The five most inspiring stories I’ve heard at Advertising Week Europe

The tales that most impressed me at the event this year

March 23, 2017

advertising week europe 2017

Advertising Week Europe features a load of statistics, a load of slides, and a load of star cameos. For me though, the most inspiring ideas at the festival come in the form of stories. There aren’t as many of these – but they are the tales that stick in the mind, inspire you and change the way you think about marketing going forward. Here are five I’ve heard this week that certainly fit into that category – the stories that most inspired me at Advertising Week Europe this year.

How Al Gore started saving the world with a Kodak slide projector
As a young congressman from Tennessee, Al Gore thought he was about to take a major step in drawing powerful people’s attention to the dangers of climate change. He had succeeded in organising the first congressional hearing on the subject – and he had secured the professor who inspired him about climate science as his lead witness. What he hadn’t anticipated was just how few of his new colleagues would be ready to listen. The hearing hit a huge wall of disinterest, complacency, lack of motivation, call it what you will.

What did Gore do? He started figuring out a better way to tell the story; a better way to “translate this truth for wider audience.” He wasn’t yet a former Vice President whom Hollywood would jump at the chance to make a movie with, and so he started telling the story using the tools he had available – a Kodak slide projector and three carousels that he sometimes struggle to get pointing the right way up.

Hearing Al Gore talk at Advertising Week Europe this morning its impossible not to be struck by what an inspiring figure he now is – and what an inspiring story he is telling in the battle to address the climate crisis. But what inspired me most of all were these humble beginnings for that story; the image of a slightly awkward politician struggling with an old-fashioned slide projector because he was that committed to translating a complex truth into a form that people could respond to. When you hear him talk about climate change today, the immense depth of expertise comes through, seamlessly integrated with a passion for the story and why it matters. Al Gore’s Kodak slides would eventually be replaced by PowerPoint ones and then Hollywood would see the opportunity to make An Inconvenient Truth. It’s a film that has changed lives, galvanised the world – and continues to do so. And it all started with that Kodak slide projector.

How Gary Barlow’s yellow box built an owned media empire
When Take That first started out, they were playing up to five gigs a day: two schools in the morning, followed by an under-18s club at 6pm, an over-18s club a bit later on, and then a gay club after 10pm. To every one of these gigs they took a yellow box – throwing out cards to their audiences and asking them to complete them with contact details, and add them to the box. As Gary Barlow explained to Advertising Week Europe, when the band opened that yellow box up at the end of their first tour, they found literally thousands of cards in there. Over a short period of time, that yellow box created a database of 400,000.

Take That had grasped the immense value of an owned audience long before people like me were talking about building such things through content on social media platforms. Gary Barlow links the band’s immense and diverse fanbase back to the power of that yellow box, the unique one-on-one relationship that it built between an up-and-coming band and its fans, and the way he could talk to those fans without depending on mainstream media channels to mediate for them. It’s a truly inspiring story of a hard-working band valuing their audience, which should motivate any content marketer around the value of a subscription-based model.

How human artistry delivered creative connections that AI couldn’t
Under normal circumstances, a Japanese ad for Clorets gum wouldn’t be the single most talked-about campaign of Advertising Week Europe. However, no piece of creative has been name-checked more often on the stages of the event this year. That’s because McCann Ericson in Japan produced two different TV ads to respond to its Clorets brief. The first was conceived and written by its human creative director; the second by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) application tasked with analysing the characteristics of the most popular and successful Japanese advertising campaigns – and developing a Clorets ad to fit.

The results are very different – the AI came up with an ad that’s nothing if not edgy – businessmen in suits transforming into dogs and then flying through the air surrounded by high-energy graphics and lots of Clorets branding. The human creative director came up with something very different – a lady on a roof with a paintbrush and some black paint, creating calligraphy as a Clorets-coloured kite floats past nearby.

In truth, neither of these ads translates brilliantly for an international audience – but they are not intended for an international audience. Within Japan, when the agency tested them with real audiences, they both performed well enough. However, it was the self-consciously human ad, created by a human creative director and incorporating the quirks of handwriting rather than CGI imagery, that performed best.

The result was close-ish (56 to 44) and some have seen this as evidence that AI is catching up fast and will inevitably overtake human creativity. That's not my view. The Clorets story shows that AI can produce an ad, and that ad can be reasonably good. However, it also shows that concerted human creativity and imagination will always be capable of intuitive leaps and creative risk-taking that AI simply isn’t designed to deliver. That can result in failures; but it can also deliver stand-outs – and some pieces of brand content and marketing that transcend the job of selling and become cultural events. This was the core message coming out of the session on Data and the Creativity Quotient hosted by AOL Digital Prophet Dave Shing, which was where I first heard the Clorets story. It was summed up perfectly by Cory Treffiletti, CMO of the Oracle Data Cloud: “The human component is the ability to look at the data and decide when to ignore it; some of the best campaigns come about through that decision.”

When someone whose job is to promote data-led marketing comes out with a quote like that it gives me real hope that we can mash up data and creativity in nuanced ways that respect the human creative spark. That’s what the story of the AI Clorets ad really shows.

How voice recognition could save a life
I loved having Bing’s Ravleen Beeston as a guest on The Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast talking about the potential of AI and voice technology to transform the way we engage with information – and with brands. As Ravleen explained to me, a large part of the potential of voice technology comes through its ability to detect and communicate emotion in different dimensions. The hypothetical story she told to illustrate this involved someone searching for information on the Heimlich Manoeuvre. Depending on the tone of voice used to ask this question, an AI system could detect whether this was an academic seeking information for a research project – or someone desperately trying to safe a life. And it can respond by delivering information in the exact form (white papers, or immediate step by step instructions) that can help in those situations. As yet this is still something of a science fiction story – but not, I suspect, for very much longer. It’s the kind of story that shows how technology that often feels abstract and hypothetical can make a real difference to the way we communicate.

How the courage to tell your own story sits at the heart of creativity
When the legendary creative director Mark Denton was appointed to the account for Wrangler jeans, the brand gave him a very specific brief: the marketing director wanted a TV ad that could compete with the campaign for Levi 501s starring Nick Kamen in a launderette – then one of the most famous ads in the UK. Denton would have been happy enough to make a TV ad (which advertising agencies saw as the ultimate creative canvas) – but his instincts told him Wrangler needed something different.

The problem was that young people felt the ‘W’ emblem stitched into the back pockets of Wrangler jeans was incurably naff. This wasn’t going to be overcome by just another glossy TV campaign. It needed a creative approach that could address the issue directly. Denton wanted to create edgy flysheet posters that could appear outside music venues along with those for cutting-edge bands – and which would celebrate the ‘W’. The client refused. Denton worked up some initial ideas for the posters anyway. The client refused again. Denton hired an illustrator and photographer to work up a full campaign. The client looked at the posters, decided they were much better than he’d expected, and bought them.

That Wrangler campaign was ‘Be more than just a number’. If you’ve ever seen these posters, you’ll know that they were cooler, edgier and more meaningful than anything Levis was producing at the time. They won loads of advertising awards by turning a brand weakness into a brand strength and point of difference. The key to doing so was having the courage not just to repeat the same story that competitive brands were telling – but to find your own, distinct story and invest every ounce of creative energy in making it work.

At the end of the day, that’s what inspires me about these stories. They come from people with an authentic desire to share something that matters – to find a way to tell a story that they believe needs to be told. This conviction sits at the heart of all great brand content – and it will be as important in the era of Big Data and AI as it always has been.