There was a tension this week in Cannes that was hard to put my finger on. I've felt it in the way the creatives in the workshop seminars and forums talk about clients, in the way the clients on stage and in the hallways talk about creatives, and especially in the way that anyone even remotely related to social media talks about everyone.
Here's what I think it comes down to: The work we do, in what I will loosely call the media arts, exists along a continuum. At one end is pure message-driven marketing: "buy our product because." This was how advertising was delivered until consumers developed the ability to consume content where and when they wanted it. You bought the time, you delivered your message, and people watched it because it was the price for seeing what they really wanted to see - the entertainment that advertising pays for. At the other end of the continuum is the brave new world where the consumer is king and engages with brands to co-create messages. In this world, all media is earned because people only watch what they want to watch. And the most powerful distribution network is consumers passing content along to each other. Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum is message-driven media that is so entertaining, moving, or shocking that consumers watch it even when they don't have to.
At the root of the tension I feel is the fact that the highly branded content many clients still desire has no chance of succeeding in this new paradigm, where success means creating content that earns its own eyeballs. Trouble is, few brands have found the way to fit any meaningful messaging into truly entertaining content. So more often than not, we either end up with highly branded and commercial videos and social media platforms no one pays any real attention to or highly engaging and entertaining content that everyone watches, but has no discernible benefit for the brand. So a huge gulf is starting to form between clients, who understandably want to sell products, and creatives and social media experts who want to create content that succeeds with consumers in its own right.
Nowhere was this tension more evident than in the YouTube seminar. YouTube's Lucas Watson, himself a former client, introduced an expletive laced panel moderated by Saatchi & Saatchi's Tom Eslinger in which three young lions of the video world essentially screamed at the audience "You guys don't get it!" Based on the reaction I heard from clients in the days that followed, I think it's safe to say they failed to persuade their audience.
Whereas a few short years ago, clients could be fairly easily cowed by a passionate 26-year-old in a hoodie holding out the prospect of social media communities full of passionate advocates and videos gone viral, today clients are starting to ask tougher questions. Like: "What does this do for my brand?” "How do I measure ROI?" and "How does this help me sell things?"
While there are notable examples of success in blending branding and social success, some of which received awards this week, until the creative and social media communities can find a way to make those cases anything but a rare exception, they're going to have to find a better way to talk to the people who pay the bills.
Susan Bean is EVP in the Creative Catalyst Group at Marina Maher Communications.