The best and worst things that happened in advertising and popular culture this year

2015 has been many things to many people. Kanye-less, Frank Ocean sophomore-lacking, ‘disruptor brands,’ gentrification, #Blacklivesmatter, Jeremy Corbyn, The Weeknd as off-beat popstar, Pig-gate, terrorism, refugees, Kendrick Lamar, Caitlin Jenner, John Lewis Christmas ads, Ed Sheeran, Hotline Bling, Adele returns- I’ll stop before this becomes a Sgt. Pepper’s cover. If there was a sentiment to encapsulate the spirit of the year it would be that people seem to generally give a fuck about stuff and high and low culture has merged into one- just ‘culture.’ The access that the Internet allows us to all forms of culture for free which has been facilitated and broadcast by popular news and ‘content’ outlets on social media has created a general public who are both more culturally rounded and aware and simultaneously more clueless than ever thanks to the overload of information which is neither fully verifiable nor fully disprovable.  It’s BLM activists who listen to Taylor Swift, English lit students you thought were cool sharing thinkpieces about the Hunger Games gender body politics, Starbucks cups being held by anti-capitalists at anti austerity marches, Where are U now?House Every Weekend, fashionistas in Reebok Classics- it’s confusing and inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical- but it’s now.:

THE BEST

Creativity fights back

The discourse around advertising in 2014 was dominated by crap pieces in The Drum about the advent of data, ‘Big Data’ and ‘Math Men.’ It was interesting for about five minutes before becoming, like Oasis’ output since Be There Now , repetitive, uninteresting and culpable for inspiring many talentless dickheads.

2015 saw creativity become cool again. It turned out that the medium of TV in fact wasn’t dead and that you couldn’t just throw a few numbers at a Creative team and expect them to paint something pretty over them. There was a resurgence of first class creative work that didn’t look like it had been graphed, charted and infographic’d to death. Nils Leonard crashed into Adland’s collective consciousness as the Kanye of advertising with Grey London returning to the fore as a culturally switched-on, innovative and iconoclastic creative power house. Adam & Eve DDB continued to produce the kind of distinctive work that could take its place alongside actual entertainment content such as TV shows, films and music videos. Danny Brooke Taylor’s creative stewardship ensured that Lucky Generals went from the plucky youngster to an irreverent yet maturing agency really hitting its stride with excellent work produced for Pot Noodle, Paddy Power and Hostelworld whilst Caroline Pay and Nick Gill can be proud of the stunning work they have done for Audi.

With the strategic and cultural midwifery of high calibrate planners such as Saatchi & Saatchi’s Richard Huntington, Grey’s Leo Rayman and Craig Mawdsley & Bridget Angear at AMV BBDO and top level suits such as Wieden & Kennedy’s highly cultured Neil Christie, the brilliant provocateur Magnus Djaba of Saatchi & Saatchi Fallon fame, James Murphy of A&E with his stellar levels of commitment to his slippery Volkswagen client and Sarah Golding leading a resurgent CHI & Partners, we can also be thankful for the business leadership, strong analytical practice and talent fostering that drives agencies t do their best work. The ‘Math Men‘ were largely pushed to the side this year despite some loud posturing by David Jones with his new ‘Brand Tech’ group You & Mr Jones and the odd creativity vs data think piece in Campaign, and were largely drawn into the debate alongside media agencies about Ad Blocking.

Oh and it’s also won mentioning Ian Leslie’s fantastic piece about creativity and the centrality of brilliant TV ads to the marketing mix in the FT called How the Mad Men Lost the Plot.

Rap gets weird/Pop gets cool/Dance gets broader

2015 has been a fascinating year in music. The Weeeknd now plays shows where fans will be hearing Siouxsie and the Banshees samples one minute and be singing get along to an Ed Sheeran collaboration the next, Justin Bieber is now more likely to be played at a gathering of twenty something grime and house aficionados as they roll zoots and bosh MDMA than at a 12 year old’s birthday part, feminist veterans debate Taylor Swift, Young Thug has been donning tutus one minute and apparently plotting to assassinate Lil Wayne the next, Kendrick Lamar dominated critical discourse with his alt-jazz infused social commentary on To Pimp a Butterfly and Drake captured everyone’s attention by dancing like someone’s uncle in what became one of the biggest music videos of the year.

