Creative Review’s first Click conference last year felt a little like preaching to the converted. Everyone agreed on the growing importance of the digital space in advertising, but seeing as they all worked in that arena, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?
For our second Click, held at the end of November in London, it was very pleasing to see senior traditional agency staff, such as BBH executive creative director John O’Keeffe, in attendance as well as a host of clients. The message of the day was that, not only has digital established itself as an essential medium for brands of every hue, but that its impact is fundamentally changing the way that advertising works.
One traditional agency creative chief who needs no convincing of this is Leo Burnett executive creative director Jim Thornton. As the only one of his contemporaries to attend both Clicks, Thornton is a strong advocate of radical change in the way that agencies are organised. This time around, he sat on a panel which also included Simon Summerscales of Wieden + Kennedy. Asked how digital and traditional could get the best out of each other he replied: “the whole model of agencies is fucked. I’d love to be able to restructure the company so that we didn’t have a retained creative department at all, just a repertory company of specialists who we could call on to do the work. We do it at the production stage so why not earlier on? But our processes have to mirror those of our clients: while I’d love to restructure we can’t because clients won’t pay for it.”
All agreed with R/GA’s Chris Colborn, our chair for the day, that agencies of whatever make-up must no longer be obsessed by the “big idea”. The onset of digital means that there has been a shift in the way that consumers want to hear from brands: they want a conversation rather than to be talked at. “Campaigns are dead – they’re too limiting. Online is about constant conversations,” confirmed AOL’s director of brand marketing, Tim Ryan, in our second panel of the day, this time led by clients. “We’re moving from a lecture model to, if not yet an orgy, at least to a cocktail party.” This demands an ongoing exchange rather than one or two set-piece campaigns a year. So lots of little ideas may be better than one big “silver bullet”.
In a session on training and developing young talent, Saatchi & Saatchi executive creative director Kate Stanners revealed the problem such a change may cause for creative teams. “In traditional agencies, your ideas were your career, they were the way that you got your pay rise, the way you defined yourself,” she explained. “It’s very difficult to get people like that to give their ideas away to others to go and build on.”
Stanners also pointed out that younger teams are drawn to online work because it is easier to get work through than on TV and because there are opportunities to be more experimental. Both Ryan and Vodafone’s director of brand David Erixon (who set up the famed digital media school Hyper Island in his native Sweden when he was just 22) agreed that clients would derive huge benefit from setting aside a portion of their budgets for experimentation online. “Any smart brand should do it: it’s a sound, commercial decision,” insisted Erixon.
Dare creative director James Cooper later made the point that the unregulated space online also allows agencies to be much more experimental than on TV: “We should use that. Be brave, let go, don’t be too complicated and be honest,” was his advice.
Colborn had earlier explained how R/GA had shaved a small proportion off Nike’s TV budget to make an interactive music video with hip hop starlet Rihanna. Probably the most famous example of a huge online success piggy-backing on a much more modest TV idea is Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. Famously, the online production company behind it, Barbarian Group, were allowed just a few hours on the set of the commercial shoot to test out their idea. A few million hits later, their clients realised just how far the old models of communication had already been subverted.
Benjamin Palmer of Barbarian entertained the audience late in the afternoon with a run through of some of their great work and a characteristic insight into their reason for being: “We just wanted to make cool shit and get paid for it.” Like Cooper, he stressed the importance of “taking things as far as you can – people notice when you try. They know it’s hard to get work through and it impresses them when you do.”
This also matched with one of the other main themes of the day – the importance of rewarding consumers who have chosen to spend time with your communications by making work that will genuinely entertain them. As AKQA’s James Hilton put it pithily, the message from consumers now is “entertain me or get lost”. The point was reinforced with the work of two more overseas contributors to the day – Mark Chalmers of Amsterdam’s Strawberry Frog and Will McGinness from Goodby Silverstein in San Francisco. Chalmers showed his agency’s charming work for Japanese sport shoe brand Onitsuka Tiger, featuring a choir of the company’s workers singing their own football anthem. McGinness meanwhile talked through two complex integrated campaigns: one for Got Milk in which calcium-deficient aliens attempt to steal our cows and one for Rolling Rock in which a dolt of a marketing manager is forced constantly to apologise for a cliché ridden commercial put out by the brewer.
It’s possible to read this last idea as a subtle dig at “old advertising”: a cheesy TV ad, representing the worst excesses of traditional agencies, which has to be put right using the full range of dizzying new channels now open to the industry. As Simon Summerscales said, “if you are a creative person right now, you should be very happy”.