Cannes Q&A: Behind the Session with Sarah Hofstetter

June 27, 2016


Last week, 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter took to the stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to discuss the transformation of one of the world’s oldest, most powerful creative outlets: play. Sarah was joined by Mattel EVP & Chief Strategic Technology Officer Geoff Walker. Together, they examined how toy makers are at the center of ushering in a whole new age of play, combining imagination and fun to inspire world-changing ideas.

We caught up with Sarah after her session to learn more about the topic and her experience at the world’s most prominent global festival of creativity.

When most people think of the Cannes Lions Festival, they think of advertising. So what inspired you to address the topic of play?

Creativity and play are incredibly intertwined, and creativity is the driver of some of the best advertising. Both the ad industry and the toy industry are grappling with how to evolve and adapt as technology and social media pervade every facet of life. There are actually a lot of parallels, which I found fascinating. What’s particularly interesting is that play started out being completely free and imaginative – essentially a blank slate for children to build and create. It’s since moved into being quite prescriptive and instructive, with parents competing practically from birth to mold their children into over-achievers. Meanwhile, advertising started out as prescriptive and instructive, touting very specific benefits and fitting neatly into the assigned specs of a print ad or 30-second spot. We’ve now moved into the territory of no-holds-barred creativity, where the world is your canvas and there are no boundaries to where an advertising message can reach you. We wanted to identify the sweet spot for both industries.

So what’s the happy medium between complete freedom and imagination, and a prescriptive, instructive experience?

Well, to figure that out we took a deeper look at what makes great play today, and it revealed three fundamentals — that interestingly, can equally be applied to advertising.

ROI: Return on Involvement is the first. In play, the most powerful and beneficial return is one that rewards effort versus outcome. With technology rewards can adapt throughout gameplay. Think about a computer game: as you get better at playing it, the levels get harder. Thanks to a new generation of connected toys, rewards can change to keep kids motivated. In advertising, the key is identifying the reward that inspires action, whether its entertainment, utility, social cred, or access. Thanks to data and technology, we can create different rewards for different people that are aligned with what they value most. A good example of this is our Cannes Lion-winning work for Canon Photo Coach.

Freedom within a framework is the second. A great toy gives you a starting place, but not an ending place. For example, Barbie allows kids to be anything. Even with a simple item like the Barbie Dreamhouse, there is a framework within which they can play, imagining Barbie in many situations and creating storylines from their imagination. In advertising, we depend on the framework so we don’t invade spaces where we’re not wanted. Otherwise, we would get too clever for our own good, and don’t accomplish the business objective. Too much freedom can even inhibit our ability to ideate. This is why we have briefs.

And finally, the third fundamental is social connections. Kids have an overriding desire to connect with other kids, and though many parents worry that technology has reduced those connections, it’s actually opened up new platforms for social interactions. Kids sit with laptops and FaceTime with one another, talking about what they’re doing. Social interaction is hugely important for healthy development – the benefits of social play include learning how to take turns, how to talk to others, how to understand empathy, and practice patience. Technology has actually helped to foster this growth. In advertising, word of mouth and social fuel have never been more critical. Especially as 92% of consumers trust purchase recommendations from others – even if they don’t know them – over branded content. One of the highest compliments I’ve received from a client came from Tom Buday at Nestlé, who said that we are helping them move from work that talks to consumers, to work that consumers talk about. And that’s a sweet spot.

So what was your favorite part of leading this session in Cannes?

My favorite part of the session was the game we played, which was borrowed from New York Times bestselling author Charles Duhigg. When we spoke about the importance of freedom within a framework, we wanted to engage the audience in the concept, so we handed out sheets of paper and asked our audience to turn it into a plane and get it into a wastebasket on the main stage. While some people actually crafted paper planes, others used their freedom to crush the paper into a ball and improve their chances of throwing it into the basket. However, one brave audience member ran up to the stage with the crumpled ball and dunked it into the basket, demonstrating the complete freedom within the framework – engaging his freedom to get off his chair. This really brought the concept to life in a way that was tangible, and also was a lot of fun.