One of the most exciting things was Grime’s resurgence which saw Skepta rub shoulders with everyone from Drake and Kanye to Earl Sweatshirt, Jamie XX and ASAP Mob, Stormzy began to look like the next up for crossover success, JME’s Integrity album was a solid effort with the excellent ‘Man Don’t Care’ as Giggs- assisted lead single, Novelist kept it Avant Garde with the Mumdance produced bangers ‘Take Time’ and ‘One Sec’, Wiley was honoured at his old school in Bow with a commemorative plaque and Chip reminded us why he’s worth taking seriously with his Fire in the Booth, Believe and Achieve EP and strong responses to Tinie Tempah and Bugzy Malone.

Dance music also saw some interesting developments as PC Music continued to confuse, excite, irritate and amaze whilst entering in to partnership with Colombia Records. SOPHIE released the high octane Product EP which mixed hyper-pop and experimental in a novel way whilst Danny L Harle’s Broken Flowers received a luxury refix on the new EP of the same name. Whilst some view Dance music as one of the last remaining bastions of music snobbery there were some important figures in the scene who have been subverting  the purist status quo and challenging perceptions of taste . Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern was a roaring success in allowing the artist to reconnect with his roots whilst simultaneously exploring new territory. The explosive ‘Very First Breath’ makes whiny power-pop sound triumphant and melancholy at the same time whilst ‘Scud Books’ digs into the artist’s signature stadium-trap aesthetic but adds in a kitsch pop-friendly synth riff. Rustie, another Scottish power-trap auter managed to repurpose his Trance and Happy Hardcore influences into something very relevant with his EVENIFUDONTBELIEVE album. Jamie XX had a brilliant year seeing his long-awaited solo project In Colour which repackaged 20 years of UK club culture for the Instagram generation and scored a summer hit with the Young Thug and Popcaan assisted Good Times. Diplo continued to act as the bridge between club music’s innovative underground and the pop mainstream dabbling in everything from the seminal Bieber-assisted Where are U now? to the summer smash Lean on with Major Lazer and MØ whilst working alongside outliers such as SOPHIE and A.G. Cook. Elsewhere we saw electronic experimentalist and Kanye-collaborator Evian Christ take Trance to the ICA with his much lauded Trance War exhibition and Skrillex finally managed to gain some critical acclaim for his work with Justin Bieber and spectacular live events.

Mad Men’s swansong

Although it definitely did not satiate everyone, I found that the Mad Men ending was everything that I could have asked for. It was neither crowd-pleasingly conclusive nor ironic and cold; it was open-ended but you got some idea of where the narrative was headed once the characters ceased to exist on our screens. True to form Matt Weiner and his excellent team of writers made sure to produce something that didn’t exist in a historical vacuum. Don Draper’s closing hilltop meditation scene which may or may not have led him to go on to create the subsequently shown iconic I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca Cola ad- arguably the creative genesis of brand-based advertising- signals the beginning of the cultural shift from a more collectivist and ordered understanding of society to the dawn of individualist neo-liberalism where brands and products begin to exist as components of the individual’s unique identity and self-expression. As noted in a previous piece, Adam Curtis does a great job in identifying the hippy and New Age movements as an expression of individualism that birthed the small-government, supply side and self-sufficient economic culture promoted by Reagan and Thatcher that still predominates today in his documentary The Century of the self. Wiener’s use of a spiritual retreat as the narrative endpoint for the protagonist seems like a nod to this understanding of the late 20th and early 21st century.

