Thursday, February 05, 2009

"A Bigger Idea":
A Manifesto on Interactive Advertising Creativity

Quick -- name four fantastic, emotionally resonant, culturally significant and successful
interactive advertising campaigns from the past year.

Came up empty? That's what I thought. Palo Alto, we've got a problem.

Actually, Palo Alto may be the problem. Fifteen years old, a vital component of the m
arketing landscape by any calculation, interactive advertising is still characterized in the public eye and practitioners' minds by its technical sleight-of-hand instead of its narrative and emotive power. This has led our industry to a creative crisis that, if not resolved, will almost certainly impede our -- and our customers' -- growth.

It's time to engage marketers, agencies, and publishers in a public debate about creativity in interactive advertising. The IAB has set aside much of
our February 22-24 Annual Leadership Conference in Orlando, Florida, for this discussion. But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to launch the debate right here by naming names -- the four enemies of online branding:
  • A direct-marketing culture and tradition that devalues creativity and its long-term effect on brands
  • An interactive agency business model that disincentivizes greatness and fails to penalize mediocrity
  • An unwillingness by mainstream agencies to integrate technologists as full partners in the advertising creative team
  • Media industry values and habits that malign and depreciate our own products, and by extension our customers'
The Banner Shibboleth

The issue of brand advertising and its future in interactive media is particularly prominent now, as the U.S. struggles through its worsening economic crisis. With much of marketing spend frozen, mainstream media suffering from significant advertising dropoffs, and interactive ad growth slowing, the blame game has become a desperate pastime in our industry, especially from premium publishers trying to maintain pricing on their display inventory.

The latest shibboleth is the online banner ad, whose formats IAB members first began standardizing more than a decade ago and subsequently realized in the "Universal Ad Package" in 2003. Industry chatter recently has begun to attribute pricing pressure to the mere existence of these standard ad units. New York Times "Bits Blog" columnist Saul Hansell this week related an encounter with President Charlie Tillinghast, who told him that
"that the standard sizes have allowed the advertising networks to turn display ads into commodities."

"We made it possible for any Web site to run ads through the ad networks," Mr. Tillinghast told Mr. Hansell. "That's created an oversupply of space."

On the one hand, the charge is literally true: Standardization of anything -- the ASCII character-encoding scheme, the North American 15A/125V ungrounded electrical plug and socket, the IEEE/ANSI Performance Criteria for Alarming Personal Radiation Detectors for Homeland Security -- turns it into a commodity, "an article of commerce or a product that can be used for commerce." There are many types of commodities characterized by natural or artificial standards -- coal, oil, currencies and, of course, pork bellies, to name a few.

On the other hand, the charge, in relation to advertising, is historically jejune. Blaming Internet banner standards for commoditization is no different than attributing television advertising pricing fluctuations to standardization of the 30-second spot, or faulting the magazine page for the pressures on magazine advertising.

Indeed, the accusation ignores the very reason IAB members -- including such historic beneficiaries of advertising standards as The New York Times and CBS -- developed the ad standards in the first place: to reduce the complexity and transaction costs associated with interactive advertising, and allow the medium to scale. "The Internet is taking an important step in its evolution as an ad medium by moving in this direction of standard ad sizes," Richy Glassberg, then the Vice President and General Manager of Interactive Sales for Turner Broadcasting, said when the first IAB banner standards were introduced in 1996. "This will make it easier for agencies and advertisers to develop advertising and will further establish the Web as a viable mass medium."

Endorsing those standards, Mike Donahue of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, said, "The proliferation of banners has created a massive problem for advertisers and their agencies, which sometimes have to create their ads in 50 or more sizes. These voluntary guidelines will greatly streamline the advertising production and placement process and contribute to the overall growth of Internet advertising."

Supply vs. Demand

Mr. Tillinghast (who has built into a national and global news powerhouse) is also wrong in attributing the "oversupply of space" to standardization. The disequilibrium in the supply and demand for advertising inventory has a more fundamental cause: technology itself. As I noted in my first presentation to the IAB Board of Directors, using research we conducted at the consulting firm Booz & Co. in the early 2000's on behalf of the Association of National Advertisers and some media clients, it is now possible for a 14-year-old to create a global television network with the applications that come built into her laptop computer. That means that, for perhaps the first time in any industry, new product -- in our case, content and advertising inventory -- can be created and distributed seamlessly, without friction, and largely without marginal cost.

To prove the point, just look at another industry standard that's helped a commodity proliferate in recent years: ICANN's Web site naming conventions. Thanks to it (and that other contributing standard, Internet Protocol), there are now approximately 160 million Web sites in the world -- some 1.2 million of which sell advertising.

This isn't to deny that oversupply is a problem. It is. But short of a shutdown of the Internet itself -- a ban against new domain names, an ICANN moratorium, or mass public revulsion against a medium that is now the world's most popular -- new supply will always be entering this marketplace.

Yet in the very notion of commoditization lies the salvation for interactive advertising. For as in all other commodity markets, the products can be shaped and modified in ways that add enormous value to them. Raw diamonds can be polished to perfection. Cotton balls can be woven into couture dresses. Pork bellies can be sauteed into haute cuisine.

And advertising inventory can be written, designed, and produced by immensely talented creative people into communications that drive the fortunes of great companies.

Direct Response Culture

Can be... But for the most part isn't. Given the remarkable creative potential in interactivity, online media should present a cornucopia of fabulous, affecting and effective advertising. Take the great concepting and design that went into Doyle Dane's "Think Small" ad for Volkswagen, spoon in the equivalently brilliant production simplicity of Chiat/Day's "Human Cartoons" campaign for the Nynex Yellow Pages, throw in the remarkable production values that for two generations characterized BBDO's work for Pepsi, sprinkle over it the captivating long copy Ogilvy wrote for Rolls-Royce -- and then add the potential for mass viral video distribution, one-to-one validation, social media engagement, blog conversation, customization on premium news and entertainment sites, and segmented reach through online networks. The marketing mind boggles.

