Gray Matters: life, diversity, leadership and sky

The Demeaning of Life

In an article in The Spectator last week, Dan Hitchens asked the question: “When did advertising become so banal?” His contention, in reference to the proclivity for advertisers to use empty phrases, was that “the more starry-eyed the slogan, the bleaker the reality it conceals”. His objection to meaning-of-life advertising is that it’s so trite.

Hitchens gave the examples of Heineken campaigning for ‘an open world’, where people listen to each other and realise ‘that there is more that unites us than divides us’. As he reminds us, “successful slogans of the 20th century tended to be pragmatic, catchy or flattering. Now, advertising tries to address the meaning of life”.

New Zealand advertising has not entirely escaped these clichéd aphorisms. AIG are promoting #diversity is strength in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup in Japan; and Trade Me employees talk about acts of kindness done by its members for World Kindness Day. But in general, we appear to still see the value in being proud of the intrinsic value of the brands we promote.

I for one love the new Colorsteel Ad by DDB, which proudly states: “For a home you can be proud of” – no meaning-of-life crap, just straight to the point in a funny and relatable ad about wanting to impress and feel proud of the home we live in.

There’s been enough said about the flurry of publicity over brands attaching themselves to social issues. With any luck we’ll avoid the platitudes and be confident in our ability to convince the Kiwi consumer of the values of our brands instead of virtue signalling our way to the checkout.

There is, of course, a counter argument, and to give value to those creative directors who might be tempted to take umbrage at my contention, I will quote author David Foster Wallace from his famous aquatic-themed graduation speech, This is Water:

“In the day to day trenches of adult existence, platitudes can have a life or death importance. Tell your audiences that they’re too smart to want a certain thing and give it to them anyway. Remind everyone that they’re too hip for corny dad sermonizing and then double down on the corny dad sermonizing.”

After all, “the insight we lack has been here all along! Just hiding inside our clichés”.

However, like Hitchens, I believe that: “the more starry-eyed the slogan, the bleaker the reality it conceals.” As he says, “the simplest objection to meaning-of-life advertising is that it strains to be poetic, but it bears the same relation to poetry as concrete carbuncles do to architecture. And like bad architecture, you can’t escape it”.


Talking about virtue signalling, and as reported earlier this year in StopPress, the Commercial Communications Council has issued an Inclusiveness and Diversity Policy for use in member agencies. “Advertising is an industry built on creating transformative ideas for businesses, so it is important to strive for diversity in thinking to keep on the forefront of innovation and creativity,” says inclusiveness and diversity group chair, Megan Clark.

Now I’m all for “diversity in thinking”, as the policy states, but does that relate to being “representative of the population” in the “talent pool development”?

Earlier this year, Andrea Keirn, managing director of Black Rhino Marketing Group, wrote in Forbes about there being more voices demanding more inclusion in the marketing and advertising industry. This came on the back of a 2016 New York Times article claiming that big brands were noticing the diversity paradox and wanted ad agencies to do something about it.

The claim by Sapna Maheshwari under the heading Brands to Ad Agencies: Diversify or Else was that the “advertising industry has tried for decades with little success to shed its ‘Mad Men’-like reputation as a profession dominated by white men. Now, some of the world’s biggest brands are viewing that lack of diversity as a liability.”

Is this the case in New Zealand? The Commercial Communications Council initiative was apparently based on a report, by Deloitte Access Economics, which highlighted a lack of diversity within the advertising industry, so Comms Council CEO Paul Head may not be merely keeping up with the modern-day practice of virtue signalling and jumping on the band wagon.

Perhaps he also read Andrea Keirn’s plea when she urged action: “As leaders in the industry, it’s time for us to stand up, speak out and do more than just “spin” our responses to sound like the right thing to do — we need to actually do it.”

Keirn believes: “No matter how hard you may try, or how much market research you do, it is impossible for an agency full of white males to create authentic work that appeals to the greater audience.”

