What Comes Next?

If you were to describe the last year in interactive advertising, it would be easy—and not entirely off the mark—to call it the “Year of the Chicken.” When asking online creatives to assess the past year, Burger King’s garter-wearing Subservient Chicken comes up over and over, even among those who are sick and tired of talking about him. He looms so large that by the time the Clio Awards got around to giving subservientchicken.com a Grand Clio last week and the One Show Interactive gave it Best of Show last month, the crowd response was been-there, already-asked-chicken-to-do-that.

“It’s like the BMW Films of 2005,” says Matt Freeman, CEO of Tribal DDB, referring to the series of shorts that won Fallon Best of Show at the One Show Interactive in 2002 and 2003.

Now that the Crispin, Porter + Bogusky- created Web site is more than a year old, the discussion has turned from gushing praise to talk about how its level of consumer engagement can be applied elsewhere. The takeaways are this: the best interactive work should engage its audience without demanding too much from it, be viral, tie back to the brand promise and be something consumers actually seek out. And now that many technological barriers have been breached, it should be about how technology serves the idea rather than the other way around. “I think [the subservient chicken] gave … a sense of hope,” says CP+B interactive creative director Jeff Benjamin. “BMW Films was cool, but I think even when it came out people were saying it was TV on the Web.”

Now, the best work is being created with the idea that, well, the Web is the Web, with technology, like broadband for example, as simply the underpinning that makes the ideas possible. “What you see is that people are creating communication with the assumption of broadband,” says Jerry Shereshevsky, Yahoo!’s ambassador plenipotentiary of Madison Avenue. If that thought seems as old as BMW Films, keep in mind the carmaker was one of the few who could produce such work several years ago with confidence that most of its affluent audience could see it. It’s only now that advertisers are signing off on broadband work en masse. “They’re buying it at a much higher rate this year,” says Tribal’s Freeman.

“Technology has been sort of like the matchstick,” says John Butler, co-creative director of Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, Sausalito, Calif., which produced, along with Seattle-based Web shop Zaaz, one of the most award-winning efforts of the year: the Converse Gallery (www.conversegallery.com) for the iconic shoe brand. On the surface, the campaign, which won silver and bronze awards at both the Andys and the One Show, looks like another example of streaming video for streaming video’s sake, as the site features more than 50 24-second films about the sneakers. But the films aren’t created by famous directors; instead they are created by consumers, who have sent in works that include the sneakers playing the piano and starring in action-adventure films. “Why not just go right to the source?” asks Butler of the campaign’s premise. The difference isn’t just who is shooting the commercials, it’s that consumers can create their own media easily enough that they can be a part of the process. “The magic of that kind of work is you can get your consumers involved in the campaign the way you can’t in other media,” says Freeman.

Of course, every creative wants what Converse got—true engagement with the brand—but some award show jurors said they saw examples of clients misjudging how much time consumers wanted to spend with their brands. One such example cited by several jury chairs: “Meet the Lucky Ones,” a series of short films, featuring 10 characters in an idiosyncratic family, for the Mercury Mariner SUV. Created as a series of eight-minute films created by the Wunderman unit of Young & Rubicam in Detroit, along with Mother, New York, and interactive production house Kirt Gunn & Associates in New York, the campaign was designed to reach 25-to-45 year old women who think of Lincoln-Mercury as being stodgy. The brand was only a supporting character to the plots. But even though it was a showcase of streaming video just as Converse was, some thought it required too much effort on the part of the audience. “It was too complicated. It had nothing to do with the product,” says Doug Jaeger, president of thehappycorp global, who chaired the One Show Interactive jury and also judged the ADC Awards and ANDY Awards.

Still, Jaeger and others seem willing to cut advertisers and creatives a little slack if they’re occasionally pushing the envelope a bit too far in trying to exploit interactive’s potential. “Everyone was interested in commercials when they were new too,” says Organic executive creative director Colleen DeCourcy, who served as Internet Jury Chair of the Clio Awards.