So with all that potential, why is that so few people can name even two great, recent interactive advertising campaigns -- so few people
in our own industry? (For those tempted to respond, "Hey, wait a minute, what about 'Subservient Chicken?'", I feel compelled to point out that this breakthrough effort by Crispin Porter Bogusky for Burger King is five years old.)

Culprit no. 1, I believe, is the direct-marketing culture that is part of interactive advertising's DNA. Lord knows, we should and do revere direct response advertising and most of what it's bequeathed to the interactive industry. From the DR industry we've derived our attention to accountability -- an obligation honored only in the breach through the history of mainstream media and agencies. From direct marketing we have learned that data and its management are central to everything we do. Many of the growth areas for interactive publishers, including lead generation and customer relationship management, are based on direct marketing innovations.

But direct marketers are almost defiantly disinterested in the aesthetics of communications -- and the long-term impact aesthetics has on brand value and company activities. Notwithstanding such legendary direct marketing efforts as American Express's -- where every element of the
brand is supported through all channels, from main media to direct -- even direct mailers will say that creativity, designed to build and reinforce such well-established, long-term brand-uplifting effects as "likeability," is not native to the direct response business. Attention to beauty is more the exception than the rule in a marketing-services segment that prizes today's response to today's offer over long-term brand lift.

This isn't a criticism, but a reflection of the way the marketing mix is supposed to work, and has worked for decades. When I first visited the fabled Publisher's Clearing House in Port Washington, Long Island 20 years ago, I was shocked at the contrast between their clinical understanding of the "what" and their utter detachment from the "why." PCH's 12 writers and four art directors were involved continuously in developing new mailing "involvement devices" -- pre-Internet instigators of what we today call "consumer engagement" -- and, through rigorous testing, could tell down to fractions of a percentage point the lift to gross revenues each would provide.

how such devices as the "television tag" and the "Jaguar stamp" worked to influence consumers, and what the implications were for the magazines that used PCH to boost subscriptions -- that the direct marketers could not say.

"Don't Know Why"

''If you use a manila envelope, people respond more than they do to a white envelope, but we don't know why,'' Lee Epstein, president of Mailmen Inc., a Long Island company that inserts materials in direct-mail envelopes, told me at the time. ''The postage-paid stamp in the upper-right-hand corner - someone once made a mistake and tilted it. It increased response, but we don't know why."

Almost everyone in magazine publishing can relate a horror story about how direct marketing's ingrained disdain for beauty and branding sundered a property -- how a circulation department for an elegant fashion or furnishings periodical, intent on meeting a mailing response target, flooded low-income neighborhoods with cheap come-ons, driving the publication's demographics downward and turning off the very advertisers the magazine was supposed to attract.
"Most direct-mail letters, they said, don't use good writing; don't worry if you split an infinitive," Frank H. Johnson, a direct mail pioneer who began his career at Time Inc. in the 1930's, once told me. "And you're never supposed to be funny."

Bill Jayme, one of the greatest direct mail writers of the past century, agreed. ''The general attitude in direct mail is to talk down, assume people are stupid and repeat everything,'' he told me nearly 20 years ago. The late Mr. Jayme was a rare exception. "I haven't had any qualms about using a word like 'peregrinations.' If the context is right, the reader'll understand and will feel flattered.''

But this notion that your consumer was part of a community of interest with the brand marketer, not a "target" to turn into a "conquest" at any cost, was and is rare in direct marketing. The late, great magazine journalist Clay Felker once related to me the struggles he, Harold Hayes, and others charged with reinventing Esquire magazine in the early 1960's had persuading the publication's proprietors to abandon the "damn it letter" -- the long-time direct mail control missive that opened with those words and chortled over pinup girls. However damaging this legacy of Esquire's earlier girlie magazine days was to the rebranding effort the newcomers were charged with spearheading, the publisher was reluctant to change it, because it brought in subscribers. Mr. Felker succeeded in his effort only when he retained Mr. Jayme, who wrote an intelligent letter that finally outperformed the debilitating "damn it letter."

Why Creativity Matters

Agency founder David Ogilvy revered direct marketing, yet also was the ad industry's leading apostle of brand imagery. In his marvelous new biography of Ogilvy, The King of Madison Avenue, former Ogilvy & Mather Chairman and Chief Executive Kenneth Roman relates how, for years, Ogilvy (shown at left) struggled to reconcile these "two schools of advertising" that "were diametrically opposed to each other."

By the time Ogilvy founded his agency in 1948, he had succeeded. As committed as he was to the principle that advertising must sell, Ogilvy also understood the risks posed by a fixation on immediacy and accountability -- primarily the brand marketer's loss of public esteem and the ability it bestowed to maintain pricing power. In remarks made 50 years ago that seem eerily prescient today,
Ogilvy told the author Martin Mayer:

"Most brands that need help today were given sleazy, bargain-basement brand images in the thirties, when money was scarce and it was a great help to seem cheap. They've suffered from it. When I first came into this country Packard was one of the great quality cars. Then they began getting tough, going after the middle-priced market. What do you think they would give today to get back their old image?'

To marketers and others who complained that brand-image advertising "is unmeasurable, it's all a lot of airy-fairy nonsense," Ogilvy had a simple response: "Well, is it?"

Ogilvy was one of the last century's great salesmen. In his book, Mr. Roman spins wonderful yarns about the hours "DO" spent as an apprentice chef in the kitchen of the Majestic Hotel, one of Paris's best restaurants, and the years he spent peddling Aga cookers, a premium stove, door to door across Scotland, in the 1930's. What Ogilvy learned from these experiences is that successful selling is at root about one thing: faith -- your ability to provide to others a dream with infinite horizens. The exquisitely designed plate of cuisine classique -- ah yes, you are living the good life! This remarkable stove -- why, your home will be akin to the finest restaurant!

