news / In conversation with Andrew Robertson
In conversation with 1112x640 Andrew Robertson

Ahead of his keynote at Spikes Asia, the global CEO doubles down on his advocacy for bringing back humour in advertising, despite how difficult it can be to pull off, with or without AI.

BBDO’s global chief executive is proving to be dead serious in his desire to bring back more funny stuff in creative advertising work. First making his case for the effectiveness of humour at Cannes Lions last summer, Robertson will be building on that message in his keynote to Spikes Asia in March, even as the industry takes notice and shows signs of a use-of-humour comeback.

In an interview marking the release of the Spikes Asia event programme to be held in Singapore March 13-14, 2024, Robertson tells Campaign Asia-Pacific why humour is such a valuable tool, why agencies still play a key role in the creator economy, and why he loves coming to Spikes Asia.

The interview, edited for clarity, follows below:

You were an advocate for humour in advertising at Cannes last year and now Lions has created a new award category for it. Do you feel you landed the punchline?

Weirdly, I do. At Cannes I wanted to talk about bringing back humour for advertising, but I realised that since it was 2023 I'd have to talk about data-driven insights, Gen Z, AI, e-commerce and all the other buzzwords of the moment. I was struggling to figure out a way to include AI in the presentation and concluded that the answer was to create a Lion for Humour. I only proposed it in order to use AI to generate a picture of what the Lion would look like.

Then I asked the crowd who believes there should be a Lion for Humour and everybody clapped and put their hands up. So I said, ‘Let’s hope somebody from Cannes Lions is here to hear that.’ They weren’t, and so I said ‘No, they’re too busy downstairs counting their money.’ The whole thing was only really designed to get another laugh. But here we are a year later and there is indeed, as you say, a Lion for best use of humour, which I'm very happy about. I don't know whether it's correlation or causation, but I'm going to go with causation.

So is humour already making a comeback in ads after years of decline?

I think so. Cannes was an inflection point and there is a growing realisation of just how valuable it can be to build business which is the reason we do it. We've done lots of work on the importance of emotion as a driver of behaviour. Feeling happy and amused is one of the best feelings there is, and therefore if you can recreate that, you are going to have a disproportionate sales effect.

But for lots of reasons it has been in long term decline with particular drops in the recession of 2008-09 and then again in the pandemic with step drops that had to be recovered from.

To what extent has the rise of purpose influenced the decline of humour?

This is an important point. I believe passionately in the importance of brand purpose. What I think needs to be challenged is the idea that the only way to talk about your purpose is in very earnest and serious ways. You can have a very serious purpose and talk about it in a very amusing and entertaining way, which will leave your audience feeling entertained, happy and appreciative of your purpose. And that will have the biggest possible sales effect because you're checking two big boxes all at once.

If you restrict your thinking to believing that no matter how serious your purpose is, it can only be communicated in a very earnest and serious way, you're missing out on the opportunity to make people feel really good about it rather than just respect it. If people feel really good and happy, especially by laughing, they're going to give you disproportionate credit for that purpose.

But we do see a battle between purpose-minded woke culture and stand up comedy, for instance. Will it remain hard for the jokers and the earnest-minded to get along?

What you're talking about is the nature of the comedy, what it is that people are laughing at, making jokes about, and being funny. It's true that it has become harder to be funny because there are areas that people used to be able to play in that could create laughter for some people but may have created pain for others that now, rightfully, as subject matter has been closed down.

But that doesn't mean it isn't possible to be funny. There are many comedians who have managed to be incredibly effective and incredibly funny, leaving you with that very positive feeling without needing to stray into areas that cause ill effects. John Mulaney is one. You could play one of his Netflix specials to my daughter, my grandson and my mother, and they would all find it funny because it doesn't depend on taking aim at anybody in particular. Just because it may have got harder to be funny playing in more restricted turf doesn't mean that being funny and creating making people laugh is any less valuable.

But is there still the risk of humour backfiring if it unknowingly alienates a certain group?

I actually think the question is the other way around, which is: ‘When do we assume humour shouldn't work when actually it might?’

There are categories where people think humour has no place to play. Healthcare people say, needs to be handled sensitively. You shouldn't joke. There are periods of time, like a pandemic or a recession, where people think it's no time to do things that are funny because people are struggling. There are moments in a brand's life where you think it doesn't make sense to try and be funny, like after an epic fail of some sort.

My contention is, if you can make people laugh, smile, or feel happy, a lot of those assumptions can be nullified. If you can make somebody laugh when you're apologizing, they are more likely to forgive you. Maybe the best way to handle sensitive subjects is to handle them with a laugh, because that that takes the sensitivity out of it and people can just focus on the issue. In difficult times like a recession or pandemic, the evidence is really compelling that people desperately need to laugh. Challenge the assumption that humour won’t work.

