I had a really interesting discussion the other day with two very experienced creatives from a large London network agency. ‘All the digital stuff is great, but where’s the excitement?’, one commented. I asked him what he meant. Surely there’s enough excitement to go around at the moment I thought, what with the entire world’s media industry gradually being sucked onto a single IP platform. But then I understood. He was talking about excitement beyond the technology itself. Of course, if you are involved in anyway at all these days in the vast bubble that is the technology business, you’ll have all the excitement that you want. However, if the ins and outs of Silicon Valley basically sound like a lot of geeks talking about widgets, technology offers all the thrills of a cold bath. So, as the man said, where's the excitement? Chatting around the subject we came up with a few examples of 'big' brand ideas using creative technologies that were genuinely exciting. Many of the usual suspects were included. Then we moved onto why there were so few ideas to choose from. One of the creatives ventured that it was because clients still can’t see, aside from PPC, how they can measure the value of online channels. This meant that they wouldn’t put any significant investment behind a digital idea, even if they thought it was fantastic. So there is a tendency for ideas in traditional media – that can be measured or have the perception of measurability – to gain priority over ideas in new digital channels and snaffle the big budgets. And, unsurprisingly, an OK idea with $10m of backing is likely to outperform an amazing one with a budget of $20k and lots of goodwill. The traditional ideas almost always look more effective because they have the inherent advantage of...
...guaranteed reach-and-frequency baked in. And this creates a vicious cycle that perpetuates into the next planning session and brief.
Or in other words, the marketing industry has reached a chicken-and-egg situation where the client asks for some brilliant digital ideas and gets them. However, he can’t work out how to measure their effectiveness and reduces the budget to a comfortable level where it doesn’t matter too much if the idea flops. However, in doing so, he immediately hamstrings the promising digital campaign. Then he takes the budget he wanted to put into digital and buys some more ratings on TV or OTS outdoors, where he knows a measurement system is in place, even if it’s one he doesn’t have enormous faith in. The result is the limp execution of a potentially effective digital idea and even greater brute force added to an OK traditional treatment that goes onto achieve cut-through just by being absolutely enormous, compared to its titchy digital cousin.
So how does this situation change we asked? What would break the chicken-and-egg riddle? Clearly, spending more money on digital ideas would help. When wishing to compare a digital versus a traditional campaign you at least have to give them both a level playing field by providing the same resources. However, in reality this is probably unrealistic, as no one wants to be the guinea pig who splashes valuable marketing dollars around in various types of vague, albeit enlightening, experiments. And indeed, that may be a very simplistic answer to a complex problem.
What seems more promising is to start viewing digital and traditional ideas as totally complementary and not in competition with each other. For example, whilst the digital execution of the campaign-we'd-all-like-our-campaign-to-smell-like was certainly novel and experimental, it stood on the shoulders of a massive above-the-line investment, with all the advantages that brings including budgets for casting, scripts, locations, post-production and of course mega-media. Would the online campaign have worked as well without that upfront above-the-line investment?
Or take that other digital programme that graces the deck of a million powerpoint slides – Nike+. To my mind, that online service was successful because it was built on top of the gazillions of dollars Nike had already spent building its brand and creating credible grassroots relationships with running clubs and races around the world. Only as a result of this investment was sufficient trust created to let people feel OK about uploading highly personalised details of their exercise regime, location and even heart rates to what is, after all, just another private American MegaCorp; the Fortune 500 shareholders of which measure success by the size of their dividends, not the geekiness of their CMO’s advertising campaigns.
So maybe talk of chicken-and-egg, level playing fields and digital versus traditional is the difficulty itself. Just by framing the problem as, ‘which of these very different things is best,’ we are doomed from the get-go. However changing this outlook is not straightforward. Particularly when you have siloes within the global advertising networks over which digital and traditional executives continue to snarl at each other. Or at a macro-level while Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Madison Avenue park their tanks on each others' perfectly-manicured lawns and fire off legal salvoes.
So where is the excitement? I think this quote, albeit from a while back, from Nike’s executive Roberto Tagliabue tells it own story : ‘As of February, 2008, Nike+ members have run over 50,000,000 miles, logged over 14,000,000 runs and issued over 450,000 challenges. We created the world’s largest running club at nikeplus.com. 40% of community members who didn’t own Nike+ ended up buying. That is pretty tangible.’ No internal wranglings there about the value of one channel over another.
The excitement is where it always was. In the concept, idea, creative treatment and the use of all the tools available to bring the campaign to life in a way that improves a brand’s performance and business. There are just more tools, which should be seen as a good thing - not an opportunity to create an opaque new hierachy of effectiveness. All easier said than done I know. But maybe a better place to start than a navel-gazing exercise about the technical effectiveness of media investment econometrics; a discussion that serves only to send right-minded consumers (aka people) scampering for the safe haven of their PVRs, ad-blockers, BitTorrent feeds and social sandboxes, just to avoid another mauling at the hands of a brand that forgot long ago who really pays the bills.