“What our industry does has never been more valuable.”

WPP’s Ben Kay on how marketers can make impact with audiences

Headshot of Ben Kay

June 17, 2022 | By: Jareen Imam, Sr. Content and Editorial Manager

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, one of the world’s largest creative advertising festivals, marketers will be diving into advertising trends, celebrating brand moments, and looking toward the future of the industry.

Ahead of the festival, Amazon Ads is interviewing brands, agency leaders, and influencers who will be at Cannes Lions to learn more about their perspective on where the the advertising industry is right now and where it’s going.

We sat down with Ben Kay, the global head of planning for WPP, to get his thoughts on industry trends, what he’s looking forward to seeing at Cannes Lions, and how he thinks marketers can engage with audiences in more authentic ways. At WPP, Kay leads strategy for a number of clients, like Danone, Unilever, and GSK. He also works on strategic projects for organizations like Reuters, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization.

What was your first job in the advertising industry?

It wasn't exactly a flying start. I was turned down by four different agencies after university, including, ironically, two opportunities within WPP. But then I came across an advertisement for a program called the WPP fellowship that was seeking “ambidextrous brains.” That appealed to me because I've always enjoyed the intersection of analytical and creative thinking. So, I applied, and long story short, 21 years later, I'm still here.

With more than 20 years in the industry, what do you find interesting about advertising today?

I love this industry. I'm as excited about advertising today as I was when I first started. But there are two things about now that are especially interesting. First, I think that what we do has never been more valuable to the brands we work with and their customers. Today brands that excel are the ones that have strong creative ideas that help them connect with customers in more engaging ways. We've got the ability to activate those ideas in ways that we could only have dreamed about a few years ago.

Second, many consumers are turning to the private sector to be the driving force for change for good in the world. Consumers are looking to brands and companies to see how they address issues like diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and social justice. It’s hugely motivating and exciting to work with our clients as they shift their strategies towards greater commercial and societal impact.

What are some ways brands can authentically connect with consumers, especially those who are interested in seeing more socially aware brands?

There's a big difference, in my mind, between being socially aware and being purpose-driven. I think all brands have to be socially aware. They have to demonstrate that they're responsible in the way they treat their employees, their communities, and the environment they live in. But being purpose driven, I think, is something different. That's about aligning your brand behind a singular issue that you want to see changed. We see a lot of brands wanting to be more purposeful but sometimes falling short when it comes to credibly demonstrating that purpose. But then there's the other danger or risk in pursuing a purpose-led strategy. On occasion, the brand becomes so obsessed with a purpose that they lose sight of the core promise of their products-the basic contract they have with their customer. I think sometimes you can see brands that are all purpose, no proposition. And that becomes a bit of a recipe for failure. But with that said, well-executed purposeful brands can be immensely powerful. I worked on a campaign with a brand of consumer-packaged goods, and they were a wonderful example of a purposeful brand that balances strength of purpose and strength of proposition really well. It works not only in engaging consumers, but also in attracting talent and attracting investment. This requires a strategy that's deeply connected to the core business.

How do you think ad creative can help better connect brands with customers?

We've got more ways to connect with audiences than ever before. But that doesn't mean consumers want us to connect with them constantly, in all of those ways. I think it becomes incredibly important that we really retain a view of creating value for customers. For example, I'm sitting watching Saturday night TV with my family. If you're going to interrupt my time with an ad, I expect that ad to be fun, funny, or interesting. And I think that value exchange is even more true today. We can be smarter to ensure we're reaching audiences at a time and in a way that suit them. But we can't lose sight of the fact that we have to be either helpful or entertaining, or both. We also know that audiences have the opportunity to opt-out of watching ads. Audiences aren’t binarily pro- or anti-advertising. They're anti–bad advertising and they welcome good advertising. The difference between the two, more often than not, is creativity. That’s how creative can lead in better helping brands connect with audiences.

There are a lot of technological changes happening right now that are impacting the advertising industry, like the deprecation of the third-party cookie. How do you think these technological changes affect brands when it comes to planning and creating campaigns for relevant audiences?

I think there will be more short-term disruption as marketers adapt. But ultimately, I think it’s going to be a positive for the creative side of the business and ultimately for the value. I think, at its worst, an overreliance on cookies resulted in a slightly mechanical and overly rational form of advertising. Whereas a cookie-less world forces us to think more creatively, not only about how we might reach customers, but also how we will persuade them to lend us their attention. And we as marketers are going to be thinking more about what connects us as people and I think it's probably a good thing. Creative in its broadest sense forces us to think more intelligently about how we use other sources of insight and technology, like artificial intelligence and behavioral modeling, to be able to better connect with our audiences. That’s going to make both marketers and our marketing smarter and more effective.

What do you think are the main challenges of brand growth today?

There are some immediate challenges that many of our clients are facing that are being driven by the economic pressures. But longer term, I think the biggest challenge is the recognition that it's never been harder to plan ahead. There are four things brands need to consider today. First, moving fast with actionable insight and intelligence is important. Second, when you can't predict ahead, it becomes disproportionately important to have really strong trusted brands because they are what people turn to during uncertainty. Third, organizations need to be agile enough to react and respond to what's going on in the world. We can't live in a world where we are planning communications 18 months out. Fourth, you've got to have creative ideas that are going to connect with customers in a way that they care about.

What are you looking forward to seeing in the future of advertising?

I'm really optimistic about the future of our industry. We've taken some significant steps to increase diversity in the industry. But I think everyone recognizes we've got more to do. And we need to think about inclusion with not just race and gender, but also when it comes to neurodiversity, for example. If we can address those challenges in a meaningful way, and unlock the potential that comes from a genuinely diverse workforce, we are going to be so much stronger as an industry.

As you know, the Cannes Lions festival is back in person this year. What are you looking forward to seeing at the event?

My favorite thing about Cannes is always the work. I always make sure I take a good amount of time just to walk the hallways and look at all of the work and absorb it, because I like getting inspired. It reminds you how brilliant marketers are in our industry. I think marketers at Cannes are going to be talking about how to connect with relevant audiences, the power of creativity, the metaverse, and new technologies. I hope we also have conversations that reflect on the last few years. When we do come together collectively as an industry, what could we do that could make even more of an impact and a difference in the world that we're living in? I hope there are those conversations too.