Why it's time for less bullshit and more build shit
A view from Dylan Williams

Why it's time for less bullshit and more build shit

It's time for the industry to regain its cultural significance, says the Droga5 chief strategy officer and Eurobest awards chair.

This week I have the privilege of chairing the innovation and creative data jury at the Eurobest awards.

I’ve been on a self-enforced hiatus from industry awards for nearly ten years now. Not a withdrawal that in itself shook the FTSE 100, but the underlying reasons for me doing so certainly have.    

Back in 2008 as the economic crisis really took hold, I, like most people, became increasingly disenchanted with marketing and advertising. I felt that at the ‘dog-end’ of the broadcast age, consumer culture had become over-reliant upon emotional sell.

Branding had become too fixated with intangible asset value. We’d diverted monies out of hard product development and break-through invention and, instead, focused on simply associating with soft end-benefits. Soap powders didn’t wash any whiter, but they were all on a mission to make us feel like good mums. It wasn’t just the banks packaging up crap and selling it as gold.  And this was something I no longer felt comfortable awarding.

We now live in a world driven by unicorn companies that barely existed when Lehman Brothers collapsed

But fast forward to now and, as we all know, the subsequent response to this malaise has been incredible.  

A new generation of entrepreneurs and rule-breakers have harnessed open source software, tapped the crowd for early stage investment, benefitted from lower barriers to scale and set about disintermediating every flabby steady-state market - from finance to travel, entertainment to education. Not through poetic brand manifestos and mass manipulation, but through genuinely helpful and useful innovation. Born of more sensitive assimilation and application of all the data now readily available.

We now live in a world driven by unicorn companies that barely existed when Lehman Brothers collapsed.  

A new industrial age

The world’s information and knowledge is ever more organised and available. Blockchains are extending immutable ledgers beyond finance and into the supply chain, heralding an age of transparency that will change the dynamics of trust forever. Linear careers have given way to a gig economy that is forcing governments to change how they measure productivity and growth.  The forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation will spark huge debate around privacy. And for anyone under the age of thirty, the very concept of ownership is now questioned.

It’s a new industrial age. An amazing time for creators and innovators.

And so, in turn, it should be an amazing time to step back in and award the very best of these creations and innovations.

But here’s the rub. How many of the last decades’ truly step-change ideas have been born of the professional creative community? How much more prolific are the world’s coffee shops, garages, co-work spaces and accelerator incubators than her glitzy design studios, innovation labs and creative agencies?

While the likes of Daniel Ek and Taavet Hinrikus were building Spotify and TransferWise respectively, a sizeable chunk of our creative economy were looking no further than getting their Christmas 60’ on Gogglebox.

Solving a world problem is clearly far more inspiring to true innovators than answering a client brief. I guess it was ever thus. But when did the gulf between the two become so wide?

A fortnight ago at Pitch@The Palace 8, some of the UK’s best start-ups got to pitch for early stage monies and connections. In the space of an hour we heard three minute pitches from 14 year old IoT whizzkids and their solutions for household food waste, atmospheric chemists and their nano-carbon air filters, Oxford academics working on fast charging alternatives to lithium batteries and all manner of life changing crazy shit. Nobody was asking for an introduction to Droga5. Or WPP. None of them were looking to win at Cannes.

And it occurred to me that solving a world problem is clearly far more inspiring to true innovators than answering a client brief. I guess it was ever thus. But when did the gulf between the two become so wide?

Likewise, securing finance and distribution is, of course, more important to early stage ventures than winning industry awards and accolades. But shouldn’t the connection between the two be clearer? And couldn’t the latter lead to the former more often?

It’s questions like this that our industry needs to address if it is to regain its cultural significance.  And it is our awards juries that have the opportunity to lead our response.

For me, this starts with addressing the tyranny of the case study video. I know it’s a great medium for précis. Far preferable to wading through acres of case papers. But we have to make a distinction between great innovation and great storytelling. How many of the ideas we see are commercially viable? How many have fully scoped scale production? A proper business plan ? How many sit perpetually "sold out" on the agency microsite? How many stopped working after the awards film was shot?

We also need to rededicate to genuine effectiveness. As Carl Miller at Demos points out, when a $150 "Huge Mega Bot Pack" from the dark net can provide a million "earned media impressions", we really must refocus on legitimate evidence of behaviour change. How was decision-making influenced and did people demonstrably act differently as a consequence? Did the demand curve shift or reshape?  Did supply ? And what was the cumulative social, cultural and commercial impact thereby achieved? We didn’t look hard enough at aggregate effect in the first chapter of consumer culture. It would be good, as the second chapter unfolds, if we started to take responsibility for breadth as well as depth of influence.

All in all, these are important moments for our industry. What we champion as best practise at our awards shows can help us determine our future.


Dylan Williams is chief strategy officer of Droga5 London and the chair of the innovation and creative data jury at the Eurobest awards

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