Eslinger: Heart of a Lion

NEW YORK With digital at the top of the ad industry’s agenda, the Cyber Lions are poised to gain new prominence at this year’s Cannes International Advertising Festival.

Tom Eslinger, worldwide interactive cd at Publicis Groupe’s Saatchi & Saatchi in Los Angeles and New Zealand, is president of the Cyber jury. The 41-year-old North Dakota native served on a Cyber jury in 2002 and the Titanium last year.

He talks about why he hopes to judge more than Web sites and banners this year, the limitations of last year’s Cyber Grand Prix winner and why he wants Trent Reznor as a client.

Q: What’s the difference between being a jury president and being on the jury as a member?
A: The main thing [the president does] is keep everybody focused on what we want to look for-the best ideas in the world, not things that are tricky, done in Flash. I’ve been saying that I’d really like to find whatever’s [going to] win at the Titanium Lions on Saturday before they find it. I want to keep everybody focused on looking for as big a world-changing idea as we possibly can.

Has the Web as a creative medium finally garnered the respect of the ad industry?
Yes, but I don’t think it’s just the Internet. Anything that isn’t solely linear storytelling is getting a lot more respect. Media as a creative field is getting a lot more respect. [Now] you see a lot of ideas born out of a digital idea. … I’m hoping that we see a lot more work that isn’t just focused on one Web site and is actually part of a really big, holistic, crazy campaign that just happens to live on the Internet, but also lives in a whole bunch of other places.

Interactive agencies often say “traditional” agencies don’t do interactive well because it’s always tangential to TV. Is that fair?
Some agencies think that they can do everything in-house. There’s a mentality in the industry, or there has been over the last few years, to bring everything in-house and not bring in best-in-class, best-in-breed partners, and that’s where we’re different. We bring in the best partners to craft an idea because there isn’t any one person or one company that is good enough to do absolutely everything. Where we’re different is we embed interactive directly into the middle of planning and media and into the creative teams. That’s how it’s run in London and New York, and that’s how I’m getting it spread out across the agencies.

Last year Droga5 won the Cyber Grand Prix for “Still Free,” a viral video for Marc Ecko. Some people didn’t find the work particularly interactive. What’s your take?
Did I think it was a great piece of work? Absolutely. I think it was interactive. It was a long-form film that was put out into the world through the Internet. I think it was a really clever piece of viral. It did the business better than any of the other stuff in that category. I think that putting basically what is a long-form piece of film into the Cyber category is probably what got a lot of people riled up.

Do you see it as your role to help sort this type of thing out?
Absolutely. This is a really important year now that there’s so much mobile work happening and so much out-of-home. This year we need to find something that’s very exceptional and sets the flag pretty far ahead for people to aspire to get to. I’ve been on juries with some pretty amazing presidents and the thing I always admire about them is they help steer toward the standards of the show and Cannes is as high as you can go. … I think that finding something that really is representative of something that’s interactive rather than just a piece of film is going to be one of the challenges, absolutely.

Do you think this is the year we’re going to be looking a lot more at mobile and out-of-home for impressive creative executions?
I’m praying that we do. When I was sitting on the Titanium jury last year, there were people from more traditional agencies and kind of funky shops and media [agencies]. I thought we were going to see some wild mobile stuff from Korea or Japan and we didn’t. I was genuinely surprised that a lot of it came down to long-form viral movies that had campaign stuff put around them. They were really basically just hot integrated campaigns. Mobile for me is probably the most interesting bit of the job because of some of the stuff that we’re doing with augmented reality and activation from out-of-home. I’m hoping that we see a lot of that and hoping that we see funky touch-screen technology, technology that activates to your body motion or to the sounds that you’re making, and really amazing holographic technology. I’m hoping that we see all of that really cool technology married to a really cool idea, rather than a really cool piece of technology that has a skunky idea.

