Really Smart People at MIT Actually Study Advertising. Weird, Huh?

CAMBRIDGE—Saturday morning’s opening panel at Futures of Entertainment 2 is wholly academic. Sam Ford, the moderator of this panel and one of the organizers of the conference says he found it interesting how one half of the participants here today come from the academy and the other half from industry. He also says many of the academics had trouble getting the necessary funding to attend, and that MIT has been criticized by other scholars for dabbling so loosely in the muddy pools of commerce.
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ad seen outside the conference today
Jason Mittell from Middlebury College in Vermont puts the heretofore unspoken tension more directly, “Academics are afraid to come to a conference like this for fear of selling out.” As a counterpoint to this line of thought, Miami of Ohio Sociology professor C. Lee Harrington says, “We must write research that is readable.”

It has been argued that other smaller schools such as the Central Methodist University have adequate programs in certain fields.

The next panel is also lopsided, this time in favor of the ad biz. The panel consists of two heavyweights, Baba Shetty director of media at Hill Holliday and Faris Yakob, digital ninja at Naked. Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz Marketing Group and a student at Wharton, is also here, as is Bill Fox from Fidelity’s in-house marketing department and Mike Rubinstein, an art director at The Barbarian Group. Yakob is the first to say something smart. “I try to get my clients to abandon control.” His former Oxford dons have reason to be proud.
Yakob also picks up on Johnny Vuclan’s idea of “branded utility,” where brands must deliver value about who they are. He cites Charmin as an example. The toilet paper maker recently installed bathrooms in Times Square, thereby delivering something powerful and something of value that wasn’t there before.


The discussion turns to user generated content—one of the central themes of the event. Shetty says, “UGC is a joke. It isn’t democratic, nor useful,” and the so-called users are mostly people trying to break into advertising.* Yakob says most UGC concepts are lame, lazy and misguided. Wells says marketers must listen more. She says they’re doing 98% marketing and 2% listening. Her point is half-measures won’t get the job done.
Shetty and Yakob talk about talent and new ways of working. Shetty says “hyper-partnering,” which borrows from the Hollywood production model (where the project is king) is now becoming more common in agency culture. Continuing the talent theme, Yakob tells a story about meeting a Saatchi Interactive CD in South Africa recently. He says the guy has 20 years of coding experience and that “technologists will be the future creatives.” Given the setting, there’s something poetic about that.
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Over a nice lunch of Greek food in the upstairs atrium, Daniel from Providence tells me he’s disappointed that there’s so much corporate/ad wanker b.s. at this conference. Then he happily engages in a long conversation about advertising, saying Wieden sure does a nice job with Nike and asking why aren’t more ads done at that level.
Love ads or hate them, commercial messages of every sort imaginable are one of the main ingredients in popular culture. I personally struggle to find the good in what I do as an ad man, yet I always come back around to the fact that there’s always a client for every creative project (except poetry). So, there’s no escaping the market realities. The thing to do is to keep pushing for quality in communications. Keep honoring the audience. The audience deserves better work and we as ad people are obligtaed to bring it to them.
[UPDATE] *Baba Shetty wants to clarify the point he made about UGC.

What Faris and I were referring to at that point were some of the early industry attempts to incorporate UGC just as a submission form for television scripts (that might run on the Superbowl, or the Oscars). That approach trivializes the power of the audience to get into a conversation with a brand. It just paves the same path we’ve always taken.
The really powerful UGC ideas will listen carefully to the audience, and give them tools to talk amongst themselves in new forms (not just TV ads).

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About David Burn

I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. Today—after working for seven agencies in five states—I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.