If it’s April, it must be Florence. Creative Social, the peripatetic gathering of creative directors from digital ad agencies with a knack for rather nice locations arrived at Tuscany in April for its latest conference (sponsored, as ever, by Microsoft).
It was all very pleasant, with the industry’s leading lights opining under the olive trees at a wine estate owned by the family of Unit9’s Piero Frescobaldi. We had interesting talks from the likes of illustrator Mauro Gatti and architect Filippo Innocenti of Zaha Hadid’s Rome office before the assembled creative directors attempted to recreate one of the country’s more famous paintings in the above photograph by Wieden + Kennedy’s Pablo Marques.
But if this was a moment of, albeit light-hearted, hubris, things were brought down to earth with a bump in the round-table discussions that followed when Flo Heiss of Dare declared that “digital advertising has produced nothing of any note. If digital is all about being entertaining and engaging, then we haven’t done anything significant yet. We’re still making shitty microsites.”
Heiss’s point being that, compared to the rest of what’s out there on the internet, advertising agencies have, as yet, failed to create anything as compelling or engaging as the best the web has to offer and that surely this must be their goal – not to create great advertising online but to create great content online. No advertising agency has come close to producing anything as powerful, engaging or innovative as YouTube. And as for entertainment, few of the agencies present could claim to have produced anything to rival the films from two more of our speakers – the brothers Marco and Saverio Lanza – a photographer and musician respectively (Marco’s book on the Palermo catacombs The Living Dead will perhaps be familiar). They have recently started working together, making hugely entertaining short films that, the audience was eager to tell them, would be instant hits on YouTube. One features the pair’s parents filmed while watching the 2006 World Cup final, the only sound being their cries of frustration and anguish as the action unfolds on an unseen TV screen. In another, the brothers listen to different Beatles songs on headphones, singing the odd line out loud to create a new, discordant tune.
OK, so it’s only advertising, you might say. tv commercials don’t come close to the cultural significance of a Sopranos or (ironically) a Mad Men, so why should their online counterparts be expected to do so? Because the web is a level playing field where you cannot simply buy your way in front of an audience. I’ve heard countless digital creative directors claim that their work must be every bit as compelling as the other content out there on the web. Is this a vain hope? With the relentless commercialisation of our everyday lives is it even something we should wish for?
The optimists, and there are many in digital advertising, argue that the two-way nature of online media will lead to more honest, less manipulative methods of brand communications. They argue that brands can no longer get away with making overblown claims about their products or being otherwise misleading because users have the power to call them instantly and publicly to account. This, the theory goes, will compel brands to behave in a new way. No longer will they simply blitz us with their messages. Instead, they will instigate conversations. Marketing money will be diverted to providing useful services – Nike iD being a much-cited example. Everything will be either useful or entertaining or both. The “age of advertising,” claimed Heiss, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “is over”. All of which was a welcome reality check for an industry that may have grown incredibly fast but that still has a lot of growing up to do.