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The New New Thing

Opinion, 12 November 2015

The New New Thing is a silicon valley idea, enshrined in a fantastic eponymous book by Michael Lewis. The deceptive thing about the future is that it always feels like it's just about to happen – but never does. Not just in the obvious, inevitable, Zen sense. More in the version painted by the philosopher Alan Watts, that the story of life as an endless narrative of progress is ultimately a hoax. It's not that progress doesn't occur – that part is inevitable; change is growth and change is the only constant.

But our concept of 'The Future' is an illusion. There is no moment that delineates the present from the future, and each day, and every day, feels mostly the same. Still, Alan Watts says, we "are conditioned to be in desperate need of the future". The future is the manifestation of our hopes.

It was in the 'spirit of progress', that the New category was created for the London International Awards in 2009 (with some help from your author). Fiat Eco Drive took that Grand LIA; it seemed to suggest new roles for agencies, building digitally integrated services. Whopper Sacrifice turned social media upside down, even if only for a day or two. Earth Hour said we could all act together and make a difference.

Six years later, we dip into the trough of disillusionment, inevitably – especially for those of us who chase the New New Thing, in and around the industry that even Sir Martin Sorrell no longer wants to call 'Advertising'. Something happened where brands and their agencies began to consider award show work as something somehow separate to actual work.

Work for clients had to shift some kind of number, recession economics then drove creeping conservatism, while bespoke budgets for 'projects' and 'experiments' were carved for 'innovation' categories that sprang up in every show. Cannes Lion Innovation launched in 2015, following the 2003 launch of Titanium. Now we have two categories with almost exactly the same description, with people wondering if it even matters when the same pieces win every category.

Films cleaned up in cyber last year, echoes of an earlier age. Digital ideas like emoji pizza ordering win in innovation; it's as though the industry has to evolve generationally, as digital accepts film ideas as native, and innovation moves on to digital. The fact that in 2015, we are still saying 'cyber', when the rest of the world abandoned the word more than a decade ago, is telling.

We imagined the New as the substrate for an agency Cambrian explosion, as advertising ideas began to live natively in every nook and cranny that technology was opening up. And judging this year, there are some strong signals still, even in the diversity of the jury itself – Facebook, Google, Estée Lauder, Finch, Naked, Genius Steals.

The small amount of metal awarded was worthy but it floats on a seemingly endless stream of scam, of ideas made with award budgets, briefed in cynically as case study. Of apps hailed to be helping cure autism, that sit with one star and few downloads in the app store. Of stunts and 'social experiments', with formulaic case study videos, pandering to the ever-elusive Millennials.

Too many tiny 'projects' bringing lights to poor countries that seemed like they were the most expensive, least useful way to solve a problem – and only for a few people – featured in a case study. A certain, famously imitative technology company had submitted dozens of entries, some so emotionally tone deaf as to be offensive, some with seemingly good ideas that were obviously abandoned as award season arrived in favour of working on the case study. (We had several VW entries promoting environmental technologies that left a sour taste in all our mouths.)

There, too, were a few shimmering lights. A make-up app, letting you try on and buy make-up, that just works perfectly, collapsing the customer journey, combing advertising, service, store. A few experiences that could truly be described as immersive. An adult film company that had an idea worth awarding, forming a tiny crack in the Amerocentric conservatism. A couple of purpose-driven pieces that actually seemed driven by a purpose other than awards.

"Happiness exists in promises, and not in direct realisations," said Alan Watts. The promise of the New remains that it is not now; that it rewards, specifically, looking forward, at things that carve new pathways for agencies and brands.

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.