06/28/2011 11:58 am ET Updated Aug 28, 2011

If Facebook Can Make a Revolution, Can It Make a Brand?

Thomas Friedman tells the story of a Syrian activist who was stopped at a Syrian Army checkpoint. The activist had a laptop and a thumb drive on the seat next to him. The Syrian soldier examined them. Then he asked the driver: "Do you have a Facebook?" The activist said he didn't, so the soldier let him pass.

That activist was lucky. That soldier didn't know how Facebook works. He only knew that it was powerful. And along with pretty much everyone in Syria and Libya and Tunisia and Egypt and, as of this month, Saudi Arabia, he knew that Facebook and Twitter and other forms of social media somehow accelerate political change. But how?

That's the question JWT explored last week at the annual Cannes advertising festival.

We gathered a panel of socially conscious filmmakers and activists and asked them to consider a compelling proposition: "The power of the people is greater than the people in power." And then, because this was an industry event, we explored -- gingerly -- the question that anyone in the audience would ask: "What can brand managers and marketers learn from activists?"

Why "gingerly?" A billion dollar advertising agency discussing advertising -- that's what events like Cannes are for. But when a billion dollar advertising agency chooses to discuss important social issues, you don't want to dishonor the people who gave their lives for their ideals or trivialize their great work. And although our creativity gets funneled into 60 seconds, we don't want to oversimplify complex historical events.

Our interest in politics and social change may surprise people who think our business has anything to do with the world of "Mad Men." Advertising has changed -- we're social scientists now. We take our creative cue from the headlines, not from Business coverage. And what we see is that nothing's simple -- historical events have many strands.

Look back, before there was blogging and handheld devices, to the unification of East and West Germany. Many believe this was the direct result of a speech that President Ronald Reagan gave in Berlin in l987: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." No doubt Reagan lit the fuse. But the Wall didn't come down until 1989 -- what happened in those two years? Very simply: the intersection of technology and culture. By the late 1980s, West German television had reached about 97% penetration in East Germany. And Western entertainment -- which Western freedom produces in abundance -- was enormously popular in East Germany. So, in 1989, when Gorbachev announced that he would not use the Russian army to put down the revolt in East Germany, the East Germans were primed to bring the Wall down. Reagan mattered. So did Bruce Springsteen, Levis and "Dallas."

In the Middle East, social change is just as complex. High food prices, unemployment, illiteracy, repression -- the factors vary from country to country. So does the passion for social networking. Computer penetration is about 40% in Iran, only 20% in Egypt, and yet it was Eygpt, not Iran, that saw a government topple. Clearly, the message matters as much, or more, than the device.

What does this tell us about brands interested in using social media? First, it reminds us that although digital media can put us in touch with the entire world, the world is not like the United States. In our country, as a Pew study tells us, the use of social media has doubled in just a few years -- almost half of American adults now use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks. In our free society, Twitter messages can be as mundane as the address of a restaurant where you'd like to meet your friends. In Tahrir Square, they were often a matter of life or death.

The intense American media focus on social networking can easily make marketers feel that it's the most important ingredient in an advertising campaign. Danger lies ahead. If there's one lesson we can learn from the videos and Tweets and Facebook posts of this year's protests in the Middle East, it's the importance of a real relationship between communicator and audience. In Tahrir Square, and in every other country where people had been silenced for decades, there was one message, and it was one familiar to Americans who saw this year's Academy Award-winning movie: "I have a voice."

A cry that deep, that soulful, can't be trivialized. It stands apart from the concerns of advertising. And it sets a standard for all who would like to learn from it. First, nothing matters more than transparency -- if you or your product has something to hide, stay far away from social media. Second is the importance of listening to consumers -- more is involved there, as a humorist has put it, than waiting for the other person to finish talking so you can start again.

I think there are tremendous rewards for brands that approach social media with the right attitude. That requires, I suspect, allegiance to one more priority: patience. Like a revolution, a great social media campaign doesn't happen overnight.