CANNES, France — Will Smith remembers when he was obsessed with winning. "I found myself promoting something because I wanted to win, versus promoting something because I believed it was helpful," he commented on stage at Cannes Lions. It was this era — around the time of "Men in Black" and "Wild Wild West" — that he got caught in the whirlwind of success. "I started to taste global blood. My focus shifted from artistry to winning."
What he discovered (and what Hollywood and marketers everywhere still are) is that the winning-is-the-only-thing strategy doesn't really work anymore.
"Back in the '80s and '90s, you put out a trailer with all the explosions, and it took until Wednesday before people realized your movie was shit," said Smith. In today's rapid-fire social world, however, the response to products, films, and brands is instantaneous: "You're going to know right away if your product is meeting its promises."
Smith thinks this is a good thing. "It's like a new idea that we have to make good movies," he says. For marketing and sales, it means a deeper connection to your audience. "If people don't want it, you're not going to be able to sell it."
Smith made the point by revealing that even his daughter was now immune to his charms. During the international tour for "Whip My Hair" (remember that earworm?), Willow told her dad she was ready to go home — and to make her point, she shaved her head. "[The tour] wasn't what she wanted. There was no sales pitch I could make to her because she didn't want it."
This was something of an epiphany for the actor, who made a mental shift "from product to people." He explained: "It was so explosive in my mind that selling, marketing, creating cannot be about me." The lesson for marketers is clear: If you're not listening to your audience, your promotions will fall on deaf ears. (And to employers: Good luck telling your team to do something they don't believe in just because you've mandated it.)
Smith wasn't the only one to underscore this new reality for the world of advertising. In a panel yesterday on ad blocking, R/GA's Jess Greenwood said the biggest challenge with native advertising is "shifting the mindset away from the idea that you can buy your way into people's lives." Mobile banner ads, for example, are creating what Greenwood calls "an absolute emergency": 66% of users find them useless or annoying. 60% of mobile banner ad clicks are mistakes.
"We're moving from a world where advertising can work on the basis of captive attention to a world where advertising has to capture attention," said Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times Company. Advertising that doesn't compel consumers won't stand out from the rest of the digital noise. And, even worse, people can shut you out for good: "If we're destroying this one opportunity we have to get good reach," Greenwood warned, "we're in trouble as an industry."
For Will Smith and Mark Thompson, it all comes back to telling a great story. The New York Times is on track to generate $60 million in native advertising revenue this year, and Thompson said success in this burgeoning field requires content that's creative and truly journalistic. For Smith, storytelling is "the universally relatable emotion." It turns out that the "power of the story," which drew him to acting, is also the key to a great brand.
LikeWill Smith's epiphany: Hollywood just can't sell bad movies anymore