The most frustrating moment in my Cannes Lions 2015 experience has been coming to the realisation that I have nothing mean to say about David Shing. “That hair though!” I hear you exclaim. “Those glasses!”
But it is my grudging responsibility to report that, in an industry increasingly permeated by self-proclaimed Svengalis and Jedi masters, AOL’s ‘digital prophet’ Shing has the rare quality of self-awareness. He knows advertising can all too often fall for its own hype, and his seminar on the final day of the festival cuts through popular catchalls like ‘storytelling’ to issue a reminder — people are humans first, and everything else (consumer, influencer, brand) second.
“People think we’re living in the ‘me’ generation,” says Shing, “but I think we’re living in the ‘we’ generation.” He believes that millennial consumer values are more closely aligned with those of their grandparents than their parents; they want to spend quality time with each other, they’re just achieving it through vastly different means. As much as people like to wring their hands about technology taking over our lives, we’re still living in an industry designed by humans, for humans, which is why peer-to-peer recommendations arguably carry more currency than the visibility of a brand.
Talk less, say more
“We shouldn’t talk about innovation any more,” says Shing. “We need to talk about invention.” Like Shing, Design Army’s co-founder and CCO Pum Lefebure confesses to being totally over the idea ‘content’ and ‘storytelling’ are the answer, no matter the question. In her session on simple design, she says the advertising industry is looking a little bloated these days: “It’s time to trim the fat, cut the crap, and get to the point.”
We’re living in an attention economy, where an abundance of content results in the message getting lost. Research from AOL indicates that media overload is actually the sixth largest contributory factor in stress levels today. Quite appropriate, then, that Deutsch EVP Nathan Iverson sees simplicity in products and marketing as part of the solution. “Simple design is a stress killer,” he says.
That isn’t to say simplifying is the same as dumbing down. “It isn’t about spoon-feeding,” says Lefebure. Rather, it’s about finding new and innovative ways to stimulate the mind. Shing describes technology, content and distribution as the “primary colours” of this industry, with which any masterpiece can be created, once we’ve moved past what’s comfortable or easy
“Simple design taps into human truth, and it keeps us honest,” says Iverson, who has worked with Apple, a brand that remains impeccably on-message thanks in part to its minimalist aesthetic. When in doubt, Lefebure suggests that marketers and brands follow the advice of Coco Chanel, and always figuratively remove an accessory before leaving the house: “As a designer, you have to be a master of subtraction… talk less, but say a little more.”
The power of P
Shing is probably the only human in the known universe who loves alliteration more than I do. He talks about “price, product, promotion and place” being the four P’s which drove advertising when he was growing up; now it’s “platforms, partnerships, performance and pedigree.”
The proliferation of platforms in the last five years, be they for crowdsourcing or cat photos, has given everybody a voice. And while it’s fair to say the value-add of sites like Kickstarter are their equalising effect, Shing argues that the real benefit is “the interconnected network of people who give a shit about the brand you’re building.”
Giving a shit is, without a doubt, part of Shing’s brand, as evidenced by his final two very important P’s; perspective and patience. Amid the convenience and immediacy of instant messaging and eCommerce, it’s far too easy to lose sight of what’s real. How do we combat this? Simple, says Shing: “Look up from your phone!”