Belated postcard from Cannes

Many moons ago in South East London, I was considered a smart kid. Imagine. I somehow managed to sit my GCSE Maths exam a year early, and somehow achieved an A grade. Patting myself on the back about this mundane feat became redundant by the time I sat my A-levels, but thankfully I still remember that the multiplication of two negatives creates a positive. So given (a) self-indulgence is typically a no-no in this service industry from whence we pay our bills and (b) there is nothing like an online editorial space to make recent news prehistoric before some of us have finished our commute to work, I still felt it necessary to delay both the construction AND release of this post. Yes, naughty me.

With editorial integrity intact, I hereby share what my generously PHD-funded trip to the 2012 Cannes Lions has done for me – and without any delusions of grandeur, what I hope the experience will do for you reader folk also. For those of you interested only in my many dramas and costume changes through the week (yes, we all know I missed my outbound flight…), Facebook is only a URL away. This is the ‘adult’ stuff’. My wardrobe is not that interesting.

As one of four lucky individuals to win the inaugural “Get me to Cannes” competition, I was clear in my application that I sought to play the role of the “other”, reflective of my role as a digital specialist within a comms planning team. Whilst this allows me to approach problems differently than most within my internal and external cross-agency teams, this means I tend to pour cold water on a disproportionate number of the wild and crazy digital-steeped ideas that are generated. There is nothing like working in a sadly still-at-times marginalised media channel to make you a cynic – heck, I have pretty much been marinated and slow-roasted in cynicism since the wheels started to come off the corporate world in 08’. Seven years is a hell of a long time in this media game; had I become a young(ish) fogie?

What I really craved to learn from this Cote d’Azur-based orgy of creative back-slapping (or ‘inspiration’, dependent on how your bread is buttered) was nothing too outlandish. Put simply – would the affair help remove the cynical membranes from my eyes? Will it help me be less of an impenetrable ogre in the meetings and brainstorms I sit in for a living? What would I bring back to make me “better”?

Well. None of the below, for a start.

Let us be clear, I had an amazing time – both socially and professionally. It would have been so easy for me to come back here whooping and hollering about how the festival being the best week of your media life™, but the proof in the pudding is what I am actually doing with the experience now. What has stuck with me, almost a month on? What have I changed as a result?

And the answer is…I am pretty much doing the same thing as before I left. Like an F1 car going into the pits, I took on SO much information, but I am still going around the track in the same direction. I am the same as before, but I am now armed with more tools to explaining “why” now. The most powerful of which lies within the below – please take 2 minutes to embrace:

Genuinely worthwhile, non? The video was shown in the seminar hosted by Contagious and brought the house down. No literal structure damage, just an encouragingly prolonged period of applause – thank you please.

The lesson is clear – keep your focus. I have said often that it is better to have a ‘thought’ than a ‘word’. Before you throw your hat in the ring, think – adding four steps to the user journey to work with a platform you read about on Mashable last week will likely not provide the consumers our clients are desperate to get spending their time / money with a ‘better’ experience. There is a reason half the people at your brainstorm have contributed more to the consumption of the refreshments laid out than the discussion – people will more often than not participate in what they do not understand.

It is not my intention to take a fire extinguisher to what is a vibrant creative process for many. The Holy Grail for the majority of us in this game is to have the creativity and balls to lead and develop one of those humongous ideas – such as Monsieur Wilding’s favourite from the festival: Joe FM (Belgium) . We all want to have contributed to the digitally-powered business shifts from the likes of Nike and Visa; both of whom now define themselves as ‘technology brands’. The key is in understanding that the aforementioned are all anchored by a strikingly logical insight. Not creative, logical. The creative sparkle on top of their respective cakes is just that, additional gloss to make a startlingly clear piece of common sense appealing to the wider populace. There will be a whole host of articles analysing the above examples, so I will save you my own for the sake of brevity.

Allow me to tell this tale another way. Some of you would have seen how deliriously happy I was to meet Omar Epps. My eyes betray me, I was *genuinely* happy – happy enough to walk around in just a vest for most of the night; Laphroaig was my jacket. There is a prize for anyone who can identify the guy on the left:

Anyhoo…this temporary object of my platonic affection was at the festival at the largess of SapientNitro, debating with Darren McColl – the alluringly smug man behind this – as to whom between brands and celebrities is actually the “smarter marketer”. Although the debate was stretched out for longer than was insightful – I would have got outside to the bar far sooner if they would have both simply agreed that brands and celebrities JUST want to be each other, it was strangely gripping fare. I am not kidding; some genuinely interesting logs were thrown on the fire, with particular reference to social media, and the building of ‘brands’ therein.

