Creativity in the Age of the Maths Men

In his latest post on LinkedIn, Martin Sorrell, founder and chief executive of WPP, explores his contentious views that the future of advertising and marketing services belongs as much to Maths Men (and women) as it does to Mad Men (and women).

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, talking at Cannes Lions
Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, talking at Cannes Lions

When I said earlier this year that the future of advertising and marketing services belongs as much to Maths Men (and women) as it does to Mad Men (and women), I upset quite a lot of people. Those who follow our industry will know this is not an unusual position for me to be in.

I was talking about the ever-increasing importance of big data and technology to our business, and how they’re revolutionising what we can do for our clients. Some took it to mean that "creativity" (I’ll come back to what I mean by that) had been relegated to the lower leagues.

When I wrote on LinkedIn about increasing our digital targets, someone posted a comment along the lines of "what about traditional creative TV campaigns – has anyone seen one of those lately?"

Well yes, plenty. Grey New York’s campaign for DirecTV, which won various awards at the last two Cannes Lions International Festivals of Creativity, springs to mind. Strong central idea, well executed, very funny – like my all-time favourite, by BTS United Oslo for language education company Berlitz.

There’s certainly no shortage of exceptional work in TV (and press, outdoor, radio and other "traditional" media). It remains hugely effective for clients, and hugely important for our business.

Returning to Cannes – sweeping the board at this year’s festival (along, it should be said, with McCann Melbourne’s Dumb Ways to Die) was Ogilvy Sao Paulo’s Real Beauty Sketches for Dove. It’s a superb film that touched a nerve and made headlines around the world. Peerless work, brilliantly conceived and executed by people at the very top of their craft.

A traditional campaign? You be the judge. At more than three minutes the YouTube film is far longer than a standard TV spot. This viral mega-hit – which to date has attracted more than 50 million views – is now the most watched video ad of all time. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

It was successful for three reasons.

First, because it was an inspired idea.

Second, because it’s a true piece of brand-building: not a one-off wonder but an extension of the long-running and highly effective Real Beauty campaign, fulfilling David Ogilvy’s famous belief that every single ad should be an investment in the long-term reputation of the brand.

And third, because it was conceived and delivered by people who understood film and how to harness the extraordinary power of sharing content via social media. Both of those things required a high level of creative intelligence – which brings me to the point.

Creativity is the beating heart of our business. There is no business without it. But it doesn’t belong exclusively to one discipline or another. Imagination, inventiveness, wit, ingenuity and talent are just as at home in media, PR, software development, data and research as they are in art and copy (read Jeremy Bullmore’s essay about the "intensely creative act" of giving "high potency" to research, for example).

In 1996 I gave the D&AD (Design and Art Direction) President’s Lecture in London. D&AD, one of adland’s institutions, is a professional association and charity that promotes excellence in commercial creativity, and my speech was a boring bean-counter’s attempt to show the creative community why I have always been so attracted to what it does.

In that speech I said: "What we sell are pearls. Whether we are designers or planners or writers or art directors or corporate strategists, our raw material is knowledge. We turn that knowledge into ideas, insights, and objects that have a material, quantifiable value to our clients.

"They are all pearls: of wisdom, of beauty, of desire, of wonder. Only the human mind can perform this extraordinary alchemy. And only certain kinds of mind, at that.

"But here we must be very careful. We have come to believe that only very few are alchemists – and I think that’s wrong and dangerous."

I think that’s truer than ever today.

At WPP we intend to go on making pearls for some time to come, and that means the industry needs to find and nurture young talent.

So I’m delighted that this month we announced a major new partnership with D&AD (who better?) with the aim of doing just that. Led on our side by Worldwide Creative Director John O’Keeffe, this partnership will provide a range of opportunities for students through D&AD’s New Blood Academy and paid apprenticeships with WPP agencies.

Alongside other initiatives like our longstanding Fellowship programme and the WPP School of Marketing and Communications in Shanghai, it’s one of the many ways in which we’ll discover and support the next generation of alchemists.

Martin Sorrell is chief executive of WPP, the world's largest marketing services group

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