Matt Williams: Advertising Week Europe is raising important issues – but let’s cut the ‘celebs’

There’s a lot I really don’t like about advertising festivals. The awkward backslapping, the stream of talks that are little more than glorified case studies where agencies and brands pay an extortionate amount to try and convince you that their latest campaign wasn’t a complete disaster. The forced love-in where industry bigwigs come together under the pretence of championing creativity, when really they’re just looking for a way to massage their own egos and expense lunch.

And of course, worst of all, the sessions where people slavishly sit and listen to a random celebrity – paid for by an agency in the hope that they’ll look cool and well connected – who say absolutely nothing of note, but still gets tweeted anyway because the attendees have to justify their presence to their boss somehow.

Advertising Week Europe has so far more than lived up to that last gripe. I’ve seen everyone from Alesha Dixon to David Haye to Bernie Ecclestone giving their ‘unique view’ on the advertising industry.

Of course, in cases like Ecclestone, you can at least guarantee they’ll say something stupid enough to get you coverage well beyond the trade press – and perhaps the WPP PR machine should be applauded for using the platform to have Sir Martin Sorrell’s name splashed all over the BBC Sport website yesterday.

But if we really are here to stimulate prolific debates on the industry, is hearing boxer Anthony Joshua tell you that “it’s important to stay relaxed in high pressured situations” really what we should be doing with our time? Oh, I’m sure you’ll definitely get the edge you need in your next pitch now you’ve paid for a ticket and heard that.

That’s where my grumpy moaning ends though. Because there’s a flip side. And a pretty significant one. Sure, there’s a lot to dislike about these festivals, but they can play an important role too. And I have to say that Advertising Week Europe is doing a pretty damn good job at it.

Despite being a relatively fun, free and prosperous industry, there’s also some pretty shocking injustices in advertising. Some are purely business issues that should be addressed – how some clients treat agencies during pitch processes, for example.

But some are wider social issues that require a genuine effort and forthright campaigning if we’re to make a real difference. Issues like gender equality, the ethics of advertisers, and the shocking lack of anyone working in an agency who’s not white middle class.

Until recently, there was the odd effort to tackle such issues. But beyond some well-meaning initiatives and a sporadic opinion piece in the trade press, traction was hard to instigate.

Now, however, it feels like we’re beginning to get some momentum. Credit to Campaign magazine for using its influence to start doing some ‘campaigning’, and pushing the gender agenda beyond the usual channels. Organisations like the Ideas Foundation are picking up more and more champions too, and even the Government is taking notice.

And I absolutely love The Drum’s Do It Day initiative, which has brought together some of the world’s biggest brands to attempt to improve the world in just one day.

And now, high profile events like Advertising Week are giving these issues an even more prominent platform. They’re launching initiatives that feel tangible, that feels like action can be taken.

I attended one such event this morning. This was the UK launch of MAKERS, a destination that assembles compelling stories of inspiring women. Because only with steps like this can things feel tangible. As Jude Kelly, theatre director, producer, and all-round incredible woman, said in the panel discussion: “only when you see it can you be it.”

That really is what’s so important – and where we’ve fallen behind in the past. There’s been a lot of talking. A lot of column inches. But never such public action as we’re seeing at some of the sessions at Advertising Week (and will hopefully see again at Cannes and other such upcoming events too).

And you know what? If we start to genuinely get the change that’s so desperately needed, then I can put up with the hot air, backscratching and sycophancy that blight these festivals so.

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