Web wizards take the lead in creative process

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think of the most-talked about ads in recent memory and chances are you saw them on a screen a few inches from your face, not several feet from the couch: Burger King's "Subservient Chicken," BMW Films, Halo 2's alien language ads. Those campaigns have influenced not only the way online advertising is viewed, but also the way creatives conceive and develop advertising for other channels.

While initially the interactive element was an add-on, it's now increasingly the centerpiece-or starting point-of a campaign. Developers of hot sites are sought after for both online and offline creative, even though they may not have prior offline advertising experience. The newfound respect for Web work has altered the balance of power at agencies, too.

"The interactive agency is sitting at the adult table," said Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA, San Francisco, which handled the Halo 2 online promotion that helped pre-sell a million-and-half game units before they were on retailers' shelves. "We're very much a part of the discussion from the get-go and we are briefed right along with the TV agency."

A decade ago, creative directors found inspiration for cutting-edge campaigns in the indie-film scene, music videos and `zines. But ever since the "Blair Witch Project" in 1999, creatives have looked to the Web. The Martin Agency found Joel Veitch's Spongmonkeys online and put the critters into an attention-getting campaign for sub shop Quizno's. JibJab's "This Land Is Our Land" Kerry/Bush parody became an e-mail pass-along phenomenon so successful that the animators were tapped by Kraft Foods and Sony Corp.

The tipping point came with "Subservient Chicken." Crispin Porter & Bogusky posted the Web ad online as an afterthought to the TV effort, but it drew so many hits that the agency had to activate five additional servers, said Geoff Benjamin, interactive creative director at the Miami-based agency.

tapping curiosity

Looking for a proven web success story, Sharp Electronics turned to "Blair Witch" creator Haxan Films for its Aquos liquid crystal display TV. Haxan helped it create TV ads that drive viewers to a Web site to participate in solving a mystery as it unfolds. Sharp's agency, Wieden & Kennedy, Haxan and Chelsea Pictures crafted a story told with video clips, blogs and interaction between the characters and users. "It's about creating mystery and tapping into consumers' curiosity," said Gayle Troberman, director, MSN custom solutions, which posted articles relating to events in the Sharp narrative.

DaimlerChrysler has put such store in the online experience that its interactive agency Organic is hiring a panel of non-marketing professionals, including a filmmaker, a film editor, a magazine designer and a journalist to revamp the automakers' Web sites. "We're going to do something that enhances the usual Internet experience-it's not what the car can do, it's what you, the consumer, can do in the car," said Colleen DeCourcy, executive creative director, Organic.

One risk to this experiential approach is that consumers get too much of the experience and not enough of the brand. Steve Wax, president of Chelsea Pictures, recalls the Beta 7 online narrative campaign for Sega's ESPN NFL Football game in which "game tester" Beta 7 accused Sega of making him uncontrollably violent. "We had a lot of trouble with consumers using the brand name-they called it the Beta 7 thing."

Another problem is tracking results for these ads to see, say, how many people who solved the mystery were then driven to buy a TV.

For the creative to pay off, it must give a consumer the feeling he is discovering his own entertainment experience. But even all that isn't enough to guarantee the online magic potion-buzz-that occurs through deliberate contact with influencers. Wieden, for example, placed cleverly worded ads on technology blogs for Sharp. JibJab Co-Founder Greg Spiridellis' team e-mails its half-million-name list of subscribers any time it does something new.

It's no accident that many of the most successful executions were conceived by non-marketing folks. "Clearly you can't have a 20-person team where you are making marketing decisions on the fly," Mr. Spiridellis said. "If something doesn't work, our small size and technology allow us to change it minute by minute."

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