Can Traditional Creatives Thrive At Web Agencies?

The rebirth of online advertising and its growing respectability as a creative medium is attracting more traditional creative talent to interactive agencies. But many Web-shop executives are skeptical about how well creatives steeped in traditional advertising can adjust to the interactive medium.

This month, interactive shop Atmosphere BBDO said it is hiring BBDO New York’s Michael Aimette, a 10-year traditional-advertising veteran, as its first executive creative director. That followed news last month that Digitas had recruited husband-and-wife team Graham Mills and Jack Nolan, with a combined 40 years of general-agency experience, from Arc Worldwide in London. Digitas has aggressively courted traditional creative talent in the past year, said CEO David Kenny, and expects to complement its interactive hires in 2006 with as many as 150 creatives from traditional agencies, including copywriters, art directors and creative directors.

“The question is, if they’ve been around [traditional agencies] too long, they might not get it,” he said.

As broadband has turned the Web into a powerful branding tool, interactive shops must attract more top-notch talent than ever, Kenny said. “What’s happened in the last year is the Web’s gone from being a curiosity to being mainstream media,” said Chris Wall, co-chief creative officer at WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather in New York. “The investment will get bigger, and the production values will go up.”

Aimette, 37, started at BBDO as a junior copywriter and rose to assistant creative director before leaving the agency in mid-2004 to write and direct a movie. Now he sees the opportunity to create just as rich experiences online. “It’s not nearly as different as people make it out to be,” Aimette said of interactive work. “The details are different, but what’s good is good anywhere.”

Still, interactive is an inherently more complex medium, said Bob Greenberg, CEO of Interpublic Group’s R/GA. While the agency has hired traditional-agency creatives, Greenberg said he doubts that most with long careers in TV or print can thrive in a medium that values inbound messaging as much as outbound. “Generally speaking, I would not be looking for creative people from [traditional] agencies because I think their background is too limited,” he said.

Part of it is generational, Greenberg said. R/GA typically likes to hire people with a few years of agency experience rather than a few decades. Despite his own superstar status in the interactive world at age 57, Greenberg sees a divide between young creatives who have come of age with digital media and those more senior who were bred on the broadcast model. “If you’re a young creative, you’re automatically going to know the Web and the nuances of everything that’s happened in digital media,” he said.

Other interactive executives echo Greenberg, cautioning that while interactive needs storytellers, it also has a steep learning curve. “You need to know the medium in order to communicate through the medium,” said Lars Bastholm, ecd at independent AKQA. “Many really don’t.”

“You may see a few exceptions, but you won’t see a tidal wave,” said Darin Brown, evp of the West region at aQuantive’s Avenue A/Razorfish.

Greenberg predicts the emerging digital media world will force traditional creatives to learn the language of the Web. “They’re going to have to do it,” he said. “They just don’t know it yet.”

George Tannenbaum, named ecd at Digitas in March after two decades at general agencies, added that traditional creatives who do not learn interactive risk becoming “the 21st-century equivalent of a hat salesman in a department store.”