Isn't creativity already a force for social good?

David Kolbusz and Dylan Williams remind Cannes judges that, while awarding work claimed to do good in the world is de rigueur, the very best commercial creativity has its own positive societal effect.

The Cannes International Festival of Creativity is upon us. 

For one glorious week in June, our attentions are typically divided between the past and the future. Nights are spent celebrating agencies around the globe for their efforts over the past 12 months. Days are spent at a symposium dedicated to figuring out where we’re all headed.

In an ideal world, we as an industry would recognise the delineation between what’s gone before and what’s next. Where things start to get dangerous is when we apply the evaluative processes used to judge the work of the past and let it inform or, even worse, drive the work we do in the future.

Our industry goes through cycles of creativity. Someone makes something new, fresh. Invents a genre – a style of advertising. It inspires people. Surprises. Delights. Wins awards. It starts a movement.

Then others follow, contributing to the movement by creating more quality work that also wins awards. This begets more work, which then starts to seem derivative. Expected. It stops winning awards. And then it’s on to the next.

However, we currently find ourselves in a peculiar place at a peculiar time. Campaigns that promote a social good have become de rigueur. And while some of the work is fresh, innovative and exciting, much of it is becoming derivative. Imitators have determined that the pathway to glory now means "acts not ads". That "positive interventions" and "pro-social experiments" are the way to line their trophy case. 

Typically with any other genre, the bad would out. But instead of poorer exponents failing to achieve glory, people feel compelled to still award the substandard because it does good in the world. It can be trite, emotionally adolescent and almost completely lacking in craft but, if it warrants an emoji and saves a dolphin, it wins out ahead of quality efforts that don’t have a direct cause at their centre. It’s akin to releasing Purple Rain on the same day as Do They Know Its Christmas?. You’d feel for Prince. 

Advertising that captivates people and turns ambivalence to desire? Yesterday’s news. Stopping traffic through the sheer power of an original concept brilliantly executed? Thanks but no thanks, old-timer.

And it could be about to get a whole lot worse. Because it’s not only juries that are overlooking the noble art of the arresting sell. Technology is at it too. The rise of preference algorithms and programmatic buying has seen the pendulum swing from difference to relevance. The formidable challenge of interrupting a culture has given way to the quieter skill of fitting seamlessly in-stride with an individual’s data trail. Ideas so powerful that they demand attention and suspend disbelief are deemed less efficient than simply serving people precisely "what they want, when they want it". 

So it seems the two options for creative teams today are: either develop 4,000 video assets and watch a machine spread-bet them, or crowdfund an orphan. And this warrants closer inspection. Because it strikes at the core of what we deem to be socially good. 

Now, drinks companies that create sports leagues contribute positively. So do credit cards that stand up for small businesses. And femcare brands that address gender stereotyping. We’re not disputing this.  Nor are we denying that having more information on people and context can help reduce the marketing pollution that wastes our time and spams our feeds. 

But all this notwithstanding, it’s important to ask: isn’t creativity in and of itself a force for social good? 

As children at fairs and markets, we’d stand transfixed by traders looking to entice the crowds with entertaining patter and beguiling stories. "You still chop vegetables with a knife, madam? Are you mad? You need the ChefsMate Rotarblade!"

Those salesmen looked to entertain. To turn on the charm, spin a tale, inspire awe and fill bellies with laughter. Everyone was complicit. We all knew what was going on. But the warmth generated by the salesman’s ingenuity was part of the exchange. Value for time as well as for money. Their creativity was a small cultural contribution, to be rewarded with a sale.

And this unspoken contract has underpinned all the best work in our industry. It has served agencies well. And it has served society well. 

Council-housing kids unlikely to enjoy many trips to art galleries became aware of Jackson Pollock because of Levi’s. New generations were awakened to the lost sounds of everyone from Bach and Handel to Etta James and Dinah Washington. The world beyond the US got to gasp at a Michael Jordan lay-up. Martians laughed at potatoes, monkeys drank tea, a rap star’s life story helped us use maps, we got to prank celebrities on 4chan, pizza companies paid us to use our own toppings. 

And through it all we gained a deeper appreciation of allegory and metaphor. And anthropomorphism. And personification. We became better versed in photographic styles, in illustration, in heraldry, in syntax. We became more attuned to higher-order representation. More sensitive to gritty reality. 

These positive aggregate effects accrued through time because the first rule of advertising was to stand out. To be different. To be more interesting than the environment in which it was placed. To earn attention by showing people stuff they had never seen before. From angles they’d never considered previously. To give voice to a brand in continually fresh ways. 

Because of this, the very best commercial creativity has been good for us all. It didn’t need to openly set out to address a social problem. It just had to be brilliantly stimulating in some way. Otherwise it wouldn’t have sold anything. The degree of creativity required to cut through our ever-more-congested lives and minds has proved to be a contribution to society in itself. It has improved our taste and discernment and sharpened our mind’s eye. 

We shouldn’t forget this as we head into an age of data-led personalisation and set-piece social endeavours. We shouldn’t forget this as we head to the Côte d’Azur in a few days’ time. 

David Kolbusz is the chief creative officer and Dylan Williams is the chief strategy officer at Droga5 London

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