The Creative Challenge

Recently, MSN offered three agencies: Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Deutsch, and Wieden + Kennedy, the opportunity to develop cutting-edge integrated marketing campaigns that would run for free on MSN. It called the program “The MSN Creative Connection Campaign” and devised it to “improve the quality of online advertising and win more advertisers to the medium,” according to a ClickZ News article announcing the program.

It’s a nice gesture. What I can’t figure out is why MSN needed to do it.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) has estimated online ad revenues are higher than they’ve ever been. If you work in the biz, you know you’ve probably got more paying work now than you’ve had for a long time. So there’s definitely money to be had doing online advertising. The problem? Creatives, by and large, don’t want to work on it.

Now, I have my anecdotal evidence for this. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same situation if you have an integrated agency that includes interactive and “traditional” advertising, especially if traditional includes TV. The creative teams jump all over themselves fighting for the plum TV accounts and print campaigns but usually leave the Web stuff (especially the dreaded banners) to more junior folks or the interactive side of the business. Yes, there are more enlightened agencies out there, but mostly it seems many campaigns have a decided disconnect between the creative in the more traditional campaigns and what ends up online.

Why don’t creatives want to do online work? The technical limitations and knowledge required to do good interactive work are surely part of the equation. My personal theory, though, is the “Hey, Mom!” factor. Traditional ads can be shown to friends and family (or, if all goes well, seen on national TV). Interactive work, however, is much more ephemeral. Often, because of how buys are done, there’s no predicting when one might see the ad. It’s difficult to call Mom and tell her your banner ad is running.

Many more traditional creative departments also appear to seriously discount interactive work. The path to fame and fortune isn’t creating great Web sites or online campaigns. The focus is on big, traditional national campaigns in print and on TV.

The discipline itself, in both an award structure and the recognition garnered in the press, places prestige and privilege on traditional over online work. Rising through the ranks requires awards and peer recognition. Interactive usually brings little of either, especially with the old-school Powers That Be.

It’s a big problem and one that may actually be another indication that traditional agencies are quickly working themselves into irrelevance. As the communication landscape expands into interactive media, as new technologies such as PVRs and VOD increasingly cede control to consumers, and as more of what traditional agencies used to do gets outsourced to specialty companies, holding on to the core of the what agencies traditionally do becomes increasingly difficult.

To avoid becoming commoditized vendors, today’s agencies must provide the extra value and service clients feel they can’t get elsewhere. Integration and becoming the real keepers of the client’s brand are more vital than ever, especially when the noise level in the media continues to rise and consumers’ media consumption choices continue to expand.

There’s a tendency for many companies to hope they don’t have to deal with it. But they do. Agency management must send the message from the top: Complete brand integration is a vital goal. The days of a separate interactive division are over. To truly manage and promote a client’s brand, an agency must be everywhere in the contact zone, where its client touches its customers. To do so, agencies need creative teams that value what goes on online as much as what’s produced for TV.

That MSN has to push innovation in online advertising is a sad sign: We’re not anywhere near there yet.

Meet Sean at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum. Join us for Search Engine Strategies in August.

Nominate your favorite product or campaign from July 7 through close of business July 14.

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