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Is Advertising Radical Enough?

The answer, of course, depends how we define the term ‘radical’ and how we quantify ‘enough.’ But the other night, three of Amsterdam’s top Strategy Directors answered the question with some variation of “Don’t be daft, of course advertising is not radical enough!”

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My name is Ali Marmaduke, I’m a Brand Strategist at Design Bridge Amsterdam, and I’m also a board member of the local branch of the Account Planners Group (APG), an organisation that brings Brand Strategists and Advertising Planners together to discuss new ideas, trends, and the evolution of our industry and culture. Every quarter, the APG hosts events and I was asked to select a topic and choose speakers to share their perspectives.

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Radicalism is a dynamic concept
As my career path has meandered from catalysing political reform in developing nations for an NGO, to advertising and now brand strategy, the term ‘radicalism’ has always been a part of my professional vocabulary, but it has taken on different dimensions of meaning in each context and at each organisation I’ve worked for. What ‘radicalism’ means at Design Bridge is different to what it means at other agencies I’ve worked at. So inviting three strategic minds from three different agencies to deconstruct the term was a way to inform how and perhaps why we Strategists do our jobs.

Radicalism is a concept normally attached to religious zealots, separatists, nationalists, and other groups that apply extreme means to achieve their desired ends. We associate the term with an uncompromising desire for systemic change. But what does it mean for brands and the professionals tasked with building them? Should brands really strive to be more radical in their communications? How much change are we talking about here? After all, brands are stories, and stories must be communicated consistently across markets and touch points if they are to be recognised and memorised by consumers.

To answer the question “Is advertising radical enough?” I invited Mike Flynn, Strategy Director in our Amsterdam Studio, Martin Weigel, Planning Director at Wieden+Kennedy’ Amsterdam, and Jessica Perri, Founder and Principle Strategist at Incite, an advertising strategy consultancy.

Radicalism embraces fundamentalism
Mike approached the question by defining the term ‘radicalism’ as the “desire for fundamental change”. Advertising, he proposed, is primarily focused on achieving change, but too often fails to develop campaign ideas that are rooted in the brand’s fundamental story. While brand design agencies like Design Bridge build the foundations of brands—what they stand for—ad agencies, in their efforts to help brands stand out, too often overstretch the connection between a communications idea and the brand idea, potentially damaging a brand’s equity.

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For advertising to be more radical, Mike proposed that advertising agencies and brand design agencies work more collaboratively to leverage their core strengths in building brands and helping them create impactful change that remains rooted to the core of the brand story.

Radicalism embraces chaos

Diagnosing advertising as domesticated and tame, Martin Weigel delivered a stirring monologue on “the liberation of creativity” from the desire to apply formulaic processes to develop creative ideas. “The corporation,” Martin says, “has always been an exercise in control, process, and replicability”—a necessity for companies, he says, because without order and control they wouldn’t be able to exist (and neither would agencies). Order keeps us employed, but while the corporation strives for efficiency, creativity values difference.

“Reducing the development of creativity to a step-by-step process undermines the commercial value of creativity.” Martin says creativity demands that agencies abandon linear processes and orthodoxies, and embrace a degree of chaos and uncertainty. Chaos induces corporate anxiety because it carries risk, but the benefit of “undomesticated” creativity delivers clients a demonstrably higher return on investment. Strategists must help clients understand the inherent relationship between chaos and creativity, and recognise the value of embracing both.

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Radical embraces KPIs beyond sales
Jessica Perri offered an alternative analysis. The purpose of advertising is to change views and habits by persuading people to buy a company’s offerings, she says. But ‘radical advertising’ goes beyond catalyzing changes in consumer perception or behavior for the sole purpose of sales. Radical advertising, she says, is a paradigmatic shift whereby “the value of the communications is not measured only by its ability to increase profits, but by its ability to incite positive change.”

To Jessica, radicalism goes beyond liberating creativity and beyond remaining loyal to a brand’s core—those are inherently necessary parts of any good strategy, she says. But radicalism is about affecting long-term, scalable cultural and political progress that not only benefits a corporation’s brand and bottom line, but benefits the planet and its people. She acknowledged that this is a tall order, but she warned that attaching the term ‘radicalism’ with common criteria for doing our jobs well, our ambition is not high enough and “we lessen the potential for true change in business and society.”

The world needs radical change, Jessica says, and brands have the power to positively affect the world or to fill it with crap. It’s our responsibility to guide our clients to do the right things by showing how radical ideas also improve their bottom line.

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So, is advertising radical enough?
No one seems to think so. And becoming more radical – be it in brand strategy, brand design or advertising – is not a simple or entirely unproblematic task. But discussions like these among Brand Strategists and Advertising Planners, but also with our clients, keep the gates open for the kind of transformation and progress that brands, agencies and the world all need.

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