To make things better, make better things

Publisher Mary Maddever on why industry shifts haven't changed a marketer's core role: solving problems creatively.
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This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of strategy.

What a year…

Even the normally sanguine, roll-with-the-punches people who have seen it all before found the pace (and degree) of change rocking the industry this year to be bananas.

Staying relevant is getting closer to that thing people used to joke that advertising wasn’t: rocket science.

And yet, despite seismic market upheaval and a high-tech arsenal of tools at marketers’ disposal, what’s at the core is still solving problems… creatively.

At Ad Week in New York this year, the burning issues had old roots but new urgency.

Discussions that used to be about going with your gut versus testing, are now about how best to harness AI and being ready for a sonic revolution. “If you’re not at the table you’re on the menu” was an exact quote from an IBM Watson session. The debate over who gets a seat at the table is now about moving beyond old working models/power balances to finding new solutions from new voices… PR is now media, and media is now strategy and absolutely everyone owns digital and design and creative.

We’ve certainly seen that in the work that’s winning – and working – in Canada this year.  The best ideas crossed disciplines, with PR shops entering Digital and Creative Agency of the Year, and Design as a skill that creative agencies are increasingly relying on across all fronts.

The portfolios that brought agencies to the top of the Agency of the Year shortlist exemplify this new seamless thinking and different approaches to problem solving, and the Campaigns of the Year – the top scoring cases from across all the AOY entries – typify the new advertising. Digital campaign of the year “Destination Pride” by FCB Canada for PFLAG Canada and Touché’s Media campaign of the year “A Room With Many Views” for Quebec Tourism both tap data in new ways to tell stories that resonate with specific audiences.

That was a frequent point made on the New York stages. “Stop marketing to the average” and “relentless helpfulness” was advice from a convo between JPMorgan Chase CMO Kristin Lemkau and Google president Allan Thygesen on tapping data and the power of machine learning. Seth Godin advocated serving “the smallest viable audience,” warning brands to “quit strip-mining the internet, treat it like water in the desert” and to “make things better, make better things.”

That mantra was delivered on by the top Design Campaign of the Year, Sid Lee’s “Bulletproof Flag” for Black Lives Matter and Narrative’s “Break Bread Smash Stigma,” the top PR Campaign of the Year; both bring powerful insights to life to make issues more tangible and undeniably social.

This work is the type of thing Jeff Goodby was prescribing in his “How Vandalism Will Save Advertising” talk. Citing stats that peg agency morale as low to dangerously low and dropping, with 70% looking for new jobs, he made a case for more mischief, making more things in-house, weaponizing CMOs and running towards fire as an antidote – with end-products like “Rainbow Doritos” and the “Unacceptable Acceptance Letters” campaigns.

And from the advertising field, the “#Haulers” campaign from John St. came out on top as Campaign of the Year. It’s the evolution of a bold brand built 40 years ago, and shows that how you get the word out may change, but a distinct foundation can stand the test of time.

The growing focus on ongoing content marketing programs means brands face a litmus test every day. Every time they “content,” the legs of the brand, and how far consumers are willing to come along for the ride is tested. Reflecting that challenge, this year the AToMiCon lens is what’s at the core of the best of those programs – so give us a shout if you have a story to share.

There’s also been a big jump in brands in the U.S. bringing agency roles in-house this year (20% more in the last five years per an Association of National Advertisers study). That may be handy for ongoing tasks, but there’s an expertise, an arms-length POV – the spirit of vandalism on one hand and a gut check on the other – that’s needed now more than ever, and it resides in the agencies whose work for brands won over both juries and consumers this year. Optimization is the new holy grail, just don’t lose sight of the “making something as good as possible” side of the effectiveness equation.

Cheers, mm
Mary Maddever, SVP/Editorial Director, strategy Publisher