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Y&R CEO David Sable chats advertising’s next big markets, why ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ secretly sucked

For a guy at the top of an industry worth billions upon billions of dollars, David Sable doesn’t seem all that concerned with the bottom line. Instead, the global CEO of WPP-held giant Young & Rubicam seems more concerned with telling great stories about his clients and their products.

That philosophy might explain why he hasn’t cashed out, despite having been involved in the industry in form or another since 1976.

It might also explain why his views on why agencies are so willing to follow those clients into new untapped markets. Having witnessed first-hand the entrance of Western brands into China during the 1980s, Sable is betting on massive growth for advertisers in countries such as Cuba and Myanmar over the next few years.

Now a grandfather, Sable is a self-described hippy who sees many of the current trends in advertising, including native advertising and social media, as just the next evolutionary steps of forms that have always existed within the space.

During one of his recent trips to South Africa, Memeburn sat down with Sable to discuss everything from the slew of African agencies being acquired by foreign holding companies, to what it actually takes for an advert to grab someone’s attention and why viral campaigns don’t always produce results for the brands they’re advertising.

Memeburn: In what areas do you think African agencies are lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of innovation and in what areas are they leading in terms of innovation?

David Sable: Remember to me innovation is about how you get the story out. So I think where they’re probably lacking is more on the data side. Everybody I talk to: clients tell me that, agencies tell me that, so their ability to have access to real data to realtime data that they can use to develop insight, that they can use to better target that they can use to create new interactive kinds of things…So I think that that’s probably the place where they lag the most.

But in many ways I don’t think they lag at all. I think there’s some really good work being done here. I’m really proud of our agencies, of you know, Y&R and Native, I think they do great work and there are other agencies here that do great work as well. So to me, I think data is probably the biggest lack.

MB: The world’s big agency holding companies appear to be on something of a buying trend at the moment. What do you think is driving that?

DS: Consolidation. I don’t know if they’re on a buying trend, I think they’ve always been that’s why they’re holding companies. Given where we are in the world today…Back in the old days when you wanted to start a company, you sent somebody out from some place and you shipped them off to a country and said ‘go start an agency’, you know? And so they were able to do it.

I think today there’s almost no reason to have to do that because you find people have coalesced. And so you come to a new market. You know, just even here and myself looking at Africa, you know big presence here but we’re looking at the rest of the continent. So because I have a strong presence here between Y&R and Native, I can look at other markets and say okay, I can start or I can find someone who has similar values to us and buy them, or merge with them, or form an alliance with them, or something along those lines.

As those markets got bigger and became more interesting to us, that’s when we started to look at them. Markets aren’t good until they’re interesting, no matter how big they are. WPP now is looking into Cuba, right. Cuba’s been a big market for years, but now that Cuba’s opening up, wow! Now it’s interesting.

So you could’ve opened up an agency 20 years ago maybe if you could’ve figured out how to do it, but for what point? We have one in Myanmar now, we have an agency. You didn’t need one 10 years ago, but now that there’s a softening of the economy it makes sense to do it.

I was going into China in the early ‘80s, literally chained to a security guard and that was the only way you could go in. I don’t mean like physically chained but, you know, a guy who was with you the entire time. Always by the way, some guy whose name was Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson ‘cause they never told you their real names, so those were the names they knew from the US. But you couldn’t have started an agency then, there was no point to it. Today their agencies are gangbusters.

MB: That speaks to an interesting phenomenon that we’ve noticed. Often the first people to go into an emerging economy are advertising agencies. Can you touch on why that might be?

DS: Well because we’re following our clients, because probably Coca Cola and Colgate are the first in. So we follow our clients or we try to just anticipate where our clients are going. I mean the truth of the matter is, soft drinks are always, always among the first to go into any developing country.

How do they go in? They go in with sports. Colgate comes in, Colgate is killer in developing countries because the need for that kind of product is huge, for oral care, so they have a ready made market and they’re very good at it. They’re very good at marketing, down to sizes. People don’t have much money, so you can’t sell them tubes of toothpaste. We’re jaded right? We buy a tube of toothpaste and think it’s pretty cheap, but that tube of toothpaste could be somebody’s weekly wage in some countries. It’s not a joke. And so we’ve created, over the years, all kinds of interesting ways of creating smaller units of people to buy with education etc.

MB: We hear a lot of complaints from advertising agencies and advertisers that they battle to keep people’s attention. But at the same time, some of the world’s most shared videos and pieces of content are adverts. Does that speak to a need for compelling content?