Creating Faith

In taking this lesson to his agency, Ogilvy also understood that creating faith in customers was not a distant exercise; he would not succeed solely by delivering creatively constructed messages across pages or airwaves to a faceless mass of consumers. There was always a more immediate, more present customer: the clients themselves.

This is perhaps the most important reason advertising creativity matters. It inspires the marketer. It encourages the sales force. It provides them, and all the other constituencies in and around the company and the brand, the faith that they will be able to sell the product in to the retailer, close the sales on the dealer's lot, win new commissions, and better their own lives. Great advertising is their rallying cry, the flag they march under. The mouseclick must be matched by their heartbeat.

This is the reason no major new advertising campaign ever debuts
de novo on broadcast network television, but rather is premiered at the franchisees' convention, the national dealers' conference, and the annual sales meeting. The campaign, the ads, are the gospels -- the stories that excite and unite the tribes, that spur them to go out and do battle for a higher cause. Done right, an advertising campaign transforms the advertiser itself into an army of true believers. For how can you expect to win new converts, if you, yourself, are not a true believer?

The notion that a narrative could be used to drive people toward higher goals is as old as philosophy itself. As Socrates says in concluding the myth of the cave in
Plato's Republic: "Without having seen the Form of Good and having fixed his eye upon it, one will not be able to act wisely, either in public affairs or in private life."

Jerry Della Femina described this cultural power -- this corporate cultural power -- of great advertising more profanely but no less profoundly in his famous book, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Pearl Harbor. "The client is standing up there waiting at the train station for the New Haven to take him into New York and he's dying to be stopped by his buddies," Mr. Della Femina wrote in his classic memoir. "He is dying for them to compliment him on his new campaign."

"'Boy, you've got a hell of an ad there.' That's what the client wants to hear."

Missing Reputational Currency

The gap between the mouseclick and the heartbeat is nowhere more evident than in many of our digital advertising agencies. To illustrate, allow me to pose an admittedly trick question: What's the biggest difference between a traditional creative agency and a new-age digital agency?

Answer: Traditional creative agencies are named after human beings. Digital agencies are named after inanimate objects or nonsense words.

Check out the winners of the 2008 IAB MIXX Awards -- the industry's premier showcase for creativity and effectiveness. Winner, Best in Show: Tequila. Winner, Brand Positioning: Digitas. Winner, In-Game Advertising: Jogo. Silver Award, Brand Positioning: Blockdot. Silver Award, Digital Video: Tribal DDB.

Look, we love these agencie. And to be fair to them, the depersonalization of advertising predated the digital revolution. But it's a particular tragedy in the digital arena, because it has robbed the industry of its most potent fuel: reputation capital.

From their inception in the 19th Century, advertising agencies, like law and accounting firms, represented their origins and duties as client service businesses in their names. "N. W. Ayer & Son," "Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne," "Young & Rubicam" -- all implied a sense of personal responsibility on the part of founders to their customers.

Not incidentally, they also conveyed a sense of opportunity to their ambitious employees. Advertising was always a low-barrier-to-entry business. If success depended solely on the ability "
to render service and make money," as Lord & Thomas leader Albert Lasker once put it, why, anyone could try it!

And they did -- at no time more prolifically than during the Creative Revolution of the 1960's. The concurrent post-war Baby Boom, suburbanization of America, and spread of network television put a special premium on quality advertising content; more products and more communications channels meant more ads, and more need to cut through the growing clutter to
engage audiences. Writers and graphic designers determined that they, too, might have value -- perhaps more value than account handlers. So writers like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach (shown right) and graphic designers like George Lois took the plunge and founded agencies.

Cultural recognition and financial growth rapidly came their way, emboldening other creatives to believe they could trade the personal reputations they had won using little more than their pens and palettes into successful agencies. The "swinging agencies," Jerry Della Femina called them: Wells, Rich, Greene; Delehanty, Kurnit & Geller; Smith/Greenland; Daniel & Charles. Many were spawned directly from the creative department of Doyle Dane Bernbach. Between January and July 1969 alone, more than 100 ad shops were launched, most in New York, all of them gassed up with reputational capital.

Agency Road Map

The calculation was clear and direct: Get known as the creator of great, successful campaigns, and you, too, could start your own business, bring some clients along, and make an awful lot of money on little capital investment. And to this day, that remains the road map for success in the agency business. If you want to understand why the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival has become the largest destination gathering of advertising professionals in the world -- "more than 10,000 delegates from 85 countries... inspired by the 28,000 pieces of work on display," as its Web site says -- that's all you need to know.

And that's the reason to mourn, and perhaps war against, the depersonalization of the agency business. Sure, there are several valid explanations for it: to scale, advertising had to globalize and industrialize; and increasingly, one could maintain that successful client service is about the team, not the individual.

But if, as I have argued, great advertising not only stimulates consumers but galvanizes that team to build and sustain strong companies and brands, then we must recognize that its creation requires both collaboration and individual achievement. Advertising, in this regard, is no different from any other form of communication that seeks after broad, material, cultural impact -- no different than film, or theatre, or journalism: If stardom is not rewarded, there is little incentive toward superiority. Worse, perhaps, if mediocrity is not penalized, there is little deterrence to decline.

There's good news lurking beneath the surface. The rising category of digital advertising award winners -- agencies making the hearts beat and the mice click -- are the great creative agencies of the past two decades: Hill Holliday, Goodby Silverstein, McKinney, BBDO, TBWA Chiat/Day -- companies whose names (or, well, acronyms) have meaning.

