Two years ago, in common with most of its peers, 80% of Goodby Silverstein & Partners’ work was in traditional advertising media – commercials, press ads and posters. Now, following an impressively rapid re-invention, the San Francisco-based agency believes that half of its output is in websites, virals, point-of-sale and other, so-called “non-traditional” areas, much of it as part of complex, integrated campaigns that work across all kinds of outlets.
While many agencies have talked about re-inventing themselves for the digital future, Goodby, it seems, has gone ahead and done it. According to Benjamin Palmer of digital production company The Barbarian Group, Goodby “is the best creative agency in the US as far as interactive is concerned”. And this from the creators of the infamous Subservient Chicken site for rival agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
Aside from the agency’s partners, Rich Silverstein and Jeff Goodby, much of the credit for its successful integration of digital media must go to creative director Will McGinness.
Before moving west, McGinness worked on the VW account at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. He joined Goodby as interactive creative director but, in a move that is indicative of the changes at the agency, now goes simply by the title creative director.
It was reported that, two and a half years ago. the partners called the staff together, explained the new direction they thought the agency should take and told staff “if you’re not into this, it’s time to leave”. Was it that explicit or was the change more organic? “Well the transformation has been a little more organic than that,” says McGinness, “but the sentiment is pretty accurate. Everyone needs to be aware of how the industry is changing and willing to embrace these changes or they won’t last long at our agency.”
The change, McGinness says, was very much prompted by the agency rather than demand from clients. In the UK, digital specialists such as Glue and Dare have led the way in online advertising, but in the US traditional agencies have tended to take on the new media themselves. “Most large companies are now looking for integrated solutions. Having a model that allows you to deliver a cohesive campaign that can work freely in all media is something clients now look for in an agency,” McGinness explains.
Goodby’s creative department has been reorganised to reflect the changing dynamic. “We no longer have a separate interactive department. It’s all one big creative pool of talent,” McGinness reveals. “There’s been a renaissance of sorts at the agency. Anything is possible, which has helped people break free of old executional habits. Certain teams excel at specific media but we keep the doors open and encourage everyone to think outside of their comfort zone. It’s a learning process, but tearing down the walls has brought new life to all disciplines.”
“There will always be people that specialise in certain media,” he continues. “The important thing is that the creative leadership for a project or campaign knows how to connect all the parts. We will always encourage creative teams to work across media but also recognise where creative strengths lie. While I still do specialise in new media and interactive, I’ve been doing a lot more work in the traditional arena as well which has been liberating.”
Being “media-agnostic” has become something of an advertising cliché: at Goodby, says McGinness, “the key is to start from a neutral place so the work falls into the best executional model for that project. The problem I see happening a lot now is agencies think that they all need to have an integrated campaign for every project they work on. There’s a checklist that people are starting to use and it’s becoming unnecessarily formulaic. The important thing is to start from a strategic place and consider which media makes sense for that project. It’s not always about creating a campaign that has web, TV, print etc. It’s about having an in-depth knowledge of the tools available to you and making the smartest decisions based on the particular communication objectives of the campaign.”
And, of course, it’s about working with good people. As well as Barbarian, Goodby has collaborated with a number of digital production houses, such as London’s unit9: is the process analogous to working with a TV production company on a commercial, or is it totally different?
“We work in a way that is similar to the traditional broadcast paradigm,” McGinness says. “We concept and design in-house and then work closely with the appropriate company to bring the work to life.”
Given that these companies are so “creative” in themselves, do you still need creatives in the agency? Couldn’t you just farm out briefs to the likes of Barbarian? “We control the brand DNA. The brand tonality and voice all needs to come from one place. That includes how we conceptually speak to our consumer,” argues McGinness. “If we outsourced the way we speak to our consumers, then we would be irrelevant.”
There has been much debate about whether “the big idea”, so long the staple of the ad industry, is still relevant in the digital age, when lots of little ideas can quickly be disseminated. In this area, at least, McGinness reveals himself to be something of a traditionalist: “It’s still about the big idea: The big idea being the brand voice of the campaign,” he maintains. “In some cases the thread of a campaign can be really explicit which is usually the case with a narrative. Other times, we’ll create different expressions of that brand voice. The goal is to always have it feel like it’s coming from the same strategic place.”
And what of that other industry favourite, “user-generated content”? “UGC has become a bit of a trend in recent history. UGC as we know it will run its course if it hasn’t already, but the idea of user engagement and intimate involvement in brand expressions hasn’t. As an industry we need to evolve and invite users to participate in a unique way rather than relying on tired tricks.”
Another way in which the industry needs to evolve is in the way it speaks to consumers. At Creative Review’s Click conference last year, Palmer stressed that, thanks to the web, companies cannot get away with bad behaviour anymore: is Goodby pushing clients to be more honest and straightforward with consumers?
“Ben is right. Today’s consumer has a much more sophisticated bullshit meter. We need to pull people into our communication in a meaningful way. We have to be relevant and provide content that is desirable. The days of blasting consumers with unwanted crap are over. The trick is to create something that people will appreciate.”
“As a consumer myself,” McGinness continues, “I avoid advertising as much as possible. I’m tired of it, I only pay attention at times because I’m in the industry. In the future, the premise will be the same as it’s always been only now the work has to be much better, which is good news for everyone.”