2003 Cyber Lions: Road Map to a Creative Renaissance

The jury (of which I was a member) for the Cyber Lions awards at this year’s Cannes Advertising Festival gave high scores to work that used the digital palette in some novel way to realize a brand-specific idea. Subordinating digital technique to brand creativity is fair at a creative competition. The disappointment was the small number of winners. Only 25 of over 1,200 entries won any level of award.

Yet hand-wringing and chest-beating are unnecessary. Creativity was at the forefront of Web development only once before, circa 1994 to 1997, when there was nothing but creativity. Thereafter, four large waves of utilitarian engineering — e-commerce, personalization, user experience, and CRM integration — swept the commercial e-marketing terrain, as did numerous wavelets.

That’s been successful. Within any product or service category, all Web sites are largely alike in terms of technology-enabled functionality. All automobile sites in the competition (and on the Web) have a car configurator, lease calculator, and dealer locator, among other common features. All travel sites, whether airlines, cruise lines, hotels, or resorts, offer searchable destinations and schedules, point-to-point itinerary planners, scalable road maps, and other more or less advanced features. Each is a digital booking agent without a brand idea anywhere to be found.

Similarly, financial services sites have portfolio simulators, managers, and monitors; what-if planners; and tax calculators to level the playing field. A mix-your-own-music application that feeds from a library of hip-hop, house, and techno beats highlights all the beverage sites: beer, spirits, even milk. Sites aimed at children under 12 are rife with build-your-own tree houses, playhouses, and dollhouses.

Currently, categories are the defining frame of reference for Web development. Not brand, but category-specific utilitarian engineering: e-commerce, personalization, user experience, and CRM integration determine informational, transactional, and relational roles Web sites play in customers’ shopping, buying, and owning experiences. Stated charitably and accurately, within any particular category the glass is half full with best practices and half empty with imitation.

That’s also good news. In this context, the role of online creativity and brand differentiation is due for a revival.

Online advertising entries show just such potential. True, most use rich media formats. In that context, some are technically demanding. But not one entry required an unusual skill set. In every case, the required technical expertise was subordinated to the purpose of eliciting some emotion, usually (but not always) humor. In a banner for a domestic-abuse awareness campaign, a pen-and-ink sketch of a little woman recoils from the cursor’s touch, runs to different corners of the banner and cowers. It makes the user feel just awful.

All the online ad winners hitched the horse properly before the cart: creative impact, enabled by technology. Now that more online publishers and advertising-supported sites more frequently accept a broader range of rich media formats (a long overdue correction) this area of e-marketing could see an explosion of creativity.

Brochureware could also finally come into its own. Dismissed as primitive and largely abandoned as developers turned to e-commerce, today brochureware is getting a new look precisely because it can go where the analog’s world ink-on-paper version cannot.

Offline has its own set of distinctive and unsurpassable capabilities; so does brochureware: subtle and dramatic animations, 360-degree and 3-D views, automated complex fold-outs, zooms, and other techniques simply not available in print. The bronze-winning site for a fragrance brand sprays fine mists that seem to inspire airy movements of opening, entering, and traversing the metaphorical pages. Interactive creatives should reconsider this once-despised application. Volvo’s brochureware for the XC 90 launch won a Gold Lion as well as a Grand Prix of the digital competition.

Perhaps the biggest creative opportunity was proven inadvertently. The competition’s short list included 10 Nike sites from four different international agencies in Denmark, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. Each uses the Web very differently.

Nike Lab is a technically whizzy temple to the product. NIKE goddess addresses a demographic segment. NikeBowerman both nourishes and feeds off the passion of amateur runners. Nike Basketball extends certain professional-athlete endorsements onto the Web. Nike’s Panna Ko site, a Grand Prix winner, celebrates one-on-one soccer from boyhood street-corner play to highly promoted professional duels.

Whether this was planned, allowed to happen, or just occurred this way, Nike as a brand and a company takes different shapes online and shapes different relationships there. Of course, other brands may not have Nike’s commitment to the Internet and the online population, but every brand needs to consider whether its customer-facing presence on the Web can or should be multidimensional. The Web is certainly malleable enough, and the creative community is up for the task.

The number of winners disappointed. Every jury wants to find and celebrate work that advances creative frontiers. The more, the better. But the current situation in interactive is better understood as one moment in the ever-shifting balance between art and science contributions to the Web’s development. Embrace the Web’s duality. Applaud the accomplishments of and value creation by utilitarian engineering. Enabled by that foundation, welcome a creativity revitalization.

Related reading