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The Ad Cannes Job
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Advertising Awards Signal The Industry Is Still Kidding Itself

The advertising industry's annual celebration of its creativity ended last night with an Academy Awardsish soiree for best picture.

It's easy to bash the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, what with its parties on the southern coast of France. While there were seminars for smart people to tell one another about how smart they are, and true networking requires a closer proximity than a Twitter list, you can imagine clients wondering about the expenses involved ("why are we paying for it?") and agency types wondering about the attendance list ("why didn't I get to go?"). Giving an award to Mark Zuckerberg for being "media person of the year" is about as cutting-edge as a plastic picnic knife, and the inside baseball of its myriad other honors makes Facebook's privacy settings seem clear.

But I say flying to the beach in France to get wasted and look for your next job beats doing it in a Marriott conference room in Des Moines. So count me in for next year, even though the thing feels like a holdover from happier times that were more flush with money and confidence. My beef isn't with the party part. It's the substance thing.

An annual orgasm of self-love -- remember, the awards aren't voted by clients or consumers -- suggests to me that the advertising industry is still unable to talk to itself about what's happening.

Creative ain't what it used to be. Actually, it never was.

For the entirety of human history, advertising was a vehicle to get people to buy things. Creativity was important as long as it was applied to this goal; even corporate ads from the late 1800s had a direct link to a sales strategy. The greats of the ad business -- folks like James Walter Thompson, Bruce Barton, Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, and David Ogilvy -- form an unbroken chain of ad pioneers who were focused first and foremost on sales. When they talked about brands it was as an outcome of consumer preference, not and independent attribute.

All that changed in the 1960s. A new generation of consumers got picky about the promises made by those brilliant salesmen at the same time that the media channels available to them started to multiply. Ads had to deliver something more and the answer was to make them funny, self-aware and, above all, entertaining. Creativity was disconnected from its subservience to something as pedestrian as selling, and elevated to an absolute, higher good.

The history of advertising was all but rewritten to highlight creativity, and advertising was sold to clients because it was intended to achieve awareness and positioning. Whatever else followed -- direct mail, promotions, taking orders, customer service -- was the fine print that originated in some department in the agency's basement. Many times those functions were not even considered a part of the creative strategy whatsoever.

The Cannes event, started in 1954, was consciously modeled on the International Film Festival that had been held there since the late 1940s. It was intended to celebrate the same sort of "technical crafts" for which The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded its Oscars, and to do so in much the same way.

The benefits of creative ads, such as any sales result, are so self-evident as to be a given. Great ads are creative ads.

No they're not. They never were.

Great advertising gets people to do things. Meaningful things. Great ads are trustworthy and credible. They enable brands to speak with authority. Great ads aren't memorable for what they say or how they look, but rather for what they do. Thinking fond thoughts isn't a self-evidently valuable given; it's a means to an end, and nothing more. Great ads speak truth, and that truth motivates people to buy things.

You can see the creative bias in the Lions awarded for direct and integrated, arguably two of the areas in which a connection to sales should be obvious: the direct honors went to a New Zealand broadband campaign that got users to upload videos, while the integrated award went to Best Buy for its employee-led Twitter program. Results are measured in time spent online, tweets sent, and unpaid media coverage of the campaigns themselves. Actually, the Best Buy campaign had no results in its submission but cited similar squishy returns in a recent Fast Company article. (When I challenged a group of CMOs in January to dissect the impact of Best Buy outsourcing its brand to the crowd and what it might really mean for sales, they practically lynched me for not recognizing its inherent value as a generator of awareness).

It's like basing a song review on how loud it was played. I'm stunned by how we still apply such old thinking to new media.

While Cannes celebrated creativity last week, the advertising industry continued to burn. Corporate reputations are at all-time lows. Consumers trust ads about as much as they do politicians. So much of what passes for "engagement" in marketing communications is simply "entertainment" because companies have lost the willingness to tell consumers that they want them to buy stuff. Agencies don't help them by catering to this fear, nor do they do themselves justice by promoting creative as the lead track toward finding better solutions.

I love creativity. I create music and write fiction, and I've held creative posts in agencies. Many of my best friends are far more creative than I could ever be, and I love them for it, too. But I think today's industry woes trace back to the 1960s, and to the elevation of creative over the other components of marketing communications.

We can always find new ways to waste time for consumers' or our clients, and each new year will give the world another set of wonderfully young, brilliant, and photogenic people who embrace that idea as if it's advertising's sacred calling. Getting consumers to buy things -- using all of the tools at our disposal -- is the real creative challenge, however, and the opportunity is for us to move beyond our easy definitions of "content" and back to defining brands and branding with purpose. We need to get back to what made advertising so amazingly and importantly cool.

Without such a renewed commitment, I fear that the annual lovefest in Cannes is a reminder that the industry is still kidding itself, and that it has much self-examination left to do.

But please count me in for next year's bash. I have no issue with a great part

Added: 28th June 2010

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