Facebook Urges Creatives to Build New Worlds Around Ancient Insights

After a false start, a manifesto from designer Paul Adams

CANNES, France—Moments into his seminar at the Cannes Lions festival here Tuesday, Facebook's global head of brand design, Paul Adams, froze with panic and could not continue. In what he admitted was the biggest speech of his life, he blanked. His slides were of no use. The audience murmured nervously. All Adams could do was excuse himself, walk offstage, collect himself and start over. Which is what he did.

"That was the most anti-social thing I've ever done," he said ruefully.

Adams, a young Irishman, seems like a genuinely nice guy. He also recovered nicely to deliver a spirited and sweeping defense of Facebook's role in the modern world, as well as tips for ad-agency creatives who are compelled—whether they like it or not—to use it as a marketing platform. Still, what Adams later termed his "freakout" was just the kind of incident that has dogged Facebook lately. At crucial moments, with everything on the line, the world's great social network often doesn't seem quite sure of itself.

Adams did get on track, though, and not surprisingly, his presentation was full of humanism. Indeed, it was an epic tale that stretched back to caveman times, with stops at every major invention since the printing press, to illustrate that Facebook is part of a proud, un-scary tradition of tech advancement that facilitates and enhances the oldest of human emotions and interactions—things like trust and sharing. Oh, and it's great for advertising and branding, too.

Adams went so far as to suggest that Facebook is returning humans, in a way, to the time before the Industial Revolution. Back then, information moved only as fast as people, he said, and thus, you knew—and knew whether you could trust—everyone you interacted with. Personal relationships were everything. And through the social Web, he said, that is becoming true again.

"We can know things about businesses and brands before we've met them," he said. "What that means is that building relationships is once again front and center."

This everything-old-is-new-again theory applies to people's behavior within the new technology, too, he added. Their behavior doesn't change. They simply use the new tools to do what they've always done—just faster and better. Ad-agency creatives, he said, must study those behaviors—social interaction, identity, the basics of network science—to engage Facebook's 900 million interlocked users. In particular, he said, pay attention to the motivations behind the behavior and you'll see that it's nothing revolutionary, despite the revolutionary platform.

"It's an amazing opportunity to create content, understand social behavior, understand what the content is for and who it's for, and see it spread and watch people share it and move it," he said. "But you have to understand why people interact offline, and why we've interacted socially for tens of thousands of years."

So, why do we interact? "Sharing is a means to an end," Adams said. "People share things because they're trying to build relationships, or manage their identity, or help other people. … As people, we're not actually changing fast at all. Our motivations for social interaction are the same online as they are offline, the same as they've been since the dawn of time. People who are trying to disrupt that and create new ways of interaction won't succeed. You have to look at people's existing social-network behavior and support it."

Adams laid out the obvious advantages to brands inherent in the kind of behavioral consumer data that Facebook collects—that it allows companies to target offers and experiences to specific people at specific times. But his most concrete advice was directed squarely at agency creatives.

He presented four tips for approaching Facebook marketing: Make social interaction a fundamental part of the creative brief; base one's creative ideas on real insight about social interaction; think of Facebook as a new type of creative canvas that isn't just a depository for print and TV ads; and focus on designing brands' news feeds before jumping into app development.

Addressing complaints about the small size of ads on the site, however, Adams suggested that brands should indeed use Facebook's page posts—which can feature quite large photos these days—to share beautifully written and art directed print ads. Facebook is not just a friend to digital connectivity types, he seemed to be saying. It can also be a friend to creatives who just love to create a good (literally) old-fashioned ad.

While acknowledging that advertising and branding on Facebook is still very much in beta mode, Adams also warned creatives not to get left behind while someone else finds the creative solutions that will eventually realize the full potential of Facebook's giant user base.

"All of this is not going to happen without the industry and the people in this room," he said. "We are not building a social agency. We are a partnership company. We want to work with you guys. … For decades, people who pushed the boundaries of print and TV advertising sat in these rooms and were inspired. Some people here are going to look at the transformational technology of today and … embrace it and go on to do incredible, amazing creative things. Make sure it is you, and not just your neighbor."

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