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From Campaigns to Discussions (and Other Digital Lessons for 2009)

By Published on .

As it stands, in the marketing world, digital agencies are best positioned to replicate the behavior of web startups, reaching consumers and serving brands with personal, useful products. Is this the path forward in 2009?

Though a thundering boulder of economic contraction rolls towards the latest tech bubble, following the technology frameworks and rapid development cycles of Web 2.0-style businesses is still perhaps the digital agency's best strategy. Twitter, for example, began life as an internal communications tool; so, is there such a big difference between a digital agency and a startup that the former wouldn't be able to make a similar advancement? Iain Tait, a co-founder of London digital shop Poke says the startup style "has properly taken hold and been proving itself as an approach in the wider technology world; as far as digital agencies I still see them lagging quite severely behind."

The rapid prototyping model from the tech world has yet to be embraced in marketing but eventually you'll be seeing brand apps-a-go-go, says Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA Worldwide. "We're back to an oral tradition, where we all pass things, songs, graphics, visuals, videos, it's code for culture handed back and forth," says DeCourcy. "The tools are revving quickly; it's all about the speed of conversation and creation we're going through." DeCourcy thinks eventually these transfers will be systematized, an open source sharing framework—in other words, in terms of the technology we're using and networks we're engaging on, solutions will arise that are more or less generic and applicable for an enduring period of time.

Colleen DeCourcy
Colleen DeCourcy
These sorts of changes also mean doing more with budgets, or at least changing the way they're sliced up. "Big production," Tait says, will always take time and require a full campaign cycle and money. "We're looking at how we can create products and experiences that are shorter term and more connected to the client's business and marrying that up." This is doubly effective in a slowdown; "anything you can do where you're selling products and having a direct impact on the client's business, it'll always be more valuable than things that feel like a slightly more esoteric brand experience, a slower burn thing." Tait continues, stressing it's important to be "going back to some of the entrepreneurial sorts of things and trying to figure out ways for clients to get more out of their business rather than doing things that feel a bit close to advertising."

So, as many have asked (usually silently) during the past few years—does this mean the end of the big narrative campaign as we know it?

Iain Tait
Iain Tait
"There's a thousand people that will shoot me, but I'm starting to think we're not just storytellers, the world isn't about just stories, it's about ideas" says DeCourcy. "We've moved through this hyper creative period, this is going to be the year or two of effectiveness. The trick is, as an industry that values storytelling, we're going to have to figure out how to achieve effectiveness through telling multiple, low-risk, culturally relevant stories."

But in the quest for effectiveness, metrics (as we know them) aren'teverything, says Steve Nesle, executive creative director at Tribal DDB, New York. "I don't believe that big, bold ideas and science and metrics are mutually exclusive. When there's a business problem, you need a solution before you can apply science and metrics."

Flo Heiss, creative partner at Dare in London, sees metrics evolutions ("the end of coincidence by super-targeted marketing") forcing a Balkanization of sorts. "Big brand campaigns will more and more be replaced by pop moments," says Heiss. "There will never be another Michael Jackson, but we'll get the occasional hit like "Gorilla." It's those ideas (difficult to conceive as they are) that fly around the globe."

Steve Nesle
Steve Nesle
Twenty eight percent of the attendees polled at the ANA conference in October said social media integration would offer their brand the biggest opportunity for growth; bringing big ideas to those platforms may involve breaking them apart and letting consumers reassemble them for themselves and their friends. "We're going to start asking ourselves in a cost-effective world, OK, this gorgeous thing that I made with pieces of film in it, can all those pieces be dismantled and sold separately?" DeCourcy asks. "Can all these images be put into a Flickr stream for low-cost value? Can the film be extricated from the piece and saved or embedded in my blog or shared with somebody else? We're going to have to construct things expecting that to be the case."

The very notion of "content" shifts when a campaign becomes a discussion, and no standard metric has emerged to accurately reflect brand conversations across thousands of platforms. "Think of the exponential impact of 'Jim just viewed the adidas video,'" DeCourcy says. "It goes out into his world and the comments that go with it; when we talk about total content, constant communications, it's not an agency that makes that content, it's not consumer generated advertising. It's just discussion."

Think of things that have immediate impact; try and leverage and own key moments, DeCourcy says. "Generate faster and more frequent conversation points, not just ads. It starts to take on this conversation of the new CRM, by making constantly changing smaller objects. It becomes a catalyst for agencies to change."