They discussed the “individualisation of influence”- we are all aware that the majority of the larger fan groups within social spaces belong to celebrities; individuals of wildly varying degrees of talent, not groups or organisations. They are ‘real’ people who actually live what they are talking about; they are, or have experienced the things that you find so intriguing about them. There is nothing in there to suggest that audience size = tangible influence, but this was not the purpose of the debate. Do your own econometrics.

They then explored the uneasy relationship between the two poles of debate in this context – is it brands that create celebrities, or is it celebrities that solidify brands and make them actually mean ‘something’? Would Michael Jordan have been the revered figure he is without his iconic sponsorship deal? Nike would be delirious to suggest they contributed to his phenomenal talent, but would Mr Jordan – left to his own devices – have been able to cultivate an image that transcended same geographical, cultural and generation hurdles? Twitter has facilitated individuals with loose lips / fingers the opportunity to crash and burn at such frequency that damage-limitation precedes opportunity creation in this day and age. You won’t have to look hard to find examples.

The key to the success of the MJ / Nike alliance (and the point of the debate in general) was ‘authenticity and experience’. Those two elements are the common sense I so crave, the clarity of thought that keeps everything we are doing in focus. Digital media is immaterial; it is imperative that all you do is based on truths and experiences humans may actually understand. Given both brands and celebrities tend to be focused on the seeking profit (read: keeping the tax man happy); which of the two is better placed to diversify into more lucrative territories, whilst still remain authentic to who you are / you claim to be? Our work should be an embodiment of its purpose. Think about the creative you have run for your clients within generic Facebook fan acquisition campaign #4 of the financial year; I would wager my lunch that the strongest response was generated by messaging focused on things that actually mean something to the audience you are trying to reach, over and above a glossy brand construct. If you want to entice people who are interested in bratwurst, engage them with something at least partially related to bratwurst, for the love of God. This power duo below will likely cover the value of these fickle followers in a subsequent post…

This ethic has been reflected in the examples of work our glorious head of planning had cherry-picked to share and inspire here internally. These ranged from campaigns featuring product demos – displaying how a given product may add value to the consumer, brought to life through a tangible experience, the human touch. Some featured the power of context – if your campaign activation is being led by a creative idea, ensure that your media implementation augments the message and what your brand truth. This still held true with campaigns at the more abstract end of the spectrum, where the aim was to reframe thinking – as humans, we understand the human touch; create a purpose your audience is actually likely to understand, turn a problem into an opportunity.

Authenticity and experience. Simple.

There is a solemn comfort in finding that you are not isolating yourself through your approach and belief in the fundamentals. Have a think before you have a discussion. Take your time, do it right. We are all short of time, but re-frame this problem – think for one of those scarce minutes about how much time we subsequently waste down the campaign train, having to retrospectively pick up the scattered fragments of common sense that make our glorious ideas actually work. Scary thought, no?

So there we have it. A postcard from Cannes that risked being skewered on two prongs of media irony. I ‘really’ went to go to the International Festival of Creativity with the hope of proving the value of keeping things simple. And I ‘really’ used a video that poured scorn on the avalanche of complexity / data my infinitely more successful peers have used to secure the place of “digital” at the at the media table. Well – I am a walking contradiction. I have embraced that already.

The witty folk in boardrooms across the globe will tell you that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Make clarity of thought and common sense your culture. We can get all Sun Tzu with our media briefs from there, and tell the world how “tactics without strategy is the fastest route to failure”. But we MUST remember that it all starts at the top; getting the fundamentals right. Stop trying to do the creative work first before you have cracked what we are actually tasked to do with our work: elite-level media planning.

That is our job, right?

I have taken up enough of your time now. Please think back to my opening remark – you can decide (or leave a comment on this post) whether my self-indulgence and tardiness has done anything positive for you. It may be that the “A Cup of Tea with…” editorial kingpins won’t allow this blog post to see the light of digital day. Even if nobody else gets to reads, it will still have done me a power of good.

…and yes – I appreciate talking about “keeping things simple” with my garrulous writing style is amusingly surreal. Whatever. Call it a Nolan-esque metaphor. You obviously enjoyed yourself enough to read this far…

Posted by John Duku, Digital Client Services Manager; @dukes4

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