There’s a quiet crisis going on in advertising. It emanates from the pioneers of digital marketing, the generation who began setting up companies in the late 90s and early 2000s, to help brands navigate the brave new world of the internet. In the beginning, these companies looked starkly different to what were deemed ‘traditional’ agencies: the people there recognised the possibilities of the internet and were excited to try things out in that world, instead of being scared of it or resistant to it. The work they produced felt fresh and fun, and unexpected. As the years passed though, the distinctions between the digital and traditional agencies began to fall away. The older agencies aggressively acquired digital capabilities while the digital shops realised the limitations of being identified with just one medium. Looser terms such as ‘360 thinking’ were adopted in an attempt to show clients that all of their creative needs could be catered for. The digital newcomers were no longer the mavericks on the margins of the agency world.
Essentially, everybody grew up. And as the once-digital agencies grew bigger, they began to adopt some of the practices of the traditional agencies that they once saw as the enemy. Those who had arrived in advertising through a love of digital creativity suddenly found themselves running departments full of teams made up of people still called copywriters and art directors. Their love of making things, which had drawn them into the marketing game in the first place, no longer had an outlet, and instead they had become managers. And so they have started to leave.
The latest high-profile example of this trend is Flo Heiss. Last month, Heiss left the Dare advertising agency, where he had been for 13 years, to set up his own small outfit called Studio Heiss. The new studio is backed by the wider Dare group, and is one of five smaller companies that operate out of its offices in central London, but its ethos is that of a small start-up. “I like to do things, I like to make stuff…. I was missing that as a creative director,” says Heiss. “There was a lot of directing and not a lot of creative. I felt it was time for me to move away, pull the plug from that – I had a wonderful run at Dare, but it felt right at this point to give my chess set to someone else and start my own thing and get my hands dirty again. And maybe with my somewhat unique background of art and design and typography, and digital and marketing, I think maybe we can offer something unique, something different. That’s the idea of Studio Heiss. We’ve got one rule, and that’s ‘work’. It’s just about the work, we’ll make things, we’ll put things out.”
Heiss first came to digital via a graphic design route, having studied graphics and typography “in a kind of old-fashioned way” in Germany and Italy before coming to London in the mid-90s to do a masters at the Royal College of Art. Following that, he worked with a friend for a while as an “artistic double act” before joining digital agency Razorfish.
“Razorfish at that stage was a bit like the university of the internet,” he says. “A lot of very talented people being swept away by digital. But we just didn’t make anything, I think we just produced documents.” Among the few projects Heiss did work on at Razorfish was wine company Oddbins’ first website – “640 × 480 screen resolution, optimised for Netscape!”, as well as some work on Natwest.com. By late 2000, he had moved to Dare – then known as Dare Digital – a company of just four people.
It was a time of exciting experimentation. “Clients let you do whatever you wanted to do,” Heiss remembers. “It was possible to do a lot of firsts. First time to have a live feed into a room: I remember this, we did this for our graduate scheme, where we had a secretary sitting in an office and we put a live feed on her, this was before Skype. We did a photo upload site for Sony Ericsson: this was well before Flickr even existed, or Instagram. Arguably we were one of the first people to put a video into a banner. This is commonplace now, but it felt like you kind of invented these things.”
Talking through Heiss’s years with Dare feels a bit like a journey through the history of marketing online, as well as a trip down memory lane to the days when new technological developments, such as using your phone as a camera, were still a novelty. We revisit the days of complex brand microsites, for example, now long gone. Dare and Heiss had particular success with these sites for deodorant brand Axe, creating both Axe Feather, where users were invited to tickle a pretty lady with a feather, and Axe Blow, where a young woman’s clothes could be blown off by blowing into headphones that were plugged into the microphone socket on a computer (this was in the days before webcams). While the subject matter of the sites might have felt a little unreconstructed (although bang on brand for Axe), the innovation felt remarkable.
For a Sony Ericsson project in the mid-2000s, 2 3 Heiss and the team at Dare collaborated with Magnum photographer Martin Parr to try and encourage audiences to see the value of taking photographs with their mobile phones. They invited Parr to take a series of snaps with a Sony Ericsson phone, with the resulting work published as a limited edition book. Other major campaigns included a website for Vodafone where audiences could crush a desk online – this was to promote using your phone for remote working – and another campaign for Sony Ericsson where users could interact with a campaign on Twitter by using the hashtag #pumpt. With each tweet featuring the hashtag, a space hopper would be blown up in a warehouse, which audiences could see via a video feed. This was one of the first campaigns to connect social media to a real, physical event.
