We are all futurists now – and that's great for advertising

The Nivea 'Doll' is an example of 'futurist' advertising

Now that the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity 2015 is done and dusted, one thing is clear – a certain kind of creativity has really grabbed the attention of juries. It’s either the kind of thing we’ve seen before and have occasionally rolled our eyes at or it’s an opportunistic, niche approach. Small in scale. Short lifespan. Single market. Remarkably clever or innovate idea. Commercially impractical. Huge PR value.

You know, stuntvertising.

It’s been with us for a while. You could say it peaked around the big vending machine idea craze a couple of years back. Very few of us ever actually saw Coke’s Friendship Machine, or Happiness Truck, or the T-Mobile Grand Central Dance Mob. But it’s still easy to see how this kind of communication can heavily influence the consumer perception of a brand. The work is small in scale but high in esteem value.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the social feed, advertising and design creativity often receives more exposure through the press than through its own paid/sponsored media. The year’s best commercial, Always’ #Likeagirl campaign, started as a small, digital-only film but eventually became the breakout SuperBowl commercial it was thanks to powerful social and PR amplification.

This focus on press coverage (as a KPI of campaign success) has infiltrated a much wider array of award categories beyond PR. As a result, often our work is not about communicating an idea directly to the consumer; instead it’s about demonstrating the idea and then seeding communication that merely references the idea. All advertising work is, in essence, PR work.

Our love for this work is not diminishing. This year projects like Security Moms, The Gun Shop, Proud Whopper, Nazis Against Nazis, The Salt you Can See, and others snapped up many of the top awards.

However, something different is now upon us. We are seeing the practice of stuntvertising become something much more transformative to society, rather than simply clever. Rather than maligning this kind of work as something that will ruin advertising’s integrity, I would go so far as to suggest it might save advertising as we know it.

I call it futurist advertising.

This is not spec work or fake work but work that exists at the edge of reality. It imagines a near future where the pace of digital augmentation adds value to people’s lives. This work is experimental and seeks to speculate about an ideological and technically enabled future through branded communication.

This advertising-based futurism is everywhere. I’d estimate over half of the gold winners in the Cannes categories of Promo, PR, Direct, Media, Cyber, Titanium and Integrated were of this new ilk. Nivea ‘Doll’, Samsung ‘Safety truck’, Shadow Wi-Fi, Joe Boxer ‘Inactivity Tracker’, ‘Clever Buoy’, Volvo’s ‘Lifepaint’, ‘Holograms for Freedom’, and Nike’s ‘House of Mamba’ are just some of the futurist projects recognised by awards shows.

Very few consumers ever get to see the idea or innovation first hand, most only hear about it in their news feed or in its subsequent press coverage. Every news source out there is hungry for the next clever idea, whether it’s the tweeting pothole or the shark-detecting 3G connected buoy.

This practice of creative futurism is not new of course, and has existed for decades within the hallowed halls of academia. Graduate level design, technology and engineering programs across the globe have long cultivated design minds that reimagine technological interventions in daily life. Yet, all too often, academia’s brilliant work is limited to appearances in academic journals and publications.

But now the advertising industry, with its wealth of well-funded powerful creative minds, is being put to work to create the near future, one branded experience at a time. I believe this practice, as it infiltrates deeper into the world of mainstream creativity, will redefine the creative and advertising field.

It will empower ad and design agencies to become catalysts of added value and brand service. These projects are evolving from stunts meant to spark word of mouth, to reshaping the fundamental offering of the brands themselves. This is no longer about a lightning in a bottle project like Nike+, but a practice that will become part of every brief in every creative agency. As the practice of speculative creativity grows, it can only transform the public’s opinion of what advertising is, undoubtedly for the better.

No longer are we simply communicating an idealised version of the future state of humanity. We are actively creating it. The next invaluable utility. The next life changing service. The next augmented experience that takes our breath away. These changes don’t always have to come in massive transformations, but one small advertising experiment at a time. That’s a beautiful thing.

Robb Smigielski is executive creative director at VML London

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