Bridging the digital divide
Campaign, Friday, 16 February 2007 12:00AM
Digital and traditional agencies might have more in common than they think. Andrew Cracknell, the former executive creative director of Bates UK, reports from the new-media coalface.
You're lolling in the vast common area of a modern studio and office warehouse underneath the Westway. The decor and lighting are so spare and dim, you could be in a club in Whitechapel. Sitting in front of you are Zoe and Claire, one of the hottest creative teams in one of the hottest digital agencies in London. They look the part - serious and uncompromising; the right haircuts and clothed in what looks to my unaccustomed eye as expensive versions of Camden Lock couture. So far, so leading edge. And as you ask them what they were doing before they arrived here, what would you say would be the possibilities racing through your mind? Digital advisor to the White Cube gallery? Lecturer in synaptic electronics at Hoxton University? Installations conceptualiser for bars on the Kingsland Road? Asbo girl? In perfectly modulated home counties accents, one tells me she was a charity worker, the other, an economist at the Department for Work and Pensions.
Fantastic! There's nothing like a thoroughly confounded perception to wrench the brain through a screaming 180-degree turn. And it gets better. When I ask them for a few buzz words with which to pepper this piece to shore up my credibility - bear in mind I've never visited YouTube, and my home page is The Archers - they look at each other and shrug. "We don't really use the web that much. Probably no more than most people."
They seem puzzled by my line of web-oriented questioning. "I've never done a MySpace page or anything like that," one of them says. Their previous experience in advertising was as a team at Wieden & Kennedy, with no involvement in digital activities.
Does this mean they're ill-equipped to do their job? Hardly. Sam Ball, their creative director, is delighted with them, and the following day I open Campaign to see that they're two "Faces to Watch", which, to their credit, they never mentioned to me. It depends how you define the job of a "digital creative person". Their description is charmingly simple: "You see, what we do is advertising that happens to appear on people's desks."
They're through the obsessive stage that so hamstrung the web in its early days, the zealous belief that if something can be done, it should be done; that because clicking on this fascinates me, it will fascinate everyone else. They were never in that era. This generation of digital creatives takes the technology for granted, as much as mine took the technology behind photography for granted.
Ebba Bazeley, the digital creative headhunter at The Garden Partnership, says that's pretty much who the digital outfits are taking now: "There's a huge number of traditional agency creative people showing an interest in the digital agencies - they're looking for more variety - but a lot of them worry that they need to be techies. But they don't - they really don't."
This indifference to the wonders of the web contradicts another of my major preconceptions, that digital creatives would be so transfixed by the bells and whistles at their disposal that their ideas would be subsumed in the pyrotechnics of their execution. "Web advertising - it's all execution led," as a dismissive former colleague put it.
"It was absolutely true," Tom Bazeley, Zoe and Claire's managing partner at Lean Mean Fighting Machine, says. "Early web efforts utilised technology at the expense of the user; everyone was so engrossed in the technology."
"But nowadays," Ball chips in, "we leave the technology to our technical people here. Once, all our ideas, all the influences and references, even the artwork, were generated from the computer and the web. But now, just like a traditional advertising agency, we're borrowing from everywhere and everyone." As proof, he points proudly to a delightful campaign for United Airlines using oil paintings by the Californian artist Joe Sorren. "Centuries old technology," he grins.
But although, wrongly, creative people from the "analogue" agencies feel they may be deficient in basic technical skills, they're yearning to make what must seem like the risky trek across to the digital side. And there are three good reasons why, as much as I love the smell of cow gum in the morning, if I had my time again, I think I'd be joining them.
First, is the playful nature of working on the web, and of the work itself. Interaction is compelling and fruitful and fun. Ball puts it beautifully: "Why do you think kids chase pigeons? Because they scatter, they flap around - the kid gets an instant reaction." The frivolous nature of so much web advertising reflects the nature and use to which so many people put the web. The advertising may eventually mature as the web matures, as all advertising tends to echo the medium it occupies. (Incidentally, that's why we have such bad radio advertising. It's because, by and large, the radio that the current generation of creative people have been brought up on is so egregious, they've learned only bad habits in radio execution.)
But it's not just fun to take part, it's fun to create. Steve Henry, the TBWA\ executive creative director, thinks "digital advertising is alive; it can react to the reactions of the public as it first hits them. It's organic, unlike a 30-second commercial, which just sits out there for a couple of years."
Second, the greatest fun comes in its immediacy. At Lean Mean Fighting Machine, the creative people work in an open-plan office close to the technical people responsible for executing the ideas. So, Zoe and Claire "can have an idea over here, and five minutes later can see it on a screen over there". A far cry from my experience of a process of attenuation from idea to execution, that could take literally years.
