Could Advertising Be the New Rock 'n Roll?

June 24, 2016

This post originally appeared on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions EMEA blog as part of our team coverage of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

I spent over a decade working at Sony Music before moving over to the world of contentmarketing with Marketo and now LinkedIn. So when the VP of Strategy at my old gig headlines a session at Cannes asking if Advertising is the new Rock n Roll… well, you weren’t going to keep me away.

To put it simply: Fred Bolza rocked. This was half an hour of passionate points of view and creative challenges, summed up perfectly by a quote he referenced from one of advertising’s own enfants terribles, Nils Leonard: “Stop making 30-second TV ads and start making culture.”

It all resonated with me in a big way – and not just because this whole session was a mash up of the two most exciting industries I know. It’s also because Bolza was doing the thing that I love most about music at its best – changing the conversation; daring you to tear up the rule bookand start again; pushing you to find new meaning in what you do.

Stop making ads, start making culture

For Bolza, “stop making ads and start making culture” means creating stuff that is so engaging and so meaningful for people that it transcends advertising and becomes art. And to prove his point, he reeled off a line-up of recent Sony Music releases that have done just that – reached beyond the routine of making money from music, and changed the cultural lives of their audiences:

  • David Bowie’s Blackstar, the legend’s goodbye letter released three days before he passed away
  • Kanye West’s Life of Pablo – the first album that you can upgrade after you’ve bought it, bringing an audience into a far closer relationship with how music is made
  • Beyoncé’s Lemonade and its provocative commentary on social issues
  • Zayn Malik’s Mind of Mine becoming a “growing up” moment for a generation
  • Radiohead deleting their past online before releasing a new video

None of these releases communicated in the standard way; they didn’t settle for the typical transaction between artist and fan. They found new ways to become relevant – and that was the key. The big lesson from Bolza was a simple one: make stuff that people care about! But there was another lesson lurking behind it too – make stuff that people care about and do it in a way that helps them care about it more.

What if advertising focused on making people feel something different?

Each of these releases summoned the emotions that any piece of art needs to cut through thenoise and create a cultural moment: they were about love, meaning and truth; the things that keep our souls and hearts beating. They didn’t use these emotions just to flavor their product – as we’re often tempted to do in marketing, let’s face it; instead, the emotions were the whole show.

What gets any genuine artist up in the morning is the opportunity to make people feel something different – touch them in new ways, challenge their thinking. If we could produce advertising that pushed itself to do that first – and then made its brands or products a part of the cultural moment that resulted – well, I don’t think ad blocking would be anything like the agenda item that it is today. 

There’s an interesting parallel here with the latest thinking in content marketing – courtesy of the Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi. I snuck back from Cannes to London for a few hours on Wednesday to present at the B2B Summit and caught Joe’s Keynote before I went on. He too was talking about turning marketing’s relationship to culture on its head: building a content brand first and then figuring out how to monetise the audience that content creates. After all, if you can create culture it’s amazing how all of your other objectives fall into place. The question is — can brands and agencies do it?

"You can’t focus-group culture into existence." – Fred Bolza

Bolza gave two hints of what our industry still has to do to take on music’s role in reshaping culture. The first involved our use of data, not as a checklist to direct creativity but as a source ofdeep cultural insights that can inspire by revealing what matters most to people. At the end of theday, it’s difficult to try and change how people feel about the world if you don’t actually know howthey feel about the world.

The second involved new and collaborative ways of working – seeking out innovativepartnerships with other types of creative people who can help to translate a marketing messageinto something more culturally relevant. This struck a real chord with me having spent the otherday talking to Daniel Bonner of Razorfish on the Sophisticated Marketer’s Podcast. His groundbreaking study of the data around Cannes Lion winners shows how winning work has a 50% higher representation of creative disciplines. The more alternative perspectives you canbring to what you’re doing, the greater your chance of transcending advertising.

Bolza had a great illustration of this point to end with – a photograph of the original hand-written lyrics to Help by The Beatles. It looks like chicken scratch in its raw form. But then three more Beatles were added, a producer, an engineer, an artist – and you had the creative elements inplace to produce one of the greatest songs ever written, and one that left a huge cultural footprint.

I for one believe that advertising, marketing and branded content all have the capacity to do something similar. But first, we have to have the ambition to try. Bolza’s barnstorming session was a rallying call to do so. 

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