Let’s stop selling the Colosseum

by Enrico Gervasi , GG Marketing Communication Consultancy

In June we heard the judgement of Cannes: Italy had won 18 Lions. Immediately a celebratory choir rang out: "This year we were promoted. The trend has been reversed."

Everybody was happy, including those few remaining agencies who insist on seeing the Cannes festival not as a measure of the quality of advertising (i.e. effectiveness and ultimately ROI), but only as an expensive creative jamboree (which, incidentally, it also is).

Then some commentators pointed out that Italy was absent within the sectors that counted. So we won prizes that, all in all, counted less. Someone else pointed out that in the very area where Italy spends the most – TV – it wins the least awards. And this has been the case for 20 years.

Without counting the fakes, a couple of non-profit campaigns, and three exceptions, we have not won anything in the TV category in 20 years. Some Italian creative “stars” who built their reputations with expensive TV productions, have never (or almost never) won anything in Cannes.

There may be a correlation between Italy’s TV-centric view of the market and our own creative void. For one thing, the structure of the industry when it comes to making TV advertising almost guarantees a lack of creativity.

While non-TV advertising tends to be briefed and created by a limited group of people, giving them more flexibility, as soon as a TV ad is proposed, everyone has to have their say, from the intern to the CEO. In family-owned companies, even wives, daughters and lovers (who are sometimes given jobs) get involved. The result is confusing, arbitrary and unprofessional.

Pre- and post testing was imposed around thirty years ago to bring some order to the mess, thus surgically removing all forms of originality and surprise. The result is bland lookalike TV campaigns.

But while is the excess of TV culture in Italy a cause of our creative inferiority, or an effect of cultural impoverishment? In fact, our lack of creativity is born of and nourished by a system that favours it.

Our schools and education in general do little to encourage us to be creative. Companies promote those who bow to the corporate culture, rather than a mindset which is more creative and original, but also more rebellious and problematical.

Our culture as a whole tends to reward cunning and penalize courage; so much so that a certain wily behaviour has become synonymous with creativity. We have become so accustomed to hearing that a con man, the man who “sold” the Colosseum, is an example of creativity that we even allowed one of his sort to govern us.

Perhaps we Italians will return to being creative when we stop thinking that it’s a matter of genetics. When we stop thinking that it’s enough to be a centre of excellence in design (a story that was in any case over 20 years ago) or fashion (which is declining every year and on the run from Italy).

The absence of creativity in Italian advertising is certainly sensational, but it is neither exceptional nor irrevocable. Let’s stop blaming the system – we are the system, so we can change it. Our bad habits will take time to eradicate; but we can do it. Let’s rediscover the ethics and aesthetics of wisdom and courage, to the detriment of cunning and passing the buck.

For example, let's overturn the rather too cosy relationship between some creative directors and certain production houses: a relationship based on gifts and favours, such as free TV commercials produced for pitches, with the result of distorting fair competition in the pitch process (already set up and handled very badly).

Speaking of corruption in the private sector, Italy will soon be forced to follow European law. In other words, bribes will be criminalized. Maybe all those "indispensable" flyers and brochures will finally disappear.

I am strongly in favour of the position of Mr. Sassoli, the President of the Italian Advertisers Association (UPA) on so-called “trading rights”, which I prefer to call "over commission." This practice has not only distorted the relationship between advertiser, agency and media owner, but it is also the origin of the bias towards TV that has crippled our advertising creativity. But even a proposed law against all forms of over commission (resembling the Sapin law that has existed in France for more than 20 years ) will achieve very little if the industry does not take a clear moral stand against bad practices.

Only then will we rediscover the courage of excellence and stop thinking we’re creative just because we find a fool to whom we can sell the Colosseum.

Enrico Gervasi, founder, Istituto Protagora