I'm over in sunny Cannes, catching up with the cream of UK advertising for the week. I popped out with Mark Lund, McCANN Worldgroup UK's chief executive, to talk data, tech, creativity... and Brexit.
EH: There's lots of focus on data and artificial intelligence this year – do you think it detracts from the original meaning of the festival – creativity?
ML: We’ve always used data and research to work out what people are watching; what they’re liking, what they want to see. The fact we’ve now got much more immediate behavioural data from mobile devices, it’s simply another tool.
But I do think, subsequently, that the faster the world gets, the more emotional your decisions become. Because the more decisions you have to make, the less time you have to make them – and the more you fall back on intuition and emotion. We kind of kid ourselves that we’re highly rational, but we’re really not!
EH: Will much change then?
ML: There is going to be a change in the industry because of tech, and I think we’re going to have to embrace it; use it more intelligently in terms of doing some of the things we do by hand with a greater reliance on pattern behaviour and algorithms. We’re going to be under continuing pressure to make good returns on investment to shareholders, but also to reduce costs to our clients. So you have to make a decision that some things you will automate – which will alleviate pressure on the more mundane tasks. But the bit that says ‘how do I relate to this brand?’ that’s going to remain the province of the creative mind.
EH: Do you think some will sleepwalk into the new world of data?
ML: Its funny, but for some time the industry has effectively denied the importance of AI, and to a lesser extent data - but look around Cannes this year: we’ve gone from nothing to absolutely full on very quickly, and the danger is that in so doing we lose track of the thing that makes us unique, which is this very fuzzy edge of what people want to be and what they feel drawn to, which is very hard to systematise.
EH: Seeing as McCANN is a worldgroup, and negotiations start today, let's talk Brexit – how's it been for you so far?
ML: It was exactly this time last year that we were all kind of sitting here going ‘we’re certainly not going to vote for Brexit’ and then of course we did…
EH: Ah that would be the ad industry's infamous metropolitan lens!
ML: Actually the interesting thing about the business that I work in is that half of it is Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol, and the other half is London. So we’re pretty uniquely positioned in our field, exposed to non-metropolitan life, and I think there’s no question, the view outside of London was slightly different. But I think there was consensus, that if you work for an international business, then anything that puts barriers in the way of easily trading and communicating is a retrograde thing.
EH: How's business been?
ML: Interestingly, the business hasn’t suffered up to now, and this far into 2017 feels like a pretty good year. But there is a sense that inflation is starting to feed through to consumers, because of the weakened pound, and that is going to cause a slowdown, probably in the second half.
EH: So you're optimistic?
ML: What’s happened in the last week or two (the election) is genuinely bewildering on a different level, but I think that if you’re looking for optimism, the thing to be optimistic about is that it will soften the recipe for Brexit, and that must be a good thing.
EH: What's your ideal outcome?
Ideal outcome is no barriers to trade, either tariff or non-tariff, and the ability to keep people moving pretty freely within the EU. A big proportion of our workforce is EU, and what we don’t want is to lose that talent. Diversity of all sorts helps creativity – and that’s true of race and gender and background.
EH: Let's move on to this trend of advertising having a purpose – what do you think?
The interesting thing about advertising is that most of the people in it are liberal arts, thoughtful, vaguely left wing. And they’re not brutal capitalists red in tooth! The thing is that people are so much more aware and switched on as consumers, and if, as a brand, you're fulfilling some sort of useful purpose – we call it having a meaningful role in people's lives – then there's less of you as a brand to get hold of, there’s less of you to like. So some sense of purpose beyond just selling stuff is almost vital now.
EH: Unless you're Pepsi
ML: The Kendall Jenner ad was pure genius, it was like ‘how many things can we get wrong on this one?’ all of them!
And again, this is an intuitive emotional thing, what consumers are pretty sensitised to is a degree of integrity and authenticity, and people are fine with being quite hard nosed if it’s offering something in an honest way. But what they don’t want is for a brand to be pretending to be an activist. And authenticity is one of those things: it’s very hard to define, very easy to feel. People consume advertising whit their senses, as opposed to with their brain.
The emotional connection between brands and people is the only thing that differentiates you and ultimately, people either like you as a brand, or they don’t!