An art collector’s take on advertising with purpose

—With all great advertising, just like with great art, craft must be secondary to the message, says Norman Melamed

Years ago, when I started collecting art in Vancouver, I focused on contemporary Northwest Coast Indian Art. Why? Because the art was all around me. I collected prints and drawings, and eventually added sculpture.

When I moved to Toronto, I discovered contemporary Woodland Cree Art and Inuit Art. In time, my interest extended beyond the Canadian border, and I added Southwest Native American Indian Art to my collection.

In terms of content, I found myself moving from decorative pieces to works that made social and political statements. We were close to the Columbus Quincentennial, an event which had come to be seen as not such a celebratory occasion for Indigenous peoples.

Over time, my collection became increasingly eclectic as I found new artists with varied concerns and interests from around the world. I became interested in Soviet Non-Conformist Art, Contemporary South African Art, Haitian Art, Australian Aboriginal Art, African and Oceanic Tribal Art, and more.

So, what does my ever-growing interest in art have to do with advertising? Well, everything actually.

When I started in this industry I was seduced by craft. But as time went by, I realized the most memorable campaigns I worked on had “something to say,” and that great work is often a single-focused message well told.

Examples of creative work that leans on craft over message abound. TV spots that employ a popular music track (“needle-drops” in industry parlance) or special effects (eg. CGI) may have only a tangential relationship to the product or service. These ads entertain more than they educate, and typically suffer from low brand recognition. In this context, we must conclude that craft should only be important when in service to delivering a message.

The thing about art is that there is an endless supply of good artists, but only a few that actually have something to say. An art dealer friend of mine in Montreal gave me an interesting tip on how to judge great work. He told me to ask myself, “What is the artist’s intention, and how successful are they at gaining your attention?”

Simple, but profound. And I realized the same applies to what we do. Great work communicates our intention, and is only successful if it gains people’s attention.

Putting this into the context of today, I believe that advertisers (and artists) have yet to find what is relevant during a global pandemic. When COVID-19 first began, the message was simple and directive: Stay safe. Stay home.

The intention is clear, but lacks staying power. If you want to keep my attention, the messaging has to progress.

Advertising messaging risks becoming irrelevant as consumerism feels shallow in the face of an existential crisis. Advertising must create a connection between the consumer and the brand. Great advertising is relevant and differentiated. We want people to associate themselves with the brand and imagine how the product or service will make their life better. Advertising that does not connect will not drive action, and as a result loses its purpose.

So where do we go from here? We can start by taking the following steps to ensure our intentions stay relevant and are well perceived.

  1. Start by asking what is the consumer problem we are trying to solve and how it fits the context of our times. We must ask ourselves what collective experiences we are going through right now where this company / service / product can make a difference. This applies to all categories, whether it be CPG, automotive, banking or telco. The author Simon Sinek suggests we “Start with Why?” and that every day is an opportunity to inspire someone. Again, this is messaging with purpose (ie. intention).
  2. Expand your horizons. The things we choose to expose ourselves to each day become a filter through which we see the world. If we only ever approach a problem through our own filters, we run the risk of our intentions being misconstrued by those whose experiences are different or completely unique from our own. Had I restricted my focus to only Northwest Coast Art, I would have missed out on so much more that artists around the world have to say. It is not just at the individual level we can do this. Brands can also expand their horizons by thinking beyond the initial use case of their product or service and considering the larger picture. For example, an automotive brand could consider a minivan as functional transportation, but it also delivers safety. This distinction is certainly important to anyone transporting children, but safety is equally as important for other occupants of the vehicle as well as those around them. In this case, the brand has considered the whole picture instead of just one small piece of it.
  3. If the past year has taught us anything it is that we are united in our differences. Not only is it important for us to ensure our people and creative output reflect the population, but it is necessary if we are to achieve a diversity of experiences and voices.

A final addition to our intention/attention communication model is action: As communicators, it is important that our intentions ultimately lead to action. Without purpose, advertising is no longer an art, it is just craft.

Norman Melamed is chief operating officer of Innocean Worldwide Canada.