Let's face it, consumers are done playing pretend with brands. The imaginary brand worlds of yesteryear have lost their place to real-world issues. This does not mean the end of advertising; it means a huge opportunity to engage with society in a meaningful and relevant way - a way in which brands improve by improving the world.
Life is not exactly getting simpler by the day. Economies are in crisis, as are the reputations of many major businesses. And where brands were once beacons of trust and optimism, they are now often brushed aside as hypocritical, fake or old-fashioned. This has created an environment in which, more than ever, consumers long for a voice they can rely on.
Instead of focusing on becoming this voice, brands plough forward, pouring $465 billion annually into advertising, $136 billion in Europe alone. Given that people are longing for something they aren't receiving, it should not be surprising that brand trust and consumer spending are on the decline.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. In fact, this may be the greatest moment to work in advertising. While there is something fundamentally wrong with the current situation, we have the power and opportunity to fix it. During my time at Lemz, I have seen firsthand that brands can do good things - great things even - when they recognise that their own priorities and the priorities of consumers can, and should, go hand-in-hand.
"What is good for our customers is also, in the long run, good for us" - Ingvar Kamprad, founder, Ikea.
Looking for meaning
Global research by the Lemz founder Mark Woerde (together with Columbia University in New York) proved what we always believed: people long for meaning in their lives. And so it follows that organisations that help create such meaning are going to be more successful than those that do not.
Creating meaning is a way to profit.But, more importantly, it is an opportunity to go back to basics and tap in to the heart of a brand. The biggest challenge for the modern agency will be to uncover deeper insights than ever. Only these will enable brands to find their long-term place of relevance and connect with the world around them.
We also have to challenge ourselves to stop abusing creativity by sending ads into the world that nobody expects or wants. Adding meaning demands we use our creative powers to find real solutions for real issues. Think about fighting obesity, reducing the social isolation of the elderly and improving self-esteem among young women. Or, more positively, enabling kids to play outdoors, helping people to get creative with leftover food or encouraging people to say "Good morning" to each other more often. In a region as developed as Europe, opportunities for the sensible use of creativity abound.
"We need foresight, not insight. Only then can we get one step ahead of consumers and create a better world" - Paul Polman, chief executive, Unilever.
Every brand can make sense
Brands and people joining forces to improve society is not a crazy idea. Take, for example, one of my favourite Lemz campaigns for the Dutch coffee company Douwe Egberts. The brand wanted to get back into coffee pots around the country. Instead of a hard sell, it chose to look for a relevant role in the lives of its consumers.
As it turned out, the Dutch were feeling disjointed from their communities. Research showed that 77 per cent longed for more contact with their neighbours. This was unacceptable for a culture focused on "gezelligheid" (loosely translated as "cosy moments together").
Together with communities, Douwe Egberts initiated the return of "gezelligheid" through Neighbour Day, a moment for communities to come together over a cup of coffee. This was not what Douwe Egberts needed; it was what communities needed. And beyond boosting coffee sales, it became an annual tradition celebrated by more than 1.5 million people each year (that is the second-largest national celebration in Holland).
That is making sense - going from "saying" to "doing" to "being". Many brands are doing it already: Ikea creates a better everyday life for the many people; Nike makes life a sport; and Google organises and makes the world's information useful to us.
"Making sense" requires a radical shift, but a brand that improves the world will, ultimately, improve itself. Maybe you will see the improvement in lower ad spend, a better reputation, increased sales, rising brand awareness and brand loyalty - rewards that only add to the already positive societal impact your campaign will make.
"Advertising has to evolve. We have to shift from saying that we are great to simply being great" - Willem van der Schoot, chief executive, Lemz.
Where does that leave agencies?
If brands are to move from a profit focus to a people focus, agencies will have to as well. I would argue agencies should take the lead and not wait for clients to demand this sort of work.
That means it is time for agencies to rediscover themselves and shift from a "what's in it for me?" to a "what can we do together?" mindset. This applies to both agency/client relations as well as brand/consumer communication. And it is not meant for the short term; it is the start of a journey where brands add value to the world over time.
This approach is not the first, the last or the only one. And it shouldn't be. Because, at the end of the day, making sense is simply the consequence of a conscious decision; a decision to pursue the significant over the trivial, the enduring over the transient and the meaningful over the useless. So, the challenge is simply: let's make sense.
POINT OF VIEW
Old master or HTML5? Whatever gets the job done. At the end of the day, Amsterdam's favourite tools are probably a touch of class and a bit of crazy.
I know I'm not in London when ... the average sentence contains one adjective max.
When in Amsterdam, don't expect ... the title on your business card to earn you any extra points. We Dutch are happily ignorant of the fact that we are actually a very small country.
When in Amsterdam, don't say ... "don't". We love a good experiment.