Agencies Seek the Right Mix

At any good agency, in five years there will be little distinction between digital creative executives and their traditional counterparts. At some agencies that is already changing, but not quickly enough to keep pace with technology and consumer behavior. Too often, traditional creatives view the role of digital execs as a back-end resource focused on executing others’ ideas. And those in digital have not necessarily thought of their work in big conceptual terms or exerted enough influence over the creative process or with clients. Complicating things further, each group has its own language, tools and approach to problem solving. Although the need to create a common creative culture seems obvious, the means of doing so are more subtle.

“Forcing traditional and digital to sit on the same floor doesn’t make for integration. The best way to forge closer working ties is to force integration on a conceptual and executional level,” says Robert Rasmussen, executive creative director on Nike at R/GA, who joined the digital shop last summer after working at JWT and Wieden + Kennedy. “There can’t be sides or titles. Creative directors should not be one or the other. They must be blended. It will happen whether most of us like it or not.”

The division is symptomatic of the digital tumult reshaping marketing communications and reflective of a generation gap in industry skills, with many traditional execs unwilling to reach beyond their comfort zones. But the transition under way is also complicated by organizational legacy issues and profit centers tied to traditional agency functions.

Making the shift has been easier at Crispin Porter + Bogusky and other shops that came of age in the era of media fragmentation. Crispin, which first made its name in traditional awards categories, is now doing the same in the digital space, having been named Digital Agency of the Year at Cannes in 2006 and 2007. Crispin co-chairman and CCO Alex Bogusky says that a little over five years ago, his agency approached digital like many others, originating concepts that were outsourced to digital shops for execution. But as the agency became more excited about digital, it wanted to bring those resources in-house in order to use them in the front end of the creative process. It was around that time that Bogusky met Jeff Benjamin, then at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and made him Crispin’s first interactive creative director in 2003. “[Jeff] came over and said, ‘Everything you guys do is interactive,'” Bogusky recalls. ‘All I have to do is migrate that thinking to the Web.'”

Benjamin started his department with five staffers. After the recently announced acquisition of Texturemedia, the agency will have 150 digital staffers — about equal to its number of traditional creatives. At Crispin, the digital agency of record for Burger King, Volkswagen and American Express Open, Bogusky, who believes technology is integral to the process, is moving programmers into creative groups. Everyone is given the same media-agnostic brief at the same time. “I don’t know that we know where big ideas come from, but they’re a little more likely to come out of digital. Virtual reality is much more malleable than reality reality,” Bogusky says. “You have the chance to have more impact.”

At JWT, Ty Montague inherited the siloed operations typical of global networks when he joined the agency in late 2004 from Wieden. As the New York agency’s co-president and CCO, Montague has made integration a top priority. “It used to be a caste system where traditional creatives came up with the ‘big idea’ and then turned it over to digital,” he says. “We’ re creating a system where the traditional creatives cannot overrule the digital people. Justin Crawford has as big a stick as any of the other ecds and they just have to fight it out. Digital people and traditional creatives are truly peers. I’m the tie breaker.”

Crawford, who joined JWT two years ago from interactive shop RDA International, testifies to the change. “We’re not feeling the resistance issue. At first we did, but we’ve come a long way from that. It’s been a huge learning process,” he says.

JetBlue’s 2006 “Story Booth” underscores that progress. The multi-platform campaign, which invited consumers to share their stories, combined Web ads and user-generated content with TV and radio spots.

JWT’s WPP sibling Ogilvy & Mather has benefited from its direct marketing heritage, says Chris Wall, vice chairman, creative at Ogilvy, New York. Ogilvy Interactive was set up 25 years ago, working with early platforms like an interactive TV pilot and CD-ROMs. He says the agency’s 14-year relationship with IBM also helped foster collaboration between digital and traditional creatives, many of whom are on the same floor. IBM was one of the first advertisers to run a banner on Hot Wired, and the company’s 1997 e-business campaign was integrated across TV, Web, outdoor, print and direct.

“The problem with integrating different disciplines is both technical and cultural,” says Wall. “It’s technical because you have to know so many different processes of how things get made. And cultural because you have to have creative leaders who embrace a full cycle of branding, from engagement to purchase and repeat purchase. It’ s easy to say but tough to execute. If your little slice of the brand pie hasn’t included anything other than one particular silo, you have both a technical problem and a cultural problem.”

One exec with traditional and digital experience describes the frustrations in big agencies that generate revenue from various aspects of production. “When you’re putting money into digital, you’re taking money out of sister production companies and departments and that can lead to big fights internally,” he says.

It’s not enough to approach digital in executional terms. Renny Gleeson, global digital strategies director at Wieden, whose experience includes tenures at Darwin Digital and Carat Fusion as well as at Delia’s and the National Basketball Association, says traditional creatives need to break out of their linear thought processes: “It’s a fundamental shift from an end product to the beginning of a conversation. That’s where most traditional creatives get hung up. The reality now is that it’s more like a ship setting sail from the docks. That first communication used to be the end point of the process. Now it’s the midpoint.”

Wieden, which was passed over for Nike interactive assignments that went to R/GA and Crispin, is catching up with creative integration. “When I got here [in 2007], digital was more of a nice to have. Producers got things done, but it was not part of the creative process. Now it’s embedded here. They’re acting as creative technology producers. The struggle was to get those good, solid creative concepts at the head of the process rather than just as part of the process,” Gleeson says.

Yet some digital execs believe the right questions still aren’t being asked of creatives in this new hybrid era of digital and traditional media communications. “Traditional briefs are about the brand, not the customer,” says David Kenny, managing partner at Publicis’s digital strategic initiative, VivaKi. “Digital is about the customer; you create around wherever they are. You start with human beings and then ask why your product is relevant to them.”

John Butler, a founder of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners in Sausalito, Calif., suggests the challenge is more complex than executing an idea in a digital medium. “When you get to the people who have been around for awhile, they say, ‘An idea is an idea.’ I agree, but when you get to talking to the interactive guys, you see how they know how to really push it out, make it entertaining to people, get them to physically engage with it, mess with it,” he says.

Butler, echoing many others, says the digital-traditional chasm is already a non-issue with younger creatives coming into the business. In the meantime, he says his agency has always erred on the side of designers. “They create more of their art, and the Web is like that. Designers’ books are more Web engaging. Traditional art directors’ books may have banner ads, but you can tell from talking to them they had someone else actually execute it,” he says.

Dylan Williams, a strategist at Mother, London, suggests the industry look beyond merely changing its skill sets and reconsider how it creates communications. “Great ideas have always been viral. Digital is just one way to fan flames,” he says. “It’s about understanding the distinction between a big idea and a rich idea. The notion of ‘keep it simple, stupid’ needs to be inverted to ‘keep it complex.’ It’s about the ability to have interesting connections that increasingly have to be rich and dense with meaning rather than thin and easily summed up.”