Back to Basics POVs

Brands don’t change culture. Culture changes brands.

Written by Kenon Mak

I set out to Cannes on a mission to uncover the path to a more sustainable agency model. By the end of just the first day of sessions I believe I may be on to something. 

Speaking at the Palais’ expansive Lumiere Theatre were Scott Belsky, Adobe’s Chief Product Officer, and Debbie Millman, Host of Design Matters Podcast. In “How to Future-Proof Creativity” the two spoke at length about the origin of brands, shifts in corporate-consumer power dynamics, and the threat of AI on creativity.  

Millman begins by defining brands as “manufactured meaning” – going on to explain how as far back as thousands of years ago people used marks and movements to signify their shared belief in gods. Today, these marks and movements take the form of brands and it is corporations that own these symbols. However, in recent years the dynamic of top-down influence on brands has flipped and now consumers have taken over the process of brand building—Millman cites Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement as recent examples. Moreover, Belsky commented on brands’ continued attempt to influence culture when it’s really culture that changes a brands positioning in the market. 

So where does that leave agencies?  

At the core of her argument, Millman says that “future-proofing” is an attempt to apply control, often stemming out of fear and insecurity of change, which is impossible in the creative industry and so experimentation and impromptu messaging should be embraced at all levels. Cited as a best-in-class example was the Oreo’s Super Bowl “blackout” ad that captured a moment of confusion and fear during the match in 2013. Oreo’s blackout execution went viral and was widely perceived to evoke an authenticity that often can’t be achieved by campaigns with years-long planning schedules. In fact, many agencies now cite the ability to collaborate and produce rapidly as a core competitive advantage. These days, creatives need to be polymaths—it used to be that everyone was a specialist; now the best advertising students are expected to bounce between multiple disciplines in addition to having some coding knowledge. To create a brand that is dynamic and responsive to culture changes, there needs to be buy-in at all levels. Clients need give people the freedom to play and at the same time creatives need to be prepared and armed to produce quickly.  

Those looking at the increasingly automated future may be concerned about AI’s rise, but Millman explains that curiosity and imagination are two things AI has difficulty with. Because they are trained to create based on the past results, AI algorithms are inherently bad at invention. Invention is a uniquely human feature and, if anything, advertisers should embrace an AI future where they can be freed up to do more inventive work.  

Is this the view of an optimist? Millman says no, she’s a realist. She says that every generation thinks that the next generation is doomed, but we always find a way to keep going.