Ad veterans have seen the changing tides as creative ideas morph with times, bringing out the exciting along with the controversial.
As time continues its relentless march, the ad industry will continue to evolve with it, Tim Delaney, chairman, Leagas Delaney has these five tips to offer his take on his learnings and what the future holds. This except is from his acceptance speech for the China Advertising lifetime achievement award.
Tip One: Follow your own star
It might be enlightening to know how I came to start an advertising agency in the first place; why I decided that working for a 4As agency was not for me. I learned this by working for BBDO in London. I was 27 when I became Creative Director, 32 when I was made Managing Director. And although BBDO was not a very big agency in London at the time (but huge in the US) it was the lack of genuine enthusiasm for the creative work at the New York headquarters that dismayed me.
Because it led to a lack of soul, a shallow sense of commitment from its management which was perhaps understandable given the factories of advertising that the mega agencies still are, in my view. So despite many offers to go to New York, I decided to risk everything and start my own agency in London.
No clients. No money. One table. Four chairs. A telephone. And a vision of a life I wanted to lead. 37 years later, I can report that I have indeed lived the life I sought.
Indeed, I wrote down the principles of the agency just before it opened, and they are still delivering my vision today.
I wanted an agency that :
- UPHOLD THE IDEA THAT CREATIVITY CAN CHANGE THE FORTUNES OF BRANDS.
- BE REGARDED FOR THE QUALITY OF OUR CREATIVE WORK.
- BE KNOWN FOR THE RIGOUR OF OUR APPROACH TO STRATEGY.
- BE A PLACE THAT PEOPLE WOULD WANT TO WORK AT.
- BE KNOWN FOR A STRONG WORK ETHIC
- BE OPEN TO NEW WAYS OF WORKING
- WORK WITH CLIENTS WHO REGARD MUTUAL RESPECT AS A PREREQUISITE OF A MATURE PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIP
- NO 'SHOWCASE' CLIENTS, ONE STANDARD FOR EVERY CLIENT.
- ENJOY EVERY DAY, EVEN THE WEEKENDS, EVEN CHRISTMAS DAY.
Over 37 years, I have learned that holding on to those principles has become easier for me but harder for others. And it still disappoints me that I cannot embue people with the same sense of excitement about a new client or a new brief that I have after all this time. Why is this?
Simply put, I have always taken advertising, brand communications seriously.
I have always believed it to be even a privilege to be asked into the boardroom of a client company and asked to solve a seemingly intractable problem. And to solve it with an idea that didn't exist just a few hours before. In truth, and to generalise, I am not sure how many people who are in communications are in it for the right reasons. It is an industry that has consistently paid people vast salaries but I'm not sure how many are justified.
So FOLLOW YOUR OWN STAR means be brave enough to do what you enjoy most, it means not chasing money or status - there will always be someone prepared to pay you more. But will you like being bought and sold all your life if you are not doing something that is in your heart? I have never done anything simply for the money, and I am a reasonably happy man. FOLLOW YOUR OWN STAR is also the guiding principle of our agency here in Shanghai. China doesn't need another 4As size agency, another factory. They suit certain clients and that's fine.
But I am sure some clients will appreciate a more personal, a more committed, creatively orientated, digitally clever, set of people working for them - people who will be around for the long term, to produce emotionally connected ideas in a technology enabled world to build campaigns with a business outcome. That is the star I am sure they are following.
As I say, FOLLOW YOUR OWN STAR is about not following the herd, but being sure of your own values and what makes you tick. It's why I think FOLLOW YOUR OWN STAR is definitely the right advice for Chinese brands as they seek to compete in other markets.
The confidence and conviction needed to be successful will come from Chinese brands being proud of what they are, sure of themselves, standing for the values of this amazing culture - no longer content to simply copy others. The world is waiting for Chinese brands and I think the time is right for them.
Tip two: Believe in people everywhere to be moved by ideas
It is easy to be cynical when working in mass communications. Over the years, marketing has been accused of being able to manipulate or seduce millions of people to like or buy something they didn't want. Some people believed it but I never did.
I always believed that people have imaginations and that instead of being disdainful of the so-called masses, I have always respected the consumers I created campaigns for. I would urge you to do the same.
You may not consider consumers to be as bright as you, but they are not stupid. They might not work in creative jobs, but they are imaginative. Consumers might not always have much money but we should not deny them the right to aspire.
I would go further: if you do not believe that everyone is capable of being moved by ideas, why do we as an industry continue to make ideas our currency? So do not be cynical or complacent about the so-called masses. The humblest people can have the strongest emotions, and emotions are at the heart of how humans make most decisions.
And now a little about our emotions. I have two stories to tell you.
When we met our client Patek Philippe 20 years ago, it was a terrific brand but known and admired by a relatively small group of collectors. But an insight gleaned from our own research, an idea that appropriated the only true emotional aspect of the category and the conviction of a truly visionary owner of Patek Philippe has created the most desired watch brand in the world. And though it has changed in execution over the years, its belief in itself and the role of communication has been unwavering.
And as it enters the uncharted waters of the disruption brought about by the digital revolution - both in the way the campaign is changing and the wider possible affects on distribution and retail channels - it has displayed characteristic wisdom in the way that it has embraced the new media landscape while remaining sceptical of its somewhat specious claims of its proponents.
Why is this important to you? Isn't it just another case history, in a museum of case histories? Well, no, not for me it isn't.
I am still as excited by the new work breaking for Patek Philippe as I was when the campaign started. When I visit them in Geneva I have never, ever, not looked forward to the meeting. I am met with intelligence, respect, and professionalism, but also challenging and direct questioning. Success for Patek Philippe lies in their ability to create watches in a certain way, a way that is superior as it happens, because they are a family owned watch company. Success for us started 20 years ago by believing in the emotions of watch buyers.
