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Lion gets drunk jumps shark…

In a funky, charmingly meandering essay for the Wall Street Journal, the legendary San Francisco adman, Jeff Goodby takes the Cannes Advertising Festival to the woodshed, albeit the long way, calling it more of a “plumber’s or industrial roofing convention” than a celebration of the “big and famous and mind blowing.” He acknowledges that he is a “willing junkie for ingenious content delivery systems” (really, Jeff?) but clearly misses the good old days when ‘everyone knew who was doing the greatest shit in the world.’

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Ad Lion, Jeff Goodby rattles his cage…

His point is a valid one, which can be gotten to through many doors. Let me take a crack at a few. First off, about 10 or 15 years ago, in a vainglorious attempt to be modern (aka digital & social) and (obviously) to make tons more money, Cannes began adding myriad technical categories some so intricate they defy explanation. Applications. Emojis. Banners. Widgets. Tools. The kitchen sink. All of it, said Cannes, has the possibility of winning a Lion –be it bronze, silver, gold, glass or titanium. In addition, the festival created massive new groups, including public relations, healthcare and social causes. The advertising categories were still there, of course, and you could enter them six ways to Sunday, depending on budgets and other criteria.

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Your Titanium Grand Prix winner at Cannes: an emoji

For agencies and the like, entries became an advanced class in spending money. Take a look at these numbers, made even more conspicuous because they were tallied during the recession.

While this was going on the typically blatant corruption bloomed like algae. After all, all these new categories required evermore judges. Most if not every judge also has stuff in the show. So many shoulders rubbing together is bound to create mutual back scratching. And stabbing. It got so bad a couple years ago the creative leader of one holding company accused another holding company of “killing” the competition, among other voter schemes.

In the end, you get a bouillabaisse so big, deep and full of oddities one wonders if it means anything to anyone. Anyway, Jeff wonders. How can you not? Let’s look at some of the biggest prizes awarded in 2015. A fish-shaped lead sinker is deemed the greatest design in the world. A slew of iPhone pictures garner the Lion for best outdoor advertising in the world. A pizza-shaped emoji wins for best whatever-it-is in the world.

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The winner for best design: a lead fish

Funny. Folks used to joke that WPP’s big boss, Martin Sorrell got his start, not making ads, but selling widgets. Well, he gets the last laugh. Because it now appears that’s what this festival is all about.

(Full disclosure: Every agency I’ve ever worked at has participated in Cannes. I’ve been to Cannes seven times, four drunk, three sober. I’ve entered a bunch of work at Cannes. I’ve even won a few Lions. Twice, I’ve given speeches at Cannes. So, yes, I’ve bowed before the Golden Lion. I’ve played his Game of Thrones.)

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“Expectations are resentments under construction,” wrote Bay Area author Anne Lamott. There is much wisdom in her statement, but for most of us it takes a lifetime to learn. Or unlearn. It boils down to this: Every time we enter into a conversation, meeting or transaction we bring with us a set of expectations. When positive expectations are unmet or negative ones confirmed the interaction falters.

Face it. We all have expectations about how other people will or should behave. They are like prejudices, creating barriers between the people holding onto them. Invariably, the interaction is crippled before it even begins. In politics, we see this all the time: when each party assumes the how the other will behave, regardless of the situation.

In dysfunctional families, each member has drop-dead certainty how the other sibling will behave, shaping all intercourse. Dad believes his son will be a defensive contrarian. The son expects his father will be an inflexible brute. And so on. Every fruit on the family tree is spoiled this way.

What does this look like in business, and in particular Adland? Well, I’ll tell you. And once you recognize it you’ll see how commonplace and destructive these forces can be.

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Illustrating bad blood with even worse stock photography!

Jack in an Associate Creative Director. Jill is a Senior Account Executive. Jack and Jill have some history. They’ve worked on a few projects together. Perhaps not all of them went smoothly. And even if they did, both individuals quickly developed a read on one another, and now base all interactions upon it. To an extent, this is normal and healthy. Yet, in the crucible of business it quickly becomes a defect and sometimes a serious one. If Jack expects Jill to only see his work through fearful and conservative eyes, he will soon dread showing it to her. Why bother, right? She’s only going to throw shade…like she always does.

Jill is no innocent, either. However reasonable she fancies herself, Jill expects Jack will be defensive and obstinate. A typical creative. Ergo, she enters into every meeting with Jack bracing for a fight.

You know where this is going. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both parties have expectations (fomenting into resentments) and, as soon as they spot anything confirming said expectations, they lock into patterned behaviors, souring the meeting and insuring the next interaction will be even worse.

In some ways, having locked-in negative expectations is no different than racial profiling. Though obviously less despicable, the office variety is still quite destructive. Especially in front of creativity. Looking at new ideas, let alone brave and unusual ones, is deeply difficult when everyone involved has negative expectations about the other. These prejudices can become so ingrained they close minds, hindering the ability to appreciate creative. Often, the room divides into fronts, inducing an unstable even volatile climate. Debates become rife with arguments ad homonym. The creative product is ruined in the deluge.

