From the 4A's Leadership Conference

4A's Hears Pep Talk on Internet Potential

TBWA Guru Lee Clow Says Online Branding Still in Infancy

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LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif. (AdAge.com) -- The internet has not yet lived up to its potential as a branding medium, Lee Clow, global director of media arts at TBWA Worldwide, today told the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Leadership Conference.
Lee Clow
Photo: Art Beaulieu

Lee Clow

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"Online advertising is still semi-nowhere," he said. "It's very intrusive and annoying and kind of the worst of our business in terms of pop-up and flash, and jump up and down."

Tales still to be told
Still, Mr. Clow was bullish on the future of the web in building what he calls brand stories. "The ability to use the internet in terms of great brand storytelling is still at its infancy," he said. "The internet advertising media, cross my fingers and hope to God, with bandwidth and with some ability, is going to become more artful; it's going to become more interesting. ... But it's going to take creative people to embrace the possibilities of what you can do on the internet in terms of advertising and storytelling and make it a little better and smarter."

Mr. Clow, dressed in his classic uniform of flip-flops, jeans and T-shirt, illustrated his talk about the interconnectedness of today's media-arts palette with spots such as one for Skittles that launched on YouTube, netting some 8 million hits. But Mr. Clow cautioned that interconnectedness can be a double-edged sword.

Consumers "can basically bury" a brand, he said. "They can start every conversation about how dumb that brand is. Or how immoral that brand is. Or never buy one of those things because of where they make the product in Asia or the Philippines. They can basically control your media whether you want them to or not. You have to respect and honor the intelligence of the audience, and the goal is you better engage them and you better make them like you, because if they don't like you, they can do something about it," he said.

And in some of those worst-case scenarios, "The best thing is if they ignore you. If they don't like you, it could really create a lot of pain for your brand," he said.

New uses for old form
Mr. Clow was careful not to toss the traditional TV spot into the trash bin of advertising history. "Yes, television can work. Just shitty television doesn't work," he said. "And there are lots of places where television commercials, the old form, can live in new media whether it's online, or whether it's in theaters," he said.

Other analog media such as billboards also can work, as long as they bring a fresh, new approach to the business, he said. For example, for Adidas, an ad resembling a Sistine Chapel fresco was placed on the ceiling of a German train station during the World Cup, with the Michelangelo figures replaced by soccer players. Like work for Apple, the Adidas work was able to generate far more publicity and other free media than the cost of production.

At one point in the speech Mr. Clow said he was going to discuss one of the best ads Apple ever did. But the classic 1984 Super Bowl spot did not roll on the screen. Instead, he showed the simple iPhone ads that described how the device was used. "When you have a product that speaks so eloquently that we're going to change everything, you don't let advertising get too much in the way, so you basically just show people the iPhone," he said.

He cautioned about how smart the next generation is about media. "Young people have grown up with all things media," he said. "They know when it's lame and they know when it's good."

Before he stepped off the stage, Mr. Clow handed the audience one piece of advice. "Hire young people," he said. "And don't tell them what to do," he said. "Ask them what to do."