One reason why stand up comedy works is because jokes are conceived by the comics who then know exactly how to deliver them. Some advertisements intended to be funny may have had brilliant creative teams in conception, but on execution fall flat.

Another issue is when media agencies overbuy, and suddenly the frequency of that once-great initially funny campaign quickly turns stale and annoying. How important are execution and media use as factors in using humour?

It's extremely hard to be funny. Taking your standup reference - just try to write five minutes of really funny material, never mind a Netflix special. It's incredibly hard to do. The people who do great comedy throw away 100 jokes for every one that lands. They actually do empirical research. They will go to venues, crack a joke and if it works, they will include it in their next routine. If it doesn’t, they drop it and put in another one. It depends on both having a clever joke and delivering it perfectly.

There's a really brilliant deconstruction of a Louis CK joke on YouTube that breaks down all of the elements that make the sequence funny. You realise just how hard it is to construct something that's really good.

So I think the point you're making is a lot of what we see just isn't that funny or as funny as it could be. But that's because it's really hard to do, which is why it ends up being so valuable when you can do it.

One suspects humour will remain one of generative AI’s biggest challenges, but since you mentioned the empirical side to good comedy, might it too become something easier for AI to do with time?

No, I don't think so. It’s so hard for humans to be funny that I find it hard to believe it's going to be easy for algorithms to be funny. AI has all sorts of incredible opportunities in this business, particularly in creating images and video at cost. But when it comes to constructing something that is funny, people have to people have to understand the premise. Then you must take them with you, surprise them and find a way to leave them feeling fantastic. The vast majority of humans can't do it. Of all the areas where generative AI is going to have a big impact, this is the last one.

How important is humour and levity to building a creative culture?

Humour disarms people it takes away all defensiveness, aggressiveness and barriers. It's a great way of opening communication between people. If you can make everybody feel at ease, you can get way more out of them than you can if people are feeling constrained or defensive. Humour is one of the great unlocks.

'Building a Creative Culture' is in fact one of the key themes of Spikes Asia. Many brand clients also ask agencies about how to do this. What advice do you give them?

Just because you need creativity some of the time doesn't mean you need a culture that is built around creativity. I don't actually want the bank that is looking after my life savings to be creative all of the time. Sometimes they need to be creative because they have to invent new solutions for problems. But I want them to be obsessed with minimising or mitigating risk. I want them to be obsessed with following the rules. I want them to be obsessing over all the things that run counter to creative thinking.

Most companies are successful because they're operationally excellent, not because not because they've become more creative. The mistake that a lot of companies make is to believe that you have to turn a company into a creative culture when actually what you have to do is figure out when and where that company should be creative and how you can create the conditions for it to be creative in those moments.

Spikes will also focus on the rise of the creator economy as more brands are looking to have direct relationships with creators.

Some marketers feel agencies are slower to break out of traditional messaging formats and want to own the process more than embrace more creator-led marketing. What should be the role of the agency in a creator economy?

Part of the problem is when issues like these are presented as binary options. Obviously if consumers are spending as much time as they are consuming creator content, then this should be one of the places where we look to create relationships with brands, build businesses and build sales. I don’t see [creators and agencies] as an ‘either/or’ but as an ‘and’.

What is the role of an agency in the process? Ideally there are two big contributions. The first is to develop a platform idea for your brand that creators want to play with. Because if you do that, then the good work that each of those creators does will be contributing another brick in an ever stronger and bigger wall, not just another atomic bit of effective communication. A good agency will have created a foundational idea that creators want to use and play with. ‘Want to’ is important here, not ‘have to’. That’s how you're going to create something that's bigger than the moment.

The second thing you need to do as an agency is identify the creators that are going to have the most impact on the client's business. That means understanding how you can scale and at what price you should be paying to scale the creative contribution to the overall program. That is more sophisticated than just knowing who has 2 million followers. It's understanding who those followers are, how many of them are in the market for the brand, how many of them are currently using a competitor, what price you should pay for any one of those creators based on that data and then how you can aggregate the process for the reach and scale to have a material impact on the business, rather than just be an interesting experiment. Those are the two areas the brand’s agency should be able to help with.

What do you look for when attending Spikes?

I've been to Spikes several times and I always enjoy it and learn from it. I have a one of those old New Yorker covers on my office wall where they used to do depict ‘the view from Manhattan’. And it would show the Hudson River, LA in the distance and then if you look really far you can see Japan and China but they're tiny in perspective. The whole point is to challenge the idea of the world is as it seems from where you're sitting. Just move your chair and the world will look different.

For me, coming to Spikes is one of those deliberate ‘leave your chair’ moments because you're going to sit and spend your time with people who have a different perspective on the world, a different perspective on business and a different perspective of what constitutes effective work. If you can move your chair, you're going to see things that other people don't see.

Be sure to join Andrew as he takes the stage on 14 March at Spikes Asia 2024.

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