Would 'Brexit' Have Won a Lion?

Britain's 'Leave' Campaign and Trump Both Demonstrate Great Advertising -- Despite Having a Broken Product

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The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity was tough for Brits this year. Upon meeting anyone with a British accent sur la Croisette, you reflexively apologized in a way that you might have if someone had just died. The "Leave" campaign had somehow won the day. It was, in a word, unbelievable.

Standing right next to Brexit on the center stage of political conversation, mugging for the camera and smiling in celebration, was Trump. Given the similarities, it was hard to talk about one without mentioning the other.

Everyone's talking about the parallels between Trump and Brexit, but what about the similarities between these two political forces and great advertising?

Brexit was complex, but it was made brilliantly uncomplicated by the secessionists. In the days after the vote, it became increasingly clear that many of the people who voted for the "Leave" plan didn't understand all the details.

But in the days before, the one-two punch of immigration fear and loss of control -- the ideas of xenophobia and nationalism -- rallied 52% of an entire nation to vote yay. The "Leave" campaign managers did their research; they found an insight in the form of rising populism; they didn't overthink it; and they executed in a way that stuck in people's minds. You might go so far as to say they were a challenger brand that risked breaking the conventions of the category so as to get noticed.

It makes you wonder whether Brexit could have won a Lion. Certainly, the things that won big this year worked on similar principles.

The festival itself had some refreshing themes. Selling things was back en vogue. There was pro bono work, sure, but in more ideas cause and consumerism coexisted. The "quantity over quality" debate seemed to be in our rearview mirror. The importance of craft and making things people care about seemed to have triumphed. And technology continued to be a force, but it felt more like technology was now serving ideas rather than tech for tech's sake.

Most importantly, everything that won could impress virtually anyone when described in two sentences or less. They were ideas your Uber driver would love and understand; they reached critical mass. REI decided to close its stores and site on the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, encouraging its outdoor-enthusiast consumers to #OptOutside instead. Counterintuitively, its sales climbed. Burger King suggested to McDonald's that in observance of National Peace Day, they should stop the "burger wars" and collaborate to make the McWhopper. McDonald's refused, and Burger King took full advantage. Execution is always important, but the "making" wasn't what garnered hardware. It was the ideas.

And, on a side note, if we agency people whine about clients being risk averse, this is clients effectively giving us the middle finger right back.

You can hate the ideas that Brexit championed and that the Trump campaign stands for, but you have to respect the strategy and execution behind both. Their creators -- like the creators at Cannes -- embraced cultural contexts, made the complicated seem completely the opposite and appealed to the powerful forces that make us human. In the case of Brexit, it's just too bad those simple and smart ideas misled half a country into an economic free fall.

Speaking of ruin, one of the best quips I heard about Trump was at the airport. In response to a question about Trump's qualifications as a businessman, someone levied, "That M-F-er bankrupted a casino. You want to give him the country?"

To us ad people, it makes you realize what the most impressive thing is about what Trump and Brexit have accomplished: They are actually succeeding in marketing despite the fact that the product they are selling is broken. We can bitch about it, but we should reflect on it. Arguably, it's great advertising.