Maybe it’s a signpost of how far interactive creative has come that when talk turns to the industry’s next big thing, people don’t talk about work that is necessarily digital, but campaigns that toggle almost seamlessly from online to offline, or bounce from electronic billboards to mobile phones to wild postings to e-commerce [see sidebar]. While it might be easy to call such campaigns integrated, Benjamin Palmer, president and co-founder of Boston’s The Barbarian Group, which helped CP+B develop the Subservient Chicken Web site and judged the traditional work at the ADC Awards, uses the word “thorough.” He defines a campaign as thorough not because it appears in multiple media but because its central idea is completely implemented–with the idea dictating what media it will appear in. If there’s no reason to employ text-messaging to support a given idea, and plenty of reason to shoot a TV commercial, so be it.

One of his favorite campaigns of the year was the “Remember Rainier” effort for Rainier beer by Cole & Weber/Red Cell, Seattle which centered on an effort by two fictitious Rainier fanatics, Tim and Chuck, to bring back the brand’s classic commercials and won gold at both the ADC and the Clios. Yes, it includes a Web site, www.rainiervision.com, which serves as a crossroads where all of the different media meet; but it has also featured a Wayne’s World-style late night show on the local UPN affiliate, an old neon Rainier sign driven around the Seattle area in the back of a pickup truck by Tim and Chuck, visits to bars where they distributed petitions to bring the commercials back, and of course, the commercials themselves.

Yahoo’s Shereshevsky puts Tribal’s “Lincoln Fry” campaign for McDonald’s in the same category. Centered around a French fry that was purported to have the silhouette of Abraham Lincoln, it launched in February, including not only a Super Bowl ad but also a fake blog, a Web site and eventually a Yahoo! auction of the “fry” to benefit Ronald McDonald House charities. The campaign ended on a bizarre note, with the fry selling for more than $75,000 to the notorious online casino GoldenPalace.com, which has also made headlines during the past year for buying an advertising avail on a pregnant women’s belly and a grilled cheese sandwich said to contain the image of the Virgin Mary. But from a marketing perspective, what may have made it notable, is that no one element—even the Super Bowl buy—dominated the campaign.

And let’s not forget that the Subservient Chicken itself was an exercise in thoroughness. Not only could the chicken react to 25,000 keywords, by Palmer’s estimate, but he also was featured in commercials, countless PR ops and the DirecTV chicken fight.

If campaigns such as these are what online executives see as the future, then there’s a lot to ponder in what they are leaving behind. When clients say they are looking for out of the box thinking these days, they are usually looking for something beyond television. For online creatives, it’s the box containing the computer monitor that might be getting a bit cramped.

What makes Nike’s NikeID electronic billboard in Times Square a sign of the future? It can be controlled via cell phone and includes an e-commerce element. But the billboard can also be described as an indication of where interactivity is going because it extends an existing idea of self-expression—NikeID, launched in 1999 as a way for people to order customized Nike gear—and transforms it into a mass message, according to one of the billboard’s admirers, Jeff Benjamin, interactive creative director of CP+B in Miami. “Interactive means anything you interact with,” he says. “Print can be interactive. TV can be interactive. Billboards can be interactive.”

Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike estimates that every day 1.5 million people see the board, which launched in late April and will be live through the end of this month.

Here’s how the billboard, created by R/GA, works: A willing participant walking through Times Square can call a phone number listed on the 22-story sign on the Reuters building at 3 Times Square and be connected to a 60-second opportunity to design his own shoe. By using a phone keypad, the caller can choose colors for different parts of the shoe. Users’ designs are then displayed in real time on the billboard.

Nike then sends each participant a text message connected to a WAP site, where pictures of the customized shoes can be downloaded—and the shoes can be purchased. “It was really an opportunity for another platform to experience NikeID,” says Nike rep Rob Aldinger.

Intrigued by the idea, I decided to give the billboard a spin on a rainy night last week. It gave me the uncommon feeling of being the ghost within the interactive machine, as I stood there incognito, adjusting colors on a giant billboard from my Palm Treo. Passers-by probably assumed I was just another commuter calling home. The idea of controlling a billboard from my phone was so new that, at the time, it didn’t seem real, but I was the one in charge of Nike’s Times Square ad presence, even if it was only 60 seconds.