I stumbled into this surreal piece in a slightly dated issue of Ad Age.
If you don’t have the time to go read it, here is a summary. First, the global head of PepsiCo’s beverage, Brad Jakeman, rants about how bad agencies are – a bunch of white males, adding no value, too little creativity, haven’t changed since the 80’s, and really, he can’t see no example of good advertising except the way Caitlyn Jenner communicated on her gender choice.
Then the readers’ comments: a bunch of advertising execs go crazy on the theme of: Jake, you started it, Pepsico did not invent anything in 20 years, we were the ones to give value to your fizzy water anyway so you’d be dead without us, your organization is the one to curb creativity, and by the way your 1975 suit sucks and you are a white male yourself too.
The exchange, though, is enlightening.
The soda industry is sliding under health concerns, whilst the advertising industry’s old model is disappearing under the pressure of new media and needs, so the exchange feels like a school yard shouting match of two losers making each other responsible for their woes. But what is really at stake is more profound. It is the role of marketing and advertising people in a society where people make choices. And where, internet helping, the choices are easier, and probably more thought-through.
Do we – the marketers and ad people – bring any value at all? Are we needed at all, or condemned to fight among ourselves until we disappear?
Brands, for ages, have helped us craft our identities. As human beings, we want to define who we are, and what we buy, what we drink, what we wear, all of that helps. We define ourselves by borrowing signs of who we want to be. It does not change our essence, or the world. It is useless, but it feels good. Along these lines, a few brands thrive, because they have become icons for things we want to be.
But brands are starting to have another role.
The internet brought a change in culture: we were all receivers and a few large organizations were broadcasters. We have all become creators, and we collectively decide what we watch, the projects that will be funded or not, and so much more. Participation has become the new power.
In this context, brands help us create the world we want. Choosing what we eat, what we drink, what we wear, we endorse practices and ways to be. When enough Americans choose for antibiotics free meat – the whole fast food market goes antibiotics free. When enough of us refuse to buy child-labor goods – large companies change their practice. When enough Indians endorse the campaign of Tata tea in favor of the female “49%”, women in India feel empowered to register as voters (and buy more Tata…). And when the restaurant owner near our home tells us from what farm he buys the meat he serves, when our banker supports a community near us, when our insurer gives us a tech device to measure how safe we drive and an incentive to do so, we choose them because what they do feels better. Brands – whether from large companies or from small social entrepreneurs – help us create & enjoy the world we want, and we value them when they give us that chance.
This is what “brand content” is about. Not entertainment, but tools to shape, even if so little, the world we want to enjoy. Building these brands and products is not easy. We do need marketers and advertisers for that.
But marketing and ad people who understand that simple thing: our job is not the art of whipping illusion. It consists in designing & sharing stuff that makes a real difference to people.