Will Smith took stage on 21 June at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2016, in conversation with Jacky Cooper, global chair of creative strategy, Edelman.
Arriving to a loud cheer from the audience, Smith went down memory lane.
He said, “It’s interesting. I started in music. Then moved to TV, and then to films. I experienced success across multiple media forms. I owe it to my grandma. I was 12, and I would write my rap songs with four-letter, explicit words. She happened to see my book. She said nothing. Instead she wrote inside it that truly intelligent people don’t use language like that. She asked me to show my intelligence to the world. She told me how what I was creating until then would only impact me. This showed me the importance to be connected to everyone else.”
The incident made an impact on Smith. The actor revealed that his first thought after that was always what his grandmother thought about his work and what the rest of the world would think.
The discussion soon moved to advertising and media.
Smith said, “Marketing starts with the seed of the idea,” before going on to joke about how having teenagers at home is "not fantastic at all". He added, “But it helps when it comes to reaching out to that age group. My oldest son is 23. He has a girlfriend from the last 10 years. One day he came to me. He was sad. He told me that he (and his girlfriend) are very young, and want to get married soon, but were taking a break to look at other options. I told him not to do that and just cheat instead. He looked at me and told me that cheating is over. I thought of that for a while before asking him to explain it to me. He told me that technology has killed cheating.”
He linked this incident to marketing of films. “In the ’80s and ’90s, a crap movie would come with three or four trailers and one would wait until Wednesday to know it’s a crap movie. Now, 10 minutes into a movie, people are tweeting about it, asking people not to watch it. So, now Hollywood is saying, we have to make good movies. Smoke mirrors in sales and marketing are over. People will know quickly and in such detailing that the product is shit. The power is in the hands of the audience and fans,” he added.
The star then delved into authenticity. Admitting that success may have gotten to him, he cited an incident with his 10-year old daughter changed that. “I had Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men In Black releasing in successive summers. The success made me taste global blood. I shifted from a boy to a star. I started promoting things in order to be the best rather than do useful things. That caused a mutiny. My daughter taught me a lesson. We were in Dublin, for her tour. She was performing alongside Justin Bieber. After a great performance, she came to me and said let’s go home. I was like, how can we go home during the tour. She said she had fun, and wanted to go home. I told her there’s three weeks to go, and we need to be there. We then moved to London for the next leg. On the day of her performance she came to me after shaving her hair off. I got it then. I spoke to Justin and the team, and took her back home,” said Smith.
He added, “Selling or marketing has to be about the need of a person. There’s no sales pitch I could make to her at that time. So, that made me understand that I need to understand the other person rather than promote something.”
Providing the example of an archer, Smith stated that goals should only be about improving lives. He explained, “The only mission statement brands should have should be about improving lives. When I read scripts, it’s about asking myself how can I improve lives. It’s not a big shift from trying to be number one, to getting needs for people’s ends. People liked Steve Jobs so much because he wanted to blow consumers’ minds.”
Another conversation Smith brought up was one with his son Jaden, and the brand Just Water.
He said, “Jaden came home after an ecology session, and told me about an island of plastic in the middle of the ocean.” (Smith quipped that it was a problem of his son’s generation and not his, before continuing.) “I told him if something bothers you, figure it out. He stayed on it and was worried about the way we were treating the environment. He found tetrapak, and tried to create a 100 per cent, decomposable water bottle, called Just Water. It’s currently 80 per cent decomposable. In fact on the site, we promote drinking tap water, but if not available it should be Just Water. (Bottled) Water is a crowded place to enter. But at the core of this is a 10-year old that was worried about the environment.”
The Cannes Lions stage was the first where Smith spoke about his involvement with the brand.