Toward Brilliant Creative

If one thing’s critical to the growth of the Web as an advertising medium, it’s quality creative. And if one thing’s holding back the development of brilliant ads, it’s the practice of letting technology lead creative.

This came up in a recent panel discussion in which I participated, and I have personally struggled with this issue for some time. The basic problem is that when folks begin brainstorming for an online campaign, they often start with the technology. The discussion goes something like this: “Let’s use a Superstitial and a Shoshekele for this client. What can we do with those?”

That’s simply the wrong way to approach creative. Clients and their marketing objectives should be the starting point, not the technology.

When you start with the technology, you often wind up with mediocre creative that feels forced. Starting with technology limits the possibilities; it creates an unnecessary focus on a particular set of functional capabilities.

In my role at i-FRONTIER, I am constantly evaluating technology players and trying to find the best opportunities to employ the latest and greatest for our clients. Because of this, it’s very easy for me to focus primarily on the technology. In my efforts to push the envelope, it’s often my first instinct to direct the energy toward exploiting a particular technology. But the right focus should be to evaluate the technologies, make sure everyone is aware of what they can do, but be sure to use them as a tool only — not a driving force.

I think that many agencies encounter this difficulty. Perhaps this is one reason that there has been relatively little brilliant creative on the Web. Someone at a recent conference pointed out that at this year’s Cannes Lions awards, the number of interactive winners from the U.S. was exactly zero.

Before we go any further, let me just say that I’m obviously not “down” on online advertising. It is clear that online can generate highly effective campaigns — so much so that we are seeing advertisers beginning to shift dollars away from traditional advertising to the Internet. We (both as an agency and as an industry) have proven time and again that the Web can be extremely efficient.

What’s been missing is online creative that is so brilliant that it becomes the topic of water cooler conversations everywhere. This happens regularly with TV spots, particularly during Super Bowl season. We talk about online creative around our water cooler, but agencies don’t count. What I’m talking about is water cooler chatter that occurs on Wall Street, at the bank, and over at the local hardware store.

The shift to interactive is not an easy one. For years, conventional wisdom told marketers that getting a consumer to interact with an ad would make it more memorable. This idea gave birth to things such as pull-tabs in magazine ads and even jingles, to a certain extent.

But now, with the explosion of Internet usage, marketers have more robust tools with which to create an interactive experience. No longer do you have a mere one-way 30-second spot nor the forced interactivity of gimmicks. You can now create a meaningful interactive experience that might last several minutes.

Especially in recent months, as the online advertising industry continued to break new ground with very powerful ad formats, the focus has been obviously shifting away from click-throughs, which was a weak form of interactivity to begin with. More and more ad units — from the bigger Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) standard units to various forms of rich media — are allowing more time and space to deliver a message and an interactive experience. Advertisers are beginning to understand that they don’t necessarily need to get people to click on the ads if they can deliver the message within the ad unit. Superstitials, expanding ad units, even flash banners at standard size and weight — all of these ad formats can create an incredibly powerful and (given the right execution) engaging piece.

But it’s not easy to create an experience that both engages the user and delivers the appropriate message. It requires an entirely new way of thinking about the creative unit. It’s no longer a one-way street; it is two way. The ad can wrap itself around the user, and even this simple level of interaction creates an incredibly effective — and often measurable — delivery platform.

The challenge that we face, then, is to find a way to bring our creative to another level. Someone at this recent event said, “Novelty wears off. Creativity does not.”

So let’s focus on the marketing objectives, the message, and the consumer’s point of view. We cannot ignore rich media and cutting-edge formats, but we must not allow the technology to lead the creative.

One important issue that I have not addressed here is that of business models. What makes most sense from an agency perspective (especially when you focus on the creative, not the technology) is sometimes not the ideal scenario from a rich media provider’s perspective. In a few weeks, my ClickZ colleague Eric Picard will discuss this issue in this column. Stay tuned.

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