What year do you think the Cyber awards and not TV will be the last night?
I don’t know. I’m stunned at the number of entries that have come in so far compared to last year. … It could be two years if all of a sudden the number of entries tripled in Cyber and television went down. … Television is still a driving force of the industry. I wouldn’t mind having a joint Cyber and TV in a couple of years. That would be great.

So, what do you do in your downtime?
I go to a lot of movies and art galleries. I tend to walk around a lot and watch people, and go to lots of computer stores and clothing stores to look at what people are wearing and what are they listening to.

The Cyber category is an interesting one because it involves both big ad ideas and the ability to implement them. Do some jurists focus on the idea and some on the technical merits?
It’s good that everybody comes at it from a different direction. The business has matured a lot. There are [fewer] graphic designers and programmers on [the jury]. It has people born-and-bred digital, but from an agency background. The way that it shakes out is you will get clumps of like-minded people from a similar part of the industry arguing for certain pieces of work. Like I said before, my biggest challenge is going to be to keep everybody focused on looking for the big ideas that are executed the most brilliantly. Somebody will always do a smarter piece of Flash programming next year and there will always be a nicer mobile phone, and there will always be a cooler gadget. The thing I want to look for is the idea that works across a whole bunch of channels and kicks the most ass.

What’s the worst advertising trend you’ve seen lately?
Viral videos that look like reality television or campaigns that look like reality television. I’ve seen a couple that have made me think, “There are truly no more ideas left.” This is one of the signs of the apocalypse.

What do you think is a promising trend?
There’s some really interesting stuff happening with mobile in Asia and Europe. The camera phones and video camera phones are so cheap now and so good that you can do amazing things with them. We’re doing some pretty cool work in China where you don’t even have to go to the Web site. You can basically interact with the entire campaign through banner ads and then download everything that you make in the banners to your phone as a ring tone or a digital movie or wallpaper. Two years ago that would not have been possible.

It sounds like you hope you’ll be doing less judging of Web sites.
[In 2002], I think we looked at only Web sites and a gazillion banner ads. We looked at so many banner ads it was unbelievable. I’m just hoping that we look at a lot of work that’s amazing, even in the banner category. Like what we did with Toyota, where a huge amount of the experience is built directly into online advertising that is pulling data back and forth from the site, but you don’t have to leave. I hope what the jury pulls out for people to look at inspires other agencies that maybe were a little scared about doing this sort of work.

What do you make of the whole viral video obsession?
It sort of took off at Cannes about a year or two after it was all over the world, really. That was a lot of agencies catching up to what was being done in people’s basements. Now I’d like to see those films be interactive. If we’re going to have to watch a two- or three-minute video, I’d like to see if they could interact with it somehow or change it, or affect that outcome or make something happen in it. A lot of agencies saw YouTube and MySpace and thought they could get away with making things not quite as beautifully crafted and up to the same standards as television [because it’s faster]. Maybe it works the first couple of times, but I don’t think you can spend most of your time trying to fool people. I don’t think it’s a good use of creative people’s time trying to fool people into thinking that your scuzzy little video is actually not an ad.

Give an example of a recent campaign that shows the direction Saatchi is headed in terms of digital being front and center.
Toyota Yaris would be one-all new Toyota work that’s coming out over the next few months. Yaris is an ongoing campaign with digital as a major component. The Yaris Web site was at the center of the campaign and all of the media channels drove you either to the Web site or an online manifestation of that campaign. It was across MySpace, Current TV, then it went out into the real world at places like ComicCon, South by Southwest and other events. It moved from television to the Internet to mobile phones to gaming.

What inspires you?
The people that I work with at Saatchi because they all have digital backgrounds. That and comic books and snowboarding.

What’s on your nightstand?
The new book from Jon Lethem, You Don’t Love Me Yet. Also one by Rob Sheffield, Love is a Mix Tape.

Do you identify more with the Mac guy or the PC guy?
Mac guy. I wish I was that young and cool.