How the snowmen froze out the showmen causing the creative ice age.
(Please insert snowwomen/showwomen and snowthem and showthem as appropriate)
Cool. The single most damaging word for creative effectiveness over the past two decades. In pursuit of cool, advertising and marketing has largely abandoned the art of warming audiences through creative selling and showmanship. Because this methodology has been deemed old-fashioned, unnecessary, or simply uncool.
In the pursuit of cool, the majority of marketing campaigns have evolved to a place of emotional detachment. When what campaigns need to succeed is emotional engagement. In the pursuit of cool, anything that could be seen as conspicuous or unsophisticated has been largely abandoned. Goodbye jingles, rhyming language, songs, fluent branding devices, episodic campaigns and entertaining characters.
To be populist is by definition to be uncool. When superficial cool was not enough, marketing then cynically turned down the cul-de-sac of brand purpose. Desperate to be seen as society’s saviours, not society’s sellers. Chasing cool has cost advertising agencies and marketers their credibility. The marketing industry is two-decades into a creative ice age, with declining creative effectiveness, because of a desire to pursue what’s cool and novel, rather than focusing on age-old marketing fundamentals. Maintaining this desperate pursuit of coolness has seen marketing lose its place at business’s top table, forever left out in the cold, because it could no longer prove its effectiveness or worth.
(Now, I should probably declare at this point for the sake of balance, I’m not cool. Never have been. Those who know me can testify to that. I’ve never worn all-black, unless it was at a funeral. I’m not an early adopter. I have no tattoos. Never had a beard. I don’t pump out a stream of content on Instagram, Twitter or TikTok. So, feel free to dismiss this disdain for cool as simply the ramblings of the disaffected or uncool, if it makes you feel better.)
In my defence I can point to a twenty-five-year advertising career from creative to agency co-founder. I might not be cool, but I know my advertising craft. I loved the industry I joined in 1998, and I want marketing and advertising to find its magic again. Studying the work of Binet & Field, Sharp & Romaniuk, Paul Feldwick and more recently Orlando Wood, has led me to this conclusion. The uncool kids (apologies to the aforementioned) who understand the science of marketing, can help our industry emerge from this creative ice age, which was brought on by the cool kids, who only understand the surface of marketing.
But how did we get here in the first place? Here’s a quick recap from memory.
As the new millennium settled into its first decade, large swathes of marketers and their agencies, presumably embarrassed by their roles oiling the wheels of capitalism and stung by the vitriolic jibes from the likes of Bill Hick’s for marketers to ‘go kill yourselves’, inadvertently set a course for inconspicuousness, guided by the notion of what is cool. Overboard went the showmen with their ideas, exhibitionism, humour and storytelling. Up stepped the snowmen with their design systems, minimalism, and sobriety.
Fuelled by the arrival of new digital channels to disrupt the traditional media landscape and overpromises from the new digital behemoths to deliver the right message to the right audience at the right time, the timing for a creative coup d’etat was perfect. Seizing the moment, Design as a discipline stepped forward from the shadows. Designers were the captains of cool, armed with their design language, brand guidelines and spurious rationales. This was their moment, and they took it.
Tensions between advertising agencies and brand design guardians grew as they fought for supremacy across the marketing communications. Ideas became the victim, replaced with design systems married to forgettable messaging.
The new digital architecture unleashed a wave of left-brained literalism into marketing communications. Formats and functionality quickly froze out many flights of fancy. Wireframes boxed in creativity, and the creative bar was set, not by what could be imagined, but by what could be coded. Time and technology have alleviated this somewhat, but the cool reductive aesthetic became functional, minimal, and flat. Or boring, to be less charitable.
Functionality replaced personality, and with it, efficiency replaced effectiveness; from brand logos to marketing campaigns. Within agencies the snowmen replaced the showmen and over time audiences grew equally frosty, blocking advertising in unprecedented numbers. The problem is, to be cool is to set yourself apart from mainstream culture. Cool by its very definition can never be mainstream. The moment it is, it’s simply not cool anymore. And yet to be successful, marketing communications need to be conspicuous. They need to generate a warm response, not a cool one. They need to entertain, be distinctive and emotionally engage. They need to be for the masses. So, how do you square that circle and make it cool to be warm again?
Orlando Wood in his phenomenal exploration into cultural cycles of creativity in “Look Out” identifies the kinds of creativity elicited by left-brained and right-brained thinking. Historical data shows that right-brained thinking makes the most effective marketing campaigns.
What fascinates me now, working now primarily with clients in the B2B technology sector, is how left-brained their historical approach to marketing communications is. And how ineffective it is as a result. Probably because B2B technology brands have worked with more snowmen than showmen.
Design-led, product focused campaigns with humourless voiceover monologues pervade the technology industry. Almost all these technology brands are less than two decades old, so have only ever existed in this creative ice age. Almost all have no distinctive brand assets or fluent branding devices to tell their stories, because they’ve never had showmen trying to bring the brand to life in an imaginative way. We created our agency LogicLogicMagic to fill this gap in the market for technology brands. Cool is a seductive label. But equally cool can be fatal. For nearly a century smoking was seen as incredibly cool – terminally damaging to your health, but cool nonetheless. Education remains the best way to point out the dangers of trying to be cool. The creation of LinkedIn’s B2B Institute and the tireless work of Jon Lombardo and Peter Weinberg to publicise and educate the B2B sector on what makes effective marketing should help B2B brands and agencies move away from left-brained thinking and understand what it takes to deliver long-term growth for their businesses.
Fundamentally brands should seek to create fame, distinctiveness and have audiences warm to them, not worry about trying to be reductive, minimalist and cool. Or to put it in a more memorable way, “Be more showman, than snowman.” If you remain unconvinced and feel that the time of the advertising showmen is nostalgic and has been iced forever, I simply have two words of hope for you. Ryan Reynolds.