Archive for February, 2009
This article was originally published in Campaign Magazine in London on July 21, 2006. In it I beat up the judges of the Titanium Lion at Cannes pretty comprehensively. I thought it might be interesting to take a look about two and a half years later to see how my argument has held up. Judging from the way 2006’s winning concept has vanished off the face of the earth, I’d say I got it right. What’s still not right, however, is the Titanium Lion, which seems to be judged by different criteria every year–not the way you build the prestige of an award or create a standard of excellence for the industry.
The judges at Cannes have perfected reverse-alchemy. They have invented a way to turn titanium into tin. They did this by awarding the hitherto-prestigious Titanium Lion to “Design Barcode,” a piffling idea from Japan.
Here’s how it works. If you’re selling surfboards, put a little surfer on the product’s barcode and have him ride it like a wave. No, I’m not kidding; that’s all there is to it. It is the conceptual equivalent of dotting your “i”s with smiley faces.
Many are blaming the judges for choosing to honor such a lightweight idea, and I think they deserve it. But in our haste to point fingers, let us not forget to blame whoever wrote the rules for this years Titanium competition. When you read them, you will see that they are the product of a confused mind. Compare these passages from the rules on the Cannes Lions website. First: “Of course it’s [the idea that is] integrated. That goes without saying. Which is why this year we’ve removed the “integrated tag.”
And second: “Also this year, Titanium entries are not restricted to a set number of executions or types of channel. There’s no limit on the lengths of execution on the media used. Anything goes. For example, there may be a great media idea that only uses one channel–but if the idea is strong, it’s in.”
My dictionary defines “integrate” as follows: “to form, coordinate or blend multiple elements into a functioning or unified whole; to unite with something else. Perhaps the judges would argue that Design Barcode’s genius was to “integrate” the barcode into existing packaging. That’s like arguing you’ve “integrated” a sound effect into a TV ad.
The rules are incoherent. Perhaps the judges took that fact as carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Theories abound.
In any case, it’s worth talking about who the client for “Design Barcode” is. It’s Design Barcode. With the exception of the entertainment industry, we already work in the most self-congratulatory business in the world. Is turning what was once regarded as one of the most prestigious awards in advertising into an award for self-promotion really a good idea?
Consider Design Barcode (the product) from a client’s point of view. Yes, it’s mildly amusing, but since Design Barcode (the company) owns the idea, it’s not proprietary to any one brand. Every time a new brand decides to put a Design Barcode on its packaging, the value of every other Design Barcode decreases, and frankly, the value was limited to begin with. This is not an industry-changing idea. This is the wind from the wings of a moth.
The Titanium Lion is tarnished. Cannes may have to move on to a different metal next year. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone will really want to win a Tin Lion.
This morning a friend sent me “Greg Rutter’s definitive list of the 99 things you should have already experienced on the internet unless you’re a loser or old or something.” On the whole, it is a depressing list. Perhaps even more depressing because I have experienced almost all of them. Is this what cultural literacy has come to? In 2009 you’re out of the loop if you’re not familiar with “Ms. South Carolina answers a question” and “tranquilized bear hits trampoline.” A generation ago you had to be ready to discuss “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” or at least “All In The Family” when you met your friends at the coffee pot. Before that, you were expected to be up to speed on what Walter Cronkite or Ed Murrow said. Before that functioning members of society kept up with the latest wisdoms of Franklin Roosevelt and Will Rogers. And at some point, I suppose, people actually talked about–what’s the word?–books.
Call me an elitist if you must, but I am happy to be in the company of another elitist, Neil Postman. Read Amusing Ourselves to Death, and you will tremble for the future of democracy in a society dominated by electronic media. I thought Obama was very good last night–or more to the point, very good on television. Given the scope of our current problems, the question is will that be good enough? I suspect that if you read the transcript of his speech, you will find nothing that merits comparison with Jefferson or Lincoln. Of course, you could say the same thing of every president since FDR, who was, coincidentally, the first president to use the full force of the media to enhance his grip on power.
Mere ad guys aren’t going to change the course of history, and questions of how media will affect our political future are, to borrow Mr. Obama’s unfortunate phrase from the campaign, “above our pay grade.” Nevertheless, I hope that you will take a look at Mr. Rutter’s list and at least join me in an effort not to hasten with the ads we make the devaluation of the coin of the realm.
Check out this deeply strange interactive piece for a site called happytaxday that was done on my watch at Tribal DDB (Braden Bickle and Travis Staut did most of the heavy lifting, so blame them). It made the One Show in 2006. Thematically, it seems to fit in rather nicely with our current economic situation–i.e., our government’s having to beg for billions or even trillions of dollars. I’ll just leave it at that and allow you to experience it for yourself.
If you want to grow your client’s business, you have to ask the right question (and there’s only one).
In December 2003, Frederick Reichheld wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review called “The One Number You Need To Grow.” He concluded (based on two years of research) that companies can throw out all the convoluted metrics they have invested in to predict results. The answer to a single, simple question separates companies that grow from those that don’t. And that question is would the company’s customers recommend it to a friend?
This obviously has enormous ramifications in the digital age. Consumers now have the ability not only to recommend a product to a friend, but to recommend (or warn against) it to thousands or even millions of people. The means of mass communication have been democratized. Shoppers don’t make decisions based on information from ads; they get it from consumerist.com and a host of other websites that catalog the authentic opinions of people just like them.
Smart companies are building in mechanisms to their communication plans that encourage consumers to talk to each other–of course they’re only smart if the product they’re delivering is good enough to warrant a recommendation. Putting together a brilliant digital branding experience that will encourage conversation may be the worst thing a company can do if its customers are inclined to say nasty things about its products. Thus “The One Number You Need To Grow” is not only a startlingly simple way to approach measurement and reporting, not only can it define a company’s communication strategy, it frankly can and should form the basis of operational and product development decisions.
This is why agencies can no longer be in the business of selling advertising ideas alone. They must be in the business of selling advertising ideas that grow directly out of business solutions that resonate with consumers. Clients who don’t want to change anything they’re doing except their advertising and dramatically increase sales are almost invariably disappointed. The answer they are looking for lies in a single question.
Say Yes 5 Times or Start Over
Is it good enough for people to CHOOSE to look at it when they don’t have to?
Is it good enough for someone to tell a friend about it?
Is it the best advertising in its category?
Will it move the needle?
Does it change the game?
The most serious flaw in advertising agencies today is their collective failure to understand the seismic shift in the media landscape. Interactive media don’t represent an incremental change to the media we already have. They are totally different, irreversible, unstoppable.
Neil Postman founded a department of Media Ecology at NYU because he understood that the media we consume form a kind of ecosystem, which, when altered, will have winners and losers. Cory Doctorow has written a very smart piece on exactly this subject that should be required reading for every agency person in America. It’s called “Media-Morphosis: How the Internet Will Devour, Transform or Destroy Your Favorite Medium.” Check it out with all possible speed.