Saturday, 23 June 2012

Google's Project Re: Brief. It's like Inception for Advertising

I hadn't yet heard of Google's project Re: Brief and came across the full version documentary that was released a couple of days ago. Cheers to Ben for the link. I watched it this afternoon, here are some thoughts about it. For info, this video is a project initiated by Google to bring several advertising people who created iconic ads out of retirement and bring them on with young teams with the intention to use their experience and insights for new digital media advertising. The video director is Doug Pray who also created the excellent Art & Copy documentary.

The four original ads and their art directors and copywriters are:
Harvey Gabor - Coca Cola 'Hilltop' or I'd like to buy the world a Coke song
Amil Gargano - Volvo 'Drive It like you Hate It'
Howie Cohen & Bob Pasqualina - Alka Seltzer 'I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing'
Paula Green - Avis 'We Try Harder' their copy platform and brand positioning

Firstly it's very "meta" to such extent I think the ultimate person targeted for this video is basically Abed from Community (or an advertising equivalent if such a person exists). It's a documentary that is an advert from Google for Google, featuring advertising people, talking about advertising and working on new adverts for other brands and overall celebrating advertising for advertising people. It's like Inception for advertising. An ad inside an ad inside an ad. It's certainly heavy on advertising and technology geekiness and the main audience is most certainly that: people who work in marketing and advertising. Which makes perfect sense as that's who Google sells their ad technologies and platforms to. 

It is an excellent idea from Google to promote themselves and by the end of it they're probably the brand coming out with the most original idea of all the ones covered, well obviously given none of the other ones would have come to life otherwise. I recommend watching it if you're in this business or if you're interested in finding out about the inner workings of advertising - I'd also recommend watching Morgan Spurlock's brilliant The Greatest Movie Ever Sold if you haven't seen it, just for some counter-balance on the advertising theme.

[There are probably some spoilers following and given it's a geeky advertising documentary, these are geeky advertising thoughts]

The subtitle is 'A Film about Re-imagining Advertising' and that part I was kind of disappointed about, because they don't actually re-imagine anything about advertising. On the contrary, they focus on the heart of the ideas and concepts that the iconic ads they had made in the 60's and 70's were about, regardless of digital media and online display advertising. Which is great, and I think that's how things should be - but it's not really re-imagining anything. It's a good sub-title in that it helped make me want to watch the hour long documentary, though not as strongly as 'from the director of Art & Copy and the makers of these famous old ads for Coke, Avis, Alka-Seltzer, and Volvo'. They start on a premise that they want to rethink online display advertising because it hasn't really changed in 15 years but I don't feel there's any progress from that particular perspective by the end of the movie - after all the format of TV ads haven't changed that much either and there is nothing wrong with them (or is there? There are no direct stats as for online banners). Maybe they'll bring out some results from the campaigns later..? They are focusing on narrative, storytelling, and extensive technology for thei ads. That is no different from the celebrated campaigns these days; I haven't really followed Cannes this year yet but let's say Old Spice for an easy relatively recent reference. 

I was disappointed by the lack of current context in terms of media consumption habits for the audiences brands are trying to reach in advertising. There were a few mentions in terms of media that struck me: Cohen and Pasqualina (I think it was Cohen's comment) say: "Three [TV] Networks, when you put it on, everybody saw it". In the following scene Amil Gargano says about the Volvo ads: "When you ran an ad like that in a full page bleed in Life magazine [...] it jumped off the page." 

While these creatives are rightly focusing on the concepts and ideas for the ads, their experience of their success seems interestingly tied to media and the media context of the time they were ran. There was a lot of mentions in the film of very complex technologies and the huge amount of things you could do with them though almost no mention of the people these online ads are trying to reach and their behaviour, only mentions of the technology available. There are hundreds of TV networks in the US alone, over a trillion websites people can visit, people surf the web and multi-task across different devices like using their laptop or iPad while watching TV, the print industry is dying right now, many magazines are closing down, etc. I am doubtful a full page ad in Life magazine has the same impact today than it had in 1962. 

Or does it? 

I wouldn't know, the last time I bought a magazine was at least 2 years ago. The film is about re-imagining these classic ad ideas and expanding them using complicated digital technologies for advertising which is great and they are or at least seem to be great digital executions, but not really anything about the premise of innovating on online or mobile display ads. They talk about interactive banners on mobile and tablets in the film, I have never clicked on a banner with my mobile phone or iPod Touch - I don't know if many people do.

My best guess as to the intention is to inspire more brands to take risks with digital advertising as well as storytelling. Again, I'd be really curious to see results from these campaigns. Effectiveness and proof - if at all possible - is what might encourage more brands to go in these directions, because they are business decisions first. If there is no conclusive proof, I wouldn't be surprised if many marketing directors choose to keep investing in what they know or feel works: TV advertising and online search ads for example, and reserve these kinds of neat digital media cross-media shiny things for a day they'll have extra budgets to play around with...

All that aside, the ideas and executions they came up with for Coke, Volvo, Avis, and Alka Seltzer are really lovely, and I thought the most interesting common denominator - aside perhaps from Ralph - is that they are about real people and real stories enabled and/or with nifty technology. Coke in particular given people played and had a direct experience with the interactive Coke machines was probably the one that really stood out for me. Volvo and the 3 million miles car seems full of lovely stories though Honda also had a similar activity with someone completing one million miles with their Honda Accord last year.

Avis was interestingly the only of the four brands who rejected the first idea and they told them what they wanted and the team went and created something to match. As Paula Green says: "It was a very important learning meeting because in saying what [the client] thought, she outlined a lot of stuff that we didn't know". Or in different words from Morgan Spurlock after his pitch meeting with POM Wonderful in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: "Then basically they told me what they wanted me to pitch". A reminder of how important it is to get as much information and the right kind of information out of clients for a brief.

Tell me what you think of the film if you watch it!

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