It is nostalgic to look back on these campaigns both in revisiting the work, but also in tracking the tech changes that have happened in the last few years that we now totally take for granted. And herein lies one of the thrills and the problems of working in the digital space – that the excitement of being first at something can mean that there is a danger of the technology being more important than the content. “It means you are always chasing the latest thing,” agrees Heiss. “And maybe as technology and digital has matured, it’s less about firsts and more about betters. There were video sharing sites before YouTube existed, for example, but they just did it better. There’s a sense now that maybe we need to be less about the technology part of it and just ask ‘what are we doing, why are we doing this?'”
By the end of 2010, Dare had dropped the word ‘digital’ from its name but been pronounced Digital Agency of the Decade by Campaign magazine, and had merged with MCBD, to broaden its offering to clients. It was a serious grown-up advertising agency, and the times when Heiss could experiment with creating films on the roof, as he had in the early days, were long gone. This proved problematic. “If you are the creative director of a big agency, you are kind of the managing director of the creative department, and you’re looking at a lot of other people’s work. There’s a lot of talking about it, and that’s fine, but I’m experimenting less and less hands-on and the bigger it becomes, the more difficult it is,” he says.
Heiss also found that the internal systems would work against the development of ideas too. “I was trying to break it down all the time but then you find yourself in a situation where you have to sell an idea internally to someone before it even goes somewhere and then you’ve got 17 people talking at you, giving you 50 reasons why it can’t be done,” he says. “Then your kernel of enthusiasm for something magic, that you have a gut feeling could be something special, has gone. That’s something that needs to change. That’s why you see a lot of creatives either doing their own thing or going to the megacheese of our time, Google. Or they just start doing something totally different.”
The answer for Heiss is the new studio, which he has set up with three others, including Graham Wood, a founder member of art and design collective Tomato, and a former ECD at JWT New York and head of art at JWT London. Like Heiss, Wood has had experience of all aspects of life in ad agencies, large and small. It seems an obvious meeting of minds between the duo, so it is surprising to find out that they only met for the first time a few months ago. “We were having all the same discussions,” says Heiss, “we were finding ourselves talking about the same things, about how the soul of the work was missing, and wanting to do something that is different and new and doesn’t follow a look…. We’re both in love with making, doing something, and it’s also good to have someone to bounce ideas around with. We share the same philosophy and our background is kind of similar.”
“It was exactly the same way that me and my wife got together,” says Wood, “in that a friend of ours kept trying to introduce us for about a year and a half, and we both kept going ‘ooh no”, and then one day just met up. I was looking to do something. When I left [JWT], it was good to re-engage with some people and start talking to people. And there’s lots of good things going on, but none of them got me quite as much as meeting Flo.”
The studio has no boundaries in terms of the type of work that it produces and, they say, is as keen to produce a painting for a client as an app. What they have created so far is eclectic, but with creativity and sharp thinking at its core. There is a prototype app for Nike that uses augmented reality to change the colour of a training shoe, meaning that Nike would only have to send one set of shoes to retailers to make their orders from, instead of one in every colour. There is a font for Converse, created for a pitch, and an animation for Tesco for the brand’s internal use. And there are charming iPad apps aimed at children, including one which allows users to control the lighting in a room via the tablet and a Philips Hue lightbulb, and another that uses an iPhone to make a puppet on strings walk around on an iPad. Despite the variety of the work, Heiss has had hands-on involvement in every aspect of each project, and his pleasure in this is palpable.
As to what the wider advertising industry should do to encourage a return to the creativity and free thinking that made the early days of digital so exciting, Heiss feels a shift is required, and that the change possibly needs to begin in education. “I think the whole thing in a way needs to change,” he says. “But I don’t really know if it can change, because there seems to be this way that it is done – you go to an advertising college, you form a team and you go into an agency. And because of that, the work that comes out at the end is of a kind. But the work that we need to produce in 2013 and 2014, for people to come and engage with, can’t be of a kind. It needs to be different all the time, but the process works against that because you’ve got your rigid structures.”
As an alternative to this, there is now Studio Heiss, a smaller scale set-up for clients who are interested in creating work in direct collaboration with the team. “This is not for everyone but this is for the clients who understand and are happy to work with a smaller outfit,” says Heiss. “Clients who don’t need this bigger agency thing, or don’t want it, and want to talk directly to the person who’s actually going to make their thing.”