Jane Austin: why do people in advertising – especially CMOs – have to speak in riddles?

Trust was the most popular word at Cannes this year, the actual meaning of which covers a multitude of strategies and intentions. It is usually delivered with a serious face and a slowing of speech, a bit like Esther Rantzen moving to the earnest bit on That’s Life! After the bit when everyone laughs at a vegetable that looks like a penis.

As Vicki Maguire, CCO of Grey London, said over breakfast last week: “The way many agencies talk about trust is like people who say that they are funny. It’s up to others to say that”.

Trust also became an adjective last week. I went to one talk where ‘trusterizing’ was used in the same sentence as ‘digital inflection point.’ At this point I felt there was only six degrees of separation to cunterizing.

‘Story telling’ has evolved to ‘Story Living’ despite a brief bid from Sapient Nitro a few years ago to ‘own’ the positioning as ‘Story Scaping.’

‘Woke washing’ was in full kilt as was ‘purpose pushing.’ We’re all so ‘agile,’ ‘blended’ and ‘unboxed’ that we should feel liberated, rip off our lanyards and tell the waiters who charge us 15 euros for a Coca Max that we love them, but true democracy still eluded us: evidenced by the regular use of the word ‘own’ as in “we want to ‘own’ old people/gaming,/Alzheimer’s, automotive/ feminism/trust’ etc.

I won’t bore you with the meanings behind these phrases – mostly, because I have no idea what they are. Especially the made-up words consisting of three small words smashed together and uttered with a knowing raised eyebrow.

But these are part of what passed for conversation and debate in Cannes this year.

It’s mystifying that an industry that prides itself on being able to communicate even the most complex or difficult message in a clear simple way always seems to resort to jargon when it comes to talking about itself or describing what it can do.

Buzzwords litter speaker keynotes at Cannes, especially amongst chief marketing officers who are some of the worst offenders when it comes to jargon. The best media trainers will tell you that when it comes to public speaking and delivering an engaging presentation you need to speak as though you’re talking to your best mate down the pub. For disarming a crowd, a well-chosen swearword is much more preferable to a buzzword.

A reliance on jargon also means the message just doesn’t translate for people who live in the real world. Jargon is a way of obfuscating what you are actually saying or, alternatively, making it sound much more important than it actually is, so it’s hardly a shock that ad people, who make a living from making things sound more important than they are, are fluent in it.

People use jargon because they see it as a means of connecting with their ‘tribe.’ They don’t want to appear like outsiders, so talking empty gibberish can be an attempt to conform. But surely this industry is not just trying to speak with and connect with itself at Cannes?

I’ve heard some people in advertising complaining that Extinction Rebellion’s protests at Cannes were misdirected because they didn’t know about the good that the advertising industry is doing in the world. In my view, Extinction Rebellion were perfectly justified in protesting this industry.

But as for people outside this bubble not knowing what is going on within it, how could they when most of the people that work in it speak in riddles?

Jane Austin is the owner of Persuasion.

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    Charles Courtier

    It’s so true. The industry is talking gobbledygook. If trust is important I would have thought plain clear communication would be a good place to start!