When Does Leaning Hard Into Celebrity Become Lazy and Dangerous?

Fame, as a branding channel, dominated advertising in 2014

There are many things that defined 2014 in advertising. Mobile domination, our insatiable desire for a viral hit, TV ads alive and well, Goodvertising, Big Data and, of course, the failed merger confirming the French and Americans will never really like each other.

But the most interesting story this year is our industry's obsession, and increasing reliance on, celebrities.

There have always been brands that bank on endorsements from entertainment luminaries, and we have come to expect it in fashion, beauty and sports apparel. Brands like Louis Vuitton, Nike and CoverGirl have spent decades successfully building their names with the help of famous faces. But this year, our industry took it to another level, and every marketer wanted some of that celebrity juice. Leader brands found they could flex their dominance by adding a celeb to their ads, while challenger brands saw that attaching themselves to a highly recognizable name could get them overnight buzz without the huge media spend. Never has our industry leaned harder on celebrities.

In many ways, our advertising is simply mimicking culture. Click on any popular news site, pick up any magazine, flip on any TV channel and celebs are there. It's why Kim Kardashian's ass on the cover of Paper Magazine almost did "break the Internet" while eclipsing other news that week like another videotaped ISIS beheading, the Republicans mid-term dominance and more Ebola cases in America. By any measure, we are a culture that cannot take our eyes off the stars.

But it's deeper and more strategic than a national obsession. With the rise of social media, celebrities have become legitimate media channels. With millions of Twitter followers, hoards of Facebook fans and appearances on popular TV and online programs, celebrities have their tentacles stretched far across the media landscape like giant, pop-culture-spewing octopi. As a brand it is very tempting, and sometimes just smart, to use them. With the average CMO lasting less than two years, you don't have much time to get a hit these days.

Let's be honest, even celebrity ads that seem ridiculously bad (Matthew McConaughey), can wind up ridiculously good (Lincoln sales went up 20 percent the month the campaign launched). A quick look at the most viral ads of 2014 proves having a big, famous celebrity has become the most surefire way to get 10 million plus hits. Adweek's Agency of the Year Droga5 is half owned by William Morris Entertainment, a talent company whose client roster is full of huge names. Jay-Z has an ad agency. Ashton Kutcher is an ad agency. And almost every big brand now has people on staff dedicated to cutting deals with celebrity talent. As we merge with Hollywood and other fame factories, there's never been a more fascinating time to be in our business.

But we must be careful. We must never, ever confuse a celebrity with a brand idea. There's a difference between drafting off the currency of these people and clinging onto them in the false hopes they will define our brand. There's a difference between the genius of using Motor City native Eminem in a Detroit rallying cry for Chrysler, and the tackiness of sticking Alec Baldwin on whatever eight brands he pimped this year. Relying on a celebrity who isn't intrinsically tied to the brand is lazy and dangerous. They'll be gone in a year or two, but the brand lives on. The last thing we want is to wake up naked and pissed off that our "brand platform" just walked out the door to join the competition for a bigger paycheck. When Justin Timberlake dropped InBev to launch his own tequila, it probably worked out better for Team Timberlake than Bud Light Platinum (sales dipped 24.9 percent).

Most importantly, let's not forget the power our industry has to create pop culture rather than just borrow from it. A few years ago, there was a popular T-shirt you could buy on Amazon with images of the Old Spice Guy, the World's Most Interesting Man, the E*TRADE Baby and the Geico Caveman. All proof that brands are capable of creating their own fame. At its best, advertising has the power to influence trends and lead the cultural conversation. Maybe with iconic characters, maybe with groundbreaking technology like Nike's Fuel Band, or maybe with viral content like Dove's Sketches.

Make no mistake, the power of celebrity is here to stay—our culture wouldn't have it any other way. And as YouTube stars radically redefine programming, they will further increase the opportunity for brands to use celebrity as brand accelerators and media outlets. But you can't just tie a random celebrity to your brand and toss it out there like a Molotov cocktail hoping it will explode into pop culture.

Amongst all the shrapnel, someone's gonna get hurt, and there's a good chance it will be you.

Tor Myhren is president, Grey New York and Worldwide CCO, Grey