Wednesday, June 28, 2017

all this useless beauty

‘Nonsense prevails, modesty fails
Grace and virtue turn into stupidity
What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?’
Elvis Costello ‘All This Useless Beauty’ 1995

Legendary British creative director Dave Trott is famously quoted as saying that advertising festivals actually prevent creativity.

‘You’re not doing advertising for six million people in the street anymore, but for ten people on the jury, and for a few clients.’

I also recall a comment made by Tom Goodwin a couple of years ago around Cannes in particular.

‘Cannes has become a self-serving fetishisation of the newly possible and the highly improbable. It’s predictable and formulaic in the extreme.’

It’s hard not to agree with these statements - at least in part – when observing some of this year’s winning entries.

Much of the silliness seemed to be confined to the ‘Innovation’ category.

A Gold Lion for a Grand Theft Auto 5 mod seems a bit of a stretch, while the Grand Prix was awarded to a project that plans to save the world by melting down guns.

Even the briefest glance at those cases, sheds some light on the mid-festival announcement from Publicis regarding their intention to give awards a miss next year in order to focus funding and effort on building their AI platform.

On the other hand there were a number of excellent, and well deserved, big winners.

Including Melbourne’s own Clemenger BBDO and their remarkable ‘Meet Graham’ work for TAC.

A few years ago Australian agencies combined could expect to take home around 50 lions in a good year.

At the last count Clems had accumulated around 56 on their own, including 29 for ‘Graham’.

Aside from the inevitable silliness on the fringes these festivals do serve a commercial purpose for agencies.

For the most part it’s reasonable to say that the volume and quality of new business an agency attracts is explicitly connected to the volume and quality of the awards they accrue.

Consistent performance in major advertising awards are one indicator of ‘fitness’ in the evolutionary sense. Agency ‘sexiness’ if you prefer.

This idea that ‘indicators’ are sexy comes from the work of Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi.

In his ‘Handicap Principle’ hypothesis, Zahavi proposes that the only way to reliably demonstrate quality during ‘courtship’ is to display a ‘costly’ (alluring) signal. The peacock's tail is his most famous example.

These expensive signals are evolutionarily stable indicators of the brand and the agency’s quality, because cheap signals are too easy for low-quality imitators to fake.

Commitment to creativity signals advertiser ‘fitness’ – ultimately indicating that the most creative advertiser has greater ‘genetic’ value than its less creative competitors. After all, consumers tend to prefer advertisers that display high levels of intelligent creativity and, consequently, brands prefer agencies that do the same.

Participation in the spectacle of Cannes might seem like energetically expensive waste of time, but these kind of wasteful displays are exactly what we would expect from traits designed for ‘reproductive competition’.

I’d stick my neck out and say that big advertising festivals aren’t going away anytime soon.

However perhaps there is a case for a bit of a ‘reset’ and refocus on the commercial part of creativity.

The kind of creativity that touches Dave Trott’s ‘six million people in the street’.

With that thought in mind, and in closing, we stumbled across this excerpt from Prof Ronald Jay Cohen's 'Editor's note' to the judges in The Journal of Psychology and Marketing’s Awards in Advertising 1986.

Think of this as an objective ‘outside view’.

Cohen encourages jurors, in their deliberations, to view the awards in this way.

‘To the extent that it is possible, we hope to avoid the pitfalls associated other awards in the advertising industry. Thus we hope to avoid common criticisms of awards like ‘it's just a popularity contest’ by having voters justify their selections with reference to criteria such as attention-getting ability, attention-sustaining ability, communication of message, memorability of message, persuasiveness, creativity, and psychological sophistication.

Further, voters are advised to take into consideration what is happening in the actual marketplace with respect to the advertised product or service.
Wonderful creativity in a vacuum does not good [advertising] make.

Award-winning advertising is a successful marriage of creativity and ‘sellativity’.

Award-winning advertising is the type of advertising that reconfirms the classic Gestalt adage that ‘the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts’.

Here, all of the elements of the [advertising] combine to form something that transcends any of the elements alone something that is ‘magical’ in some way.

A pitfall to avoid is becoming enthralled with the elements and failing to realize that there is something lacking from the commercial as a whole.’

The pitfalls of short-termism and over-obsession with metrics are well documented, however the bigger danger is that we are forgetting what advertising is actually for and how it works.

Then all we have is creativity in a vacuum, useless beauty.