Thursday, November 03, 2011

Advertising



I don't understand advertising. I don't understand how it works. How is it that it still works when I know what it's trying to do? The most astute ad men while they can appreciate an ad's workings will still be seduced by a turn of phrase, an image, or the idea behind them.

But when I don't see what it's trying to do, it appears to be pointless — and what's the point of pointless advertising? Some ads, no matter how hard I look, have neither cool nor clear branding going for them. I know that I'm cynical by nature, and I tend to question my surroundings, but I couldn't possibly be immune to advertising, could I? Is anybody immune to advertising?

The advertising agency Leo Burnett earlier this year released a book about its HumanKind philosophy. Humankind, by Tom Bernardin and Mark Tutssel, Leo Burnett Worldwide. It should be of some interest to advertising professionals. As a coffeetable book it's sure to interest many casual browsers. It is gorgeous. But I'm not sure who would read it cover to cover (although, I did).

(Note: I'm not actually completely stupid about advertising. I did work at an agency for a couple of years (in the capacity of "quality assurance specialist"), and some aspects of my current job also have a marketing angle. Also, I once dated someone who is now an advertising mogul. But I won't pretend that I know a whole lot about the business either.)

Humankind starts off reading like a manifesto.

HumanKind breaks the routine into which the advertising industry fell during the let-the-good-times-roll years of the late-20th and early-21st century global economic boom (and to which many people in the industry still adhere). People then had money to burn — or they could easily borrow the money to burn. Merchandise and services were flying off shelves. We were generating a need for products whose only purpose was to placate clients and shareholders' desire for more, more, more. Creativity rooted in genuine human need was devalued. In its place "positioning" began to masquerade as creativity.

Because of all of this, many of us who market brands — and if you're reading this book, that may mean you — got lazy and began to forget that it's people who make the difference. We found ways to communicate based on our needs and ambitions. People? Who are they?

Empty at its core, faithless to human needs, and untrue to the world in which we live, this sort of creativity sputtered and finally lost its power.

The Internet had a lot to do with this, of course. People today are savvier yet more cynical — savvier because information is literally at our fingertips, more cynical because information is literally at our fingertips.

People have gone from passive to empowered, from one-size-fits-all to wanting and expecting everything to be custom-made, from inferred knowledge to direct knowledge.

We are no longer "consumers" first, but humans first.

[...]

We can no longer build brands, we can only move people. We can no longer position brands, we can only create content that encourages authentic conversations between people and brands based on a brand's human purpose. We can no longer rely on ads that speak to people, we must provide people with opportunities to act. As marketers, we can no longer claim that it is up to us to be the motor that drives brands, we can only empower people and let them take the steering wheel themselves.

But the book soon dwindles into a portfolio of case studies. Ultimately, I'm not sure that it's more than a lush piece of marketing collateral for the agency itself. Still, it has inspired me to react.

Leo Burnett's biggest success, without a doubt, at least in terms of embodying the HumanKind philosophy, is Earth Hour. This now annual global event is, at its core, a marketing campaign. It raises awareness regarding a specific issue. It doesn't matter that we don't know that World Wildlife Fund is behind it. In this case, marketing isn't about sales.

As I already mentioned, this book is gorgeous: photo spreads, bold font, pages of colour. There are slogans spattered throughout, often big white text on pink or orange or green. Things like, "value of the brand to society = value of society to the brand." "Ad agencies don't create iconic brands, people do." That all (good) advertising is an invitation to people to act.

On sober afterthought, I'm no longer reacting viscerally — when first I closed this book, my gut was screaming that advertising is stupid (is it because I so badly don't want to be played?). How can anyone make money with this, how can they spend so much money to create this, who does advertising work on?

But, on sober afterthought, I'm finding much to admire in HumanKind; for example, the Museu Efémoro, where a rum distillery sponsored the cataloguing of street art in Lisbon.

An interesting supplement to this book, both as reinforcement and occasional counterpoint, is a documentary I recently watched, Art & Copy (which can be viewed in its entirety online), in which the importance of connecting with your audience is stressed above selling a product per se.

The modern advertising agency, according to the film, stemmed from a fundamental shift in thinking about advertising — from words, often illustrated as an afterthought, to art, in which design was integral to the message being conveyed. Hence the Creative Director was born.

Mostly though, this film features people who just love doing advertising, because it can be clever and cool, and when they're lucky, they make a lot of money by helping someone make a lot money. But I'm not convinced a lot of people understand how it works.

Don Draper cut through all the bullshit when he said, "I don't sell advertising, I sell products." Has the essence of advertising really changed all that much from the world as portrayed in Mad Men?

Yeah, advertising can be cool. Humankind almost makes me believe that it can even mean something.
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