DS: Oh, of course. So first of all, I’ll tell you that there’s so much that’s ‘new’ in the world that’s just always been. So I started in the business in 1976 – I was still in high school, writing copy – even then the people I was working for thought we had a big problem with the proliferation of media, and people not paying as much attention. This has always been the case, it’s not new. Today it’s worse because you have more channels. You could argue on the one hand that the more channels you have, the greater the chance you have of being seen. On the other hand you could argue there’s more crap out there to cover yours.

The problem is, the average person sees like 7 000 to 10 000 messages a day, just walking in the streets. You don’t even realise it, it’s a huge number. So I think the best stories become critical.
And the issue of sharing, that’s an interesting question. This whole notion of social is the water-cooler effect but on steroids, because we have this amplification effect today. The problem is that we share a lot of stuff because we’ve made it shareable, not because we’ve made it interesting to those people.

So think about this right — and I’m not going to make a judgement because I have different views on all the pieces of this argument — but if we believe that the ultimate goal of all of this is one-to-one, then why do I care if it got shared 10-million times by people who don’t give a shit? Explain that to me. Why do we do an ad in South Africa and then brag about how it got shared in Australia? Why do I care? You can’t buy that product there, who cares? It’s irrelevant.

Now on the other hand, you could argue that’s given more weight to it and now the media’s written about it. Okay, so now the media’s written about it, that’s kind of interesting. So that’s always been the fact that media amplification and news amplification is more important than anything.

So all these things are fighting each other. I still believe that if you have a great message, a great product, any great product with a great story around it, the right people will share it. And they’re not going to share it to make it viral, they share it because it’s important to them. There’s a difference between what you share that’s important and what you share that you think is kind of funny, or interesting, or raunchy or whatever…

I’ll give you a great example: I don’t know if you remember, but two years ago at Cannes, the big winner was Dumb Ways to Die. So here’s the joke about that whole campaign – so it won everything that year, and I remember everybody’s looking at this going ‘what the hell?’ Okay, it’s a nice ditty and kind of cute, but we kept getting told it was so powerful. So last year, I was president of the effectiveness jury, so we didn’t award it anything right? And it was controversial. But it was only controversial to the press and a few analysts, who were saying “whoa, they won so many awards, they must be effective right?” No they weren’t actually.

Now what’s the final proof of it? The final proof — and go check it yourself, this is worth a story — what are they saying now it was really about? A game. Now they don’t talk about what the original thing was. What the original thing was to help prevent train accidents. And how did I figure this out? I swear to you, six, seven months ago I’m listening to my grand kids playing something on the iPad and I hear a familiar tune…I said “what are you playing?” And they said, “Oh Pop this is great, it’s called ‘Dumb Ways to die”. I said “what?!” And they showed it to me and that’s what it was, they’ve turned it into a game. And now their case is, they’ve created this game and it’s one of the most downloaded games on the app store.

So you tell me, yeah it got shared, it was awesome, but who cares?

MB: Could you say similar thing about lots of other viral campaigns? Like the Old Spice viral campaigns for instance, which had shares in the millions but didn’t shift that many more units?

DS: And they pretended to too. Look at even the Dove campaigns. I mean they’re beautiful, but look at their media mix and look at what they’re still selling. They’re still doing a ton of commercials with the, you know, the typical soap bar and stuff talking about how it washes. Because that’s actually what sells product. So it’s great, you have to have a mix of the two, it not one or the other.

MB: In this bid to create great content, we’re seeing agencies create publishing or pseudo-publishing divisions. And we’re seeing publishers launching agency-style divisions. Is that blurring potentially dangerous?

DS: No, it’s not going to go any place. Agencies have always been in the content business, I think that’s what we create. We just didn’t know it was called content, I wish we did, it’s a much richer and bigger thing. And publishers always try to do advertising, but it’s not what they do. And I think you get to this point where, from the publisher’s point of view, you have to be careful because you lose your credibility as a publisher.

So you know, native content and so forth…we’ve always done that. You know advertorials and these things were always powerful. In fact there’s a famous Mobil campaign—they used to be called Schmertz ads. And what Mobil did was they bought the corner of the New York Times editorial page — and no one had ever bought that before — and they did ads that were editorials. And they were called Shmertz ads because the guy that did them was called Herb Schmertz, or something like that. They were huge. People waited for them, they read them because they were really well written and informative. There’s always been that kind of stuff.

At the end of the day, we’re about telling stories for our clients and their products. That’s it, full stop. If we lose that ability, we’ve lost our ability to sell. We’re about selling. We’re about building the brand because we create an image around it, but we’re doing it so they sell product, not just to pass this along for some prurient reason. And I think that’s the issue right, because that’s where brands start to go south.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart Thomas joined the Burn Media team in 2011 while finishing off an MA in South African Literature. Eager to prove his geek credentials, he allowed himself to be thrown in the deep and did his best to stay afloat. When not fused with his keyboard, you can find... More