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The Interactive Imagination: Storytellers Need Not Apply

  |  October 22, 2003   |  Comments

Why big agencies don't get interactive -- and why they probably never will.

Every three or four years, Procter & Gamble cuffs the ad agencies for their failure to master the Digital Age. Putting the spur to the beast has helped. Indeed, we'll suffer the next chastisement (whenever it comes) a tad more comfortably because we've actually made progress, delivering interactive as just another channel in integrated solutions. In so doing, we helped put the digital boutiques out in the cold. Still, most ad agencies haven't cracked the interactive code and are unlikely to do so -- ever.

The problem, without blaming anyone, lies with the agency's core competency: its creative department. Obviously, sitting in a cubicle coding a Web site is not as much fun as shooting a 30-second film starring a supermodel. Of course, a great hack won't advance your career like a working on a Super Bowl spot will. The problem for agencies is more deeply rooted than fun, fame and money. The creative imagination that generates traditional advertising is entirely different from what's needed to create Web sites.

For humans' first 3,000 years, culture relied on oral communication. Around 1,800 BC, the appearance of the first alphabet began to separate the speaker from what was spoken, enabling alphabetized speech to conquer distance and time. It made critique and discourse possible, and would separate the text world from the audiovisual traditions of aural and visual symbolic representation.

Jump to the modern age. The 16th century invention of the printing press and paper manufacturing emancipated alphabetic communication from the Church's near-monopoly on written texts. It made even more widespread the typographic world's particular mode of thinking: conceptual, deductive, sequential, empirical and detached. Now, jack into the 'Net: a text-dominated terrain that requires just that kind of schooled mind to make best use of it.

In contrast, the alchemy of advertising, the ability to transform what a client wants to say into something consumers will read, watch or listen to, relies on the audiovisual tradition. Like the film, radio and television world of which it is a part, advertising serves up sensorial, non-reflective content that appeals to the associative, lyrical mind.

Like entertainment, advertising serves its content for the amusement and pleasure of a passive audience. It does so in large part by filling all the space, usually with one beginning-middle-end narrative that can be told in 30 seconds of film, or evoked with pictures.

How different are the challenges of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Even the simplest design, a bank ATM or a shopping mall kiosk, must never fill all the space. The point of interactive design is exactly the opposite: to create space for the user to fill with choices, exchanges, transactions, etc. They walk away with some real or perceived benefit. Whether a transaction, dialogue or immersion, the creative task is to choreograph a set of optional interactions in a man-machine pas de deux.

Interactive media challenge designer Jessica Helfand describes this process to, "be more layered, more multidimensional, more theatrical. We will direct more than design. We will have to think more about cause and effect, about here and there, about now and later...about space and time." MSNBC art director Galie Jean-Louis describes it similarly: "Designers will evolve into...creating time-based events much like TV and film and action-based events like financial transactions...in the context of space, time, language and speed."

Good creative, here or elsewhere, does not require big budgets. A Fortune 100 company in an issue-sensitive industry (oil, paper, chemicals, it doesn't matter) was tired of getting beaten up by some interest (unions, regulators, activists, trading partners, analysts, suppliers, Congress) every time it did something, no matter what that something was. Its ad agency designed a game that dared visitors to their corporate Web site to sit in the CEO's chair and face a hypothetical scenario-of-the-week. They could select one of five options. No matter what course was selected, one or more stakeholders would have one or more credible objections. There was no totally right answer, ever. Every user discovered this in a direct, hands-on experience.

Creative imaginations for audiovisual content and man-machine interaction are not only different, they're applied in different areas. Advertising's audiovisual content is once removed from life, in media. In contrast, clients expect the Web, as a response-enabled, direct-to-customer medium, to perform or enable some task in some sales, service or other customer-facing business process. The network's distinctive value lies in connecting the customer's mind to the company's machine and getting something accomplished.

This real-world task does not commence with a clean sheet of paper. To the contrary, one begins by picking apart the incredibly idiosyncratic ways in which companies qualify leads, sell products, fulfill orders and service customers. Then, try to engineer two or more business processes through a Web interface. Do so in such a way that the benefit to the user exceeds the time invested to obtain information and process the activity. Not a traditional creative's cup of tea.

As long as ad agencies have brand stewardship and the strengthening of this iconic asset in the symbolic realm as their core, they will never crack the interactive code. Our several modes of communication, e.g. brand advertising, reputation management and direct marketing, are not interchangeable. Interactive media may be just another channel, but that doesn't mean they are the same channel.

Effectiveness derives from knowing how to leverage what's distinctive in any specific situation. Vive la difference!

Len Ellis is on vacation. This column was published previously in ClickZ.

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Len Ellis Until recently, Len Ellis was executive vice president at Wunderman, where he charted the course in data-based and technology-enabled marketing communications, including the firm's strategic alliances and worldwide interactive strategy. Earlier, he was managing director, interactive integration at Y&R 2.1, a Young & Rubicam start-up consulting unit. He joined Y&R Group as managing director, interactive services at Burson-Marsteller. Len led interactive services at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer EuroRSCG, and started and led the information industry practice at Fleishman-Hillard. Len's book of essays on marketing, based in part on this column, is "Marketing in the In-Between: A Post-Modern Turn on Madison Avenue." He received his Ph.D. from Columbia and reads informational and mathematical theory for fun.

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