But we must unleash and laud by name the next generation of stars. Interactive advertising, I suspect, will only take its place in the cathedrals of cultural significance when we start to recognize and reward the creative individuals who make greatness happen.

Creative Technologists Arise

Those individuals carry at least one non-traditional title. To the advertising creative partnership that traditionally has teamed a copywriter and an art director, a third member must be added: the creative technologist.

The creative technologist is only now beginning to gain public recognition. Google the term and you'll find hundreds of help wanted ads at agencies and publishers. But I'd never seen the phrase in the mainstream media until two weeks ago, when New York Magazine writer Emily Nussbaum published an exciting piece about the transformation of uptown rival The New York Times. "There is something exhilarating about watching web innovation finally explode at The Times," she wrote. "... Everyone seems to have a job title like 'creative technologist,' giving the entire floor a mad-scientist air."

Yet these are not mad scientists; they are essential partners in modern media, central to the craft of communication today. Creative technologists, says Mark Avnet, professor and head of a training program for them at Virginia Commonwealth University's VCU Brandcenter, are "fluent and confident in using media technologies appropriately in the service of branding, advertising, marketing and persuasion." VCU's program -- the world's first at an accredited university, launched only six months ago -- aims to train "leaders and members in ‘new’ creative teams, as interactive designers, creative directors, producers, directors of interactive media, members of account teams, as entrepreneurs and in emerging creative technology positions in forward-thinking agencies.”

Among contemporary agency leaders, the only one who speaks publicly about the indispensability of creative technologists is RG/A Chairman, CEO and Global Chief Creative Officer Bob Greenberg.

"There are critical creative needs that didn't exist in the old advertising," says Mr. Greenberg, who counts 130 technologists in his New York office. "Advertising is no longer just about the display ad or the TV commercial or the banner; it's about creating meaningful tools and architecting user experiences. Our technology group, they can keep up to speed technically with the top people at HP or IBM. But they also understand how to work with others to create an application that will lead to community."

Mr. Greenberg stresses that calling the creative technologist the "third member" of the creative team is, at best, metaphorical. There are several new skill sets creative agencies today must possess to attract, engage, and influence consumers -- Flash video development, software design, information architecture, animation, CRM, iPhone app design, and ActionScript development among them -- and no one individual will have expertise in all. The point is that the men and women with these skills must be treated as full partners in the campaign development process, contributors to "the Big Idea," not as executional afterthoughts buried in the basement.

The Bigger Idea

This evolution of the creative partnership is as transformational a moment as was the invention of the copywriter-art director partnership exactly 60 years ago, at fledgling shop Doyle Dane Bernbach. Influenced by his former colleague, the legendary graphic designer Paul Rand, agency founder Bill Bernbach realized that effective persuasion required the full integration of words and images -- and of their expert creators.

"Up until that time in agencies, the art director was a layout man," George Lois, a Bernbach acolyte, once told me. "He may have been a very, very good layout man. He may have been a gifted layout man. But he was not a thinker. He was a layout man." So secondary were they that they worked in different rooms, often on different floors, than the copywriters, who referred to these layout men as "wrists."

"Before Bernbach, there were slogans, great lines, and they got laid out," Mr. Lois said. "Well, Bernbach didn't believe in catchy lines as much as he believed in attacking the heart and soul. So Bernbach gave the art director power."

Significantly, this occurred at the dawn of the last information revolution -- the introduction of broadcast network television, which also occurred exactly 60 years ago. The advent of the interactive revolution now heralds the empowerment of the creative technologist. Clearly, their ascent adds complexity to advertising agency and media management: Communications leaders will have to learn how to foster collaboration among larger and more diverse teams -- in addition to motivating their individual stars, as I've suggested is necessary. But agencies and media have no choice but to add them to their capability mix.

"You can't have an art director and a writer who go off for two weeks in a room and try to come up with a Big Idea that is rendered into a print ad or billboard, and the interactive accompaniment to that is just matched luggage," Mr. Greenberg says. "You have to get to a bigger idea. You now may need eight people around the table."

All That Remains

If you've had the good fortune to spend time in RG/A's Bauhaus-style headquarters on Manhattan's West Side, or a block away in the offices of New York Times Digital, or across the country at Google's campus in Mountainview, or a little bit north of that, in the AKQA agency's HQ across from AT&T Park in San Francisco, or across the country again, in the converted tobacco factory that houses the transforming McKinney agency in Durham, NC, you'll be struck immediately by all this creative ferment -- this reinvention of the way we communicate the world and persuade consumers.

Yet that is not the conversation that dominates our ecosystem today.

Instead, we're engaged in a war over "pork bellies." We're publicly complaining, on stages and in pages, about commoditization. We talk incessantly about "remnant inventory."

I've got to tell you, every time I hear an interactive publishing executive use the term "remnant," I want to take a scissors, shred the dress, and stab the salesman. How dare you, I think, deprecate your property in that way? You're trying to sell couture at Bergdorf's, yet you're using the language of Seventh Avenue garmentos to describe it?

With all due respect to the IAB's members -- who are, after all, my bosses -- and to the media agencies (who are among our most important customers), I'd like to suggest that our seller-buyer-driven culture is devaluing not just the pricing but the potency of our medium. We must stop acting as if we're selling schmattes, and start acting like the makers of magic that the best of us are -- and always have been.

As I've written and any economist would affirm, supply-demand disequilibrium, exacerbated by a recession-driven flight of marketing budgets from above-the-line functions to promotional availabilities, is the root cause of today's pricing pressures in media. Yes, it's bad, and yes, it will get worse before it gets better. But it's no reason for discussions of commoditization to dominate our business -- now, or at any time. Remnants may clothe you when you are needy, but they will not make you feel grand.