So, in 2009, storytelling will evolve, utility continue its ascent and data will continue to enable ever narrower targeting of content. But, as Nesle notes, "the human mind is infinitely more complex than any marketing algorithm. Data can and should help guide. But we're salesmen. We need our intuition and spontaneous creativity to do our jobs well."

The Digital Year in Review

A recap of the trends that informed digital creativity this year

Here are some specifics.

Modified Footage
MoveOn's Future Shock
MoveOn's Future Shock
New video and sound editing technologies make it easier than ever to doctor footage to insert messaging. Iran's photoshopped missile launch earlier this year brought the malleability of images to a wider audience, but marketers have already bought into pasting uploaded images onto dancing elves and such. The step they took in 2008 included efforts like Moveon.org's election-week voting push, letting you send complacent friends a glimpse of the future where their apathy has cost Barack Obama the election, good for some 10 million views. Another is the chilling promotion for Showtime's Dexter, in the U.K., "Dexter Hit List," from agency Ralph. The campaign allowed you to alter a press conference to turn a friend into a seemingly plausible serial killer target. The acceptance systems in social networks, how you choose who you're friends with, says DeCourcy, partly enable these kinds of actions. "[They] give us permission, to start to mess a little bit with what's true and what's not; to start taking things and playfully skewing truth. We're a little more connected to each other. That creates an OK environment to start living a bit."

Infographics and Data Visualization
The "Now" widget
When the New York Times opened its Visualization Lab in October we knew the form had matured. Indeed, the infographic, an elegant form of data visualization, has come of age in our info-glutted world. "It was the same way that interfaces used to be; if you had a slightly advanced interface people wouldn't be able to get their heads around it," says Tait. "Now, the average person is quite literate in those things, and the same is true for the infographic." Smart marketers can seize the craze to explain complex numbers and help consumers make sense of products. Or, cast a wider net and give a front row seat to the zeitgeist, as in Goodby, Silverstein & Partners massive "Now" widget for Sprint. "Technology means we're constantly connecting ideas that were not previously connected; out of that we get a view," says DeCourcy. "That's what infographics are all about. And I love them to death." Keep an eye on new data visualizations at the Information Aesthetics blog.

MTV's Backchannel
MTV's Backchannel

While it's probably pretty depressing to people who write the shows, more broadcast and cable media are realizing habits trend to watching TV and surfing the net at the same time. According to a Harris Interactive survey, "78% [of] U.S. adults go online while watching TV, and more than a third of them do so always or often." "I think we should really take a cue on how we make work from that," says DeCourcy. "If you think about that, the watch is the main event and the surf is all those really tiny pieces of data and information you do while you're around it." If multitasking is a given, you might as well multitask on one of our companion sites. The breakout idea in this zone was from area/code, which built its "BackChannel" application as a competitive commenting companion to MTV's The Hills. "Those things are going to be massive," says Tait, noting "on mobile platforms [applications that can play along with TV shows] haven't happened as much as they should."

Full Tweet Ahead
This Twitter thing will be big
This Twitter thing will be big
Coming up on its third birthday, Twitter's inspired hundreds of clones and peripheral web applications and brought major media outlets to it as a device for channeling news updates, yet has still been unable to generate revenue or maintain full functionality. Do its failings discount its successes (such as a study reported on by New Scientist that showed the service to be superior to traditional media and emergency services?) Nope. "There's a lot of stuff we can all learn from what Twitter's done, how it's always growing and evolving but without ever changing," says Tait. "Having something that cuts you down to 140 characters, that limitation inspires people to be creative in how they use it; there's a lot to be said for paring things back and seeing what happens."

Obama on iPhone
Obama on iPhone
New Permissiveness
How near do you let applications to the crown jewels of your personal data? Chances are it's closer than before. Whether you're installing mobile apps that collect call information or leaving your bank account numbers and PINs with a financial service like mint.com there's a new level of accessibility. Take, for example, Barack Obama's iPhone application. "The first thing it does is accesses your phone book, which 18-24 months ago every digital person would have gone 'Oh, nobody would let you do that,'" DeCourcy says. From there, the app identifies your swing state contacts, encourages you to call them up, tally who they're voting for and recommend nearby events to them. It's even got talking points. "It was this interesting mashup of personal network, GPS, RSS, data points, pop culture, and news," says DeCourcy.
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