Media lessons from @ConanoBrien, @iamdiddy & Dame Vivienne Westwood #canneslions

Conan O'Brien at Cannes

Over the last couple of days I have witnessed a few media legends give us their opinion on what the marketing and advertising industry needs to do if we are to adapt to change at the breakneck speed that it is.

First up, Conan O’Brien and Anderson Cooper, courtesy Time Warner.

I’ll be honest: I’m a big fan of comedy, but I haven’t watched too much of Conan O’Brien, living as I do in London: the comics on Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You are the more familiar staples of my now limited live TV diet (I prefer Netflix).

But that has changed. I am going to go back and look up as many Conan O’Brien shows and clips as I can on YouTube. Along with Anderson Cooper, the pair made for great viewing and listening, like a perfect TV show, except at Cannes. P.Diddy was slotted to follow them on the Grand Audi Stage the next hour; their self-deprecating comments when they walked on stage (“You’re all here for P.Diddy) immediately endeared them to the audience.

Conan O’Brien spoke about how the termination of his relationship with NBC a few years ago meant that he couldn’t do anything in media – he wasn’t even allowed to do anything of his own online. That was around the time social media started becoming popular, he really caught on to the power of platforms like Twitter when he managed to sell out an entire show thanks to one tweet. He also spoke about how TV and movie studios are forced to admit how influential social networks can be: they go after people and shows that can already demonstrate a following online, especially amongst the younger audience. However – and this very valid point was made by Alastair Somerville as I was live-tweeting the talk, we should all think about the fact that it becomes a digitally self-selecting group of people they get as an audience (clearly studios need to read a copy of How Brands Grow).

Mr. O’Brien took us through examples of the public contributing to his work (Anderson Cooper noted this and his response was along the lines of ‘Yes, I make money off them, I’m the one who gets the cheque’ very frankly!), such as Occupy Conan. He also mentioned his non-branded Serious Jibber-Jabber series with people like Judd Apatow, Nate Silver and Jack White – things like that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.

He gave the marketing folk in the crowd a proper telling-off for their lack of creativity when it came to things like asking celebrities to ‘bite a bar of Snickers and look into the camera seductively (!!)’ – he said he’d be happy to take their money but he’d rather do that in his own home (haha); the lesson of course being that inappropriate ‘placements’ and traditional ads just doesn’t work with his audience, or any audience for that matter.

He went on to mention how, as a complete non-videogamer, he thought it was really positive that videogame companies started asking him to review games in the full knowledge that he wasn’t a gamer, therefore giving him complete autonomy with regards to what he wanted to say. Those clips are hilarious too – watch him review ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ and have a hearty laugh:

P. Diddy, or Sean Combs (depending on which group of friends you hang out with) came on stage in typical Hollywood fashion 15 minutes late. His was the only talk at Cannes I’ve seen so far that didn’t run to time, but given how good he was I think everyone forgave him by the end.

Am I a hip-hop fan? Yup. Do I watch E! and read the celebrity gossip magazines enough to form a reasonably decent opinion of this man? No. So it was with no expectations whatsoever that I went in to see his seminar, and I can say that I was reasonably impressed.

P.Diddy was introduced by Steve Stoute, AdAge’s Executive of the Year 2013, the CEO of Translation. They obviously know each other well. When he came on to introduce The Man (henceforth I will refer to him as such for the rest of this piece), I was a bit concerned we’d get another executive talk but instead what we did get was a showreel about The Man and his many talents. It was a good video actually, which charted his growth from a musician to entrepreneur and businessman with ventures like Ciroc (now the second highest-selling premium vodka in the US), his clothing line Sean Combs and his perfume business. The focus of the talk however was Revolt.TV, the new channel that he is launching soon.

Revolt aims to be for this generation what MTV used to be for the older generation.

The Man was honest and sincere: he said that he wasn’t setting out to badmouth MTV in any way – he’s had a really good working relationship with them and they even gave him his first break as a producer – but said that kids of today who listen to music probably more than ever before deserve something like Revolt in the absence of the old MTV. I sighed for the glory days of MTV myself.

He spoke with great passion how MTV used to be a platform for artists (‘kids used to pretend to be music artists in their rooms because they aspired to be on MTV’) and now that it isn’t, there is no space dedicated to the music community. He also made a very good point that 9 out of the top 10 Twitterati are music artists, so there’s a very glaring gap there that needs to be filled, which is what he aims to do with Revolt (it’s 7 according to this list but let’s not get picky!).

The Man is clearly passionate about music, but also about millennials, as they’re his target audience. Of his 6 kids, 3 are millennials (‘I asked them though, ‘do you like to be called millennials?’ and they said heck no, we don’t like to be called that!’). He said quite rightly that he is building Revolt for mobile and tablet first because that’s where kids spend their time.

In terms of inspiration for Revolt, he spoke about how he aimed for it to be like an ESPN for music. It is set to cover music journalism and curate content in a way that all of us really need in this age of information overload (‘I have a friend, he’s one of those people who you’d say has everything, so it’s very difficult to buy a birthday gift for him. So I gave him curated music lists for his birthday that suited different occasions: car journeys, listening to with family, even romance. And he said it was one of the best birthday gifts he received because like many people he doesn’t know what’s interesting and popular at any given point in time).

One of the things that’s relevant to what Conan O’Brien said as well is how it’s really important to be authentic because people (young people in particular) can spot phoniness a mile away.

The Man’s vodka brand Ciroc came up towards the end. He was able to make it the success it is today when he took it over from the previous owners because brands like Grey Goose and Johnny Walker, in his opinion, shut out the young people whereas he was able to speak to them. That got me thinking about the importance of reality checks now and then. In my mind both those brands have their own strengths, but clearly in terms of communication Ciroc speaks to a younger audience much better. It’s a bit too simplistic to say that all brands should be looking to the youth, but it’s a useful reminder to check in with your business strategy and what the long-term growth engines are likely to be. The Man is thinking straight along those lines.

Dame Vivienne Westwood spoke on Tuesday at a Sapient-Nitro seminar on the importance of human-beings understanding what their ‘best self’ is. She said things like reading and art are crucial to forming better people. What politicians and brands angling for base votes and impersonal eyeballs do, on the other hand, is pander to the ‘ordinary self’. She called for us all as people to become better individuals, grow our better selves, because that would then lead to a better world.

I’m getting a sense, through these media personalities that I’m getting to see here at Cannes that the really successful ones are more clued in to what’s going on in media and technology that many agencies I’ve seen. We need to be asking ourselves: how many clients are as clued in if not more, how can we help them to get there if not, and how can we all, together, produce work that is more culturally relevant?

Conan O’Brien, Anderson Cooper, P.Diddy and Dame Vivienne Westwood: all remarkable and remarkably different people but there’s a common strain in all their talks: we need to think about culture and the environment in which we operate today to create better, more honest work.

As an industry, we’d do well do take their heed.

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