Now, the traditional agencies are "getting it" big time, and the ad community is drooling over the new medium, trying to take over the creative reins long held by `technologist' programmers and engineers. The One Show Interactive event is larger than ever, Swanepoel points out. In Cannes this year, online creative generated more buzz and kudos than ever before. Communication Arts noted that its Interactive Design Annual is "our fastest-growing competition," processing a record 2,050 entries, up 17% over last year.
But quantity does not equal quality. Most experts agree that advertising creative in new media is, for the most part, underwhelming. That has its reasons. "The online medium had been initially used by direct marketers," says Wieden and Kennedy's creative director Steve Sandoz, noting the history of advertising on the web. "It's nothing new in the ad business. They always want scientific formulas, but the reality is, none of those formulas exists. The core of great advertising is creativity, and when you take it out of the picture, all you get is this sea of direct-marketing crap. And right now, we're floating in a sea of direct marketing crap."
At the Cannes International Advertising Festival, top brass at DDB Digital, now Tribal DDB, made a presentation on online creativity, asking questions that betrayed unease with the state of online creativity. "When was the last time the internet moved you to tears?" inquired marketing director Matt Freeman. "When is the last time your mom called you up to laugh about a rich media spot she had seen? [The internet] is a network that connects people from disparate ends of the earth, yet it generally feels like a cold and lonely place. It is a medium that functions, but rarely delights. And therein lies our challenge."
This challenge has been made Herculean by the banner ad, an enduring peeve for creatives and consumers alike. Most web surfers see the blinking ribbon at the top of their screens as a bother that, paradoxically, is crying out to be ignored. For creatives, it's an infuriating struggle. "Banner ads are tough," concedes Duffy Design's design director Neil Powell. "Not that there isn't a creative opportunity there, but there's such a limited amount of space, andm for the most part, I don't think people enjoy that form of communication. It's trying so desperately to get your attention, so it's tough to create work that gets noticed." Nevertheless, numbers keep the ads alive, and businesses still turn to the small strip as a means of establishing a new-media presence. Trade magazines like Advertising Age publish lists of the most-viewed of the mini-ads, and with monthly bannerviews as high as 16 million for the most successful executions, the strip ads will not be disappearing anytime soon. Noneteheless, to achieve high numbers of impressions, spending must be lavish - 10 to 40-plus million a year for the most ubiquitous banners - and clickthrough rates are likely to be a paltry 0.5% or worse.
Most banner ads are nothing to write home about, but some companies have made great creative strides with the strips. Brazil's AgenciaClick won a Grand Prix at this year's CyberLions in Cannes for its banner campaign promoting the Sao Paolo Eye Bank (agenciaclick.com.br/awards/blind/). The ads, simple and almost non-descript in design, make a poignant yet compelling statement when moving a mouse across a braille-filled banner gradually reveals the statement "DONATE BLIND." Another banner ad shows a series of sign language hands. Clicking onto each spells out the sentence "The deaf can read this," but then a tiny braille sentence in the bottom right corner transforms into "The blind can't." Running the arrow on your screen over the campaign's third banners results in a voice reading out each letter "E, X, P, E, R, I, E, N,C, E." Clicking onto it then blackens the entire computer screen as a woman's voice says, "Donate Cornea."
Does emotional, moving creative like this mean there's hope for the banner ad yet? "I kind of hope there's no hope," half-quips Wieden's Sandoz. "You can do interesting stuff, but why would you dedicate your efforts to that? It's not a medium that's going to change anybody's perceptions about brands. It's not a place where you can develop big ideas." Big ideas are better expressed on entire sites, but even those are often plagued by monotony and predictability. Some of these include unnecessary adherence to a traditional side or top bar navigational devices, excessive options on the opening page, and "Flashturbation" - the gratuitous use of splashy technology like Flash to wow the visitor - only to disappoint him or her later with lackluster content or confusing organization. What is key to a successful site is functional yet compelling design, as well what Tribal DDB's crew calls "Deep Play," or what Agency.com's New York Creative Director Chris Needham refers to as the "Immersibilty Index - the ability to connect deeply with the viewer.
Hi-quality sites have been delivered by scads of specialized companies: by Duffy Design for BMW for instance; by Icon/Nicholson for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; by Euro RSCG for Intel; and by new-media companies like Deepend and Oven Digital (see Spotlight, page 44). According to the One Show's Swanepoel, "technology for technology's sake" always ends up being disappointing. What webiste building is about is "using the technology to draw in and to captivate the viewer, to disseminate the information, and to give the user a great experience." Deepend's creative director Iti Sarkharet believes that it's not good enough to transfer to the Web what's been done above-the-line in print. "We've seen that that doesn't work. The online environment is much more of an immersive medium, where you need to give the user a lot more."
