Chaka Sobhani had originally written a talk about technology for her D&AD Festival appearance, but halfway through the long weekend marking King Charles III’s coronation, she decided it felt too “crunchy granola” for an organisation with so much creative soul. So, today’s presentation from Leo Burnett’s global chief creative officer came together at the last minute and, she said, “from my heart.” Titled ‘Send in the Clowns’, it was about why entertainment is the most worthy pursuit in advertising.
She began by showing exactly the sort of advertising she wants to see more of: ‘The Secret of Wakany’
, a lush, playful CANAL+ ad by BETC Paris that’s all one big self-deprecating joke. It’s “populist work,” said Chaka.
Chaka’s wife, Lola, has different tastes to her. She reads a lot of dark, serious books that Chaka says sometimes wake her up in the middle of the night. The Leo Burnett CCO prefers a copy of Dawn French’s autobiography, or a comic book by her bed. “There is a place for sadness, melancholy and fear,” she said, but for populist creativity, she believes that “making people feel joy, laugh and be entertained is the most important ingredient.”
In an industry that goes on about purpose endlessly, she noted that advertising people don’t talk much about their individual purposes. Chaka has a personal coach who has pushed her to recognise her personal purpose. In saying it, she said she feels “like a bit of a wanker,” but she recently discovered hers: to make outsiders feel like the many on the inside. And for her, in achieving this, the heart is more important than the brain. “I feel more strongly when my heart is engaged, and joy, laughter and entertainment can do that powerfully.”
“Things that are joyous or humorous can be seen as lacking in depth,” she said. But, she refuses that characterisation because great storytelling that’s fun is difficult. There’s a reason for that. “I believe it comes from a really profound understanding of the human psyche,” she said. “Great creativity comes from knowing pain.”
If you want to see the power of respite through storytelling, look no further than ‘Ted Lasso’, Chaka continued, which she noted is a beautifully told outsider’s tale. At its core it’s about kindness and joy, and “makes your heart feel good.” And of course it originated in advertising, as a commercial for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League
Advertising, being full of frustrated artists, is drenched in snobbery. That’s why entertaining, populist work can’t come from that emotional place, said Chaka. That’s why she welcomes the movement of “embracing the cringe” – a growing sentiment of “challenging the tyranny of cool” and accepting that there are no guilty pleasures. Why can’t something just be a pleasure? While Taylor Swift fans lean into the unpretentious joy her music brings them, couldn’t fun advertising find a similar place in people’s hearts?
There are more hard-nosed reasons to support entertaining, fun-filled advertising. History, Chaka noted, is kinder to things that have been uplifting than serious. Detractors of ABBA, for example, are harder to find than ever in 2023, because, as Chaka puts it, they are “a shot in the arm of feelgood.”
‘La Belle Noiseuse’ on the other hand is a four-hour slog, watching a woman being painted and hoping that something else would happen. It won tremendous critical acclaim. Chaka sat through it. She’s glad it exists, but wouldn’t recommend it.
“If there was ever a time that we need joy, Jesus Christ, it is now,” she said, standing in front of a screen full of newspaper front pages that provoke anything but optimism. “As a human race we need things to remind us that there is hope.” That’s why platforms like TikTok have “leaned into joy,” she said, and that’s why these platforms have our attention.
Anyone who’s met Chaka will understand that this goes beyond advertising for her. Leo Burnett’s output undoubtedly benefits from a tendency towards fun, but this is also personal for Chaka, who says she’s “motivated by trying to be a joyous person. Not for saccharine reasons,” but because she wants anyone who feels like an outsider to be connected to something on ‘the inside’ of culture – giving people something they can feel a part of.