The solution is obvious but not easy. Against our own defective natures, we must let go these leaden bags of expectations, lest they crush our ideas and us.

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Must…Consume…Content…

In certain gothic vampire mythologies, the undead, being immortal, develop a profound indifference to learning anything about current events, save for what they must know in order to feed. Over the decades, they tire of newspapers and books and then all that information on the Internet. Unless it pertains to their hunger the passing moors of people are just that: passing. Why bother keeping up with the current population when there is another one coming. And another. And another. Often what happens to these creatures is that a profound ennui settles over them. Memories blur into one long existence. When at last they are staked or caught by sunshine or silver, they welcome the true death. Enough is enough.

Why am I writing about such macabre things? It’s so I can offer you this metaphor: Many of us have been bingeing on so much content that we’ve become inured to anything else accept work, which provides our sustenance. Do you, like me, like the vampire, find yourself coming home from work and, after maybe kissing the wife, walking the dog, tucking the kids in, settle into a TV show only to move through episodes, one after another, until you collapse?

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Do you feed this way? Are you addicted?

Game of Thrones. True Detective. Breaking Bad. Penny Dreadful. So much delicious prey! Maybe you feed on reality TV, which I think tastes like shit. No matter, the pathology is the same.

We are content zombies. But with one profound difference. Unlike those rapacious feeders, we are aware. We know what we are doing. Ergo, we are vampires. Cursed in the knowledge that what we crave ultimately will consume us. And so, every night, all over the world, more and more of us pounce into our screen of choice, and stay there…

Food for thought next time you pick up the remote.

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I’ve always been passionate about posters, billboards and signs in general. So much so that I’ve given talks on the subject to various ad clubs, conferences, even at the revered Palais in Cannes. Because I’m in advertising, these discussions were invariably about out of home advertising. In the beginning, I framed my talks around the Altoids case study – a testament to the power of posters. The Altoids’ campaign has moved on (where I wonder?) and so have I. But the passion continues.

Billboards and posters can be the most effective persuaders known to man. They are certainly the oldest. Since man first scribbled on rock, signs and word pictures have defined our kind for better and for worse.

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Alas, we now have a case of the latter, which has drawn our country into emotional debate. It involves the Confederate flag, a totem of the Civil War. In the wake of the horrifying murders of innocent black parishioners in Charleston by one depraved white man, calls have again risen to remove this flag from public view. The primary argument being that the flag is a symbol of slavery and its ugly history. Given current events –in Ferguson, New York, Oakland and now Charleston- the Confederate flag is more polarizing than ever. Those that wish to keep the flag in prominence have their arguments, the best of which (I suppose) might be to serve as a reminder to the many lives lost fighting behind it during the Civil War.

Yet, I purposefully chose not to research this debate, or that flag. I write this with my ignorance uncorrupted by studied discourse of either side. I only have my visceral reaction to the power in that symbol, same as most everyone else.

The distinction is important. For most who experience this flag know little about it either. I’m betting 99% of every Bubba who hangs one in the back window of his pickup truck doesn’t know who created the flag and when, let alone what the various insignia on it even mean. They just like what it projects about them. Herein lies the secret to its power. Signs are not meant to encourage research. Quite the contrary. They are symbols, meant to transmit an idea (good or evil) to a lot of people. The Confederate flag incites us because that is what it was supposed to do. And still does. The Swastika works the same way. When it was relevant so did the raised fist of Black Power. On a happier note, Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster helped get President Obama elected.

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Signs arouse us. When I was a kid, growing up in the Lake View neighborhood in Chicago, the Latin Eagles and Latin Kings reigned over the alleyways and street corners. There graffiti terrified me, causing me to haul ass to school, my lunch money stuffed down my underwear. While I hardly respected what those symbols represented I behaved differently because of them.

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Done well, signs can sell products. They can get men elected. They can also instill fear and hatred and whether you believe the Confederate flag should be removed from public view or not that is exactly what it is doing.

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The Chicago Black Hawks have won Lord Stanley’s Cup (again) and the Golden State Warriors are poised to win their first title in 40 years. By way of geography, these are both teams  I am vested in. I grew up in Chicago. For the last three years, I’ve called the Bay Area my home. In those scant three years, I have also witnessed the San Francisco Giants take a pair of World Series. On the other hand, over 40 years in Chicago and my neighborhood Cubs have nothing to show for it. Will this be their year?

Worldwide, few commercial brands engender such passion as professional sports teams. Perhaps Apple and Nike in its heyday. Guinness in Europe. One could make a case for Virgin airlines.

But really, nothing matches the unmitigated passion we see when it comes to professional sports. To fans of this team or that, those jerseys and those logos mean everything.

Whenever I begin an engagement with a new or potential client, one who is looking for a new identity or campaign, I always tell them it is incumbent upon us to show them their brand as if it were a winning sports team. Externally and internally, I want everyone who encounters their goods, their logo, to feel it as if it belonged to a team. I ask would you wear this campaign like a jersey?

It’s asking a lot, I know. But isn’t that the brief? If our/their idea doesn’t feel like a tee shirt they would wear on Saturday to the gym, what good is it?

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