If you’re in advertising, every year you have a schedule filled with conferences, meetups, and shindigs. The two top tickets are always Stream and Cannes, and they couldn’t be more different.
Stream is an unconference hosted by Sir Martin Sorrell that takes place on the beach in Marathon, Greece. It consists of a limited number of people talking about whatever they feel like, with no schedule or structure. Cannes is the opposite: an opulent, carefully scripted gala attended by industry honchos and celebrities (not that Kim Kardashian necessarily counts, but this year one of our people got photobombed by her.)
Every year, however, these events seem more and more disconnected from the rest of the world. They’re lavish, but outside their little bubble, no one pays much attention to them. Ask anyone who won the Grand Prix this year, and you’ll get a blank stare.
It didn’t used to be that way. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to make a movie about cool people, you picked an ad agency. In advertising, you expected to find beautiful men and women in gorgeous offices doing brilliant things. They lived in swanky apartments, ate at expensive restaurants, and partied like rock stars. Nothing was cooler than Madison Avenue.
What’s happened? A lot of changes and most of them, surprisingly enough, for the better.
First, we’ve become geeky. If you throw a brick through an agency office, you have a good chance of hitting a PhD statistician or a .NET programmer. Our creative directors spend as much time looking at spreadsheets as they do color palettes. That’s because advertising today is not just about doing something creative, it’s about doing something that works. If you want to know what works, you need people who can write code and pour through reams of data.
We're also less sure of ourselves. In the old movies, advertising people brimmed with confidence. And why not? Doing a 30-second TV commercial was easy. Today, we have to reach a 21-year-old male who spends most of his screen time on Snapchat and Tumblr. If you know how to do that, I want your email address. In addition, data has taught us that we’re not always right. In the old days, you had no idea if your idea sucked or not. Now, you find out pretty fast. That’s made us more humble.
It’s also made us more interested in doing things that make a real difference. If you look at the winners at Cannes these days, many fall into a category we call “cause marketing.” The idea is that a brand partners with an organization doing good in the world, and then uses advertising to get more people involved. That makes us do-gooders, not bad boys.
When people are cynical about that, I point to a project my agency did for Microsoft OneNote. It highlighted an organization called Limbitless Solutions that makes cheap, robotic arms for kids who lost or were born without one. During the campaign, Iron Man star Robert Downey, Jr. jumped on board, and Limbitless got a 1000x increase in donations and 600 requests for arms from kids from around the world. Think what you want, but when 600 kids get robot arms, advertising is doing something right.
Finally, we don’t drink as much. At least not during working hours. A person who can be extraordinarily creative and knock back cocktails at breakfast is awesome. Hannah Hart is building an empire on the concept. But if you’ve got a data scientist doing a regression analysis of traffic patterns, I’d advise stopping her at the second martini. Of course, we still party like irresponsible teenagers after hours—the industry hasn’t changed that much—but the 9-5 timeslot has gotten pretty dry.
Which brings us back to Stream and Cannes. Stream might seem like a hard sell; its annual gathering takes place in low-budget hotel in Greece. There are no headline speakers, no cool super yachts, no red carpet, no guarantees. But what it lacks in luxury, it makes up for in class. Where else can you meet 300 digital geeks who in their own way are pushing the boundaries of what we can create using new digital tools?
From a personal perspective, I’ve never cared about being cool, so the de-coolification of advertising hasn’t bothered me. Advertising is still the most fun profession in the world. The offices are fantastic, the people are inspiring, and we know how to have a good time. It’s a bit like the character in Spinal Tap who says “As long as there's, you know, sex and drugs, I can do without the rock and roll.” As long as we’ve got everything else, I can do without the cool.
Article originally published on Business Insider here.