Shops Strive for a New Formula

Last July, when Toy New York and EVB geared up for a second time to create “Elf Yourself,” the OfficeMax holiday viral sensation of 2006, there was an understanding: wherever the Elf was mentioned, the two shops would share all creative credit.

For EVB CEO Daniel Stein, this “Lennon and McCartney” approach was a requirement to undertake the project. His digital agency still bore scars from earlier joint efforts that had seen the traditional agency partner get all the glory. Stein remembers walking down the Croisette in Cannes in 2006, getting awkward half congratulations, half apologies after the EVB-built “Whopperettes” took a gold Lion because main agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky got all the credit.

“We’re creating something that is completely new,” says Stein. “To try to control it is antiquated. There are still more agencies taking credit for someone else’s work this year than there were last year or the year before.”

The issue, long a point of contention among the digital shops that bring traditional agencies’ concepts to life, blew into the open in Cannes when BBDO took top honors in several categories, including a gold Lion in Cyber, for HBO “Voyeur.” The crux of the issue: The HBO “Voyeur” site was created by Big Spaceship, a small Brooklyn digital shop. The lack of credit given to Big Spaceship caused jury chair Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA, to mention the forgotten partner when giving the award to BBDO. Still, the snub riled Big Spaceship CEO Michael Lebowitz, who served on the Cannes Cyber jury. He maintains that BBDO did not deserve all the credit for something it didn’t create.

“The era of everything being based on the great idea is over,” he says. “Other things have risen to a common level of importance.” Without interactive experts to bring ideas to life, he adds, the big ideas are like “a fart in the wind.”

It would be easy to dismiss the complaints of Stein and Lebowitz: Agencies abuse production shops and take undeserved credit, highlights at 11. Yet the incidents point to something more; the shifting definition of creativity brought about by digital technologies. The complexity of digital media often blurs the lines between “ideas” and “production,” particularly as brand building moves from messages to experiences. If the experience is the fulcrum of the effort, it is hard to discount the work that goes into creating that experience as simple production. The best work often erases the distinction.

“Collaboration is becoming much more important to create great brand experiences,” says Simon Jefferson, client services director at AKQA, which was also snubbed at Cannes for its work on the “Believe” campaign for Halo 3, winner of the Integrated Titanium award.

As an example, he points to AKQA’s work on the “Run London” campaign for Nike. Nike’s main agency, Wieden + Kennedy, came up with the line, “I’ll do it if you do it.” AKQA, though, created the MySpace hub that gathered runners ahead of the 1,000-meter race.

“That’s a massive component of the overall experience,” Jefferson says. “That’s nothing to do with two guys that came up with the line.”

Nike+, which was the talk of Cannes again this year, sums up the new creative order. Although Nike digital shop R/GA won a Cyber Grand Prix and Titanium Lion there in 2007 for its work on Nike+, could it really be pegged as R/GA’s idea? Nike had been hard at work on the idea for years, and its collaboration with Apple happened outside of R/GA. Yet the shop played a critical role in the success of Nike+ by creating technology that linked uploaded runs to a social networking application, says Nike global director of digital media Stefan Olander. The service’s success hinges on many elements: design, technology and interface.

“You need an army,” says Michael Ferdman, managing director of Firstborn, a New York digital agency. “The idea is going to be spurred by two people, but they need to embrace all kinds of tentacles. It’s like a starfish.”

Increasingly, Jefferson argues, brands are likely to create services, often of a digital nature. That makes the technology and design elements equal to — if not paramount to — the concept. In effect, the creative process begins to resemble software development more than the typical agency process. This is simply necessary as advertising moves from mainly messages to building utility, he says.

To think of the copywriter and art director as the source for all creativity isn’t right. “It’s unfeasible to think two people can manage the experience over all the channels,” Jefferson says.

This is more true when it comes to exploring new areas. David Armano, vp of creative at Omnicom Group digital shop Critical Mass, sees the embryo of the new creative professional in the world of Web 2.0 development. There the norm is for small teams to use the agile-development method to build rapid prototypes. This stands in stark contrast to the drawn-out creative process that silos functions. Instead, Armano believes the new creative mind will have a main function (say, a functional designer) while also being able to contribute in other disciplines, such as branding and storytelling. Rather than the creative process leading to a series of final products that together make up a campaign, the new process means quickly developing applications or utilities that can be scrapped or improved upon. Like Google’s many products, everything is in beta.

“The shift from storytelling to user experience is huge,” Armano says. “The advertising agencies that want to move beyond microsites are just figuring that out. It takes a different way of looking at things and expertise.”

Some agencies have figured this out. Just two years ago, Crispin needed EVB to build its “Whopperettes” site. Today, the shop could probably do the work itself. It has spent the last two years building out its interactive capabilities, including its recent purchase of Texturemedia, a 50-person interactive development shop. A sign of how expansive its view of creative is nowadays was its sponsorship of the IxDA interaction design conference this February as a way to reach experience designers.

This is a major challenge to the sensibilities of traditional creatives, says Mike Parker, digital strategist for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. The problem is the industry is used to creativity producing specific products that can be easily shown in portfolios and entered into awards shows. Yet now, Goodby finds itself doing creative work that defies easy categorization. For instance, to promote HP’s reentry into the smart phone market last fall, it created a voice application that bloggers used to post voice messages on their sites.

“It really supports the brand idea and makes a lot of sense, but is that creativity?” he asks. “When you do that kind of stuff, it’s not the traditional creative output for an agency. That’s forcing the agency to think of what it is we make.”

BBDO itself recognizes this. It has moved its interactive shop, Atmosphere BBDO, into the agency’s offices, and is beginning to integrate its talent with BBDO teams. Yet despite owning Atmosphere, BBDO chose to lean on Big Spaceship for the expertise needed for “Voyeur,” a site that combined video with an innovative design. David Lubars, chairman and CCO at BBDO, says ideally, if BBDO were to create “Voyeur” again two years from now, Atmosphere would do the work, rather than outsource it to a specialist shop.

Still, Barbarian Group CEO Benjamin Palmer, who had a high-profile tiff with Crispin over sharing the credit for “Subservient Chicken,” has doubts that any agency will be able to offer expertise in such areas. He says it doesn’t make economic sense to have high-end developers on staff all year long when only one or two projects might call for them.

In more cases, agencies understand what firms like Barbarian bring to the table, Palmer says. Rather than bringing a fully baked concept to Barbarian, agencies will involve them early on to flesh out the concept. “Most times, when an agency has an idea, they have no idea how to do it,” he says. “More often than not, the idea morphs a bunch.”

This was the case when BBDO contacted Barbarian last year for a ho-hum Web site. After examining the concept, Barbarian suggested the agency scrap it in favor of a much bigger idea: Create a site that lets people construct their own digital likeness on an M&M. The site, becomeanmm.com, ended up as the centerpiece of the campaign.

“It was meant to be a tiny project,” Palmer says. “It turned into a massive endeavor because we brought a lot of massive ideas.”

As for the debate over creative credit, Palmer is philosophical. It’s simply an unfortunate part of the business that will probably recede as the industry changes and new players become less threatening to established ones, he predicts.

“We were upset a few times early on,” Palmer admits. “We learned our lesson and figured out how to do good PR on our own. Now, we just try to do awesome stuff.”