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Why we must break the cycle of ‘art for art’s sake’

Advertising has changed, but has the creative director? In this series, Wunderman UK chief creative officer Ian Haworth explores the changing nature of the role in the modern media world.

L’art pour l’art is the ultimate ego trip

L’art pour l’art is the ultimate ego trip. Art for art’s sake: stripping the piece of any social, political, emotional, moral or utilitarian function, until it simply is.

However, when it goes too far, when progressive rock bands start bringing out the bassoons, when an actor receives an Oscar despite it being his worst performance to date, you start to realise what ‘it’ is.

It’s rubbish. An extension of the creator’s self-worth, disguised as something you can’t not like. You just ‘don’t appreciate it’, apparently. Or you don’t belong to the class of elites for whom it is intended. Either way, while art for art’s sake proclaims to have meaning, it has none.

For Nietzsche, that is a betrayal of what art ought to be: “art is the great stimulus to life: how could one understand it as purposeless, as aimless, as l’art pour l’art?”

All things humans ascribe value to go through this stage in the cycle at some point. Human history is filled with movements advocating religion for religion’s sake, learning for learning’s sake, war for war’s sake. And many traditions, however harmful, are maintained purely for the sake of ‘tradition.’

Until eventually sanity is restored, and that concept which has been imbued with so much power is put back in its place: advancing human interests, not being pursued out of an obsessive belief in the concept’s inherent, unequivocal value.

Cannes for Cannes’ sake

The ad industry is by no means immune to this human tendency.

Cannes’ prestige has largely persisted “because it’s Cannes.” It’s only recently that the big agency networks have voiced doubts.

In the last few years, Cannes has looked more and more like an ad-tech festival. The super yachts were dominated by ad tech this year, taking 20 boats. And Snapchat’s Ferris wheel raised more than a few eyebrows.

It looked all a bit like tech for tech’s sake, a movement that like art for art’s sake, can quickly become self-obsessed.

But coming out of Cannes this year, it was evident that for the judging panels at least, it was the Big Idea™ that triumphed. The winning campaigns had ideas with genuine, human impact. Tech still played a crucial role in many of the campaigns, but this came in the form of delivering value for the campaigns instead of trying to ‘be’ the value.

And then there’s tech’s close cousin: innovation.

‘Innovation’ is a bit like the term ‘creative’, really. People can slap it onto anything and hope you fall for it. Its use has become woolly and meaningless. Can you name a business that would not describe itself as ‘innovative?’

Yet innovation for innovation’s sake remains a common pitfall. Innovation can help human advancement, so long as we subject it to the right scrutiny and understand what exactly it means. Doing something different, because it’s different, is never the right approach.

Activism for activism’s sake

History is also filled with movements advocating social change, in a similarly cyclical fashion. It’s one of the most important human activities, and it takes a brave agency to use advertising for this purpose.

Yet that’s what advertising is ultimately about – helping people improve their lives. Sure, business exists to make money. And people know, by now, that brands are not their mates. But to use a commercial product to take a stand on a bigger social issue is a very brave thing to do.

You know if the campaign has worked as soon as you see it. It hits you in the gut. It’s visceral.

Dove took its place as a pioneer of gender equality through its advertising. It was just soap, but it felt like a real triumph. The stand it was taking was fundamentally good, and it felt right.

But brands do get it wrong. When they do, the accusation is usually one of cynicism. The brand is charged with pursuing activism for activism’s sake; they don’t believe in the cause, they believe in the money that can be made from appropriating it.

More often than not, it’s not cynical, it’s just misguided. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise.

But you’ve only got to look at Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner debacle to see how badly this can be naively mishandled.

Risk for risk’s sake

Mistakes happen, even with good intentions.

That big social issue that looked perfect for your brand turned out not to be, and now you’re getting mocked on Twitter.

The worst thing you can do is avoid taking risks in the first place. Risk aversion is a trap. It can feel safe to keep your brand in your comfort zone, unwilling to do anything out of the ordinary in case you get an unhelpful response on social media. But it harms you.

Be willing to take risks, but not for the sake of taking risks. Be calculated, weigh the potential gains against the potential losses of tapping into this issue, and then make your decision.

And when you fail, which we all do, you have to fall forward, pick yourself up and learn from it. Because if you don’t, someone else will learn from your mistakes and perfect your idea.

The human spirit is innovative by nature. We’ve innovated throughout our entire existence on this planet – we have a never-ending need to improve and do new things.

We may be occasionally irrational beings, falling into obsessions that we pursue without being mindful of how they help us. We love shiny things and jump aboard hype trains. Yet behind all that is an impulse to make the world a better place: to break the cycles, to cast aside l’art pour l’art, and do something truly creative.

Ian Haworth is the executive creative director UK and EMEA at Wunderman

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