Interactive Advertising Grows

And that, fundamentally, is the business we are in -- of providing men and women the information they need and they entertainment they want to think and feel and act in different and better ways. And therein lies the power of our medium, its unprecedented power, for it allows people to find the information, to talk back to the news, to create and share the entertainment, to shape the event. And that is the force of advertising in this medium -- not the fact that in some places, at some times, it can be purchased in the bargain basement.

That is the reason why, while other media platforms contract, interactive advertising is still growing: especially during a recession, not all time and space are created equal.

That's especially true within our industry. Some interactive publishing companies are growing bigger and better than others. There are many reasons for their relative success: the addition of sophisticated yield management capabilities, the creation of customer-facing services businesses, the development of consumer insights capabilities, the training of a more consultative sales force, the highlighting and fulfilling of creative opportunities for clients, the implementation of sophisticated market- and product-segmentation strategies, the undeniable attractiveness of quality content to men and women hungering for information and entertainment.

But these publishers' achievements and their bright prospects all derive from their willingness to ask -- and answer with actions -- one fundamental question: How do I add value to my consumers' experiences and my customers' businesses?

In our obsession with immediacy and accountability, we have overlooked the more subtle yet more powerful ways that companies, brands, and fortunes are built through time. Our IAB Annual Leadership Meeting, Ecosystem 2.0, themed "Brands Battle Back," will launch this needed conversation.

For digital publishers and agencies, here's what I hope this conversation leads you to do:

  1. Motivate greatness among your best creative people, for their work inspires consumers and customers alike.
  2. Collaborate -- creative agencies and publishers -- with each other and within yourselves to develop outstanding advertising and communications products.
  3. Assemble writers, designers, and technologists into teams that can engage the intellect and emotions of audiences and individuals across all channels, toward the goal of creating enduring brands.
  4. Prove to your customers that causing the heart to beat quick is at least as important as making the mouse click.
Finally, and politely, let's ask the sellers and the planners, the publishers and the senior buyers, to continue their price negotiations -- but quietly, in the back room, away from the customers crowding our front counters and our home pages.

Let's return to a time when advertising and media conversation was owned by the creatives, the editors, and the impresarios -- when it was dominated by debates about the craft of persuasion, about what moves people. After all, isn't that the reason we're in this business?


  1. Randall,

    I don't know where to begin. This is a truly inspiring post. I have tried to integrate interactive into traditional branding initiatives throughout my entire career in small agencies. It's always felt like an uphill battle, but one that is vital to continue. One that must revolve around the big idea and include technologists from the very first step.


  2. Randall, i'm going to both applaud you, and stick my neck out and say I think you're fighting the wrong fight.

    Great article, terrific analysis, particularly loved the stuff about Ogilvy.

    Why do I think you're fighting the wrong fight ? Because I think its time we stopped talking about interactive - its just a set of channels after all - and start talking about the pervasiveness of digital behaviours, or as Kevin Kelly founding editor of wired put it "Internet Culture is The Culture".

    In other words, DONT start a digital/interactive agency. Start an ideas company with 21st century behaviours at its core driving brand engagement across all channels, unified by digital audience behaviours. Mobiles, PVRs, websites, games, even talkback radio, broadcast TV and print - these are all pathways for engagement now and we have to get out of channel boxes like 'above-the-line' agency or 'digital house'.

    Then I think the creative ideas are really going to stack up - and it will just happen that you'll find some of them online, or on your 'phone.

    Love your work !

  3. Tim, you're right of course. Digital advertising IS advertising. Online media ARE media. Perceptions ARE perceptions. A very good reminder, and thank you for it,

  4. Randall, I also don't know where to begin. This is a terrific piece that I am going to reread for the third time on the train to our advisory board meeting! Comments to come....

  5. R2
    You have written a wonderfully thoughtful piece. I find myself in such violent agreement with most of it, that I hesitate to add my own thoughts --- but what the hell.

    1. The world needs more “Great” creative work for sure. But as Ken’s book on Ogilvy points out, DO and his brother-in-law Rosser Reeves measured ‘greatness’ on very different scales. You and I and the IAB need some standards by which to measure greatness - “I know it when I see it” isn’t sufficient. (Only thing that’s ever worked for me is “I wish I’d done that” - but that won’t work either)

    2. The Direct Marketing culture cares for nothing but numbers. But the fact that they’re blind to creative excellence can be a boon. All you need to do is come up with creative work that meets your esthetic standards and produces numbers, too. I’ve managed to do it a couple of times and it’s a very rewarding experience.

    3. How to build brands is the big kahuna in this conversation. And of course interactive advertising has made it a new ballgame. Brand or image advertising used to be responsible for ‘moving the needle’ - that is, changing perception or opinion. Today brand advertising has to be designed to move a product or service, because, in markets teeming with new ideas, products, channels, etc. the only way to build a brand is to get people to try it, have a satisfactory experience, and tell their friends. In the post-advertising, techno-economy I cannot think of a brand that’s been built on the back of advertising. Supported, yes. Expanded, certainly. But advertising that moves needles is no longer relevant.

    The entire subject requires a dorm room and a couple of cases of beer - but you’ve given us all a good leg up on the conversation.

  6. This is a very good post. There should be 600 comments instead of 6.

    As a former P&G brand manager and for the last few years someone intensely involved in the digital space what you say rings true.

    I want to chew on this, but I'll offer up one thought now. I think that the situation would be markedly improved if there were more gold star pieces of holistic or digital marketing. Creative agencies know a great 15 or 30 because there are so many examples of it. This was, in a way, the infrastructure that enabled so many to know what "success" looked like and what was possible. We've been lazy in the medium, and it shows. And it's not going to get better until there's some consistently great work out there to blow open the gates and set people's expectations where they should be.

