Lessons from the Ad of the Year

So the Golden Summer of Sport is officially over (and after watching Scotland’s miserable football match against Macedonia last night, I can safely say that it is).

The short-term legacy is already clear: a gigantic hangover and a vastly increased vocabulary, encompassing terms like ‘peloton’, ‘omnium’ and ‘repechage’.

But what of the long-term impact? Like the fabulously named Bulgarian hurdler, Stambolova, pundits are falling over themselves to forecast the impact on every aspect of the national psyche.  So with all the predictability of Usain Bolt winning  a local fun run (or indeed an Olympic final), please allow me to view the Games through the lens  of our industry.  In return, I’ll resist any more sporting metaphors until the final lap (sorry, I mean ‘paragraph’).

Cutting to the chase (this sounds like an athletics analogy, but it isn’t), I believe that the Olympic Opening Ceremony should be 2012’s Ad of the Year.   Obviously it won’t be, because we persist in defining the term ‘Advertising’  in ludicrously literal terms.  But if you can find me a more powerful piece of creative communication this year, I’d like to see it.

Now, it’s easy to question the ceremony’s relevance, because in real life most of us don’t benefit from a global TV audience, a wave of popular goodwill and the thespian support of the Monarch.  However, I’d say that there are 7 lessons which we could all learn from this extraordinary event.

1.  Have strong creative leadership.  The Opening Ceremony was no doubt the product of many people’s hard work, but ultimately it was Danny Boyle’s baby.  While collaboration is undoubtedly vital in today’s messy world, it mustn’t come at the expense of leadership and vision.   Maybe we’ve forgotten this recently, in our attempts to show clients how nice we all are?

2.  Have a big idea.  This might sound like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.  But the big idea of the moment appears to be that you don’t need a big idea.  The new mantra is that brands need lots of small actions, rather than a single grand concept.  I’d agree, up to a point: the point being that you still need an over-arching idea to pull all the underlying initiatives together.  Boyle acknowledged as much in his programme notes, where he declared that the whole show – despite its glorious diversity and eclecticism – stemmed from a singular vision of Britain as the New Jerusalem.  He called this ordering thought his ‘Golden thread’:  I can’t help feeling that too many brands are somewhat threadbare, when it comes to defining what their over-arching vision is.

3.  Have an opinion.  It would have been easy for Boyle to appeal to everybody, with a bland regurgitation of British culture that nobody could have disagreed with.  However, he chose to come off the fence, with a pointed celebration of communal values.  Not everybody agreed with his point of view (Aidan Burley MP became the first person in history to complain that there was more than one race at the Olympics) but everybody talked about it.  Again, brands need to get better at speaking their mind if they are to have any hope of capturing people’s imagination.

4.  Loosen up.  If Boyle had stopped at the first three points, the ceremony might have become unbearably serious and turgid.  But he didn’t.  Instead he varied the tone-of-voice throughout, from passionate to poignant, respectful to anarchic, mournful to laugh-out-loud funny.  This is, of course, the way real people are: we do not have the monotone ‘personalities’ that agencies typically invent for their brands.  Instead of stipulating rigid tone-of-voice guidelines, maybe we all need to loosen up a bit?

5.  Feel, not think.  Many of Boyle’s vignettes defied logical explanation.  Indeed, there were several moments that just shouldn’t have worked (Mary Poppins beating Voldemort with an umbrella, anyone?) but just…did.  There are a myriad of studies that prove emotional approaches trump rational ones in our industry too.  But we are too prone to over-analysis, and too afraid of surprises to follow our guts.  It would be nice if we could find the courage to create more ‘dancing nurses’ of our own, going forwards.

6.  See the big picture.  One of the most remarkable aspects of the Opening Ceremony was the effortless way in which ideas were bounced around a myriad of different channels.  For instance, a simple visual gag using Mr Bean got people tweeting about a TV star, on a stadium screen, at a live event, being watched at home.  Likewise, the famous Bond vignette merged film footage with live action and theatre, into one show-stopping moment.  At a time when we’re still grappling with mere dual-screening, maybe we should take a leaf out of Boyle’s book and see all the world as one big stage?

7.  There are many ways to participate.  There has been much talk in recent years, of how ‘passive entertainment’ is ‘less engaging’ than ‘more active’ forms of participation.  The individual terms are never explained, and nor is the cumulative logic: they are simply asserted as true.  As a result, agencies have tried to force participative elements into every campaign, regardless of the task.  What Boyle has shown is that you can create an extraordinarily affecting, and effective, piece of communication without resorting to more obviously participative techniques such as UGC, gamification or consumer polls.  In fact, by getting people to laugh, cry and punch the air with pride, he managed to prompt a much more profound response than something more voguish might have done.

So there it is – a heptathlon of lessons, almost worthy of Jessica Ennis (not that anything could really be worthy of her…sigh).   Now it’s over to all of us to carry the torch forward into our own little world, in the coming months.  Good luck, and Best of British!

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