Truth, Trust and Perspective

May 9, 2017 / Features

By Alex Reeves

This year’s Future of Advertising… in One Afternoon was less techie and more theoretical than the name might suggest.

Photograph by Rodney Rascona.

"Grandfather and Child" Tsunami survivors in Banda Ache, Northern Sumatra

"The road past this mans house leads straight to the ocean. That's the path the raging water took, stripping the earth of every living thing-of any sight or sound-of anything natural. There were no flowers blooming, no birds left singing. He recounted being on his scooter when he looked to the sea and saw waves that were "as high as the palm trees" coming towards him. He grabbed his grandson and literally outran the oncoming torrent, escaping to the hills that surround his village. A single man with a single child who were very lucky to have survived that day..knowing what it meant to run for your lives."



The APA’s Future of Advertising… in One Afternoon provides a compact package of thought leadership every year. This year, it was particularly thoughtful, at times even philosophical.

What better way to kick off an afternoon of existential pondering than by putting it all in context? Journalist Dominic Mills’ fireside chat with Advertising Association Chief Executive Stephen Woodford was all about Brexit and what it means for citizens of British Adland, former duchy of European Adland.

Stephen admitted that understanding Brexit’s implications – a challenge for most experts – is made eve more difficult by the fact that around 90 per cent of the ad industry voted to remain in the EU last year. But we must try, because its implications will continue for years to come and will reach into the smallest details of our lives.

There’s plenty of doom and gloom surrounding us on this subject. It’s easy to slip and fall in, so Stephen carefully steered through the discussion, focusing on the positives.

Surprisingly, 2016’s last quarter was the best ever for the UK advertising industry. And while Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris are keen to market themselves as the new leading creative hubs of the Europe, Brexit hasn’t automatically stripped London of that title. With its unparalleled creative heritage and uniquely multicultural composition, London’s ad industry will be hard to kill off. Besides, the billions of pounds that the UK exports in advertising to EU markets like France and Germany will be hard ties to break.

Stephen seemed confident that the advertising’s power in the British economy – a large percentage of GDP – means negotiations won’t be able to ignore this business and its interests. It will get worse before it gets better, he conceded, but the UK’s place in advertising will be hard to erase.

Arif Haq from Contagious Communications spent his 20 minutes on the popular pastime of blaming clients. Having once worked as one, he claimed some sort of justification for this. The best ideas will never get signed off, he claimed, and spent his presentation explaining why not.

Firstly, clients lack imagination. It’s not their fault, he said. Human brains don’t like creativity, even when our mouths say we do. He shared some research to back up the idea that we are biased against really creative ideas.

Great creative ideas are terrifying to clients. They’re too similar to exactly the sort of ideas that should never be signed off. People certainly don’t know how to sell them to their bosses, even if they like them personally.

Clients are also unprepared to deal with true creativity, he said. Looking at the funding that goes into training, the amount focused on execution is miniscule, compared to the strategic end of things. The right execution of an idea is vital, and how to do it right is largely a mystery to clients. Arif argued that the Pepsi debacle was a problem of execution, not because of an inherently bad idea. With more attention paid to casting and the details, it may just have worked for them. Personally, I don’t buy this, but it’s an interesting perspective.

Clients definitely need expertise in craft. Many big ones, like P&G, are suggesting that fewer, better ads provide more efficiency. Production companies are uniquely placed to help them create culture, he said. They’re the ones to illuminate clients’ blind spots.

Tom Wiltshire, New Business Director of party-streaming platform Boiler Room told his brand’s story first – how in six years they’ve grown from throwing illegal parties to filling the void that MTV left in youth culture when it became a trashy reality TV channel.

Boiler Room have the keys to underground youth culture and they’re willing to give brands access to that audience, but only on their terms. By putting the emphasis on real artists and their ideas, Boiler Room help their brand partners to provide content that their audiences actually want to engage with, rather than intrusive branding that leaves a bad taste. His presentation was a demonstration of how brands should be approaching partnerships with media owners and culture, with trust and authenticity.

Edelman’s Toby Gunton might not seem the most obvious choice for an advertising conference with a production slant, but he noted that there’s a growing grey area between the two areas. His talk focused on some research they’ve been conducting every year since 2000 – the Edelman Trust Barometer.

2017 is a notable year for them. We are in a “crisis of trust”, the research shows. Trust for institutions is at an all-time low. For the first time in their survey, respondents’ trust for all four types – NGOs, business, media and government – fell.

According to the Barometer, people only trust search engines and ‘people like themselves’ now. Apparently, Michael Gove was right when he said Britain has had enough of experts.

Depressing as it may be, these are creative insights that help us to understand our audiences, which should lead to sharper, more appropriate advertising. For example, with media institutions lacking trust, owned media is on roughly the same level. Maybe it’s time for brands to fulfil that prophecy from years of conferences and become broadcasters in their own right. They might become the more trustworthy voice.

Freeformers’ Lucy Lyall Grant next made the case for reverse mentorship, which is basically what it sounds like – younger people teaching and advising their elders. Aside from sorting out your parents’ internet troubles, Lucy stressed how important it is for senior businesspeople to understand their younger workforces, and increasingly their young audiences and consumers. It’s a thought that many businesses could benefit from taking some time to consider.

There aren’t many more future-obsessed companies than Google, so a 20-minute tirade from Andy Kinsella, Head of Production at their Creative Lab, lived up to the day’s title.  He started with a few quotes to inspire and amuse and fessed up that Google is actually not full of sorcerers. The people there perform normal roles – designers, producers, developers etc. – but they do so with a different focus. One thing Google aims to do is try to “create” the future, rather than just predicting it, and the projects he showcased suggested that is true.

From Project Soli, which uses a scaled down version of radar to sense contactless hand gestures, to something as simple but quality-of-life improving as Gboard, putting search into other apps, everything was looking to a future where technology helps us to live easier lives. It’s not just privileged westerners that benefit, either. Andy talked about how in 36 hours Google were able to help set up the Refugee Info Hub website to help refugees arriving in Europe. To date it has assisted over 100,000 people arriving on boats in places like Lesbos.

Everything Andy showed was fast, playful and new, a masterclass in how a future-facing company behaves.

What is the truth about Britain? This was the question answered by ‘recovering anthropologist’ Rodney Collins from McCann Truth. In line with the existential themes of the day, his presentation focused on the bigger themes. Also backed up by lots of research, he presented the country we live in, how different parts of the public feel about globalisation and how there is are huge tensions between opposing viewpoints.

The general British sentiment, he summarised, is “I’m fine, we’re fucked.” He described the different ways people view Britain and compared them to brands people consider representative of the UK – as a castle keep (John Lewis), fields of green (The National Trust) or a sailing boat (Virgin). Again, a strategic long view that could inform all sorts of productive thinking.

To close the day, Rodney Rascona took a further step back from advertising, appealing to our morals and humanity. An advertising photographer “trying to give something back”, he told the story of his personal trajectory. Once he shot glossy pictures to sell cars. Now he documents the lives of some of the most troubled and unfortunate people on the planet for various NGOs and good causes.

He spoke about how to develop a new way of seeing the world and implored the world-leading image-makers in the room to do something with their talents to help humanity as a whole. We live in troubled times, as some of the day’s sessions alluded to, but people in advertising have the skills and resources at their fingertips to affect change for the better.

The whole day amounted to a necessary reset in perspective. Advertising people can easily lose sight of the wider world while they focus on the detail in a pre-production meeting. It’s useful to be reminded of the context into which their work fits. People and stories are everywhere and insights of all varieties can be applied to make your work better.

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