Cannes Lions

My Cannes Prediction: Category Chaos

Awards Have Become Meaningless and Reveal State of Industry

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Cannes, our chance to share, reward and celebrate, is the best reflection on the state of the advertising industry each year, and this week I predict it will reveal the level of chaos we all feel.

This year, advertisers will be rewarded in 17 categories, double the number of awards from just five years ago. Whether this reflects advertising as an increasingly wide discipline that requires ever more specific knowledge and skills, or whether it's about mindlessly increasing revenue, I don't care.

What I do care about is the meaninglessness of them all. This year I see the talk on the Croisette shifting for the first time from "There are too many awards" to "What the hell are these categories anyway?" We've gotten to a level of complexity so great that the Cannes organizers have a "Cannes Doctor" prominently featured on their website to help tell industry experts what sort of advertising they've made.

It should be no surprise that we need such an expert because, quite frankly, in 2014 a lot of terms in advertising make zero sense, and we have two huge issues facing the industry.

Advertising terms mean nothing

No industry on earth puts up with the same level of vagueness as advertising. Engineers, doctors, accountants, lawyers, and even filmmakers and musicians all employ very exact terms within their industry. It's essential for surgery or home construction or legal advice that every expert in the world is able to speak specifically, using shared language that all understand in the same way. You don't overhear surgeons talking about "passing the bendy curved metal thing." Advertising has done the opposite: We live in a world of unclear terminology and new ways to present old techniques, and each year it's getting worse.

As an example, "content marketing" combines two of the most vague words in the world; it's sort of using stuff to sell stuff, somehow. Nobody has any real understanding of what it is or isn't. Even the institutions that represent it fail to define it, yet we still have clients asking for it, we still have conferences about it, we reward people for doing it, and nobody dares to ask what "it" is, for fear of admitting to a lack of knowledge.

It's not alone. "Digital advertising" means about a million different things. "Native advertising," "mobile marketing," "branded utility," "growth hacking," and pretty much every term coined in the last 10 years has absolutely no meaning, and amazingly we don't seem to acknowledge the problem that this is.

Ad people for years have been talking about how we need to be compensated like management consultants and lawyers, how we need to become trusted partners and not suppliers, how we need a seat at the board table and access to the CEO, but you know what would really help? Talking like a professional and not a conceptual artist.

Channels are a terrible way to segment our work

Advertising channels used to be simple channels we planned media by and were aligned with physical devices. If it was an ad on televison, it was a TV ad, bought by a TV buyer; if it was on the radio, it was a radio ad, bought by a radio buyer. Same for outdoor, newspapers ads and magazines. Ambiguity was impossible.

It's not that the digital world has added complexity -- it's that it's taken everything we've ever known about media consumption and changed every single aspect of it. It's not a change of wind direction to manage, it's a hurricane that's destroyed it all. We now see print magazine ads on tablets, we listen to the radio on our mobile devices, we watch TV on desktop computers, we see banner ads on our smart TV. The concept of a media channel is becoming unbundled.

Despite these challenges, I see two beacons of light:

1. Digital buyers are shifting away from media buying to audience buying, the first-ever realization that we need to work around people, and not around what we have for sale.

2. Retailers are starting to see the nuances; they no longer talk about online and offline shopping but omnichannel, a type of connections-planning based around people and not channels.

We need to build on this: Let's focus our thinking away from what we have and onto people.

In this new framework, everyone would see new opportunities -- the future of advertising doesn't lie in existing media but in the spaces between. What channel do iBeacons belong to: Mobile? Digital? Retail? CRM? Thinking about mobile advertising in the current context is not the thinking that created the best mobile advertising I've ever seen: Uber integrating with Google Maps.

So what happens this year?

I expect to see total chaos this year. We will start to see the complete removal of any logical relationship between the media, the type of agency and the award. People will see that the current state of advertising is a mixture of terms that mean nothing and concepts that are too vague.

It's going to be the wake-up call the industry needs in order to start defining our tools more accurately and move away from channels that no longer exist in the real world. It's going to be a total mess, a deep embarrassment, a time of great anger and conflict and I can't wait, because it's exactly what we all need.

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