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‘Smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales, it’s over’ – Will Smith on the pursuit of impact

‘Smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales, it’s over’ – Will Smith on the pursuit of impact

On Tuesday 21 June at Cannes Lions, actor, filmmaker and musician Will Smith sat down with Edelman global chair of creative strategy Jackie Cooper to talk about the lessons he has learned from his prolific career.

Smith claimed that first and foremost, he crafts material around ideas that were going to please his grandmother, connecting people in a positive way.

“The first thing I connected to was storytelling,” he added. “My father was a fantastic storyteller, he knows how to make you lean in.”

He pointed out that, while language can be lost in translation, ideas and emotions translate universally offering the power of a “universal story”.

“Having a houseful of teenagers is not fantastic most of the time, but in terms of staying relevant and trying to reach multiple generations and create art that’s going to be globally relevant, it’s hugely useful,” Smith added.

Everyone’s a critic

Looking at the effect of social media on the movie industry he says that instant online reviews have led to much change in the film industry.

“Back in old days, it was Wednesday before people knew your movie was shit – now, ten minutes in, people are tweeting ‘You! Its shit, don’t come!’ It’s like a new idea that we have to make good movies – it’s deep.

“The idea of smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales, it’s over – people are going to know really quickly and they’re going to know globally whether your product is keeping its promises.”

Smith considers himself a marketer, and he believes that the power is now in the hands of the audience: “As someone who wants to market a product globally, I need to be in tune with their needs and not try to trick them into seeing Wild Wild West.”

Smith said of the “slump” in his career around the release of the Steam Punk Western caper, that he found himself promoting something because he wanted it to win, as opposed to because he believed in the product.

He recounted a profound lesson he learned from his daughter Willow, during her tour with Justin Bieber around the release of her hit song “Whip my Hair”.

“She comes off stage and says ‘Daddy, that was great, thank you, I’m ready to go home now.’ ‘No, you can’t go home sweetie we’re on tour.’ ‘I know Daddy but I’m done. ‘Well, you can’t be done sweetie. ‘But I had fun, I’m finished.’ ‘Well, you’ve got three weeks left, baby.’ ‘So Daddy, it doesn’t matter that I’m done?’

Willow came down the next morning and she had shaved her head bald: “She looks at me like ‘Daddy, I’m ready’ – I looked at her and said ‘Sweetie, I get it, got it, we’re going home’.

“The lesson was so explosive in my mind that selling, marketing, creating, all of that cannot be about me. My parenting is connected to the way I make movies, connected to way I interact with people – in my mind, I was building her a career, but it wasn’t what she wanted.”

Understand the person

From this story, Smith credits a huge shift to spending time understanding the person and trusting that, by having a deeper comprehension of the people, the product created will be more successful.

Smith felt that his global mission statement was to improve lives. “When I read a movie script, I’m not asking will it make a lot of money (I want it to make a lot of money). I’m asking ‘How does this improve lives?’ It’s not a big shift.”

Although Smith says he’s never done endorsements, he has now started a business of eco-friendly water, based on his son Jaden’s reaction to a lesson in school, teaching him about an island in the Pacific Ocean entirely made of plastic bottles.

“I said ‘It sounds like more a problem for your generation, figure it out. man’,” he joked.

“Water is probably the most shocking space to enter. The core of the company is the idea that a ten year old was incensed about destroying the planet. When you start with that seed, it’s hard to go wrong.”

Smith concluded by discussing the funeral of his hero Mohammed Ali, who he considered a great friend.

“What was really interesting was it wasn’t sad, it was a celebration. His wife said he planned his funeral for the last ten years.

“It was a result of him having lived his life with purpose, living by his values. In the long run, that’s the only way to connect to people the way he connected to people.“