Russell Goldsmith
Russell Goldsmith 12 July 2019

Podcast - Burning Man - From Cannes Lions 2019

This csuite podcast was recorded in front of an audience at the ICCO House of PR at Cannes Lions. Russell Goldsmith‘s guests were Sir Martin Sorrell & Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man Project.


Russell Goldsmith chats to Marian Goodell and Sir Martin Sorrell

Marian explained that Burning Man started on a beach in 1986 as an artistic act of self-expression from a man who was grieving from a lost love on the summer solstice.  There was probably only 25 to 30 people there. She feels that the real intention of that moment still applies to Burning Man today, which she described was sort of an act from the self - from the heart. By 1990 they’d moved to a desert in Nevada, where it’s now become a global movement with over 70,000 people visiting across eight-days.

Sir Martin described Burning Man as an amazing and unique experience - a pop-up city in the desert / salt flat.  He said the advertising industry is going through a lot of turmoil. Whether it be Google, Facebook or Amazon changing the basis, whether it's consultancies like Deloitte or Accenture causing disruption, or whether its clients taking back control, which he thinks it is, and doing insourcing or mixed models, as well as outsourcing. But he thinks the industry has to go through is a creative destruction or creative reconstruction and what Burning Man represents to him is significant reconstruction and change. He said that the city is literally created in a very short period of time and then destroyed - literally burned. Parts are recycled, but essentially, it's a creative destruction process and it’s that, that Sir Martin thinks is the metaphor for what he thinks has to happen to his industry - it has to radically change in a very short period of time, adapt or die.

Sir Martin is looking at where the growth is and said that essentially, companies ebb and flow or rise and fall not because of great CEOs or cutting costs but by finding where the growth is, and he believes the growth in his industry is in three areas:

  1. First party data - owned data by clients
  2. First party data that you can lay your hands on
  3. Programmatic

He said that there's still big creative ideas behind it, but it's not fixed TV ad campaigns - it's a continuous iterative process because it's 24/7 that has to be done in real time. You therefore have to change the approach, be much more agile, much more flexible, and have a much more responsive model. For him, Burning Man is, in itself, highly flexible as it changes every year.

The city is arranged like a horseshoe with the playa, temple and the Burning Man in the middle and Marian said there will be over 400 exhibits and that they are self-made installations. They have nearly all 50 US states represented, plus 20% of the participants are from overseas - at least 40 different countries, so Burning Man’s population is more diverse and more interesting with more languages spoken.

Inevitable, Burning Man is now approached by brands for commercial tie-ups, but Marian said that it doesn't challenge their ethos.  From the very beginning, they’ve had brands that want to give away their product to Burning Man, but they don't allow that at all.  They don't allow flyers to be passed out or any camp to have the name of any product. In fact, Marian said that you would go to Burning Man to un-brand yourself. What is a challenge, however, is the new influencer Instagram culture, who Marian said wants to come to Burning Man and then tag the clothes that they're wearing.

A recent article on - ‘Burning Man, it is its own worst enemy’ - talked about the challenges that Burning Man faces to its own rules and beliefs such as leaving no trace, as well as focusing on issues including air pollution, noise pollution, and public health risks.  However, Marian said that the article directly came out of the fact that they had just applied for a 10-year permit from the US Government that required an environmental assessment called an Environmental Impact Study, which took a year and a half.  She said they are required to look at all of those issues such as:

  • What is the air pollution?
  • What is the effect on animals and on birds?
  • What is the economic effect on the locals?

Marian said that article was published before the permit was released and that for the most part, for all of those issues, there was nothing largely negative that came from it. She said that they are very applauded for the fact that they have no garbage cans at Burning Man, which is something that anybody that produces any kind of event with more than a couple of hundred people finds incomprehensible. However, participants are expected to take everything away with them.

Burning Man is not franchised but Marian said that they do encourage people that have experienced Burning Man to do something passionate from that experience on their own and that might be creating art in their community. They now have 80 events around the world that range from a one-day street fair.  She feels that Burning Man really teaches you how to engage civically – people go and get a permit and they make a street closure and it might be just a block and the next year it's two blocks and the next year it's four blocks and some are overnight events.

Burning Man takes place from 25th August to 2nd September - visit

All previous shows of the series are available at as well on all your favourite podcast apps. Get involved in the discussion on FacebookInstagramLinkedIn and Twitter.

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