Demand for truth means there's more at stake than KPIs or margins

It's a sobering time for adland, in the best possible way, writes Hill Holliday's chairman and CEO.

Like many in our industry coming home from Cannes, I had a chance to reflect on the changes at the Festival this year, and how they represent a broader shift not only in our industry, but our culture and indeed our country. I’m a big believer in change (despite being someone who’s spent her entire career at one agency), and one thing I’ve learned is that there is no growth without change. And there’s usually no change without some pain.

As many have mentioned, this year saw a more subdued level of celebration. There were dinners and parties, but there was a lot of productive business going on (myself included). People were eager to network, to listen, and to exchange not only their ideas but also their fears and hopes. It was less crowded, more intimate, and in a way, more… real.

In fact, a new appetite for reality seemed to dominate not only Croisette conversations, but also the winning work. On the first day, backlash against paid influencers was led by Keith Weed’s declaration of refusing to work with social media celebrities who buy followers. Creative ideas that celebrated realistic and authentic portrayals of people and situations headlined the top Lions (P&G’s "The Conversation," Jay-Z’s "Smile" and the bold #BloodNormal come to mind).

As the week progressed and many of our collective fears (data security, the duopoly, diversity failures) were debated honestly, I couldn’t help but feel that a little anxiety and a dose of reality can be a good thing for all of us. In an industry often criticized for selling unrealistic ideals, or marketing to stereotypes instead of real people, it’s nice to see a growing appetite for the real, the true. Truth’s time has come.

Several years ago, in doing some thinking for a big client using research data by Edelman and Gallup, we identified the "Human Era," where consumer trust in institutions and corporations had eroded as trust in "people like me" had grown. Consumers no longer felt that large institutions had their best interests at heart and were looking to peers – other actual humans – for guidance in their purchasing behaviors. So, a recommendation on Yelp or Amazon was more useful to a brand than the world’s most convincing Super Bowl spot.

Now, in conducting new research, we’ve recently found that even that trust is in decline. With the spread of fake news and paid influencers, mysterious likes and retweets, and sponsored content that looks like an awful lot like journalism, consumers no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. They need help deciphering what’s… real. Consumers no longer trust "people like me," because they no longer believe they are real.

It’s a sobering time and I’d offer that our role as marketers and narrative shapers has never been more important.

As we focus increasingly on personalization at scale – using data and analytics, technology and platforms to engage our customers at the right place and the right time – we must remember that we won’t be relevant or personal if we rely on stereotypes instead of true insights about our target audience, and if we bring preconceived notions that are not based in their reality. Yes, we can target more strategically than ever to create opportunity… but what are we saying? How are we saying it, and perhaps more important, is what we are saying true?

It’s safe to say the Human Era has come full circle; with a divisive government, cultural tensions and mounting distrust of the digital realm, one could argue that business has now become the default retaining wall. In a remarkable shift, brands and CEOs are actually filling the void left by government and "people like me." The smartest CEOS have already figured this out. Examples abound – DICK’S Sporting Goods on gun sales, Starbucks on race, advertisers who pull out of offensive programming and brands who purposefully distance themselves from movements whose truths they do not share (Microsoft taking a stand against ICE policies, Mercedes-Benz and many others in parting ways with Bill O’Reilly, Tiki Torch after Charlottesville). Purpose-driven marketing has never had more purpose.

It’s not the first time I, or other agency leaders, have declared that this is an exciting time to be in our industry. But this time feels different. Today it feels like there’s more at stake than KPIs, margins or share.

Truth in advertising. The phrase used to be a punchline. But now, truth actually sells. What a nice position to be in. Don Draper is rolling in his fictional grave.

Karen Kaplan is the chairman and CEO of Hill Holliday.

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