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Advertising worth talking about

Opinion, 03 May 2017
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When Alex Bogusky was creative director of the agency that bears his name, he insisted on being read the press release before seeing the creative work. If the press release was uninspiring, he would refuse to look at the work. Bogusky understood that the role of advertising is to make things famous. In the ad-saturated environment of the noughties, the decade of which he was crowned creative director, the best way to ensure that was to make advertising generate its own PR. If an idea wasn't newsworthy, it wasn't good enough.

He also understood that part of the job is making your clients famous and part is making the agency famous. Famous agencies have a stream of suitors, both clients and talent. Being at the mercy of the pitch process is expensive and exhausting. Thus, junior creatives weren't allowed to work with clients until they had cut their teeth creating award entries. Awards are advertising for the ideas and agencies that win them.

Bogusky's approach has become the dominant form of integrated idea in the industry. Ideas that inform advertising and earn news coverage are winning across the interesting categories at the awards shows, be they innovation, integrated or new. Grand prix winners like Amex's Small Business Saturday, REI's OptOutside, Burger King's McWhopper, and ideas that were never entered into shows but that would have definitely won (like Red Bull's Stratos project), are all something somewhat new. They are ideas that are not confined to media and execution and craft. Their substance is their power – that they exist as actions in the world, not utterances in media.

Of course, marketing activations that hack the news are not new. Edward Bernays, the father of PR, laid claim to the very first, for American Tobacco. In the early twentieth century, there was a taboo against women smoking in public. In order to create a lucrative growth opportunity, Bernays organised an action designed to catch the media's attention. It was framed as an issue of women's liberation. Strolling on Easter Sunday had evolved into the Easter Parade, where the great and grand would regale society with their finery. In 1929, Bernays arranged to have ten impeccably dressed, respectable young women, with husbands and boyfriends in tow, defiantly smoking as they promenaded. The New York Times printed photographs of them and various think pieces followed. Their leader, Bertha Hunt, issued a statement at the end of the parade: "I hope that we have started something and that these torches of freedom, with no particular brand favored, will smash the discriminatory taboo on cigarettes for women and that our sex will go on breaking down all discriminations." The catchy imagery and brand sensitivity are more easily understood once you know that Miss Hunt was Bernays' secretary.

What's different about today is that actions used to be separate from advertising, like church from state. Now, some of the most interesting advertising is informed by these actions that live outside media. Church and state are blurring too and the superfluity of news-like misinformation in the digital stream has eroded trust in both advertising and the media.

A decade ago, I collaborated with global creative award show the LIA Awards to create the 'NEW', an innovation category, to champion advertising that sat outside traditional media and helped drive the industry forward. This year we are announcing a NEW sub-category for the kinds of ideas described above: brand actions that are distinct from, but inform, advertising. Actions that exist outside media are a way to rebuild trust in brands. They feel real – untainted by fake news.

An alternate approach to creating news is to let ideas be born and nurtured by publications themselves. Native advertising, another NEW category, circumvents the need for PR and goes straight to the media for both audience and ideas. The NEW continues to evolve to both reflect and champion new kinds of advertising, wherever they come from. These new categories are designed to make the pioneers of new forms of advertising as famous as their ideas have made their clients.

About the author

Faris Yakob is co-founder of strategy and innovation consultancy Genius Steals, built on the belief that ideas are new combinations. He is co-author of Digital State and What is a Brand?, and the author of an upcoming book on the present future of advertising.

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