Ezra Geld, the CEO of ad agency J. Water Thompson Brasil, is an optimist (only natural for someone who works in advertising). Amid the institutional, political and economic crisis that hits Brazil, Geld sees positive signs. A case in point: the comeback of an interest in politics among Brazilians has rekindled people’s willingness to participate in the public debate. They have strong opinions and ideas and they want to be heard. Truth be told, people may get carried away at times, but they are bringing to the table (or to social media) causes and issues – and to Geld, this in itself represents progress. And what does that have to do with advertising? Everything. “Advertising is a reflection of our society,” says the CEO. In a society that is thirsty for opinions, a brand needs to be ready to take a stand and establish a conversation. According to Geld, there will be no room for neutrality. Época Negócios: Over the last year, we have seen several brands embracing the idea of diversity. Does the public see that movement as something positive? Ezra Geld: I think that embracing causes is a trend today, a trend arising from a number of things. The millennials, a completely digitali generation, bring with them the expectation that differences are to be respected and diversity is to be acknowledged. This trend gained traction in 2016, especially due to a polarized social landscape. I do believe that brands that have embraced diversity are perceived as brands of opinion. Society is thirsty for opinions. So I think that the public sees advertising that has an opinion as something positive, although we are not quite able to accurately measure the result of those campaigns.
Época Negócios: But isn’t it contradictory to say that amid a polarized social landscape people expect differences to be respected? Where is that expectation coming from?
Ezra Geld: Diversity may be a point in common, an issue people can have a sensible conversation about. Personally, I feel comfortable discussing gender and racial equality, because it is less distressing than talking about politics and political parties. The issue of diversity has become a fruitful environment of public debate. There might be a willingness out there to polarize a specific issue, but people are also willing to find a middle ground when it comes to other issues.
Época Negócios: How does social polarization impact advertising?
Ezra Geld: We tend to look at the negative side of things. However, I have seen many positive aspects of the difficult moment Brazil is going through. I think that the comeback of interest in politics is one of those remarkable things. Of course this process involves some level of controversy and discomfort, but it also breeds debate that can be constructive when carried out appropriately. The impact of that on both advertising and communications doesn’t happen in a linear fashion, it actually reaches across many different areas of what we do. We are a reflection of how society perceives itself. That reflection can provide food for thought. And as this rekindled interest in politics emerges in our society and people find causes they can relate to, the communications that targets that society needs to adjust, either in tone or in form. If advertising is supposed to reflect our moment right now, then it needs to be more compelling.
Época Negócios: Why do you think millennials want to embrace diversity? Ezra Geld: When I was in school, there was a clearer group division. Everything was black and white. If you were not the cool kid, then you had to be the rocker. If you were not the rocker, then you had to be something else, and so on. My take on this generation of millennials is that they appreciate diversity. They love the idea of embracing multiple causes and engaging with different tribes. They celebrate individuality not by rejecting ideas, but by embracing a mix of different things. In this regard, I think this is a much more open, diverse generation. I think that the pervasive presence of technology is a key factor contributing to that behavior. Época Negócios: How does social media impact on communications for companies? Ezra Geld: Social media is a thriving space for interaction between people and businesses. This is something new that we are all still learning to deal with. A society with stronger opinions will expect a firmer stance from brands. There’s no longer room for neutrality. Companies need to be ready to establish a conversation. Época Negócios: But not all of them are ready. How can companies adapt to this new behavior? Ezra Geld: This is an enormous challenge for companies and even more so for advertising, because the essence of what we do has changed. In the past, a brand would express an opinion and wouldn’t get an immediate response from consumers. Six months or so later, research or sales results would then reveal whether people agreed with that opinion. Today, consumers respond in real time, and as a brand you have to take a quick decision to either adjust or sustain your message. This is a conversation we have no control over. Both agencies and brands need to get used to it. Época Negócios: Do companies understand that they need to change and take a firmer stance? Ezra Geld: I think companies are not afraid to express opinions, they’re afraid to embrace controversial causes. I concede that a more careful attitude is the way to go in some cases. But I also think that some causes out there are so clear-cut, so easy to be engaged with that I just can’t understand why a company wouldn’t take a stance in relation to them. I’m talking about things like gender and racial equality. Yes, some people will oppose to your opinion, but there’s nothing you can do about that. Every time you express an opinion you will get some negative reaction. You might upset someone along the way, but you’ll have thousands of other people embracing you even more passionately. And the job of an ad person is to make people fall in love with brands.