It was past midnight, after a long day of meetings and presentations. But the music was still thumping, as multiple parties competed for attention up and down La Croisette, the tony high-priced boulevard that swings along the beach in Cannes, France. Ad-industry Mad men and big-company marketing execs spilled out into the street in front of the Gutter Bar. Champagne and rose were flowing at the Carlton hotel terrace.
Spring break in Fort Lauderdale was never like this.
I'd journeyed to France for the annual Cannes Lions international advertising festival to moderate a daylong forum on the "future of media" and to gauge the perspective of the world's best brand stewards. By all outward signs, they were feeling pretty good.
But there was an undercurrent of unease amid all the euphoria (and not simply the prospect of hangovers and sunburn). As the creative community distributed awards— the coveted Lions—to acknowledge the year's most compelling work, there were also plenty of whispers: about the increasing complication of marketing campaigns; the data that promised so much and delivered so little; and the social media explosion at the core of all this, a Wild West of few easy lessons.
Not too long ago, social media was an experimental milieu for risk-tolerant brands. Then, suddenly, every business seemed to embrace that it needed a Facebook strategy and a Twitter strategy—as if simply having a strategy would be enough. Now tension between social companies and marketers is rising, epitomized by GM's decision to publicly bail on Facebook advertising, delivering a slap just as Mark Zuckerberg's company went public—and spawning doubt that has helped push Facebook's stock steadily downward.
The risk in all this tumult: that we mistake the messiness and growing pains of social media for a diminution of its impact. Social media is not a fad. It is a powerful, global communication revolution that requires new approaches for all businesses—and that has not yet solidified into reliable patterns. In this issue, we've constructed "The Social Media Road Map," and anchored with an essay by Baratunde Thurston, former head of digital for The Onion. Our tone is playful, not because we don't take social media and all its challenges seriously; rather, we recognize that all who claim to be expert in this arena, who claim to know exactly what to do and how to ideally capitalize, are kidding themselves, or their clients, or both.
Social media has become so ubiquitous that we forget how new, how early in its evolution, this phenomenon is. Yes, our package includes rules, pronouncements, and a host of unpleasant truths, but the larger insight threaded through all these lessons is how transient any certainty is in this arena and how important adaptability and flexibility are to long-term success.
So all right, let's enjoy this party. Let's appreciate what's been achieved and what is possible today. But don't drink too much and head out into the deep water for a swim: You might find yourself in over your head. Wade in, enjoy the water, and keep your wits about you. You'll need them.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.