ad:tech 2008: The Next Big Idea 3.0 - redefining creative in the digital age

Geoffrey Precourt

Geoffrey Precourt reports from ad:tech New York 2008. For his full coverage, visit WARC Online's conference blog.


For Paul Woolmington, founding partner, Naked, a discussion of creative in the digital age begins with four trends. To set up a panel discussion of "The Big Idea 3.0," at the Ad:Tech New York November 2008 conference, Woolmington and Jessica Greenwood, deputy editor of London's Contagious magazine, jumped right into the list:

1. Brands as Entertainers

"In the old days," Woolmington said, "brands supported big media. Today, clever brands have disintermediated big media and seized control. They're becoming portals."

Case in point: Uniqlo, the Japanese casual-clothing marketer that, Woolmington said, has become "an online global entertainment vehicle that captures the world's Uniqlo experience."  Witnesses to that captivity are 180 million views in 214 countries. So complete is the brand experience that Uniqlo rewards its most loyal viewers with both a sleep mode and an alarm clock.

Cadbury's "big idea" of a gorilla "captured the brand's joy and generosity," Woolmington added, with "the downside of catapulting Phil Collins career." The effort brought 15 million YouTube views, created more than 350 imitators as the effort went viral, and generated a 600-percent increase to the brand's web site.

The most digitally informed example of the brands-as-entertainment trend, the Naked founder said, was the merger of technology and creativity that resulted in Google's treatment of Radiohead. "This most audacious brand of musicians worked with designers and researchers - tech-geek mathematician artists - who focused on recreating the human system.

Or, as described by Google's techno-creative brief: "Geometric Informatics scanning systems produce structured light to capture 3D images at close proximity, while a Velodyne Lidar system that uses multiple lasers is used to capture large environments such as landscapes. In this video, 64 lasers rotating and shooting in a 360 degree radius 900 times per minute produced all the exterior scenes."

Watch the video at

To complete the digital experience, Google provided open-source technology that allows the data to be remixed for imitators to provide mash-ups of the original work. The program continues to refresh the Radiohead brand experience, such as on this dedicated YouTube group.

2. Brands as Mavericks

"Brands do have to behave differently," said Contagious' Greenwood. And that difference might manifest itself in ways that have nothing to do with traditional marketing. For instance:

  • Nespresso is a series of coffee bars across Europe that have become so popular that "people queue to get into them," according to Greenwood. The magnet: "a piece of hardware transferred into a lifestyle brand."

  • Halo 3 is a hardcore video game that doesn't market itself as a hardcore video game but, instead, "creates a backstory of human struggle" to engage its audience, such as in this trailer:
  • Method is a needs-driven product line when two San Francisco roommates - "one a chemical engineer, the other an adman" - decided they needed to thoroughly clean their apartment. The use of chemicals and disinfectants left them so ill that they decided to pool their talents and create a new line of more consumer-friendly products. "They're now taking on Procter & Gamble and Unilever," Greenwood observed. "They have 5,000 brand advocates who are spreading their message of "progressive domestic products that smell good, look nice, and are good for the environment."

  • Banksy is an English graffiti artist who, claimed Greenwood, is "one of the most subversive persons in the whole world."  A prototypical example of his work would be an oversized drawing of a rat with the caption "Let them eat crack" that appeared when the financial markets started to crash. Through such work, said Greenwood, "Banksy managed to remain subversive" and fly beneath the radar, even though he does work for such global brands as Nike and Diesel. "Nobody knows he does it," Greenwood offered. "He does it on the side."

3. Bands as schizophrenics

"Call it two-track branding," offered Woolmington . "Brands can mean many things to different people" and, through imaginative digital executions, brands can serve various constituencies:

  • Wieden + Kennedy's "Coke Happiness Factory" is so entertaining that it "kind of makes you forget that you're watching an ad," Woolmington said. And, "20 years ago, that's all it would have been-a very creative piece of advertising. But Coke and W+K have repurposed the work into a six-minute film for those who can't get enough. And at the brand's Atlanta headquarters, there's a 20-minute version that includes actual voices of real Coca-Cola people.

  • Nike Football takes the idea of a shoe and explodes it into a community, rendering the brand a service provider in the process. Its "Playmaker" digital offering gives local team organizers the tools they need to get a game together. And it does so through the directorial talents of Guy Ritchie.

Warner Brothers very quietly seeded a web site that it hoped to evolve over a period of two weeks. The concept was simple: Start with a "I Believe in Harvey Dent" teaser and let site visitors help morph the image - pixel by pixel - into the Heath Ledger Two-Face character. The program, according to Woolmington, worked all too well: From the time the site went up until the digital transformation had been completed was less than 24 hours. 

