Don Grant's infernal musings on the APA's concentrated conference.
The Courtauld Gallery is currently displaying Dante’s Inferno, with drawings by Sandro Botticelli, which has a certain resonance with the annual event held at BAFTA and organised by APA and IPA. In the Eighth Circle of Lower Hell, the punishment meted out to Soothsayers, namely False Prophets, Astrologers and Predictors of the Future, is to have their heads twisted around backwards, so that they can only see what’s behind them, not what is in front of them. The speakers at this event could just fall into this category of miscreants, who are compelled to walk backwards through all eternity, their eyes blinded with tears, except that most speakers turned away from the future and concentrated on the past.
Certainly, the first speaker Ian Leslie, a journalist, was firmly focused on the history of advertising as he spoke on the themes of an article he had prepared earlier for the FT entitled How the Mad Men Lost the Plot. His beef was that people don’t know what admen do anymore. It is a known fact that admen themselves don’t know how advertising works. Not for the first time in the afternoon, we were to hear the quote attributed to John Wanamaker, a store owner in the US in the 1920s “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”.
Leslie pointed out that where the industry went wrong was to embrace the digital era as a means to an end, and an end to wastage and a way of engaging with the audience by precise targeting. Pepsi spent a fortune on wordy social media messages, called ‘Pepsi Refresh Project’, and their sales actually declined by 5%. He came up with more statistics about people not caring about brands and having no allegiances – 72% of Pepsi drinkers also drink Coke, and the way to success may be to reach people not in their target market and that the majority of any successful brand’s sales comes from “light buyers” (or “Lite buyers?”)
Leslie was not the only speaker to mention the John Lewis Christmas ads, but he was the first of the afternoon. These have somehow been held up to be the Holy Grail of ‘content’ and a much-anticipated and over-hyped annual event. Some people find the heady combination of schmaltz, cuteness and a catchy tune a little too much to bear, but, hold on, there were Christmas ads a-plenty, with offerings from Waitrose, Harvey Nicholls, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and M & S, all trying to compete with acknowledged king of the crop.
Dan Wilks from Credos, the industry’s think-tank, was next up to talk about responsibility of advertisers to deliver ‘content’ that doesn’t piss the viewer off, bearing in mind that 74% of the public actively avoid ads, with a further 26% utilising ad-blocking and 42% of viewers not enjoying the ads at all. A staggering 73% think that ads are manipulative, of which a large majority are worried about those aimed at kids, in light of obesity, the watershed and alcohol, even though the rules on advertising to children are some of the strictest in the world – but their research showed that just six per cent of adults were fully aware of the rules and regulations already in place. Privacy is another contentious area, with 72 per cent of respondents viewing mobile-location ads as an invasion of privacy, rising to 77 per cent for SMS advertising. His idea was to build up ‘a mutually rewarding relationship between the advertiser and the consumer, fit for the modern age’, whatever that means.
“It’s super an issue,” Head of Brand Tom Rainsford at Giffgaff, the mobile network owned by O2 owners Telefónica, started off by saying. He believes that there is another way to build on mutuality, and that is one of collaboration, flexibility and, above all, a partnership within which everyone speaks a common language. Getting the right people is paramount to success, and ‘excite your client, right?’ Giffgaff, from the Scottish, which basically means a fair exchange, don’t profess to having all the answers, working with agencies and production companies, and there is an acknowledged risk of failure that one should embrace, both with ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ KPIs, whatever that means.
Dan Phillips, Head of Digital and Interactive at MPC, had an almost evangelical fervour when it came to VR, particularly with the so-called millennials, or Generation ‘Y’, who he sees as the most likely consumers of their product. His talk was entitled ‘Get on board the Millennial Falcon’ and quoting ‘shareconomics’ and ‘cross-platform expectations’, to produce a ‘frictionless marketing experience’. He then went on to throw some numbers about, like Snapchat has four billion views a day, with 30 billion messages being sent on Whatsapp daily, and 20 billion on SMS.
Evan Boehm from Nexus was a little more pragmatic about VR, saying that, once it got going, it was only going to last two or three years, maybe five at the outside. His talk was the one before the break, where delegates could don the VR headsets and look like idiots, swivelling their heads, duckin’ and divin’, gasping and mouthing WOW! This seems to be the inherent problem with VR – it is really masturbatory fodder for your eyes and your eyes only, a bit like watching someone on acid – so where is the pleasure in that? In Sweden, McDonalds have introduced Happy Goggles, whereby happy eaters can simply just tear along some perforated lines in their McBoxes, makes a couple of folds, insert the VR lenses (included) and a smartphone (not included) and then kids can watch some crap whilst eating crap. Another problem, I mean, challenge, is that technology can produce absolutely anything under the sun, and some things beyond it, involving bells and whistles, explosions, destruction on a colossal scale, robots, rockets and indestructible superheroes, but, with barely a storyline in sight, it’s just eye-candy. Last year, Nexus treated us to Made with Code: Holiday Lights, where a bunch of girls were taught how to program dozens of Christmas tree lights ranged on the lawn outside the White House in Washington, inaugurated by President Obama in an initiative to persuade girls to go into computer programming and particularly coding, as a career. This year, we were treated to exactly the same video.
