological advances have been made, and that the latest Oculus equipment really put people ‘in a place’ or, to use the buzzword, ‘presence’. They all agreed that it was still regarded as a gimmick and the big draw would be that it was ‘new’. I seem to remember that a year ago, the new kids on the block were Wearables. Have I missed something? There were other teething problems to iron out, like motion sickness and disorientation, but the Big One was still that only one viewer at a time can experience the ‘shock and awe’ content.

I mis-speed-read a talk by Matt Scheckner as being about Miss Adweek Europe, which I thought might be some form of beauty parade, but it was about him telling us why we shouldn’t miss Advertising Week Europe. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Next up was Kieren O’Brien, the Chief Executive of Film Locker, not Kieran O’Brien, the actor, who appeared in the stage version of the Full Monty as the ‘absurdly over-endowed’ Guy. Here was a man who spoke at full tilt for a quarter of an hour without notes, and was well-endowed with facts, figures, mostly, it has to be said, about his company and how we needed it. This really was another, longer, commercial break, or colloquially known as a plug for his company, extolling the virtue, nay, necessity, of looking after one’s data, making two copies of everything, whilst hanging onto the original, and that sticking a hard-drive in a box is not archiving. Data, he observed, is getting HUGE-ER.

Mark Eaves from Gravity Road talked about Creating Scrollstoppers - the Psychology of Sharing and showed a couple of short films they co-produced, one for Bombay Sapphire Gin, Room 8, which was a clever piece of BAFTA-winning film-making about parallel worlds with a twist of lemon at the end, and the other, a camped-up Dads Dancing meets the Full Monty, for Sainsbury’s novelty Christmas jumpers, which had two million viral views in just two days, and 28 million in three weeks, and 50,000 shares - it was good, but not that good. One piece of useless information was that the length of the Mail Online home page was over 8 foot of scrolling, and if there was one word to sum up the act of scrolling, it was Arthritis.

David Trott, or Trotty, was introduced as ‘a legend and a guru’, but he ambled onto the stage and was more stand-up, knock-down, no-nonsense, no-bullshit, straight-talking-from-the-shoulder and passionate critic of the current batch of ‘creatives’, who he described as mere ‘stylists’. He even rolled his sleeves up at one point, to emphasise that ‘you don’t mess with me’. Distrustful of technology, he side-swiped most of his fellow speakers, with his hate of media jargon and acronyms - SRM, KPI, GNOC, cross-functional socialization, deep dives, deliverables, emotional intelligence, gamechangers, bandwidth and granular. His main thrust was a simple process for creatives, which comprised Impact, Communication and Persuasion, and dropped names from Einstein to Freud and from the Bauhaus to the Gestalt Theory like confetti, and, as Rudyard Kipling observed, ‘He wrapped himself in quotations - as a beggar would enfold himself in the purple of Emperors’. He also quoted Bill Bernbach - ‘It may well be that creativity is the last unfair advantage we’re legally allowed to take over our competitors’, and David Abbot; ‘Shit that travels at the speed of light is still shit when it arrives.’ He must have read somewhere David Ogilv’s adage, ‘The best ideas come as jokes. Make your thinking as funny as possible’, and he peppered his talk with profanities and some well-chosen, well-told, but warmed-up, old chestnuts.

Each speaker started to over-run, so the delivery became more animated, and Caitlin Ryan from Karmarama with her talk, ‘We’ve come a long way baby . . . or have we?’, had to step up from a fast walk to a jog. She was frustrated by the lack of women as creative directors - about 3%, she reckoned - and illustrated her talk with an early Virginia Slims ‘feminist’ ad, and compared it to a deeply patronising VIP e-cigs commercial, which gave credence to the question in the title, ‘or have we?’ She reckons Nike got it right with their tongue-in-cheek commercial of pretty Maria Sharapova going to a tennis match to the accompaniment of ‘I feel pretty’ from West Side Story - when did they change the lyrics from ‘I feel pretty and witty and gay’ to ‘I feel pretty and witty and bright’? Ms Ryan decried ‘one-tonal’ advertising, although conceded that things were changing - but not fast enough.

Paul Kemp-Robertson from Contagious was like a man on speed as he rattled through his ‘Ten Contagious Commandments’ at Mach 2, distilled from 10 years experience, and promoted such useful tenets as to ‘be useful, relevant and entertaining’ and ‘have a purpose’. He cited Nike FuelBands (new to me), colour-synced Heineken bottles at a rock concert (even newer) and digital coins and point systems that reward customers of certain brands (there he had me). ‘Bid your sweat’ is a campaign in Mexico, whereby participants’ movements, energy, and calorie consumption are tracked and can be exchanged for Nike goods. Much more worthwhile is the Coca-Cola-sponsored Coke Ekocenter, which is basically a container-based kiosk that delivers safe drinking water to remote parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America and North America, aiming to provide 500 million litres through 1,500 to 2,000 outlets in 2015. Now, that is what I would call the future, not of advertising, but of content.

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