 

The reason why these discourses seem so relevant has been seen across pop culture and (more downstream) society, politics, conflict and economics all year. Identity and self definition has seemingly been at the centre of everything; one can cite phenomena as diverse as Caitlin Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, Donald Trump’s jingoistic understanding of what it is to be American, the Black Lives Matter movement, the continued rise of the far-right in Europe and the Islamic State in the Levant, the conspicuous presence of selfies facilitated by ever-growing social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, changing attitudes to gender and sexuality- the list could be an essay in itself. These are a wide array of positive, negative and necessary happenings but what they all have in common is their rooting in today’s existential grey areas- the desire to craft one’s own unique identity whilst wanting to be a part of something in a world that is more connected than ever whilst paradoxically increasingly isolated. In placing Don Draper, the brilliant manipulator of human anxiety, on top of a cliff edge with a bunch of mentally conflicted and exasperated ‘modern’ individuals before cutting to that infamous Coca Cola ad, Weiner gave us an ending which emphasized the cultural vitalness of the whole Mad Men series.

Craig David and Kurupt FM

I’m usually weary of anything resembling starry-eyed nostalgia but Craig David’s return this year seemed like the righting of a cultural wrong. Like many black and asian artists in the UK Craig’s career was subjected to immature ridicule, miscategorization and ill-informed interference by record companies. When the brilliant Kurupt FM crew from the BBC Three/iPlayer cult hit People Just Do Nothing brought him into their Mistajam #Sixtyminuteslive session to perform his early noughties smash ‘Fill Me In’ over Jack U’s Where are U Now it began to seem like the stage was set for his return. Following the critical re-appraisal of R&B over the last few years and the resurgence of Garage, UK Funky, Deep House and Jungle into UK club culture, it appears that as this piece in Noisey suggests is the perfect time for the R n’ G veteran to reclaim his place in the UK’s homegrown dance music scene.

THE WORST

Adland’s diversity lack

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Despite some positive noises being made about the need for women to be better represented at all levels in the advertising industry, mostly thanks to the tireless work of top female ad people like Cindy Gallop with the 3% Conference and the WACL (Women in Advertising and Communications in London), there has been little improvement in making the Ad industry more diverse as a whole. Barely anyone is talking about the obvious domination of the industry by white middle class types both male and female- ethnicity and socioeconomic background features very little in any discussion that does take place.

It would be easy to pick out events and scrutinize happenings such as the incredibly classist ‘Benefits’ flyer that circulated at Iris Worldwide in London (above), this hilariously misjudged Robert Dyas spot or the Advertising Week panel called ‘Here are all the black people in advertising’ which was seemingly chaired by a bunch of white people (although as the link points out it’s more complicated than appears) but the real root of the problem is the lack of interest amongst the majority of the decision makers in the industry in reaching out to communities outside of their own. Our ‘creative industries’ which some might assume are very liberal and open to people of all backgrounds are in fact closed off to most people outside of the ABC1 bubble. One only has to look at the lack of outreach programmes aimed at youngsters from less privileged backgrounds, the extortionate subscription fees for industry publications and events and the way in which most agencies hide their job postings from any commonly accessible outlets. The whole things stinks of elitism and for all of the talk of attracting great young talent the system appears to be built to keep a certain types of people out. The whole ad industry is a lot poorer for it as powerful, evocative and effective campaigns that connect to a wider audience require a range of different inputs be they White, Black, Asian, Male, Female, Gay or Straight.

Guitar Music

The famously regressive online community in the UK was most upset about Kanye West performing at Glastonbury this year. How dare this uppity Black bloke be the Saturday night headliner at Glastonbury, proclaiming himself to be the ‘Greatest Living Rockstar’ without there being a guitar in sight!? Someone started a petition, Brian McFadden and Louise Thompson got involved, your smelly 15 year old cousin from Dudley posted a video of Dave Grohl performing with a broken leg along or a meme of him laughing or something, you know how these things tend to go…