  7. Terrific piece. In terms of creativity, it's been my observation that
    the internet generally ranks right up there with the Yellow Pages.
    Perhaps it has to do with the prominent role of technical people. At GE when we finally persuaded the Apollo moon landing simulator technology people that what they'd actually done is create a new medium, we split responsibility for marketing the technology. Internally, we trained 15 art directors on the system and some of them really took to it. (There was no pattern, by the way -- water colorists, acrylic artists, even magic marker guys, there was no predicting who'd get it and run with it.) To market it outside, we spun off Genigraphics. Those guys, however, hired computer programmers to do the work, because it was done on computers!
    Do you see a parallel here?

  8. Insightful and thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed reading the historic perspective of the advertising business. The observation regarding agency names was powerful. Ad agency founders back then were willing to put their personal reputations on the line for their clients.

    Given our current economy, I was particularly impressed by the story of Packard's terrible marketing decision to forfeit its top quality branding statement in an attempt to be more competitive during the hard times of Great Depression. Hopefully, those who today influence the marketing of high quality products will be reminded to not repeat Packard's mistake during the difficult months to come.

  9. Randall,

    That article is what I call a real call to action. It's not media, it's marketing, just the channels are new as they always will be. There are still such things as standards. I can't believe people are complaining about commoditisation of the channels and placements. Some media owners seem to have forgotten about delivering audiences to advertisers.

    Keep up the brilliant work.

  10. Randall--
    What great context you've put this in. And so much stuff to consider! If I could send this comment in a manila envelope, I would!

  11. Randall,

    We gotta talk! First of all bravo on this! We need more people to speak up on the gaping hole that exists in our industry and that is recognition for exactly how important digital is to everything we do day in and day out.

    I basically preach this message every time i post on my blog

    Im not all about complaining though... here is a positive response

    I think you were very articulate and thorough in this piece and we need to amplify this 100x over!

    When will the agencies and clients finally wake up open their eyes to the new landscape that has changed all the rules?

    Bravo on this post! Im going to hang it up and re-read.

  12. Hi Randall:

    My congratulations on a most excellent post. You've hit the correct nails precisely on their heads.

    For the past year, I've been thinking about the same issues as I've watched the de-acceleration in the growth of online ad spending. I also concluded that online advertising should be used as a brand building medium in addition to a direct marketing tool. That was the focus of my presentation last year at the annual ARF conference: "Online is the New Prime Time" This led to my more recent paper: "Whither the Click?" which showed that online display advertising creates substantial branding value even in the absence of the click.

    Too often, it seems, we take success for granted -- whereupon it creates complacency -- and it takes a negative jolt to cause introspection and a fundamental questioning of what works and what doesn't. As a side note, an interesting, but extreme, example of this is the "black swan" phenomenon that was discussed recently in the NYTimes:

    If there's a positive to the challenges faced by the online ad industry today, it's that the challenges should draw long overdue attention to the issues that you raise in your blog. I believe this will happen and that we will emerge from this period with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the holistic manner in which online advertising can benefit brand marketers.
    That is certainly comScore's focus.

    Best Regards


  13. Randall, this clog shows exactly why I cheered when you were made King of IAB or whatever your title. Your in-depth analysis and writing has always made me swoon. Now it will make me better at my job.

    And, yes, Tim, lots of us have been waiting for the day that interactive and web were no longer separated from the other kids at recess, as if they had either something contagious or were better at jump-rope. It's odd how long it can take the ad world to catch on to the latest thing.

    One major league ad exec was quoted in the early '80s: "Why would we want personal computers? We have secretaries."


  14. Randall,

    An insightful and provocative analysis leveraging history to help inform our future. Standards helped our medium to scale. Non-standard, break-out, engaging campaigns make it memorable. Brands need to think holistically about their media mix blended with their creative - and ensure that they are prudently capitalizing on the frictionless growth of the Internet. Publishers need to think about Henry Blodget's blog on how to save the New York Times...and look for creative ways to safeguard the premium nature of their content while addressing the scale requirements of advertisers.

  15. I think that its great that we are all aware of the current issues facing all of us in the communication fields.

    This is a really good article.

    Randall you're are right getting the people's attention is only half of it, keeping it there is the other half.

  16. Excellent! while we have made some progress, much, much more needs to be done. thank you for your leadership on this topic!

  17. from one who is toiling on this exact issue, this is just what i needed to read...precisely this evening. well put. if i were to add to the debate, it would be about crossing the divide between agencies/consultancies and clients - each and all of whom are in different stages of evolution.

  18. Randall, thank you for another excellently written, educational, stimulating, brand-worthy direct response piece. ;)

    A few follow ups from a reader with a bit more e-commerce than brand experience:

    I second the spirit of tim@sugar’s comments because he suggests that adoption of a new, common language derived from online cultures is close to the heart of brands being able to “battle back”. I agree wholeheartedly (tho, I actually don’t mind the word ‘interactive’…).

    In this light, your point about the emergence of the creative technologist within the agency organization as a critical evolutionary step for the industry is astute. It should accelerate adoption of the online culture by the brands themselves, (i.e. learn to read & speak), and accelerate the development of the right tools to serve their needs (i.e. learn to write). Hopefully the combination will result in the confidence to invest in online branding, and the simplicity to maximize ROI across the portfolio of channels.

    BTW, I love your use of the word “heartbeat” in context of ad campaigns that move people, but want to explicitly link it to the context of successful web design in a slightly different way - heartbeats and clicks are not in competition, but are rather two sides of the same coin – consider the click a type of pulse!

    Come to think of it, “heartbeat” isn’t a bad common denominator metaphor to summarize several synonyms used by both sides of the dialogue, and possibly simplify the language -

    Instead of getting lost in the details of trying to "reach audiences”, "convert users” & "engage customers” in viral behavioral loops across multiple channels, AND manage measurable ROI across the portfolio, I think brands might benefit from a little agency help "finding heartbeats" and "checking pulses" – starting with their own.

