What is the future of advertising? This was the brave topic that Per Pedersen, global chief creative chairman of Grey Group took on to present at D&AD. He was also jury president of Direct.
Pedersen has built his entire creative career at Grey, a career that began when he was headhunted into a position as a planner at Grey Denmark with an MBA from business school. “I didn’t even know what that was,” he admits. “It wasn’t on my list of what I should be doing, but I soon got attracted to the unpredictable nature of what this industry is.”
He co-founded Uncle Grey in Denmark in 2000 before becoming chief creative officer of Grey Germany in 2009. In 2010, he moved to New York as global ECD, become deputy worldwide chief creative officer in 2014 and chairman of the Global Creative Council in 2016. Pedersen was appointed global chief creative chairman in 2017.
So what is the future of advertising?
Per Pedersen: That’s why I’m still in it. Because nobody knows. It’s a volatile business and has always been like that. Having been in the business since 1990, whenever people bring up this whole, “advertising is dead”, “this is the end”, “now direct marketing is going to take over, now media, now digital, now consultancies are going to take over”…It’s a broken record. At the end of the day what keeps me, and everyone that is growing in the business, thriving is an acceptance that there is no certain future and that’s the nature of the industry. If you want that you probably want to go to one of the consultancies. Advertising is an industry where every day we design the future and we are at the forefront of it all the time. When we think, “now we’ve got it, now we’ve found the formula,” that’s the first sign of dying.
The Stable: What about the future of creativity?
PP: There is a profound need for creativity, which is kind of ironic because everybody talks about advertising being dead but creativity is the most valuable asset in the world right now. Creativity seems to be what everybody is buying or what everybody is missing so they buy it, acquiring advertising agencies, the latest being Droga5. Buying it because they need it. If you have creativity, you are blessed. If it’s the heart of your company, which it is in our company, you have something that other types of industries will admire forever, because they don’t have it. Creativity, and therefore we, will be constantly relevant.
That’s why these award shows are important. Whenever people are talking about who’s winning in the important award shows like D&AD, it recalibrates what is good and bad. What was good six months ago feels tired and old now. If you look at what’s winning now, the immediate future is brave clients committing to brave strategies. Six months ago, it was hacking the system and coming up with AIs that could behave like humans. Getting brave clients to commit to brave strategies hard. It’s harder than pulling off a stunt or stealing the media attention from the Super Bowl.
TS: Is there a correlation between tight economic times and client conservatism?
PP: When times are tight you do get more conservative clients but also they have all the incentive to change their strategy because they know they’re in deep shit. Clients ARE conservative. We could have had this conversation thirty years ago and it would have been the same. As an industry, we want to push them. That’s the symbiotic nature of the relationship between a client and creative agency. We push clients out of their comfort zones, we hold hands together and jump. And most of the time we succeed by being brave.
There’s another mechanism, though, that’s pushing clients to act more bravely now. They have to. Most corporations and established brands have been pushing major problems in front of them for ages. In a transparent world, like now, these problems are very visible – the way they produce their products, the way they transport their products, deal with their staff, how they pay them, their lack of diversity, are they polluting the world, have they lost their moral compass. If you haven’t dealt with this stuff you become very obsolete very fast now. I think we’re seeing with companies like Apple or Nike, that started as very innovative, the challengers to the establishment need to re-evaluate their strategy and ask, “How do we look now? You can’t just put an ad out that says, ‘hey, we’re cool’ because people will know if you’re not.” That’s why when companies do stuff like Nike, The New York Times and Gillette have done, you notice it. For a while, they become relevant again. That’s why brave brands committing to brave strategies, however painful, is my best bet right now.
TS: You saw a lot of great work while jury president of Direct?
PP: Yes, there is great work being done in direct. Direct is a place where a lot of things end up because it’s anything that wants you to do something and, in our time, simple brand building or awareness is not happening so much. Everything comes with a call to action. And the best campaigns in judging were doing that exactly, asking people to re-evaluate how they saw a brand. Gillette [a Grey client: ed] was actually one of the good ones in that category. Adidas also. Interestingly enough, in other categories, Nike is very strong but in direct we thought adidas was more interesting with its Billie Jean King campaign.
It was unbelievably provocative but also very honest and the way TBWA\Chiat\Day New York executed it was just excellent.
TS: Where in the world is the best work coming from?
PP: I probably see it differently from the award shows. I see it coming from everywhere, and it’s moving all the time. It can be India, Brazil and Russia. The global hubs – New York, London – are being challenged by a more local approach. In the US, in the last year or so, a lot of clients have been going more local. At Grey, we have built up our presence in Cincinnati in the mid-West and on the West Coast where we had more or less nothing before. I think that strategy will continue because that’s how the market works. In the bigger picture, we’re starting to see great work from places like Malaysia and Indonesia. We’re also seeing local work becoming famous throughout the world. There was an example our Tokyo office did in which Pantene used a very beautiful but very hairy baby girl. There was a lot of controversy about that – not unlike the Nike backlash. Pantene stood behind it. Within “five minutes” it was everywhere. Pantene had no idea that would happen, and it wouldn’t have before. It would have been contained within the Japanese market. Everything in the ad was in Japanese. Now news travels at the speed of light, so whatever you do you need to think with a global perspective and that educates both the clients and the creative people in agencies. The good stuff travels fast.