The real issue and inconvenient truth here however is the simple fact that England and the world as a whole seriously lacks in any compelling guitar bands. I’m not yet ready to deem guitar music/rock n’ roll as completely redundant but it’s hard to see who else could have convincingly filled the headline slot or in fact be deemed as a ‘rockstar’ in this day and age. I mean who really is Dave Grohl? the former drummer in a seminal band whose importance hinged on the songwriting and general character of the now deceased frontman? A cuddly mascot for a bygone era of music? What about Matt Bellamy? Well even die-hard Muse fans couldn’t stomach their latest release. Do we really have to dig up another leather clad metal outfit from the eighties or some poorly aged wig-rocker? The Libertines can provide a cheery fifty minutes of throwback singalong fun but it’s hard to claim that Pete and Carl’s druggy Edwardian/Victorian lit-expired poncing-about would be an ideal show of rock n’ roll’s relevance today.Foals had some approving nods from critics and old indie heads this year but like the more interesting Everything Everything who emerged this year with the impressive Get to Heaven, they don’t quite hold enough weight for the number one slot.  You also shouldn’t listen to those ex-NME types who seem like they’ve managed to TUPE (Google it!) over to Noisey when they tell you that Sleaford Mods are worth your time.

Tyler, the Creator banned from UK

There are plenty of reasoned debates to be had about how we should receive and interpret Tyler, the Creator’s lyrics. Concerns that some of the lyrics in his earlier material might be harmful to women in the long term by normalizing and trivializing rape seem perfectly reasonable and should be discussed at length. There do however seem to be other forces at play in this case of kneejerk censorship exercised by Home Secretary Theresa May as Joe Muggs stated in his piece for The Guardian on the subject.

Whether the move to bar Tyler, the Creator was meant as a subtle nod to Middle England or a concession to our active feminist movement (which has done great work this year- see the newly formed Women’s Equality Party) is unclear but there’s a nasty racial undercurrent that we can see when we hold these judgments up to the light. Artists such as Tyler, Chris Brown and Snoop ‘Kick this evil bastard out’ Dogg/Lion have faced a much higher bar when touring across venues in countries like the UK, Australia and Canada than artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Cannibal Corpse and even The Decemberists all of whom have participated in either lyrical of real life misogyny and abuse of women.

There is also a point to be made about the context of Tyler, the Creator’s lyrical content. The lyrics in question which mainly feature in his early releases Bastard and Goblin are often uttered by a conflicted and disturbed alter-ego and are clearly not a reflection of the artist’s own views. Whilst these incidents of censorship are often presented as being a progressive must by responsible authorities more often than not they are at best a flimsy band-aid for the problem of systematic injustice and at worst a manifestation of a more sinister agenda.

Airbnb ‘is mankind?’

Oh man this one was bad! Despite simultaneously pricking people’s conscience and making their lives easier- a very lucrative brand position to occupy in the information age- the folks at Air B n’ B apparently see themselves as the champions of human connectivity, empathy and social justice. TBWA are a great agency with a strong legacy but they certainly misfired here in an overblown and highly pretentious campaign which wasn’t helped by a smarmy poster campaign in San Francisco addressing the recent ruling that the company had to pay hotel tax. For some reason they assumed that residents of America’s most left-leaning city would want to join in with their libertarian circle-jerk. Whilst I have no way of knowing how the company’s communications fuck ups have affected sales and growth this year- I do know that the health of the brand is vital to a startup that is starting to move into maturity.

 

 

 Please leave Generation Z alone until 2018

If you’re in the toy or gaming industry you don’t need to read this. 

I’m hearing more and more about the need for brands to appeal to ‘Generation Z.’ Otherwise known as ‘post-millennials’ or, if you prefer weird militaristic terminology, the ‘Homeland Generation, ‘ these are individuals born after 1998 (making the oldest ones 18). They have never known a world without easy internet access, e-commerce, financial downturn, smartphones, an African American leader of ‘The Free World’, legislation protecting almost all minorities, the minimum wage and the threat of terrorism. They will admittedly be an interesting bunch and will bring with them a heap of new challenges for marketers down the line however there does seem little point in trying to actively reach a demographic who, at this stage in their lives, don’t have any of their own money.

