Art & Commerce: It Starts With Digital

To anyone at an ad agency founded before, say, 1990, the news that Nike isn’t satisfied with the digital capabilities of Wieden + Kennedy produced a nodding of heads. After all, this revelation came shortly after the news that Publicis was acquiring Digitas for the latter’s digital prowess.

At agencies founded from the mid-’90s on, it evoked headshaking—as in disbelief. It’s all a matter of timing. Agencies that came into being in the last 10 years have digital DNA, others do not.

Granted, it’s hard for shops that built their chops on the Big Creative Idea and the award-winning TV spot to turn themselves around 180 degrees in a decade, which is about as long as it has taken the Internet to go mainstream. So what I am going to posit might produce even more extreme head gyrations. Success isn’t about having “digital capabilities” to enhance one’s traditional offline advertising skills. Digital is where everything should begin.

Why is that? One of the fundamental differences between online and traditional is the measurability of the online stuff. But what are we measuring? If we use the results of what we do online just to improve our online advertising, we’re missing a major opportunity. What we should measure is real action: what people do online after they are exposed to online messaging, even if they don’t interact directly with your creative (as opposed to theoretical results testing in a focus group). This is what makes the Internet a perfect testing ground for a messaging platform across the entire communications portfolio.

With mass broadband penetration and rich media and video matching levels of impact previously claimed only by TV, you can put almost any kind of message in front of consumers, in their homes or offices, usually when they are by themselves. Humor, heartstrings, logic, whatever. There is a reason why the Web is being used as a research environment more and more frequently, but many marketers are still not using the media they run every day online to inform their messaging across the media mix, including traditional. That is the link we need to make.

Think about it this way. If you could find out what happens after each person looks at your magazine ad—whether they went into a store and bought your product or not—it would sure beat doing a focus group to find out what people say they would do. You would use that data, right? What if you could also find out what the folks who saw your ad said to each other about your product when they were talking to their friends. You would use that too, no question. The information that blogs, forums, search-engine behavior and chat arenas can provide, if mined appropriately, as well as data that can be gleaned from creating messaging online and testing the action or inaction it generates, can go a long way toward improving overall advertising effectiveness.

Let’s say your client is a regional homebuilder. By scraping the blogosphere, it is possible to find out the good and bad of what people are saying about that builder’s brand and, to some extent, how consumers are deciding which brand to use. If you get really lucky, you can even identify a blogger who has agreed to build with your client and which development he has chosen. That is a consumer to pay close attention to, because he is either going to trumpet your success or create the dreaded “” domain to defame your client. Use that data, in addition to traditional research information, competitive information, planning goals, etc., to develop a messaging platform (or even two or three). Develop creative against that messaging, and then run that creative online. Study the results. What did people do? How many clicked and sought more information about your client? How many came back later looking for more? And in which environments did they do so? How did one message perform relative to another in a real environment, not a theoretical one like a survey or focus group?

The challenge this approach presents is that it means the agency must be involved in every aspect of the client’s planning process—which in turn means the agency must be adept at all forms of communication, digital as well as “traditional.” So, two things have to happen. First, marketers should expect and enable their agencies to leverage the vast knowledge that can be gleaned from the digital world and apply that knowledge across the communications mix. Second, agencies must be able to effectively plan, develop and execute digital as well as traditional solutions, with an integrated team that understands all of it and how it works together—not the traditional “silo” approach.

The agencies that can’t do this will continue to lose blue-chip clients. Those that can will continue to pick off the Nikes of the world until that traditional big-brand agency model is gone.