By Thomas Kolster for The Drum, June 28, 2017. 

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Leaving Cannes, I feel even more schizophrenic than I did during my hard-working years in ad land.

On the one hand it’s been the best year ever in the festival’s history for advertising that does more than sell snake oil, call it ‘Goodvertising’ if you will (doing good for people & planet = doing good for brand & bottom line).

On the other hand, it seems like most agencies and marketers are treating the biggest issues of our time as a new trend, as if doing good is simply the ‘new black’ or perhaps pink (judging from the number of female equality campaigns on show).

Like every brand in the 90s was all about lifestyle, it seems like brands today are firmly on the social issues bandwagon like bees around a honey pot (even though the bees are also a cause we should worry about). Yes, it’s great that more advertisers support these issues, but before you count the record-high number of ‘Good’ medals awarded, like beads on a rosary, we’re still too full of shit!

Sorry, there are too many gimmicks, too little substance – or as I wrote in my Cannes Lions predictions: too much roaring, too little bite.

The industry is sawing off the very branch it’s sitting on

What happened to the elephant in the room: consumption? If we as an industry don’t find solutions to the rampant over-consumption we’re proponents of, we’re just slowly but surely sawing off the very branch we’re sitting on.

How many Lions tackled the consumption issue? Or sustainable transformation unraveling everything we know? How many keynotes in the Palais addressed this much-needed change? Or brought attention to the new 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

We need more debates, we need more keynotes, we need more creative solutions embracing sustainable transformation, circular consumption, the sharing economy, new materials, renewables and economic equality etc. Social and environmental entrepreneurs are solving things, while ad land perpetuates more stunts with little to no effect.

Too many gimmicks, too little substance

Sustainability is not an instant Simon Sinek purpose or a way to roll the brand in honey to make it oh-so-sweet. Our industry is faced with a relevance crisis. As the sustainable revolution is unfolding, people are asking brands: our world, our countries, our communities are becoming a dump, what are you doing about it?

One-offs like Fearless Girl for State Global Advisors with a male-dominated leadership team (only five women out of a leadership team of 28) is not creating lasting change – although it is admittedly a poetic and artistic piece of work.

We can continue to put the spotlight on some of the world’s burning issues from the refugee crisis (like Amnesty’s Refugee Nation) to social equality (Channel 4’s We’re the Superhumans), but talk is not enough neither for our planet nor for people, who WILL call out the talking heads.

Ad land was too slow to embrace digital and now history repeats itself with the sustainable transformation. We’re missing out on what’s truly going to revolutionise businesses over the next 30 years: climate change and resource scarcity, urbanisation, demographic change and economic shifts towards the developing world. Simply telling stories about these things is not enough. What are brands actually doing?

Short-termism is dead, visions rule

A medal won at Cannes, a sales peak or short-term business success is no longer enough as Ford showed us three weeks ago, when it got rid of its chief executive Mark Fields despite him delivering record profits. His replacement was outsider Jim Hackett, who came to Ford last year to oversee the company’s self-driving car efforts. Ford no longer sees itself as a car company, but a mobility company. And as the sky-high valuation of Tesla shows us, sales are far from the only indicator of a company’s value. Tesla is evaluated higher than Ford despite selling only 5% the number of cars. The winners in this space are those brands that are able to articulate a coherent vision for the future – and deliver on it!

Bigger and more challenging Lions await

I don’t want to sound grumpy and doomsday-like and I truly want to applaud all the brands and agencies that dared to embrace a new marketing model and matched it with creative excellence, well done! But let’s not rest on our laurels, we have bigger and more challenging Lions to hunt.

The work that excites me the most moves beyond gimmicks and blowing the cause trumpet and rather delivers real impact while often being scalable. This is not about campaigns with a defined start and end date, but programmes that deliver lasting change like Whirlpool’s Care Counts (making sure impoverished kids in the US go to school), Tigo-Une’s Payphone bank(creating banking infrastructure for the poor), Boost Mobile’s Boost your voice (ensuring not only easier, but equal access to voting in the US), Savlon’s Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks (improving hygiene through play), Fairphone (a modular phone made out of conflict free materials) or Aland Index (linking purchases with carbon emissions to make environmental damage visible to people).

These programmes deliver real value to people’s lives, rather than just talking about issues or that old chestnut: raising awareness.

Circus Cannes or Cannes as part of the solution?

As the discussion this year emerged around transforming Circus Cannes or even canning Cannes, I’d suggest sustainability play an all-important role. As the advisory board members are appointed for this pivotal Cannes transformation task, I’ll be excited to count the high number of advisors bringing sustainability to the table as well as of course applauding the gender diversification.

In many ways Cannes can be viewed as a symbol of the greater crisis in advertising, our very own Tower of Babel, so as I praise marketers and agencies moving in a better direction, let’s see if the industry is truly ready to sing to a different tune: selling more shit to people who don’t need it or truly enabling a better life and a better planet?

Thomas Kolster is an author, speak and sustainability expert. You can find him on Twitter @thomaskolster.

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