The counter-argument that I would anticipate is that brands are what people are increasingly choosing to define themselves with. For example, there is no shortage of brand-complemented narcissism on Instagram, Buzzfeed’s commercial partners manage to merge their ‘listcicles’ with lifestyle-base content and Apple’s marketing is largely based on the personal qualities that its target market aspire to. If we follow this logic then it would make sense to get in there early with Gen Z (sorry) however there is one major factor that is being overlooked and that is that kids and teenagers have not fully developed yet as individuals.

Sure, Generation Z likely enjoy Zoella videos and Minecraft or One Direction or whatever but these are things that they will grow out of and probably be embarrassed by once they reach an age where they have their own income- I used to think The Kooks’ ‘Naive’ was a brilliant song, I watched How I Met Your Mother and thought that The Libertines were a culturally pivotal band for Pete’s sake (pun intended). We also have no idea how this demographic will evolve once they start to have to deal with financial responsibility, career choices, marriage, voting, tax, parenthood etc. Might this impact their starry eyed social liberalism or their projected entrepreneurial spirit? Who can say?

By no means am I saying that Generation Z aren’t an important research topic for planners, marketing strategists and the like. There is no harm in trying to understand them or even making some speculations about what their spending habits and feelings towards various brands might be however it seems foolish to be putting time, effort and money into ‘reaching’ them with our advertising before they have any independent purchasing power, experience of adulthood or sense of what defines them as individuals. So back off until 2018 when some of them will be 21 and spending their Zero-Hour Contract wages on products that they’ll take home to their parents homes which they’ll still be living in because of the Housing Crisis.

Quick thought: Why has it taken will.i.am to point out the bleeding obvious about YouTube ads?

At last week’s Cannes Lions festival in the south of France accomplished hit-maker, brand-collaborator and The Voice judge will.i.am appeared alongside Sir Martin Sorrell, Johnny Hornby of CHI&Partners (and The &Partnership who brought us the event), Google SVP Lorraine Twohill and Will Lewis, CEO of the Wall Street Journal. will.I. am quickly sees his co-panelists turn against him once he dares suggest that people skip, or at least don’t actually watch YouTube pre-roll ads.The fun kicks off at around the 2.13 mark:

We all know that YouTube, like most platforms, wouldn’t be possible without ads- we all accept this. There is however a problem when most of the industry drinks the proverbial ‘Kool Aid’, buying into the mass-delusion that people appreciate seeing ads before accessing their desired content. The solution? There are probably people far more intelligent than I on the case but since it’s out of the question to do away with this unpopular yet necessary method of reaching the public I would put forward that advertisers and media owners need to start looking at how to properly target their ads to people who may actually be interested in the product being advertised and brands and agencies need to work together to tailor their content to fit the platform in terms of being engaging, entertaining and relevant enough to minimize user frustration from having to see an ad.

That’s just me though, what do I know?

Cool Shit Round Up 12.06.2015

The Ad

Apple Music- History of Sound by TBWA Media Arts Lab

The Art

Federico Babina Inkonic Faces

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See full collection here.

The Music

I’m a bit late to Washington DC’s Goldlink but I started checking out his stuff this week and it’s fantastic. Offering insightful yet casually free flowing raps over a Soul and House infused sound- this is definitely worth a listen. Stream his mixtape The God Complex on Spotify.

The Article

‘The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized’ Amir Kassaei, CCO of DDB Worldwide in Campaign US

Miscellaneous

Music Round Up May 2015 over at Mook Life. I can’t praise this guy enough for the diversity of releases here, make sure you check it out if you’re stuck for something new to listen to.

