At the Cannes Lions this year, someone chalked the following onto a sandwich board next to the stage. Just two words.
That filled me with a sense of elation and relief. Not because I have anything against advertising, or awards for that matter, but because they marked an important full philosophical circle in my own life.
I was born an entrepreneur (as a child, I set up an e-toll in my family home, long before Sanral considered their first gantry!). Business seemed hardwired into who I was from an early age.
I came of advertising age in the roaring ’80s, an era where even the account managers drove Porsches, and the global industry was enraptured by the image it cast in the mirror. These were the days of cocaine, limitless budgets and a sense of self amongst advertising and PR folk that hailed our own ability to ‘create trends’ on a whim, and then to bundle a client / brand of choice right into that trend. We loved our clients, but we loved the awards we received for the work we did for them much, much more.
Advertising and communication in general is particularly alluring to young adults, because it offers an immediate ability, via client proxy, to display your creative work in the public eye. When you’ve just left university or college, this is an extremely powerful elixir. It certainly was for me. For many in our sector, this creative recognition remains the foundation of a life’s work.
And yet, even in the eighties, when no one could do any wrong, ever, there was a niggle. I left my first agency filled with a sense of wanting to forge something completely different. The nature of that difference eluded me at the time – it was a feeling, rather than a specific concept.
Looking back, I have come to believe that much of what I was thinking back then had to do with those two words on the sandwich board at this year’s Cannes Awards. Those words, viewed within the context of an industry awards ceremony, are a direct philosophical challenge. Yes, they are also a direct insult, but over and above the immediate interpretation, they ask an important question about sustainability. They question the structure and longevity of the industry as it stands.
My initial emotion when I exited the first agency I worked for was the personal beginnings of the same question. A question as to whether the industry I was in was actually sustainable. We all know now that it wasn’t. Not in that form. The pseudo heights of the eighties are long gone, and there is now wide-spread commercial recognition that more is expected of advertising – great communication must also reinforce and support the client’s strategic bottom line.
Even with this understanding, we still live with the consequences of the victory of flash over substance. Globally, the recession – which took root in wildly inappropriate commercial behaviour across all levels of the inter-locked world economy – has yet to show signs of receding, or rehabilitation. The consequences of thoughtless hype are very much still with us.
In South Africa specifically, we have also succumbed in many ways to the idea of the inflated, hyped-up self. We talk a great game when it comes to transformation, service delivery and socially responsible corporate behaviour. But when you look closely you often see a country that simply ignores the fine, crucial details. Successful, technical delivery of the job at hand is frequently brushed aside at the expense of the flash – the public posturing, the awards and so forth.
So, what does a focus on delivery actually consist of? In my view, it consists of a willingness to slow down and listen. The simple act of really listening is in itself quite refreshing, and a willingness to explore what the client (any client, in any business) really needs, and then to focus on meeting that need is one of the fundamental elements of long term business success.
Having eschewed awards, it was with some irony, then, that I learned I was nominated as a finalist in the 2013 South African Businesswoman of the Year awards. I had to think about it for a bit, but ultimately I decided the event could be a great platform to discuss these ideas, the kinds of thoughts about business and purpose that seldom get airtime.
On a personal level, I am proud of the strength of the relationships our company has formed with its clients. I like to believe our relationships with our clients have lasted as long as they have because we have paid real attention to their business and their bottom line – and have sought to build both through our work.
I also believe that at a wider level, our ability to deliver on the South African social development dream will be defined not by grand policy shifts, but by how we go about doing business with each other. One of the glaring gaps in our collective approach currently is committing to the fine details of what we’re doing, and working with those. Instead, we end up, a lot of the time, like the advertising folk of the eighties, running around with a bizarrely heightened idea of our own abilities, while ignoring the bottom line.
Now is the time, for all South Africans to encourage that inner rebel. We all need to grab that piece of chalk and think about what we should scrawl across our own industry’s metaphorical sandwich board. A simple challenge such as that posed by the mystery sandwich board person at Cannes will provide much in the way of initial energy, of course. But we will need more. More thought. More detail.
When I think about it carefully, I believe my scrawl would currently go something like:
Delivery is the answer.
Sustainability is the question.
Shauneen Procter is managing partner at communications and branding solutions agency Idea Engineers