My other story concerning emotions is quite different. We probably all believe that our ideas in whatever channel can convert people from one brand to another. That is the role or rationale for a communications industry.
But something is happening that is going to change our industry - maybe even endanger it.
Super-computing, AI and the use of bots, has produced tools that by reading and linking the behaviour of hundreds of millions of people on a social network like Weibo, it can know more about those individuals than the individuals know about themselves. And whoever owns that information can of course manipulate the way people think and behave.
It's called bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, but more importantly, how they react emotionally. As one scientist said recently, “Society is driven by emotions, which it’s always been difficult to measure, collectively. But there are now programmes that can read texts, like Twitter feeds, and measure them and give us a window into society's collective emotions.”
So what does all this mean to us, in the industry?
At the moment, all this information is mostly being used in politics to change news narratives absorbed innocently by millions of people to affect voting intentions during elections, like the one in the US last year. But what's to stop companies from utilising the same tools when trying for a brand advantage?
When will brands simply use the same mechanisms to determine strategies or to determine messaging?
Who will be our Planners - bots sifting through millions upon millions of online behaviour patterns to co-ordinate evidence for why one car is better liked than another? Or how to make it so?
How will ideas be thought up to build the campaigns that create the irrational preference that we all show when we make purchases might not ever be an irrational preference again - if our emotions and behaviours are being monitored and used in this way without us even knowing it, let alone agreeing to it?
We in the communications industry are the only people who can speak up for the role of genuine human emotions in brand building. We alone know the power of ideas - which are based on truths and universal insights.
We alone are the guardians of brands, who through our deep knowledge and beliefs can protect them from technologies worst and most spurious excesses.
Your job, and mine, is to understand real human emotions and build communications that respects them.
Tip Three: Make technology your servant not your master
As I have said we are living in the most remarkable time on this planet. Technology is turning almost everything upside down, including our world.
We are told that technology can do a far more efficient - note the word efficient - job of seducing consumers than ideas.
This falsehood is propagated by the people who own media or are selling things like programmatic targeting.
They own the mediums. They own the data. They have the technology on their side to prove that what they can capture is of worth - greater worth than the alternative: an idea based on an emotional and aspirational insight, with a strategy to give it commercial relevance.
But guess what? Human beings have human qualities. We think, we feel, we laugh, we cry. We deduce, we create, we develop, we desire, we aspire, we are wonderfully and irrepressibly irrational. Technology has not changed the human being – yet, but it believes it can, or the people who own information think they can.
One aspect that affects our industry is technology's affect on the effectiveness of media targeting and buying. Why does a creative person care about media? Because I have always been as passionate about where my ideas go as the ideas themselves. No point having a great idea if no one sees it.
One person, the CMO of the world's biggest and most sophisticated advertiser, has said in a recent speech that he sees, and I quote "... no sustainable advantage in a complicated, non-transparent, inefficient and fraudulent media supply chain."
He was referring to the fact that client companies are finally starting to question the gleaming technological promises made about programmatic and digital media in general.
This is the first time I have heard anyone stand up and say what many people think : that what technology is promising is not in the best interests of clients.
P&G grew the world's biggest consumer goods company by relying on human insights and the strategies that came from them, matching them with superior products and selling them at competitive pricing and almost total distribution.
For their CMO to come out so clearly and sharply is not simply to get better media rates. It is because he cannot trust data which is being created by bots and DMPs and that blows a big hole in his ability to market. If the owner of the biggest brands in the world is alarmed at the unbridled manner in which theories become indisputable truths in a matter of hours or days, then you and I should all be worried or at least questioning the basis of these theories.
My point is simple: the human being is not on this planet as a vessel for exploitation. We are here to experience the full range of human activity. We as marketers and communicators should retain our excitement at new technologies but retain a respect for our fellow human beings. So it is not about what technology can do. It is about what can we do for the brand.
Can WE shape the brand not merely be taken where technology pushes it?
Does the sheer speed of technological development mean long term brand relationships are just too difficult?
In my view, it is the job of people in our industry to earn their salaries by constantly thinking about the long term. Believing that technology is a tool not an engine.
Ishiguro, the Japanese writer said " Machines can work. But they cannot imagine." Maybe one day they will. But right now technology should be your servant, and the servant of brands, not a master.
Tip four: Do not underestimate the power of words
It is easy to think that in the age of WeChat that the visual image is more powerful than the written word.
I am a writer of ideas, ads, content and even small messages on a WeChat sticker if that's what is required.
So I am biased in favour of words. But I have many reasons to be so. An image can change you but it cannot argue its case. An image can make you cry or smile, but it cannot explain why.
Words can tell a story in a way that expands the imagination and can reach into the depths of your soul by discussing an understanding of it. A picture cannot do that. A visual image can be arresting but usually fleetingly.
You cannot yell an image. You can yell words - with a loudness that can be heard for miles around. A visual image always needs words to follow up. The same is not true of words.
In 2016, it was not a picture that changed the world, though there were many that shocked us all. It only took four words to change much of what we think of as the world order.
The four words were: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
And suddenly, politics everywhere, from Australia to Alaska, changed. So don't give up on words. Respect their power and use it.
Tip five: Retain your sense of wonder
Someone once said to me that without our sense of wonder, we are reduced to ordinariness, limited ambition for others and ourselves. A sense of wonder of what an idea can do, what a simple thought can achieve. If you don't realise and enjoy that you shouldn't be in this business.