Reinstating the Obvious

May 5, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

D&AD Festival was a timely reminder of how simple creativity can be.

Ad industry conferences and ‘festivals’ of creativity are often predictable. Particularly if, like me, you exceed the recommended dose of a couple a year. It’s no surprise, really. How often can really big, game changing ideas come along in one industry? When the same speakers do the same spiel at several events this feeling is only amplified.

Last week’s D&AD Festival was only in its second year, but they’ve carefully avoided the common pitfalls of similar events by booking people who are engaging and creative first. If what they had to say was directly relevant to advertising as well, that was a bonus.

I’ve listened to lots of nebulous talks on the subject of creativity and they often descend into the sort of truisms that wouldn’t look out of place on your less successful friends’ Facebook feeds. “Keep Calm and Content is King.” The speakers I listened to at D&AD steered clear of this territory though, firstly because they were genuinely creative people who’ve proven themselves in their fields and secondly because they had concrete advice rather than vapid sound bites.

Alexandra Taylor, a genuine creative icon behind the sort of campaigns that are familiar and effective decades on, kept her advice simple, telling some of her best anecdotes around the theme of “Horror Stories & Industry Fuck Ups”.

Admittedly, she started with a sound bite. But a good one from her mentor Paul Arden: “if you work from knowledge you are not going anywhere new.” She proceeded to illustrate exactly how one does that. How a casting fuck up unexpectedly changed the idea at the last minute but made the final ad all the more impactful. How her brutal honesty with the egotistical Tyen helped him take exactly the photo that the campaign needed. How her DIY attitude to a prohibitively small budget and lack of photographic expertise helped her conceive an idea that stood out from the pack. How running out of time on a shoot in Thailand motivated her to turn all the water machines on full-blast, just to see what happened. As it turns out, it got her the shot that made that campaign resonate with people.

The festival’s focus on creativity in general, rather than just within the advertising bubble, injected lots of life into their programme. Refinery29 Founder Piera Luisa Gelardi was a whirlwind of American enthusiasm throughout her session. That might sound nauseating to some of you awkward Brits (she DID get us all up on our feet to do an exercise she learnt at her improvisation class), but the content of her presentation was honest and concrete enough that anyone could take something from it. Her philosophy, “be the most you” is definitely motivational-poster territory, but she backed it up with enough home truths and vulnerability for it to feel genuinely empowering.

Very much on the design side of the D&AD fence, Craig Oldham didn’t even attempt to talk about advertising in his session, “Tools of Protest”. Instead, he delighted his audience with a slideshow of the best creative approaches from decades of social dissidence, from 1960s Parisian graffiti to the experiential activism of Charlie Craggs’ Nail Transphobia. It was like nutritious food for creativity that could fuel all sorts of ideas, cheerily served up by a sweary Northerner.

We don’t live in the 80s anymore. Greed isn’t good and brands without a moral compass pay for it. People don’t feel good about just doing advertising anymore. Naturally, there was a lot of discussion of “capitalism with a conscience.”

To summarise: it’s necessary. Thomas Kolster, author of Goodvertising, told us to “Stop Selling Shit”, highlighting the amount of unnecessary consumption that advertising has always driven – the sort of consumption that’s filling seabirds with plastic. We’re a self-obsessed, uncaring industry, he said, and we’re hypocritical too. He noted that Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was on the cover of Time talking sustainability while his company cleverly pays hardly any taxes.

People can smell companies’ bullshit and act on it en masse. And it’s notable how often brands miss the mark on the social and political front. Wieden + Kennedy CCO Colleen DeCourcy noted that while Nike invoking the spirit of revolution in 1987 worked for them, similar tactics in 2017, co-opting social issues have been disastrous.

It’s difficult to maximise profits for your shareholders while doing the right thing and generally changing the world for the better. You could say that’s an inherent flaw with capitalism. Steve Vranakis of Google cringed at the idea of people forcing purpose onto brands without justification and showed how even a gargantuan (“don’t be evil”) corporation like Google can find appropriate ways to help humanity. He showcased three projects that Google took part in to help make children in developing countries’ voices heard, offer refugees in Lesbos basic services and aid Indian women in getting online. Each example used techniques that were a natural fit for Google, and each seemed to have made a positive difference to people’s lives.

Of course, they serve a marketing purpose too – to “remind the world what they love about Google.” And the business motivations for capitalism with a conscience were repeated all week. The well-rehearsed Unilever line that sustainable brands grow faster than ordinary brands got a lot of airtime. Companies are now seeing the benefits of their corporate social responsibility in their bottom lines. Be prepared for more misjudged disasters, though, because it’s murky water.

With the Pepsi fiasco fresh in people’s minds, there was a lot of talk about brands awkwardly co-opting culture. Frederik Andersen of Vice Media admitted that working in the creative industry can be soul destroying, but one of the obvious ways of coping with that is by doing things of substance – genuinely contributing to culture, rather than milking it for its commercial value. Then your brand will have a real foundation to fall back on if they ever come under scrutiny.

Lots of the week’s sessions were refreshing because they didn’t mind stating the obvious. Rather than going out of their way to prove they had a new, groundbreaking formula for success that nobody’s thought of, they just reassured us that the central tenets of creativity remain the same. Anna Higgs of NOWNESS made a point of this, repeatedly admitting that she was stating the obvious: that putting the creative first is how you stand out and that great talent is the foundation of great work.

Despite all the talk about data, algorithms and audiences’ attention spans, NOWNESS have built their platform on faith in their own editorial standards. Making things they believe in, surprising their audiences rather than pandering to what the data says gets the most clicks. The beautiful works of film art she showed, some of which were made for brands, encapsulated what the festival was about: honest creative principles executed with vision, without the clever-clogs post rationalisation our industry is up to its neck in.

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