Celebrities, Influencers and the art of selling


Why authenticity is ultimately better than borrowed interest


There were times last week when I felt a bit like a little boy standing outside a sweet shop, nose pressed against the glass, admiring all the delights on display within.

The reason for this was the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival – that time of the year when advertising’s leading lights gather on the French Riviera to talk about the state of the industry and hand out lots of awards.

I wasn’t among them.

In fact, whilst many friends and colleagues have been there regularly in the past as presenters, judges or regular attendees, I’ve personally never been.

I’d quite like to go one year, for curiosity as much as anything, but for now I remain one of those standing on the outside looking in.

However, fortunately my social media feed at this time of year is always full of pictures and observations from sundry venues, restaurants and yachts, allowing me to still experience the event vicariously.

Of all the advertising-associated events (I’m including Adweek, SXSW and others here), Cannes seems to draw the most polarising reactions, ranging from the evangelical (usually from those who are there) to the damning (usually from those who are not).

I don’t intend to take sides on that debate here, but instead wanted to make some observations that I feel apply both to Cannes and to other similar ad industry events.

Overall, it seems people attending such events fall into two groups – those hoping to impress (media owners, agencies, tech companies) and those hoping to be impressed (primarily marketers).

The former group are ultimately looking to sell something and the latter group are potentially there as future buyers.

Yes, I'm sure there's a lot more to it than that, but at the end of the day, we operate in a commercial industry where the end game is some form of business transaction.

But if you are a ‘Seller’ at one of these events, how do you attract the attention of a ‘Buyer’ who you hope might become a client sometime in the future? After all, it’s a bewildering agenda and there is no shortage of options competing for their attention

Casting an eye over recent years, one strategy seems increasingly popular – the use of celebrities as a magnet to attract an audience.

The likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Will Smith, Demi Lovato, Steven Gerrard, Alesha Dixon, David Haye and many, many other names have made an appearance on the agenda at these events in recent times.

For sure, all of them are well known and respected names in their particular field, it's just that their field can often seem a long way away from the field of advertising.

Agreed, sometimes drawing learnings from diverse areas can be a powerful way to unlock fresh insights and I would hope that some of these celebs were able to do so.

But I do wonder if their presence on stage is more due to their celebrity drawing power rather than any startling insight they may be able to impart.

If this is the case, all it really seems to be is a B2B extension of 'Influencer marketing' – relying on the intrinsic appeal of the influencer to attract a curious audience and then relying on a positive rub off for your own particular company, brand or message.

But as I dare say the professional influencer marketers would agree, there are times when it can work amazingly well and times when it certainly doesn’t.

Take the recent Fyre Festival, endorsed and promoted by celebrity influencers including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, but ending up a complete debacle.

For Cannes-type events, the theory seems that the bigger the celebrity, the bigger the audience they will draw and the more connected and influential your company will seem. And clients like to buy from connected, influential companies, right?

Well, yes and no - the personal influence of celebrities may attract an audience in the first place, but is it the right audience? does it communicate the right message? and ultimately will it deliver the desired business result?

I’d suggest that for the answer to that to be a resounding ‘Yes’, a celebrity or influencer should satisfy most if not all of the following criteria:

Fame – Are they well known in their field? Are they popular? Will they appeal to your potential attendees? Will their involvement generate positive publicity for your company?

Relevance – Why are they involved with your particular company’s event? What is the connection? How are they relevant to what you do? How are they relevant to your audience and their needs?

Authority – do they speak or perform well? Are they credible beyond their usual area of expertise? Will attendees respect what they have to say? Will they leave the audience remembering what was said rather than just who said it?

Authenticity – are they giving their own opinion or flexing to fit your company’s narrative? Will the audience trust what they have to say? Is it clear what your company hopes to achieve from this association? Are you being transparent about this?

This is not to say that there isn’t also an important role for relationship building and a great party along the way.

I would have loved to have been at this year's Ed Sheeran/Fat Boy Slim bash and indeed News UK’s Commercial Chief claims that hosting that particular event has delivered tangible business results for them.

But overall, if celebrity involvement can be achieved in a way that comes across as authentic and relevant rather than ostentatious and lacking in substance, then it is more likely to wield true influence.

And after all, that is what advertising is supposed to be all about, isn’t it?

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