Published on .

To say that we are living in the information age is somewhat to state the obvious. It is also true to say that information is probably going to be the major industry of the 21st century. Knowledge is power, and the speed with which we utilize that knowledge will determine our success or failure. As advertising is at its most basic form a conveyor of information, then our craft will be at the center of this revolution.

The reason I use the word craft here is to highlight the process by which we communicate-the methods we employ to get our message across to achieve dominance in the marketplace. All this, of course, sounds very simple and paints a rosy picture for the future of our industry. I'm not sure, however, we can take that rosy picture for granted. There are a number of factors working against us.

The first, we already have to deal with. It's called time famine. How do we assimilate this ever growing mass of messages that are being directed at us? How do we cope with this volume of traffic going through our brains? And, of course, how do we process the valuable information as opposed to allowing it to pass straight through unnoticed?

Media clutter is an issue that's been debated for decades. It is only going to get worse. Are we reaching the point of overchoice, as Alvin Toffer predicted? "We are racing against overchoice-the point at which the advantages of diversity and individualization are canceled by the complexity of the buyer's decision-making process."

The second issue we in advertising have to confront is our audience's ability to turn us off. By and large, we are not welcome. People suffer us. Mostly not gladly. At the moment, advertising exists in the margins of media. It sits alongside printed material shouting for attention. Or it interrupts our viewing or listening with its message.

As electronic media takes a greater and more pervasive hold on the distribution of information, technology will allow our audience to turn us off, unless we are compelling and necessary. You then have to ask, How much of what we produce has the consumer's interest at heart as opposed to the manufacturer's? Unless we recognize the change in the balance of power and take into account our consumers' aspirations we will be cut out of the loop and become an irrelevancy. Some would argue we are there already. According to the measures your own advertising industry body takes, people's attitude to advertising is in decline year after year. How much longer can you go on ignoring this trend?

So what is our industry doing to confront these concerns as we rush headlong into the information age? I would argue very little. At this stage I would like to show two Economist ads. Both of them are done by the same creative team, David Abbott and Ron Brown, both, obviously, trying to extol the virtues of The Economist. One, however, does it in eight words and a numeral, while the other takes a more literary route.

They in my view define where our industry was and where it needs to go. I will now like to explain why and perhaps make sense of the title of my talk. Some say, by the way, it's by Pascal, others say it is Oscar Wilde. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is that it contains a very valuable message for those creating advertising, not only today but in the future.

The lesson is, as ideas get faster they become more powerful. As we reduce an idea down, as we hone it to its essential structure, its power increases. The faster it penetrates our thinking the longer it stays there.

Remember, I'm not trying to get my idea to open out on the page in front of you but rather inside your head. Likewise, I'm not trying to buy space in a newspaper or magazine or in a commercial break. The space I'm really buying is inside your head. That is the most valuable space in the world. That is what I'm trying to influence.

What M. Pascal, or was it Mr. Wilde, understood is that an idea got better as it got faster. And as David Abbott has demonstrated with his Economist poster, if you achieve this you really can position the product in an interesting and compelling way.

Sadly, though, current creativity doesn't buy into that. They think longer is better. If anyone doubts me, flip through tomorrow's newspaper and see it in action. Look through your latest awards annual and you will again see the policy in action.

D&AD has published a book called The Copy Book. It's a fine book, worthy of purchasing, but for me it's a look back at how it used to be, not how it's going to be in the future. It's a book by some of the finest copywriters around the world telling you how to write copy. Lots and lots of copy.

The truth of the matter is I don't have the time to read all those words; all they've done is make the idea slow down by expanding it rather than reducing it. Remember, today isn't 1960 when Bill Bernbach introduced that great VW campaign. The art of great copywriting today is to get less to say more-not to write more. Words are in fact a barrier to communication.

This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. I'm always surprised when people say we live in the age of the soundbite. The truth is we've always lived in the age of the soundbite. Why is it the founders of the French revolution-a revolution that rocked Europe-were able to reduce their message to three words, yet we need so many more to sell a tin of catfood? We have come to believe long is good, short is bad. The brilliance of our craft is to reduce, to distill messages down, not to elongate. If we forget that we will have no future.

We all remember Abraham Lincoln's famous quote, "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time." He captured the essence of modern politics in one sentence, and most of all we remember it. And understand it.

Words are like a powerful drug; too many of them deaden the senses, especially in advertising. Great writing is about using fewer words to be more compelling. And if you do that you liberate your ideas to become more powerful, more involving and therefore more memorable.

Which is the second need for advertising to embrace. Unless we realize the consumer is constantly switching us off, we won't have a future. We'll be programmed out. Brevity not only allows us to became more powerful, it allows us to become more stimulating. If you're more stimulating there's a good chance of you being more relevant. The way we communicate has to change, because our audience is demanding more from us.

You may not like Benetton advertising and rationalize that it doesn't respond to conventional advertising models, and to a large extent I would agree with you, but I would suggest that it is trying to change the nature of the debate we are having with our public and involve them in a different kind of conversation.

Yes, I do think it is sometimes exploitative and sometimes shallow, and it certainly isn't rooted in the product. But at least it is trying to be stimulating.

If advertising becomes too rational, it becomes too pedestrian. It was the Greeks who said, "Information is taken in through the heart." As we have moved from the USP to the ESP, the emotional selling proposition, we must accept that the way we talk must also change.

As rational product differences diminish, so does rational advertising. Of course, advertising can and should be based on a product or corporate attribute. Like a building, it needs a foundation. But we must remember it may no longer be unique nor will it necessarily be obvious. When we created our advertising for Boddingtons, a Manchester-based bitter, they were not the only beer that was creamy. But by daring and distinctiveness we made it our property. We made a generic our property. Who would have believed a man's beer could be represented by an ice cream cone? Well, it could if it was trying to make a distinctive point.

Creativity isn't just about putting a strategy down on a piece of paper but about capturing the essence of that strategy and giving it a creative vision. That is both compelling and competitive. We firmly believe that no one ever bought something while they were asleep. I do think the nature of communication is changing. What worked yesterday isn't necessarily going to work tomorrow.

The consumer has not only less time to listen to us but also less inclination. If we don't heed these changes, our place in the communication revolution will be sidelined. And yet, ironically, as I have argued, we are superbly placed to benefit from the growth in information that is occurring, but only if we accept that some skills have to be redefined and the content of our messages seriously overhauled.

I think we are on the verge of a brilliant future. I intend BBH to be a part of it. I'm not sure how many others will be joining me.

In this article:
Most Popular