One of the best aspects of APA’s first Interactive, Digital and Experiential Advertising Showcase, was its acronym, IDEAS, as it was very much a mixed bag of ideas and concepts. After a rather cheesy Coca Cola promotional film, where all participants had to do was to smile a cheesy smile at a dispenser and shazam! clunk! a free can of Coke dropped down. Next up was Nexus, who treated us to Made with Code: Holiday Lights and, if this is the future of advertising, then I am either suffering from dementia or déjà vu - or maybe both at the same time, then I can say, ‘I think I’ve forgotten this before’. Honda’s The Other Side gave the viewer a choice of watching a suburban school run or a high-speed chase merely by hitting the red button, red also being ‘R for Race’. I thought it was a bit odd that they would choose a two-door hatchback as a getaway car after an audacious art heist, but that’s me being picky. There was an elaborate stage show to celebrate 550 years of Kazakhstan from the Production Company Partizan, showing how it all came together in matter of weeks. Framestore produced a Big Bang concept for the opening of the London Stock Exchange in Paternoster Square, in which there were vast amounts of live financial data in real-time, visualised on 500 screens with 200 million pixels, and additional HD video player capabilities, as well as live TV signal playback. Framestore were also involved in two other projects, Marvel ‘Battle for Avengers Tower’, and a VR landscape set up at Sundance Film Festival to promote Merrell Capra hiking boots, involving rock ledges, a suspension bridge with a broken slat and simulated rock-falls. There was more Xbox nougat, with a programme called ‘Glitch - Halo 5: Guardians’, while Samsung came up with an elaborate 360° sound experiment, using sound waves and omnidirectional movement to immerse entire rooms in sound and lighting FX.
Gaz and Leccy (Gas and Electricity, geddit?) are a couple of brand characters, created to promote energy-saving ‘Smart Meters’, and posing as a regular cinema ad, an unsuspecting audience were subjected to role-playing actors popping up amongst them and pyrotechnics going off all around the theatre. Teatreneu also used an audience, but this time they were watching a stand-up comedian in Barcelona and being filmed in the process. The more the people laughed, the more they paid, up to a maximum of €24, but all this monetised humour sounded a bit too serious to be funny. John Hull, a writer, became completely blind in 1983, and for three years he kept an audio diary of his interior world of blindness, comprising some 16 hours of tape and examining ‘the borderland between dream and memory.’ The resulting Into Darkness was by far the most engaging piece of filmmaking of the entire Showcase.
Felix Morgan from Brave talked about the Science of Bravery and how using biometrics can de-risk a campaign by externalising the body’s internal data, through galvanic skin responses, facial coding and eye-tracking. Using audio and UX optimisation and competitor analysis, they can break ‘content’ down into nine emotional zones, namely, Joy, Anger, Surprise, Fear, Contempt,Disgust, Sadness, Confusion and Frustration, which they then monitor. Last year’s Tesco Christmas ad started out upbeat, but ended up flatlining, whereas the John Lewis offering, as previously discussed, ended up as an uplifting experience. Apart from his mantra ‘Winning hearts and blowing minds,’ Felix came up with the the best quote of the afternoon, ‘Focus groups are fucked!’ The big question is why did it take the industry so long to realise that a bunch of people in a front room in Pinner eating digestive biscuits and watching telly, could determine whether one ad would sell a brand better than another.
The last speaker was Mel Exon, Managing Director of BBH, whose rant about ad-blocking was entitled, somewhat alarmingly, Advertising Apocalypse. She said that ad-blocking was bad for business - well, she would say that, wouldn’t she? - but, in the light of how abysmal most ads are these days, it is hardly surprising that the majority of people find them irritating, interruptive and intrusive. Like those poor, tormented souls in the Eighth Circle of Hell, one cannot keep looking back, but it is with a certain regret that the so-called ‘Golden Age of Advertising’ in the 1980s and 1990s, peppered with wit, irreverence, creativity, quirkiness, style and cheeky humour, has gone forever. It’s Hell out there.