4. Brands as Benefactor

The marketing message is that a brand can do something useful or entertaining. Widgets are prime examples, such as a UPS widget that facilitates package tracking and Johnny Walker Digital PA widget that directs men to bars, special events, and parties (and, added Greenwood, "probably set the cause of feminism back 40 years").

More dramatically (and more expansively), Converse celebrated its 100th birthday with a digital party that featured Pharrell Williams. The video (not to mention a how-we-shot-the-video) will live on digitally well beyond the anniversary. Nokia's Nokia ViNe, meanwhile, is an elaborate digital diary that allows users to post the calls they make, the music they hear, the photos they take-and share they information with friends and family to relive, search, and share.

From a performance perspective - another key consumer attribute - Nike's Flywire provides benefits of cost and utility that "transcend actual marketing."  Speedo was able to overcome its legacy of "overweight men in wearing mini-suits on the Cote d'Azur" with its Fastskin - a product that was almost as much a star as the athletes who wore them.

And Google ("a 1,000-pound gorilla that acts like a ballerina," according to Woolmington") keeps providing consumer utility with a line of new projects that have included, most recently, the Android phone, the Chrome browser, and "The Vote Hour," a digitized public-service effort among CEOs across America to encourage their employees to step away from their desks and vote.

The panel session: Redefining Creative in the Digital Age

"The Big Idea 3.0 - Redefining Creative in the Digital Age" panel considered the implications of the move from analog advertising ("dominated by superstar creative directors and other mad men, [when] the big brand idea and message were created, crafted and pushed out to the masses via predictably reliable media channels") to a new era when "digital transforms all media and gives the consumer unprecedented amounts of choice and control."

On the morning after the U.S. Presidential election, all marketing conversations at the 2008 ad:tech New York gathering seemed to begin with a discussion of the Obama victory. "This is the biggest idea America has had in decades," declared Woolmington, the founding partner of Naked Worldwide. "Communicating the idea of change as a substantive idea is a phenomenally big idea.

"Political campaigns will never be the same," he continued. With its text messaging, its "dynamic in-game placements for younger demographics," for its promotion of early voting, for its Twitter updates, and for its use of video subscriptions and viral placements on YouTube, "Barack Obama broke new surfaces in marketing…. It wasn't about slogans. It was about a way of being."

Joining the digital entrepreneur (Woolmington) and the journalist (Greenwood, deputy editor of London's Contagious magazine) were a media manager (Andy Berndt, managing director Creative Lab, Google), a digital-agency creative director (Nick Law, North America evp/chief creative officer, R/GA) and a senior marketing officer from one of the world's most persuasive brands (Stefan Olander, Nike global director of brand connections).

Where will the next big idea come from? The opinions from the digital age are mixed:

The View from Google

As managing director of the Google Creative Lab, Andy Berndt leads the marketing team's creative efforts, and inspires brand advertisers to innovate with Google's products and services. Previously, he served as co-president Ogilvy/New York and oversaw advertising, direct, digital, and other marketing capabilities.

  • Berndt's most favorite piece of current advertising? While allowing, "Obama blocks out the sun," Berndt went old-media on the morning assembly with the selection of a Tylenol magazine ad as a great big idea: "The gist of the ad was, 'Here's how to make type bigger so you can stop squinting. And, if you stop squinting, you'll get fewer headaches." The medium might have been old-school, but Berndt saluted the new touch of consumer-advocacy implicit in the message. "I was transported to the moment the agency tried to sell the ad through and the reaction: 'But… if we prevent headaches, we'll sell less Tylenol and our sales will go down.'"

  • Agencies [who share assignments on an account] have to fight the instinct to hoard information. They have to learn to collaborate, to have an all-boats-rise point of view. But it will take a huge effort; it's not the way things have worked in the past."

  • "I like to follow the Reasonable Person Principle-the likelihood that someone else in a room might have a better idea that you."

  • "We need to create the frictionless distribution of common sense and bravery. If something seems common-sensical, we should try it. We don't have to worry about an overhead of $50 the way that we used to."

  • "People who best learn how to use the tools of creativity will be at the leading edge of our industry. But you also need to learn to accelerate. The tools don't stay the same for a decade."

  • It's okay to tell amazing stories, but what else are you doing…. Advertising doesn't work if it only burnishes or decorates the solution and doesn't solve the problem.

  • "The ability to organize can add scale at very low cost. We need to have the ability to say, 'Here are my customers: What are the five most important things we can do to address their lives?' "

  • "There's magic to connectivity."

