Brands need provocative relationships with good customers. They need their stories told, and "interactivity" is driving the reemergence of the collaborative narrative as art form and communications medium.
Bad advertising is getting a wake up call. Or a pink slip. Or an agency review. All those folks trapped in stifling layers of bureaucracy at agency roll-ups and conglomerates paid to look at brand communications as a single well crafted message to be beaten through the skull of "The Consumer" while you make your quarterly earnings targets—yep, you're dead. If you thought a website tacked onto a campaign made it interactive, cue dirge. Wah waaah. Often overlooked is that this holds true for marketing as well. Bad marketing, that is. Get lost. And good riddance.
This is a great time to be in advertising. I am blown away by the possibilities, boggled by the pace of change and raring to go. But this can't be an exercise in "do it because we can"—we need to find ways to make our interactive stories touch hearts. As an industry, even with the distance we have come, we are still reading radio plays into the TV camera. But we will make a cool medium run hot. We will make it work with other mediums to create new storytelling paradigms. We are rewiring culture, brands and minds.
Storytelling is a Team Sport
Walter Isaacson shared a story about great historical narratives—The Iliad, Gilgamesh, The Odyssey. He said that those stories were collaborative experiences, not narratives set in stone. They served as memes propagating cultural standards and life lessons. Plays by Shakespeare weren't passively observed, they were rowdily engaged with—back to the actors. These narratives were collective. Orally transmitted. Subject to reinterpretation and embellishment based on context and audience reaction. The printing press, said Isaacson, froze words. It meant a single unchanged narrative could be shared across great distances. But it made cold, static books (funny, right?) the vessels for stories, not the living, breathing storytellers themselves. You could now send one clear, fixed message or you could be contextually engaging (e.g. responsive to your audience), but you did one at the expense of the other. The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle of narrative. Interactivity has reopened the door for collaborative storytelling.
The promises and pitfalls of interactive communications create an extreme situation and in extreme situations, mental maps that don't calibrate with reality can be fatal. Those unwilling to adapt are retiring, getting fired, or dragging their employers (and clients) down. And getting written about it in white papers that TRUST ME, you don't want to be in.
Interactivity is a broad concept reduced far too often to a discussion of tools and capabilities. And while you need rock solid interactive tools and capabilities, that doesn't mean you "get it." I'm excited because no agency "gets it," from nimble, sub-ten person shops to the big shops. You've got tech shops pretending they understand branding, brand shops hoping that a few technical hires solve their interactive "problem," agency rollups pretending they've got 'best-of-breed' services for every need, and brands with "interactive" separate from traditional brand management. A glorious chaotic mess. My suggestion? Hitch your wagon to the greatest storytellers, because they will find a way to express the joy of their stories using the most effective tools possible.
Playing is not Optional
I'm excited because I am at a place, working in a medium, where failure is tolerated and encouraged. Steve Ballard, aquatic explorer and discoverer of the Titanic, Bismarck and Yorktown said all the major oceanic discoveries were accidents—failures—people looking for one thing and finding another. Operate from awe and wonder, not fear. It's mind expanding. And there is too damn much happening interactively to get all precious about it. Fail forward fast, learn and move on.
This is a new game, and no one knows the rules. The folks writing the code don't know the rules—a friend said he'd never join Twitter or Facebook, because "why waste time on a social network created by social losers." We are making up a lot of the rules as we go. But if you don't play, you are out of the game. And the good ones, the smart folks, are diving in. Experimenting. Learning their way around the "always on" landscape. Applying that learning.
I'm excited about a recent move to eliminate the term "users" (software) and "consumers" (markeing), and replace both with the term "players"— its more respectful, more human, and because as this medium matures (and it's got a long way to go), game design models (RPG's and more recently ARG's) seem more and more relevant in engineering brand experiences than traditional advertising processes. And because that's what we really want people to do—play with our brands. Buy them. Love them. Find some little bit of themselves in them.
What would you do for love?
I'm excited that the most creative stuff I see online isn't done by brands or agencies. It's done by normal people. Civilians, for God's sake. Having FUN. People making great stuff (and crap, for sure) because they like to, feel the need to, are inspired to. A lot of agencies and brands are doing interactive work because they have to. They know they have to. Like eating fish oil pills for your Omega-3. Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival (a great book on dealing with extreme paradigm shift) talks at length about working from a place of fear or from acceptance. "I suffer through my obligations, but I'd do anything for love."
"What would you do for love" isn't an idle question here. Ask your next potential hire. The answer could determine whether you thrive in this medium or try to get by treating it like a topical spread or the "+ fries" option with your Happy Meal.
Critical interactive skill sets for the space include search strategy, game design (online, console, ARG), mobile development and production, UI/IA, data collection/modeling/interpretation, application developers, server-side technologists...the list grows daily. But you need to start with an organization excited about the possibilities of the medium—excited, committed and each personally responsible and accountable for full engagement. Every person in your shop should be asking themselves how they master this space. Finding a passion and diving deep into it. Sharing it.
Marketing and brand communications need storytellers and their stories. We inform, educate and create cultures based on stories. We define ourselves through their telling and their interpretations. A story is realized through the act of the storytelling. Of engagement with an audience. A great story, unread isn't. The interactive medium by its nature invites people into the process—suggesting, collaborating, amplifying, advocating and diffusing. And there will always be good and bad storytellers. The best of them move us, inspire us, change us, drive social change, and sometimes—yes, sometimes—sell us something. In advertising, when we are at our best, we build a message around a fundamental human truth, we engage the heart, and we tell compelling stories that create meaning for brands awash in a rising quagmire of white noise. And yes, we sell stuff.
As long as there are products to be sold and stories to be told, advertising is not dead. . .
Renny Gleeson is Global Director, Digital Strategies, Wieden + Kennedy.