Third, and even more important, is that in the digital world, a week later your idea could be on every screen in the world. As a traditional agency creative director, the problem that bothered me more than any other is the shockingly debilitating "ideas done/work run" ratio, wasteful of money, commitment and morale. Teams could work conscientiously for two or three years, get good annual reviews and regular raises, and have not a single significant piece of published work to show for their time.
But the nature of the web and its workings means that the speed and frequency of idea from pad - yes, the initial ideas are still done in magic marker - to screen is ridiculously short compared with every other medium. That speed does, of course, mean a lot of the ideas are rough and ready, and as Ball says: "It's far from glamorous. We don't go on exotic locations, and we don't go to Cannes. There's a strong 'roll up your sleeves and get on with it' culture." But, on the other hand, where's the glamour in having a drawer full of cherished ideas that have never seen the light of day?
Web advertising does throw up a lot of imitative and derivative work. A new piece of software, a new executional gimmick appears, and a few clicks later, six different agencies have got their variations out in the wide world. But, then again, remember what happened after the first morphing commercial appeared? Six more came along just like it.
So, yes, I find the nature of working in a digital agency seductive. Or do I mean I find the nature of working in the digital field seductive? If the skills of the digital creatives are ideas-based just like their analogue cousins, and a technical knowledge is not required, what is the need for a digital agency?
The border becomes ever more fuzzy in an era when, while the digital agencies are plundering traditional agencies for their creative staff, BMB hires a digital creative director who'll work across all media, Bartle Bogle Hegarty wins a major digital account from a digital agency and Agency.com is lead agency on Ikea. BBH's John Hegarty welcomes the freshness and drive an exposure to digital work will bring to his agency: "Technology has always been a spur to creativity. We just need to add to the people we already have who best understand how to make the medium work."
And they're the same people, the same planners and creatives, who've always been attracted to agencies. The leading people in digital agencies today are there because they had the foresight to grasp what was feasible and exploitable on the web. But by now, probably most creative people in all agencies have at some time designed their own MySpace page, delved deep into the tools and toy box of the computer and fiddled their youth away on the net. The web is fast losing its mystique as a saucerful of secrets fathomable only to a handful of wizards. Maybe we're finally grasping the significance of Jeremy Bullmore's succinct distinction between "advertisement agencies" and "advertising agencies".
There are some operational differences, of course, driven, naturally, by the tools involved. But the stridently claimed philosophical differences seem to me to be largely invented by a few people from both sides, usually with a showman's eye for the bottom line, and sometimes by petty chippiness and sheer ignorance. It's a sine qua non in the publicity of the renegade start-up not only to be radical, but to be rude, to sneer at the opposition along the way. It's what political parties call "creating clear blue water".
Take this, from a senior member of Proximity: "Old-school brand thinking is broken. Advertisers need to engage people with a brand's value and company's beliefs through choice, not coercion." Well, golly gosh. Never listen to anything prefaced by "old school". I thought the phrase had slunk away and died, mortified by the utter failure of the first "dotcommers" and "webstas" who had thrust it arrogantly in the faces of anyone who dared challenge their new-wave (another misleading phrase) thinking. All that experience, all that knowledge, dismissed as irrelevant - until the disaster taught those of the survivors not too wounded or too proud to listen that maybe a few of the tenets of marketing and selling are timeless and universal.
Few "old school" practitioners choose to coerce their audience. Nobody in any creative department I've ever worked in has come to work to shout at people. Has there never, Mr Proximity, been charm, engagement and involvement in TV and print advertising? Conversely, has there never been a banal banner or intrusive pop-up on the web?
The reality is that most of us recognise that no matter how much techno-babble with which the less-gifted planners try to disguise predictable thinking; no matter how much we waffle on about "the brand tetrahedron" and "the psychodynamics of hierarchy"; no matter whether it's direct mail, a 30-second commercial, a handbill in the high street or a web ad, it's just selling; it's talking to someone about something they weren't expecting, and more often than not, in which they have no immediate interest. As Robin Wight wrote nearly 40 years ago: "Nobody wants to read your ad." So you'd better use all your charm to persuade them to do so.
And on the web, perhaps even more so. However we've advertised, I've always had the image of us on the nation's doorstep, our foot subtly but firmly jammed in its door. We've interrupted their day and invaded their space; sheer good manners dictate that we compensate. And it seems each new iteration of advertising advances further and further into their houses and into their faces until this evening, here at my laptop, at any moment, I can expect someone to leap into my line of vision less than 18 inches from my face and start selling me something.
With that degree of intrusion, more than ever before, they'd better be nice.
This article was first published on Campaign
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