    Now, more about arthur's "Big Kahuna" 3rd point please...

  19. Great post, thanks Randall. In a world of 140 characters, & the snack-size thinking that often comes with it, great to have a chance to feast on a full four-course meal with all the trimmings. Particularly liked your points about technologists being the bridge between idea and execution (the latter being the only thing that matters), and more than anything wholeheartedly endorse your point about agencies & clients needing to return to being makers of magic, not just sellers of commodities. The question we pose ourselves in this respect is simple: how can we introduce art to the algorithm, how can we produce magic through engineering interactivity?

  20. You do a great job starting the conversation about so many of today's issues, from ad formats to creative processes to the need to re-educate folks on the difference between medium and message. Each one worthy of it's own debate.

    I'll keep my comments to what I feel is the biggest problem with the interactive space. As you mentioned, it is truly the most versatile medium. But the strength of versatility is also its weakness. Just as each type of marketing message is overlapping but distinct (sales promotion, brand building, relationship building), how the web 'presents' these messages needs to be optimized and distinct.

    The web grew up on DR advertising (primarily sales promotion messages) so it's only now becoming apparent what’s needed regarding ad sizes/file size/functionality. Fortunately, the technology is also now in place.

    Don’t take this as meaning that I'm for the elimination of standard ad sizes. They make the necessary reach possible since ad customization by site is cost prohibitive.

    So here’s what I believe top-line next steps are:
    1. The IAB should define a greater range of standardized ad units that are optimized for different types of messaging, not limited by current site designs.

    Next is a bigger challenges:
    2. Content providers need to rework their site designs to be more flexible so each page can house whichever optimized ad unit an advertiser needs.

    Finally, and here's the biggest challenge even though it makes sense:
    3. There needs to be fewer online ads per page and they need to cost more. Ad clutter is a growing problem online and the implications may soon be irreversible (check Adblock usage folks). It also drives down the CPM/CPC.

    An increase in ad rates (put into the content providers' pocket) will also help get advertisers and media buyers out of the mentality that all online advertising is pure mathematical ROI (that is how it's sold in to online-advertising neophyte clients by the way.)

    You could never use the same yardstick against the Cash4Gold spot and a Budweiser spot from the Superbowl. They had different messages. Different goals. The same holds true online but this medium has the additional challenge of needing to provide optimized spaces for the various marketing messages to live. That’s the cost of being versatile.

    The interactive space must continue to evolve to fully live up to it's potential. Of course, all this is simply the observations of a polymathic creative.

  21. Great post, intriguing thoughts and necessary conversation.

    My reaction to your "state of the interactive nation" is mixed.

    On one side I totally agree with your comments regarding the way creative ideas and content will be generated. And as true as it sounds, and as much sense as it makes, not so many agencies are embracing the changes that need to be made to take that leap into the next chapter in advertising. Specially interesting is your comment "You now may need eight people around the table."
    As a creative I wouldn't like more than having people from all areas brainstorming with me, bouncing ideas, providing insights and finding solutions. Unfortunately the traditional agencies are not built to make money bringing so many people to the creative table, so it just doesn't happen.

    My reaction at the other side of the spectrum is regarding the quality of creative you crave for the medium.
    I just think that if you look around all the mediums available today, I bet you can't remember more than two campaigns from each medium that were emotionally resonant, culturally significant and successful.
    The reality is most of the work we see is mediocre.
    Again, as a creative, I have to resource to award shows to be inspired. As a consumer I wouldn't think that advertising was in need of much creative talent to tell you the truth.
    Most of the work we see could have been done by the client, a planner, account services and a production company.

    I guess I feel like in this industry we constantly talk about creative but we forget that the creative idea is a consequence of many steps taken in the right direction.

    Great discussion. Thank you for your thoughts.

  22. First, great article. Thanks for spending the time to think about it, write it and share it. It’s got a lot of people talking.

    Just a thought... your premise about not finding a lot of "fantastic, emotionally resonant, culturally significant and successful interactive advertising campaigns from the past year," I’m not sure I share. I can name at least twenty, but my criteria for what is an "interactive advertising campaign" may be different than yours.

    Is it not possible that a video that I saw online and not on TV, although there may have been TV media bought, is still an interactive advertising campaign? I never saw the Cadbury Gorilla spot on TV, for example, but that spot certainly had a pretty big affect on me (not all positive). I never saw the Sham Wow guy on TV, either. And while the Whopper Virgins work had a good amount of TV media, I only experienced that online. Same with Whopper “Freak out.” And I really enjoyed that - as much as any TV ad I've ever seen. I also have to say I laughed out loud many times at the Tostitos "Nolaf" work, which was all digital, as far as I know. I will even say that the Virgin Galactic online media kind of rocked my world. The new BK "fire" stuff I think is very smart and funny. The Sprint "Now" online work made a lot people's heads turn. The "Mac/PC" online media work was, in my opinion, every bit as good and effective as the TV. And I thoroughly enjoyed the Wii Wario Land work that "broke" YouTube, too. And I positively loved the Diesel “SFW Porn” video, which was only distributed online. Those are just a few that come to mind right off the bat, but that’s already more ads than I can think of from the broadcast-only stage.

    Another question to ask is, “have you seen a lot of fantastic, emotionally resonant…” ads that DIDN’T have an online expression, in some way? HBO “Voyeur” and Halo 3 “Believe,” for example. Or the Geiko “Caveman.” All had significant online experiences to go with extensive TV work. There are obviously tons more, but it just goes to show that we can’t really, from a creative standpoint, separate out online that definitively. I have also been swayed immensely by mobile. I had all but stopped going to Amazon until they gave me an app on my phone, for example. And that is an interactive medium. And as I can better interact with my DIRECTV DVR and my online banking from my phone, those relationships with those brands are getting deeper and deeper through the use of the Interactive medium.

