Earlier this year, I spent a few days with my with my fellow communications strategists in Manhattan’s revitalized Seaport neighborhood at the sold-out 2018 4A’s StratFest. As always, it was an almost overwhelming smorgasbord of ideas, philosophies, tools and tricks from some of the most inquisitive minds in the world. Here are some of the major themes I carried home.
Our divided country is very much on our minds.
Nobody mentioned Trump’s name during the conference, but it was clear that many of us are trying to figure out how to deal with the divisiveness he’s fostered in our country. Grey Advertising undertook a proprietary study titled “The Famously Effective Business of Togetherness.” They found that, while there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for marketers, 88% of people agree that “we must unite and come together” — and that ultimately, action matters as much as talk. In addition, 46% said that advertisers that truly care about togetherness should make financial donations to support the cause. Also, Grey has begun adding this question to every creative brief they write: “How can we make the idea reflect and respect the world’s diversity?”
Jay Chiat Award judges love entries that do more than sell.
Look at some of the brands that won big this year: Harpic, a toilet bowl cleaner, for making Indian women safer from attack and rape. Harry’s Razors, for taking on a growing global male mental health crisis. The Afghanistan Ministry of Public Health, for creating a new way for doctors to communicate with each other in the absence of proper hospital records. The National Safety Council, for jump-starting a national conversation about the overlooked role of prescription opioids in our country’s opioid epidemic. Not every winner tackled such massive issues — but judges clearly responded very favorably to brands that aimed to not just move product but move society forward.
Everything takes a backseat to storytelling.
In presenting their Jay Chiat Award-winning case studies, many of the strategists behind the entries basically glossed over what they referred to as the “plannery” stuff: focus groups, desk research, surveys, audience identification. They didn’t treat those things with derision or suggest they were unimportant — clearly, they were important to the outcome. But in terms of moving the room to laughter or tears or anger or empathy or whatever it was they wanted us to feel, none of it was as important as telling a powerful story anchored by statistics and insight. Every three minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer…but there are no resources that explain cancer in a way kids can understand. Prescription opioids kill 22,000 in the U.S. every year…but Americans think it is killing “addicts,” not people like them. Half a billion Indians still defecate in the open…but they would be more likely to use toilets if they saw them as a status symbol.
Old dogs can learn new tricks.
One of the most powerful workshops I attended was led by a former strategy chief (full transparency: he was once my employer) turned independent consultant who has embraced magical thinking as a strategy tool. Which is not to say he’s turned his back on rationale and logic — just that he’s found new inspiration, both professional and personal, in magic and intuition and other weird and unexplainable things. In unveiling his patented Nockwood Cards (think brand tarot), he took us on a journey that demonstrated extraordinary vulnerability, intellectual rigor and generosity of spirit. It was a great reminder to never stop learning — not just intellectually but also emotionally.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Some things never change. We still debate what our titles should be, and why. We parse strategy and planning: “Strategy is about power, and the use of resources; planning is an art that inspires art.” We continue to wonder if we’re still relevant, or if we do enough, or if we’ll survive technology. The answer is we (probably) will. As powerful as artificial intelligence is, humans are still better at emotion, creativity, and insights. As the Director of the MIT Center for Cognitive Neuroscience told us, “Electronic media aren’t going to revamp the brain’s mechanisms for info processing. Claims to the contrary are propelled by the pressure on pundits to announce that technology changes everything.” Our human decision-making process is 100,000 years old, and technology has not fundamentally altered the way we think. The most compelling value proposition is still an emotional benefit that feeds people’s self-concept of who they aspire to be. So, even though the tools and technologies are changing, our essential job remains very much the same — and very much important.
So, what does this all mean? What’s the future of communications strategy? I don’t exactly know. I don’t know that anybody does. But I can tell you with great confidence that the field will remain populated by some of the most curious, empathetic people alive. The type of people Kerouac described as “the mad ones…the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” With every passing year, we mad ones will have a bevy of new tricks and tools at our disposal. But our most important and powerful assets will be a soul-deep need to know the inner workings of the human heart, and an ability to move our better angels to action.
This article originally appeared on CJ’s LinkedIn page.