Less than fifteen years ago, the internet was inhospitable ground for advertising. Few ventured to invest heavily in other media, out of the safety of TV, radio and newspaper. The American Alex Bogusky, who at that time was the creative director at CP+B, one of the world’s best-known publicity agencies, was the first to push the boundaries of pop-ups ads in exploiting the web as an advertising space.
Bogusky and CP+B experienced a golden decade from 2000: they raked in awards, customers, and attention. Bogusky became an industry popstar and his creative process was tirelessly imitated until it became the official technique of how to make advertising. You have seen it, for instance, in that “actual” event that was so amazing that it made the news.
That was the moment when Bogusky, at the top of the pyramid, caught a glimpse of the whole picture. He left CP+B in 2010 and founded Common, an accelerator for local brands. He launched a campaign against Coca-Cola, his former client, and founded Fearless, a social impact agency. In just a few moves, Bogusky went from the best-known advertiser in the world to a low-profile activist seeking alternatives to consumerism. This is just one case of rebel advertisers, and Bogusky is probably the most iconic of the group.
These ad makers felt the need for freer and more significant activity, and perceived the new consumer-focused landscape. They refuse to quit advertising, but question and change it to transform it from the inside out.
The soul of the business meditates
In 1995, when Oliviero Toscani wrote Advertising is a Smiling Carrion, provoking the advertising industry was essentially an esthetic issue: a resistance to the rose-colored commercial universe. But throughout the 2000s, the real problems of the consumerist model arrived at the doorstep of the perfect family portrayed in many ads. Today, as demonstrated in The Story of Stuff and Flight Club, it has become clear that overcoming the logic of hyper-consumerism is no longer aesthetic, but also a physical issue for us and out planet.
Waste and scarcity of resources, inhuman working conditions and concentration of wealth are some signs that consumerism is reaching its end. But if what follows is a slowdown in consumption, what is advertising supposed to dedicate itself to?
Marcello Serpa did not hang around to find out. Serpa is the Brazilian Bogusky. During the 1990s and 2000s, he was an iconic figure in Brazilian advertising, and recently left his position as creative officer at AlmapBBDO open. Although he has not (yet) moved into alternative incursions as Bogusky did, Serpa stated in an interview with Trip magazine:
“In the 20th century, planned obsolescence emerged along with the word ‘innovation’, which for everyone today is an altar, a religion, a mantra. (…) Advertising is, as always, just the tip of the process, it reflects this. (…) The same society that questions its fate and survival on this planet is pushing the idea of innovation to the limit, with products that need to be replaced and exceeded every day, faster and faster. These discourses are completely at odds.”
Meanwhile, advertisers André Kassu, in Brazil, and Dave Trott, in England, do not refrain from self-examination. Both work in advertising agencies and use their blogs to unmask the vices of an industry that is too entwined with the laws of consumerism: profit at any cost, short-lived dogmas, wastes of resources and labor.
In any case, how is advertising supposed to be done in this new arrangement? What would an agency that continues to be active, working with brands but questioning the fundamentals of hyper-consumption, be like?
KesselsKramer was founded in 1995, in Amsterdam, where it operates out of an old church. Its founders, Erik Kessels and Johan Kramer, abandoned the traditional agency where they used to work to create their own. In 2012, they published a book called Advertising For People Who Don’t Like Advertising.
The goals of KesselsKramer include internal operations of the agency (the company has no account managers), the race for success and flawless aesthetics.
“Advertising is typically about making everything 100% perfect.” There are no mistakes, everything and everyone are flawless. But it’s much more interesting for an ad to have a big flaw or post bare-faced and non-idealized people. This way, we recognize ourselves.” — Erik Kessels
Although it may be inevitable to call KesselsKramer a disruptive agency, it is worth noting that terms such as disruption and revolution are being used interchangeably and with some fanfare. But a closer look at the attitudes of Bogusky, Serpa, Kassu, Trott, and Kessels and Kramer reveals that real change moves almost quietly, steering clear of the spotlights and corporate bloat.
And that’s the only way it can be, since what is lacking is an economy dedicated to what is essential, simple, natural. This need is so wide spread that even large corporations could not remain indifferent. They were only able to interpret the scenario within their limitations, however.
In The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR (2003), the Public Relations guru, Al Ries, wrote “if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. Although he was referring to difficulty for advertising to think out of the TV, radio and newspaper box, the quote illustrates the challenge that large agencies and companies face in adapting to conscious consumption.
Storytelling was a term used extensively earlier this decade and indicated that advertising should use storytelling techniques to win over consumers. In fact, this phenomenon was nothing but an industry reaction to the growing attention that people are paying to more genuine and less impoverished local products. Unlike other products, these had their own stories about how they were made, while national and global brands usually see their products emerge from none-too- romantic production lines.
People began to frown upon artificial, industrial, mass-produced products. Self-transformation is a challenging task for large agencies and companies because of the size of their operations and especially because this time it is not about speech, but action.
By working only in the field of discourse, the industry gave birth to storytelling and cases like Diletto ice cream and Do Bem juices, which brand stories that were correct, attractive, and pure fantasy.
The last days of the old advertising
In Adland: A Global History of Advertising (2007), Mark Tungate stated that “If the history of advertising has one overriding theme, it is this constant tug of war between two schools: the creatives, who believe art inspires consumers to buy; and the pragmatists, who sell based on facts and come armed with reams of research.”
Maybe in the next chapter of the history of advertising, the tug of war will be between two schools: one that wants to sell more and the other that wants to sell better.
Yes, to sell. Because it’s not as if our material desires are imposed on us. What is at stake here is the model based on the supply and demand of “unnecessities.”
If advertising gained its reputation as meddling, repetitive and manipulative when it was combined with consumerism, when it is combined with conscious consumption it will have the chance to seek out and promote new ways of operating. In A History of Advertising (2008), David Droga, who was the creative officer at Publicis, wrote a text entitled “A no is more difficult than a yes”:
“We must ensure that the advertising industry is not seduced by its own cleverness. By the way, at what point did we cross the fine line between ingenious communication and intrusive marketing?(…) Understanding consumers means more than just knowing how and when to talk to them. It also means knowing when not to talk. Solutions need options. But options are not solutions.”
While the opportunities for even more intense communication are within reach, Droga takes a step back. His stance is to say no to the era of excess. No to the growth-for-growth’s sake economics, to the idea of consumption as a beacon in our lives.
Lowsumerism is, above all, a return to the essentials. In this article, advertiser Jasmine De Bruyker exposes traces of this trend by encouraging companies to work harder on their trade instead of on drawing attention:
“If you are a company, take heed: instead of throwing money at yet another branded content campaign, go back to the original notion of a brand. (…) Don’t throw a new product on the market if it’s not intrinsically better and more durable than what already exists. We don’t need more branding; we need fewer, better-quality products.”
But what if you are an agency? Well, maybe it’s time to say no more often. It’s time to value cohesive, honest and useful communication instead of hyperbole and viralized content. It’s time to pay more attention to your community and its needs instead of importing successful models. It is time to synchronize your advertising with real-world emergencies.