  • "[Interactivity] involves a tradeoff on branding: As consumers have access to more information, at some point they will turn off and revert to brands. Those who embrace both sides will do well."

The Digital-Agency Creative Perspective

Nick Law oversees R/GA's creative vision, working in collaboration across all disciplines with creative teams of designers, copywriters and interactive designers. He began his career in design/corporate identity and moved to advertising, where he has worked with both traditional and digital agencies.

  • The big idea used to be about the message, about feeling good about a brand. Now, it's about how a brand behaves. How to do you take virtual worlds and mesh them with the physical world. Nike Plus does that. Wii does that. But they're spread across industries that are not traditionally thought of as advertising."

  • "Agencies and clients need to create partnerships and come up with a digital platform from which they can message. Without the platform, there's not much to talk about."

  • "Creative thinking has broadened so much that there's no one template to follow. And that's good, because we need to address a broad range of appetites."

  • "There's been a broadening in the big tent of creativity. We need to learn how to connect the dots."

  • "What role does creative play within marketing services?  We have a hydra of creativity, a collection of aptitudes, systems, and sensitivities.  There are cultural differences between storytellers, designers, and technologists. The key is that these groups speak with each other in a coherent way. The problem is that there are additive and subtractive ways about thinking about big ideas. The traditional agency person will tell you, "We need a distillation of the problem communicated in a simple way that will make you smirk." The technologist will respond to the same challenge  by saying, 'Turn it into a system that will make my life simple.'"

  • "There's a cultural arrogance of the story teller. But the storyteller needs to be part of the team. Advertising needs something to talk about."

  • "The bedrock is data. We can create things of scale, test whether they're successful or not. But we have such unlimited access to content and data that it often may be more than we can consume. That's why Google's mission 'to organize the world' is so important."

  • "Data has to decide whether something's just interesting or whether it's actually relevant."

  • "The downturn in the economy gives us a great opportunity to focus, to get rid of fat, to become more efficient communicators. Whimsical advertising - material that entertains but does not strike a nerve - is not enough in these times."

  • "We need to prove a great idea by making it live. We need to do it. Then change it. Than do it and change it. It's an iterative process."

Nike's Just-Do-It Lens

Stefan Olander, Nike's global director of brand connections, says he looks at brands as "enablers - it's not just what we say, but what we do." As a case in point, he cites Nike's Human Race on August 1, 2008: "We gave our consumers the ability to take action. Wherever you were, you were in the race with Nike Plus. 'Just do it' meant what you saw and what you did." By offering participants a chance to support one of three charities through their participation, Olander added, "People not only ran. They voted with their feet."

  • "The big idea used to start with an ad, and then you'd build layers of interactivity around it. Now, the big idea is to solve the problem - to make life easier for consumers. But you may have to tell me how to do it."

  • "Sometimes, it seems like great creativity comes in inverse proportion to the size of the budget. Some of the smallest resources result in some of the greatest ideas."

  • "Brands have responsibilities they never had before."

  • "Digital offers an amazing opportunity to use all the power of brand to service someone."

  • "Entertainment will never go away. It's just applied differently today."

  • "We're not reinventing advertising, but we are reapplying existing technologies to solve problems."

  • "To coordinate the contributions of various agency resources, "You need to be very specific about what each partner can contribute. It's not a stand off of 'mine is better than yours'. It's an orchestration that can become very powerful. Nike is proof of that."

  • "Digital connects to the physical, offering a whole social layer. It proves you still can be entertaining and be what you were in the first place."

  • "The intersection of the digital and physical is the future. It's how people live their lives."

  • "It's not digital. It's life."

  • "With data, you need to be sharp to understand if you're truly adding value. Traditional marketing is going to be harder and harder, simply because there's not one single message."

  • "Power ultimately is in the hands of the consumer."

The Journalist's Desk

Contagious magazine started four years ago in London with a mission of exploring the shifting relationship between brands and consumers and to make sense of the fragmenting media landscape. "Contagious exists to simplify,' the publication's web site reads. "It's an early-warning system for those attempting to stay ahead of all this change."

The magazine publishes on a quarterly basis, with a supplemental DVD providing a searchable digital database. As deputy editor, Jessica Greenwood has a window on the global world of digital marketing.

  • "There's tremendous difference from one country to the next in their understanding of digital. In Sweden, for instance, everyone knows how it works.

  • "Digital advertising offers the opportunity to extend the story beyond the product itself. It's like a passionate affair instead of a one-night stand."

  • "Dole bananas carry a sticker that tells you where and when that banana was picked and whether it came from a fair-trade nation. If a banana can go digital, there's no excuse for anyone else."
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