Some Lessons from Advertising Week Europe 2016

April 25, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Trying to draw some sense from the chaos of keynotes.

Trying and draw out any unifying themes from a conference as big as Advertising Week Europe is difficult. With six stages pumping out almost uninterrupted content over four days, no two ad nerds will come out at the end with the same insights.

I immersed myself in the festival last week, trying to absorb as much as I could, accepting that I missed vast more than I caught. Here are the nuggets of learning I managed to salvage from the storm of thought-leadership and buzzwords.


I kicked off my week with the Wired Women session – a discussion of gender from a panel of some of the industry’s most successful women.

Cilla Snowball, Group Chairman and Group CEO of AMV BBDO had a problem with the "Where are the women in advertising?" message that’s been perpetuated over the years. She countered that to inspire women and girls to pursue careers in the industry the message should be "here are the women in advertising", providing role models to inspire coming generations of girls.

The consensus throughout the week seemed to emerge that the industry’s focus on diversity should start in schools and work all the way up to boardrooms and juries.

Quota systems were of course mentioned, and it was interesting that some former sceptics are coming round to the idea of imposing such guidelines to encourage progress on diversity faster than the current snail’s pace.

The Next Generation

The generation currently in their teens were a hot topic throughout the week, particularly with all its talk of Snapchat and other social platforms. In the Hunger Games-themed session From Dystopia to Utopia: How to Engage Generation K(atniss), Economist Noreena Hertz explained her research into people aged 14 to 21 - the next group demanding the attention of many brands.

Summarising her findings, she identified three forces that have shaped this generation:

  1. Growing up with smartphones
  2. Global economic downturn
  3. Existential threat of terrorism

She identified five traits that these forces have provoked in the generation:

  1. They are anxious about their future, which is not stable
  2. They are distrustful of institutions. Only 6 per cent trust corporations to do the right thing, where as around 60 per cent of adults do
  3. They take a lot of selfies but are not selfish. They are generous and compassionate, giving more of a proportion of their wealth to good causes than other generations
  4. Despite constant digital communication they are lonely and craving connection, particularly physical connection and off-screen moments
  5. They are makers, creators and inventors

Kate Burns of Buzzfeed mentioned a few of the insights they’d learned from the generation's online behaviour. Apparently they share content to affirm their identity much more, whereas older people tend to share online in order to show off.

When it comes to brands it’s clear that Generation K (or D, or whatever they end up being called) demand absolute authenticity. They know when brands’ claims are backed up by action and will not tolerate deception, but they appreciate honesty, such as Chipotle clearly labelling which of their products use GM ingredients while they transition to GM-free sources.

Ad Blocking

Ad blocking raised its head throughout the week, although the arguments on the subject are all getting very well rehearsed now. Firstly, the trend seems to make it clear that people find bad, intrusive and irrelevant ads annoying. Surprise surprise. But most speakers seemed keen to take this as an incentive to do better work and make sure it’s appropriately placed.

The other positive that may come of it is a reminder to consumers that quality content is never truly free. As some media outlets are pointing out, if you don’t want advertisers to pay for this content, maybe you’d like to consider paying for it yourself.

TV Advertising is Still not Dead

As if we needed reminding, practically every discussion of the many screens where advertising can now appear made sure to note that TV is still unrivalled in terms of building fame for brands. But the more prophetic speakers such as Tracey Follows of The Future Lab alluded to a future where all video will be equal, no matter which screen it appears on.


Notable creatives like CP+B’s Dave Buonaguidi were honest enough to admit that creative advertising had been getting gradually worse for years. Dave suggested that agencies have begun to care too much about what their peers and award ceremonies think of the work, rather than the public they are advertising to. Not all advertising has to be transcendent, said Paul Feldwick – sometimes "good enough" will do the job.

Procurement’s drive towards efficiency was also bemoaned by various speakers, including Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland. Perhaps unsurprisingly several creatives defended creativity as something that shouldn't be commoditised. Rory compared expensive advertising to a peacock’s tail, which informs potential mates that he’s doing so well he can divert resources towards a big, purely decorative show.

Rory and Paul’s rambling session, You’re Not Paranoid, They Really Are Out To Get You was one of the most fruitful and entertaining I attended. The main focus was on the fact that nobody’s ever really discovered a formula or theory for creating good advertising. It’s often made on the basis of a gut feeling or hunch and then post-rationalised with various intellectual models in order to sell it to a client. Building on the idea that animals usually do a good job in advertising, Rory suggested “we can’t possibly charge a lot of money by saying ‘put a duck in it,’ but that would probably be good advice.”

Changing Clients’ Businesses

Bravery is a concept agencies love to throw around and Heide Cohu from Bacardi, formerly of Red Bull, did well to remind us of how brave Red Bull’s move to drop Felix Baumgartner from 130,000 feet was – an endeavour she was instrumental in. Diverting huge reserves of time and money into a project that dragged on for several years, with the potential of failing and ending in tragedy, was a massive risk for the brand, but it paid off and ultimately gained them a place in history that has yet to be surpassed by a brand.

There are many lessons to be learnt from that kind of marketing, but one that was stressed is the power of an agency working with a brand to change the way it does business.


Naturally the EU referendum came up all over the place, but aside from Bernie Ecclestone’s bizarre ramblings about Vladimir Putin and immigrants, the majority of the industry seemed in general agreement that a remain vote would be better for business. If nothing else, it’s better the devil you know.

Virtual Reality

VR has proliferated to such a degree in advertising that I didn’t get to try all of the experiences on offer throughout the week. But what I did experience was tantalising, and demonstrated vast potential for storytelling, education and entertainment. The technology is not as clunky as it was recently and, while it still has a way to go, many companies have managed to do compelling things with it. Dismiss it as a passing gimmick at your peril.

Comments (3)

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