Back in the 1990s your average D&AD annual was filled with work from British advertising agencies. In fact, it was called British Design and Art Direction. Around this time it also contained a smaller ‘International’ section that gradually became subsumed into the main annual/awards.
So what? It’s just some silly old advertising awards.
Well, that was just one tiny piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle called globalisation. Feel free to read an absolute shedload about the idea, but the TL/DR is that over the last 30 years, the world has become more centralised and, as a result, homogenised. This has happened in all areas: politics, commerce, art etc., and advertising has certainly been part of the process.
Clearly I’m not going to go into the whole kit and caboodle, but the parts that relate to our industry have been a corrosive shit show. Here’s why…
To start with, let’s go back to those D&AD annuals. They’re a good metaphor for all the other guff.
As a rule, the fewer people an ad talks to, the better. Obviously an ad aimed at a single person will work better than one aimed at a million. You can leverage nuance and cultural reference to greater effect, and your messaging will have no need for the kind of lowest common denominator stuff that turns persuasive messaging into vanilla blancmange.
For example, an ad like this one played well in Britain because it took the piss out of an historical antipathy between England and Germany. Of course you can argue that prising open old wounds to sell beer is irresponsible and damaging, but that’s for another post that I won’t be writing. The 1990s were a different time, and although I don’t want to excuse a kind of low-level racial stereotyping, that ad was a perfect answer to that brief at that moment.
Let’s fast forward to 2019. Of course there are still ads that target national audiences, but they are becoming fewer and further between. Instead we are given briefs for communications intended to be as effective in Singapore as they are in Swindon. Many have to appear online, to be viewed by the multicultural, international audiences of The New York Times, Guardian and Pornhub.
More companies are becoming subsumed into other companies, and those bigger companies tend to sell stuff in multiple markets. They also like to save money by creating one ad that can run in all those markets. They can then claim this aids global brand consistency, which is great, because if you’re in Mongolia and you want to buy a Heineken, you won’t think it’s entirely different from the bottle of piss you bought in Mogadishu.
This leads us to the holding companies. I debated giving them an entire ‘things are worse’ post to themselves, but there’s not that much to say, except that, like all big, homogenous companies, they’re leveraging economies of scale, monopolistic conditions and international reach to achieve to the most cost-effective ways of things.
Is there really any difference between WPP’s Ogilvy, Grey, BunchoflettersY&R and PlaceThatUsedToBe JWT? Maybe you think so if you work there, but the rest of us just think they’re a bunch of agencies that WPP gets to pitch against each other so it doesn’t lose accounts (money).
But back to the ads. In my time working on the worldwide rollout of Apple’s commercials I was asked if the need for language and cultural adaptation would mean that we would be unable to make another Mac vs PC if someone thought of it. I weighed up the extra script writing, production, budget and resources required and replied that the odds would be low. Yes, globalisation means that a campaign named as the best of the 2000s would now be virtually impossible.
Of course, global ads can still be brilliant (including Apple’s). From Independent Litany to Dumb Ways to Die most of the Cannes Grand Prix winners of the last twenty years, could record a new VO and run all over the world. But they are the exception rather than the rule.
The default position tends to be the kind of thing you experience in an airport: dull kaka that uses big, abstract concepts, such as ‘connection’, ‘synergy’ and ‘progress’ to say nothing much at all. That’s what globalisation really means: jack of all bollocks and master of none of the deep, engaging human truths that are an essential element of what we do.
And the awards thing is just a self-fulfilling prophecy. D&AD is simply another version of Cannes, with every member of every jury coming from a different country. So the Croatian copywriter will never understand the power of the Peruvian insight, and the Nigerian ECD will be left non-plussed by the reference to Mrs. Brown’s Boys.
But if you stop awarding the esoteric, you start to encourage the homogenic; ads with no words that can be understood by every juror in every (non) language. And the vicious circle starts to spin even faster: blander work, created for more people, rewarded by juries that have little choice but to pat it on the back, leading to even blander work etc.
Add all that to everything else that has makes 2019 advertising bland and the handcuffs are tightened still further.
We now have a smaller playground to play in, and if you want to ask that kid if he wouldn’t mind pushing you on the swing, you’d better be prepared to ask him in Esperanto.