Do StopPress readers believe this to be the case in New Zealand? We’d be keen to hear your views.

Leadership required

Mercer’s 2018 Global Talent Trends Study backs up the call for more inclusion, saying: “Addressing and improving gender imbalance in the organisation has proven an intractable problem. Organisations have been at this for years yet are still decades away from realising the full potential of the female workforce.”

The problem, as one attendee at the Femmepire Summit in October, Alenka Ashley, reported, it appears that women in general tend to “experience the ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s doubting yourself and believing that you’re an incompetent failure when your achievements would suggest otherwise.”

The main conclusion from the Mercer study, however, is a claim that although AI and robotics are shaping the future of work, only people can unlock the value of technology. The Mercer study calls for organisations to be agile, while bringing their people along on the journey.

To me, this sounds like a pre-requisite for success in advertising and marketing. Although New Zealand was not included in the study, Australia was, and there the most important aspect to thriving at work was having leaders who set a clear direction. Perhaps there are some women out there who can fill this leadership void.

As reported in Stuff, according to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report, which surveyed more than 7000 human resources and business leaders from 130 countries, leadership was the second biggest issue affecting organisations, including in New Zealand.

This could be a problem in the New Zealand advertising industry, which is worrying at a time when ANZA is reporting that a recent WFA study has found that three quarters of major multinationals are rethinking their current agency arrangements, with many addressing whether their current partners have the right capabilities for their needs.

“In response to their apparent dissatisfaction with agencies, many brands are moving towards an in-house model, feeling the pressure of ad budgets, while consultancies swoop in to take high-margin experience technology services.”

Sky’s the limit

With the announcement this week that Sky TV has appointed Martin Stewart as its new CEO, following John Fellet’s impending retirement, let’s hope Sky TV will take a quantum leap into the present. Stewart has already talked about transforming Sky from a traditional television broadcaster into a multi-platform entertainment business.

With a reported a $240.7 million loss in the year to June 2018, something radical has to happen if the steady decline of subscribers is going to be contained. The loss of the Rugby World Cup Rights to Spark and TVNZ is a portent of future disaster as new competitors with new platforms disrupt the broadcast business.

Live sport has been the main differentiator for Sky and a reliable generator of support from a subscriber base that has for too long suspected that it is being fleeced. Movies are available from almost anywhere in the current environment, so the loss of sports contracts is a killer blow.  

TV broadcasters are already investing in hybrid TV (combining TV broadcasting signals with the internet) and multi-screen business opportunities. In the UK, Sky launched Sky Q in 2016, considered the ultimate home entertainment platform by the respected TechRadar website.

Sky Q is a “TV platform and ecosystem that sends live and recorded content around rooms and across your mobile devices. It brings with it multi-room streaming, high-resolution 4K content, an extensive on-demand library, and an interface that’s a pleasure to use,” writes Marc Chacksfield, Patrick Goss and Henry St Leger on TechRadar. As we approach 2019, Sky TV still hasn’t brought this to New Zealand, so it’s hoped that Stewart will release the brake Fellet has had his rather big foot on and put his own on the accelerator.

There is no doubt content is still king, but price, technology and consumer demands are imperative bedfellows.


Reading on Stuff that Vodafone admits misleading customers over broadband options, pleading guilty to nine charges under the Fair Trading Act, got me thinking about whether this will have any effect on the brand at all. Do consumers really care? Certainly, the Advertising Standards Authority didn’t think so, ruling that Vodafone’s FibreX advertising was not misleading.

An article in AdAge which ranks brand controversies by the amount of consumer damage claims consumers are far more likely to punish companies for lying than anything else. “Misleading the public for profit is the worst kind of scandal,” according to the AdAge report. It remains to be seen whether the charges brought by the Commerce Commission will be seen in that light by Vodafone customers.

About Author

Graham Medcalf is a freelance writer and owner of Red Advertising.

Comments are closed.