Quick thought: My moratorium on the word ‘consumer’

We do occasionally get a slow day at work, nothing but dull PoS items being requested by clients, waiting for translations back for a European market, getting the odd TV Ad through Clearcast etc. On these days I usually trawl through the ad press and blogosphere for ideas for posts on here (when I’m done with catching up on admin of course).  I was watching a talk given by the legendary BBH founder and Tech-incubatoralist Sir John Hegarty to an audience of marketers when I heard him express his dislike for the word ‘consumer.’ Intrigued by this I googled around and found it elaborates on in a written interview with Ad Age. Sir John states that ‘It’s demeaning. I think it just implies that the people we talk to just wait for our sales messages to be directed to whatever it is we want them to do. And I think that great advertising, great work, great brands have a dialogue with the people they talk to.’ For some reasoning this reasonated with me, I’m reminded of an analogy I read somewhere about advertising essentially being like one of Istanbul’s famous Bazaars where stall-owners all selling very similar items get mere seconds to capture your interest as you make your way through the crowded scene. One doesn’t walk through the crowded market simply waiting to hear the various propositions on things that they don’t really want or need, the individual’s attention is an earned prvillege, not a right as the passivity of word ‘consumer’ suggests. So just a thought really, something to mull over in the old noggin! I’ve certainly used the word a lot here, here and here but for now I’m retiring it from this blog.

The Great Beauty and the soul of the Ad Industry

Recently I watched Paolo Sorrentino’s 2014 film The Great Beauty on Netflix. A meditation on humanity’s relationship to beauty which has us following the dapper party-king and writer Jep’s existential crisis around the fading opulence of Berlusconi’s Rome, the film takes us into the lives of an ageing group of artists and intellectuals who have largely squandered their gifts in favour of hedonism and the status and power to be able to make parties ‘fail.’ This journey towards spiritual redemption through recognizing the sublime nature of existence and the power of beauty is an important film for those who care deeply about the advertising industry.

Jep, officially a novelist although he has writtern only one book some thirty years ago and relied on earnings from gossip-journalism and art reviews ever since for income, has become consumed by the narcistic stagnancy of Rome’s artistic community and finds very little that is geniune and nourishing to the soul. Triggered by the news that his first, and possibly only love has passed away confessing in her personal diary that she never stopped loving him, Jep is confronted by a sense of spiritual emptiness that can’t be filled by alcohol, partying, drugs, sex or religion. Reflecting on his youth in possibly Eurpoe’s most culturally and artistically crucial city, Jep visits everything from museums after dark to strip clubs. Being suave and intelligent has consumed the best parts of his character which manages to render him simultaneously sociable and aloof. Following the unexpected death of an ageing stripper with whom he was having a brief affair, an eldery woman stops to ask him ‘who will look after you now?’- and that’s what he has become, someone to look after rather than someone to actually live with and revel in life’s remarkable moments. He has created before and was a roaring success, his novel The Human Apparatus is lauded by his contemporaries as a modern classic and his journalism seems to be well recieved. There is however a sense of unfufilled potential that seems to have been suffocated out by his relationship to the city of Rome. He appreciates the beauty of the city through the lens of his own narcissism, seemingly more enthused that he is able to get exclusive access to the museums at all hours of the night than he is about the art itself. Jep goes treads a painful path through grief, bitterness and existential funk before his redemption culminates in starting his second novel at the end of the film.

It is not only the breathtaking cinematography of Luca Bigazzi and overall peerless aesthetic of the film that the men and women of the ad industry should try to observe and absorb but also the underlying theme- the redemptive qualities of beauty and the sublime nature of human existence.This is not a piece that aims to put creativity on a pedestal or minimize the importance of Sir Sorrel’s ‘Math Men’– technology should be harnessed for the benefit of agencies and their clients and the tools afforded to us by ‘Big Data’ may yet prove to be valuable. This is a call for creatives and those who got into the industry ‘to do great work’ as the agency Mother’s motto goes, to remember what it is they do and that all of the clients, data analysts, planners and account managers (including myself) can’t. Data collected and analysed properly is a great starting point for reaching the right people in the right way and the practical targets must always be the end point but we all got into this industry to make amazing, beautiful, innovative and striking work. Without this in mind creativity becomes relegated to after-work drinks posted on Instagram and well-worded emails.

Creativity exists in the conjecture between facts and can’t be painted in numbers. We’d all like to clock-off at six and slide into a rooftop party in some swanky European city but we must remember that we are in the business of creating the best work that our imaginations will allow and giving businesses the beautiful face that they need to seduce the consumer.