Thirty marketing and creative professionals warily gather in a studio loft at 450 West 31st Street, Manhattan, overlooking a railroad yard. Frigid air seeps in through the window panes. And white plastic chairs and folding tables scattered about the room are a reminder: we’re a long way from Madison Avenue.
Creative directors, brand managers, agency executives, and video producers have schlepped here from Brazil, Ireland, Canada, and more convenient neighborhoods in NYC. This group’s mission, as one person describes it: “Find their interactive self.”
Each has invested $4,000 and three days to attend Hyper Island’s master class, an immersive program run by a Swedish organization known for its “reflection-based learning” and project-based assignments.
Before attending Hyper Island, some students had already worked on interactive campaigns, so they come seeking inspiration and to learn new approaches. Others are rooted in an analog world – and admit their insecurity, cynicism, and concern about making the transition to digital.
“I remember back in the day when I could not believe my Mom did not understand how to set the VCR – I thought she was so out of touch (and perhaps, dare I say, old). Well, now I know how she felt,” confesses one 30-something marketing executive, describing how she could not upload a video onto Vimeo.com.
I participated in the program this week as a student. (One condition: I was not permitted to quote students by name without getting their permission.) Here are some highlights from the class.
Day One: First You Must Admit…
Attend a self-help program, and you’re told that the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. Attend a Hyper Island master class, and you’re asked to disclose your “stinky fish.” (Definition: What are you afraid to talk about, but if ignored would fester and stink?)
The responses broke the ice and set the stage for the rest of the week:
- I’m not social.
- I am not a natural born collaborator.
- I don’t use social media as much as I advocate it.
- Social media is talking, not listening…I have no ears.
Around mid-day, Tim Leake, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi NY, discussed challenges for ad agencies and opportunities for all marketing executives. For anyone already using digital channels, this is not new stuff. Still, it validates what we already know.
“Digital can fuck you up,” Leake warned. Pointing to disruptive technologies and businesses that changed the music and newspaper industries, he identified businesses and trends that could affect the future of ad agencies.
Potential disruptors include:
- Crowd-sourcing agencies, such as 99designs.com, which provide a low-cost way to get creative work done.
- New business models for ad agencies. For instance, there’s Co, which was founded by Ty Montague and Rosemarie Ryan, co-presidents of JWT North America. Co’s website says it offers “business strategy, brand story, product innovation and new ventures, using a new model: flexible collaboration with a network of expert partners.”
- Methodologies such as “lean” advertising, which borrows techniques in software development and manufacturing to improve efficiency. For instance, Made by Many, based in Islington, U.K., promotes this approach.
The day ends with Alessandra Lariu, digital group creative director at McCann. She discusses about a dozen case studies that use interactive media. Most are baby steps to bigger things.
For me, the top takeaway from day one comes from Leake: beware of digital poseurs. His definition: “People who act like they understand this stuff, they drown you with acronyms and a bunch of jargon. Every agency has them. You have to weed them out,” he said. “It’s important to have confidence to call them out.”
Day Two: People, Tools, and Ideas
Tuesday starts with a self-reflection – 15 or so minutes to think about the prior day’s activities. We sit in a circle and jot down notes on our laptops or paper journals. Then, we’re asked to share our thoughts. “In the old days, you had an idea and made it big. You still need a big idea, but it’s small executions,” said one student.
“There’s a loss of control,” said another student. And that makes her feel nauseous.
“When I started [in the industry], I felt like I knew how TV production happened,” said another student. That’s more difficult to do today because tools are changing far more quickly than he ever imagined.
Formal presentations begin again. This time, it’s StrawberryFrog Executive Creative Director Suzana Apelbaum. She describes how she’s worked to bring about change at agencies – using both a carrot and a stick.
At the Brazil-based agency, Africa, she agreed to submit campaigns to the Cannes Lions advertising contest under one condition: they had to qualify for the Cyber category, celebrating interactive campaigns. “How do you make good digital work if you never tried to do it? It made them come to me and learn,” she says.
At another agency, employees were fired and replaced.
Apelbaum also discusses the key components of her ideal creative team: a copywriter, art director, technology specialist, and social media specialist. And she contends there should be a strong creative leader who calls the shots. “You cannot have two conductors,” she says, comparing the situation to an orchestra. “You are playing too many instruments. While each instrument is important and brings an emotion, for this to have harmony…you must have one guy who is able to see the big picture.”
Yet, she believes as many people as possible should be involved in the brainstorming process. “Old school: the creative team protected their work. Accounts [executives] were not allowed to step into the creative floor,” she says. Today, that is not acceptable. “One simple idea can change everything and can come from any person in the room…from an intern who is not addicted to the whole process.”
Next up: Daniel Siders, a software developer and strategist. The tagline on his website reads: “I have no idea what I’m talking about.” But we are wowed by his technology acumen – and convinced that we must be more open to testing and tinkering with applications.
Some tools on his radar:
- Geckoboard: This service, which is running a closed trial, offers a centralized place for businesses to aggregate Web analytics, customer feedback, and other metrics.
- Gnip: A social media API aggregator.
- ThinkUp: Collect your posts, replies, retweets, friends, followers, and links on Twitter and Facebook. This so-called social data can be downloaded, searched, sorted, and visualized.
- Mailinator: Create an e-mail address that can be used in Web forms or posted on forums. You don’t need to sign up for the e-mail, you cannot send from that address, and the mail inbox can be read by anyone.
- ScoutLabs: Monitors social media for mentions of brand names or keywords, reporting on volume, frequently mentioned words, and sentiment. A free two-week trial is available.
- DoubleClick Ad Planner: Site traffic statistics, audience interests, and sites also visited.
The day ends with a task: work with a team of three to four other students on a creative brief and present it to the rest of the group. As a journalist covering this industry, this is an invaluable exercise. I experience the creative tension over competing ideas. The tactical execution – what platforms and technologies to use – is the easy part.
Day Three: Use and Abuse of Data
Siders proves that he’s more than a hacker. He’s a data junkie who questions the methodology of surveys and data used to prepare information graphics.
In a PowerPoint slide, he points to two bar charts from eMarketer showing social network users in Canada and United States from 2008 through 2014 (actual and projected). “This is not useful information. A lot of people get paid a lot of money to [prepare this],” he said. “There’s no reason to talk about anything but the next three months.”
He walks students through questions to ask when reviewing data and also offers ideas on how it can be used to shape advertising campaigns.
Take last.fm, a music website. It offers a tag cloud that shows music listeners’ tags – based on average age and sex. “This is what people are tagging other artists with,” Siders says. Women are using terms based on genres (e.g., electropop, anti-folk), while men tend to use artist names (e.g., Joe Satriani and ZZ Top). And those insights can help shape marketing initiatives and target audiences.
Or consider Condomania.com’s report rating the top 15 U.S. cities based on penis size. While I’m not sure how this information can be put to use, others here think it has potential – possibly for the New Orleans tourism bureau.
The course winds down with one final exercise: develop a personal development and action plan. We jot down our goals, list opportunities and challenges – and then break into groups of three students where we hare osur self-assessments.
Before we leave from this personal and professional journey, we gather in a circle. One by one, we “check out” and impart with one thought. I “check out” thankful for the opportunity to meet such amazing people in person and look forward to staying in touch with them in coming weeks and months.
Digital channels will never replace personal connections.