An opinion piece by a former adman.
About this time of the year, advertising people are working furiously into the nights. Not because it is an important time of the year for clients or their businesses, but because it is time for the annual award shows.
There is a mad scramble to get the best entries through. So far, advertising agencies, in spite of staring at their own death warrant over the last few years, as an industry, they have managed to keep up to their own standards, which means at least as many fake awards as last year, if not more. This is a natural consequence of clients wanting to play it safe and reject good advertising.
The advent of digital has had a dismaying effect on the capabilities of clients to judge good advertising. So, advertising has been relegated to stating the proposition, as it were, with the least amount of creativity required to send out a message. In earlier days, advertising was judged by its capacity to stimulate a consumer's imagination about a brand. But no longer.
Marketing research has helped tremendously in this endeavour to build tests that measure understanding rather than stimulation. It's a bit like saying - did you understand the joke - rather than how hard you laughed at it. In other words, all our time is spent on researching the stimulus rather than the response. Going back to my joke analogy, research will ask questions like, "Do you remember how the joke started?" or "Do you remember how the joke ended?"
This has put even more pressure on ad agencies. Because they now have to fake harder, harder than before; harder than last year. Because when real advertising gets more and more dreary, the ad agency has to resign itself to the eventuality of not winning awards from real advertising.
Therefore, the need for fake advertising.
So far, we were doing really well just creating imaginary advertising for existing products in imaginary media or by paying lip service to media just to prove that the ad was released. Now, the bar has gone up. With most marketing gurus stressing the need for innovation, ad agencies have been forced to come up not just with imaginary advertising, but imaginary products as well. Products that actually don't really exist except for a few dummy samples that are required for the photography session and the mandatory video required for Cannes and other awards.
I think marketers are to blame because they can't think up of product innovations themselves until they hire innovation consultants to do it for them.
For me, therefore, our ability to fake product innovation with fake advertising has moved up a few notches. No dissonance is allowed in our little cocoon of self-validation. With great grandeur and aplomb, we will be making announcements in the advertising and marketing trade journals both locally and overseas to prepare the ground for our grand Cannes entry.
How does advertising compare then with other artistic endeavours? After all, the architect can't fake a building and the filmmaker can't fake a film. So, does that make us quite unique as abstract art with no relevance? There is perhaps one good comparison. Parisian haute couture is a good example of an art that has dwindled to become merely a kind of abstract conceptual performance that has almost nothing whatever to do with reality or what the vast majority of women wear on most occasions.
As Pierre Cardin said in 2005, "Intelligent women work nowadays, they drive cars, and the cars are smaller and smaller. While the dresses at Dior are bigger and bigger. It's very beautiful, but it's not fashion."
Does advertising as a craft have to be celebrated outside the boundaries of advertising as a practice and a profession? If it is losing relevance in the real world, I think perhaps it does.
Coming back to the creative awards and advertising as an abstract art, there is no reason to be embarrassed. It's a charade, and we all know it. Everyone is like us, so please, don't feel guilty about it. When the awards arrive, combined with the headiness of the bubbly, all will be forgotten, but the glory of having brought home another award.
And another year will pass by, leaving tomorrow's worries for tomorrow.
(The author is a former adman and present-day brand strategy consultant).