    None of this takes away from any of what you wrote. It is all true and the craft of persuasion is on our shoulders to improve, but I do think we’re seeing some good things happening in our space the last few years.

  23. Thanks for writing this. It's inspired me to think hard about new business presentations, and press even harder on my sale of new advertising channels.

    Far too many of our larger clients can't seem to get away from the traditional approaches for fear of their own jobs. Case studies aren't enough to make them make the leap.

  24. With all due respect to Joelle, I think one of the reasons for the behaviour we see from clients and agencies today is the creation of a culture that tolerates barbarism such as the following: 'An insightful and provocative analysis leveraging history to help inform our future. Standards helped our medium to scale. Non-standard, break-out, engaging campaigns make it memorable. Brands need to think holistically about their media mix blended with their creative - and ensure that they are prudently capitalizing on the frictionless growth of the Internet. Publishers need to think about Henry Blodget's blog on how to save the New York Times...and look for creative ways to safeguard the premium nature of their content while addressing the scale requirements of advertiser' Anybody who thinks it is appropriate to write or think or talk like that while trying to produce communications is either a professional satirist or a human bar to genuine creativity.

  25. Randall - great piece. Well thought-out and well articulated. I agree with the trends you identify and the issues they are causing.

    For what it's worth though, I think in today's world, what makes the heart beat is the mouse click, not the other way around. Granted, it may be an issue of semantics and, to some degree, a chicken/egg discussion.

    I elaborate on this thread on my Digital Sea Change blog and welcome your response:

  26. Randall, thank you for such an insightful article and in my opinion, you're on the money.

    But, how many marketers, advertisers, agencies and publishers are on the same wave length?

  27. I just came across this article. Great stuff. I would like to talk to you more about your ideas and thoughts. What's the best way to reach you?


  28. I couldn't agree more about the need for a paradigm shift in the creative process. Too often I have encountered media buys set before the creative team even comes up with an idea. The purpose of advertising is to drive sales and develop brand identities, not to fill certain 30 second slots and 300x250 banner spaces.

    Creative teams should be well versed in all media. If that means adding a creative technologist, so be it, but I think the "traditional" copywriters and art directors are selling themselves short when they limit their reach to print and television advertising. Certainly the technology is intimidating and constantly evolving, but we are advertisers. We have to be experts in communication, and that means at least a modicum of understanding of the different media options available.

    The change that needs to happen is in process. With the strategy firmly in place and the big idea in hand, creative teams need to find the best use of media to effectively communicate. When things happen the other way around we end up shoehorning ideas into media buys and matching luggage.

    Anyone looking for a copywriter who could also be described as a creative technologist, please check out my website, I am currently available.

  29. This is one of the better critiques of the agency business. But in it's well reasoned review of history and insightful observations, the piece also has a sense of not fully grasping what is actually happening.

    Within the industry from people who are specialist of every stripe, they crap all over this truth: "In our obsession with immediacy and accountability, we have overlooked the more subtle yet more powerful ways that companies, brands, and fortunes are built through time."

    This crapping is not just from the so-labeled traditional agencies trying to chase after ad dollars. It's the "me-too" interactive/digital/marketing agencies who are dancing around taping a brand strategy bumper sticker across their foreheads. These are well stated in your "the four enemies of online branding" near the top of your article. However, since you are naming names, let's investigate deeper into the mindset that our entire industry tries to frame people into online. "herd/quick fix/herd/quick fix" in an endless loop which is called "consumer insight."

    Maybe this monster was created during those fabled days now recalled on the DVD box set of Mad Men. As people grew up during the media revolution of television, slick magazines, gigantic billboards, and how technology is transforming life into media everywhere, our industry is squeezing and squeezing the rock to get some juice out an increasing amount of people who don't care about us winning a Cannes or Clios or SXSW or remembering David Ogilvy or being identified as a consumer.

    True creativity will evolve above the fights between the whales of traditional fighting it out in the ponds of interactive piranhas as brand marketers insights and planning begin stop commoditizing people as consumers and ask their branding/media/interactive/identity/transformers agency to craft experiences that connect to the human core at it's best that transforms rather than make a meaningless metric for the quarterly books.

    People are not easy anymore, guys and gals. The brand "wham-bam-campaign-you-ma'am" thinking of the fabled 1960's and of today's digital 2009 is losing it's effectiveness. Throw a 1000 parties. Never get to know or care about the host.

    A legacy of wall street style advertising creating a bubble of promised fortunes for brands, forgotten parties (campaigns), a shattered metrics spin industry, and an a new wave of smart insightful creative people who realize that taking it slow is actually better and last much much longer.

  30. This is an extremely well expressed post, thanks for sharing. I agree that the days of the storyboard and visual mockups as key Big Idea drivers are over. Creative technologists are definitely in demand to catalyse the SFX on how to stretch digitally enabled imagination in doable (within budget) and spoon-bending new ways.

    I am guessing here that you are leaving Experience and Conversation designers to another division of the agency, or do you see that as a natural mashable for the 3 Amigos to handle?

  31. Randall, great post. Another thing I think we need to consider as we think about creating the right conditions for breakthrough online creative: if there was more of a well-understood best practice and set of simple standards for online media planning, creative would be a much bigger differentiator in campaigns.

    More complete thoughts here: blog/2009/05/better-science-will-set-us-free.html

  32. This is the single most thought-provoking text I have seen on interactive advertising.

    Thanks for reminding us where we have come from as an industry, clarifying where we stand today, and starting the conversation about where we can go.

  33. yes! really nice advertising tips for business development. keep it up and be growing on…Thanks.....