Part of the immersion will require developing a new storytelling strategy. "Online right now, you have these series of `click here's' or whatever, but we haven't figured out what the language is," says Tribal DDB North America Chief Creative Officer John Young.. The visual language, the words, the experience, how that all comes together, that remains to be seen."
Inklings of this visual language are apparent in the oft-lauded VW Turbonium Nike Whatever campaigns. Turbonium was Arnold's first online venture and evolved out of a demonstration the agency created for the folks at Volkswagen to show how they could help the client revamp the Beetle website. The ideas for the site came from the "Turbonium" concepts behind the TV spot. "Lance (Jensen) and I were working on a TV commercial that had this theme, a certain art direction with chemicals and molecules," says creative director Alan Pafenbach. Copywriter Tim Brunelle and art director Bill Whelan then turned the project into a faux scientific case study. The site brought life to the original theme, along with added depth, including a history of the fictitious Turbonium element and a friendly navigation device in the form of a mini-periodic table. "We were going to make this as visually attractive as we do our TV and print, so execution was really important," says Pafenbach. "It required a real bare, clean, open design, which is one of the things I'm most happy with." Arnold's deft touches owe much to the agency's understanding of the nature of the web as a made-to-fit mass medium: "The web can be customized according to time, degree, and interest," Pafenbach points out." If you don't make those kinds of levels of experience, people get turned off."
Customization was also a crucial part of Wieden's integrated "Whatever" campaign for Nike (wk.com/whatever/choose.html). A landmark effort, the Whatever's TV cliff-hanger spots, featuring Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, and Rob Kingwill, lured viewers to the web, where they were able to choose their own endings for the spot. The website was able to carry over the brand experience, using all the extra goodies the medium allows. The agency collaborated with NY interactive shop One9ine (see Spotlight, page 44). Together, they gave viewers the ability to explore various offbeat scenarios that were too racy for television. In one scene with Marion Jones, a chainsaw severs a man's arm, which he then tosses into the trash - too controversial for TV, but relatively uncontroversial for the web, where sensibilities are not as delicate. The site was refreshing for the agency as well, says Sandoz. "We didn't have issues with network clearance."
In general, online advertising offers more opportunity for the edgy, daring work that creatives often struggle to get aired or published. It's strange, then, that interactive still has limited appeal for creatives. Most talent still sees commercials work as the holy grail, with print work a good second. Then there's online advertising, Madison Avenue's own Siberia. "I'd say if you'd talk to a hundred creatives at top agencies, almost all of them would prefer to be working on a high-profile TV campaign than a web campaign," says Wieden's Sandoz. "Initially, when I started doing this, it wasn't that I didn't get any respect, but no one seemed to take it very seriously. One of the biggest part of the mission now is to get other creative directors excited about it. Part of my job is to involve traditional copywriters and art directors, and get them thinking in this area."
Attitudes toward the medium have changed as well. "A lot of the creative directors treated the web as just another means of distribution of print aside from magazines and newspapers," says Steven Coulson, formerly of iXL and now creative director at digital@JWT. "That was when web design was much simpler and a lot of designers from print felt they could design a web page and it would hold up. But now as technology expands, a lot of CDs realize they need help."
Coulson believes that as convergence becomes reality, the roles of interactive CD and traditional CD will give way to something new, a hybrid. "As the world becomes more wired, all creative directors will become digital creative directors. I don't think there will be a distinction. We'll all be doing the same thing as stewards of brands in the new marketplace." That new marketplace, he says, will be an all-encompassing cyberville where advertising messages will stream in through interactive TV, cell phones, PDA's, even refrigerators. What happens then?
"Increasingly, when we create a campaign, it will be less about the final destination," predicts Coulson. "You'll have to create two sets of things: a design system that can work across multiple digital formats, and a relationship that starts on the web and follows you onto your handheld to tell you the next story. It will expand across a timeline that follows a person through the day." It will also "amend that to their interaction. It will be non-linear, specific to the user, and will change depending on the mood. It will move from application to application, from TV to radio to handheld."
Amid all the new-fangled technology, something remains unchanged: traditional ad principles - arousing emotion, expressing humanity - are still the name of the game, no matter the medium. Except that any agency that still wants to be around in 10, 20 years had better understand that communication is a two-way street. Keith Reinhard, chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide, believes that "with the advent of television in the second half of the century, selling was transformed into telling." For a good 50 years now, he says, we have lost sight of the fact that two-way communication is the natural way to exchange goods and services. Reinhard's admonition to the ad world has a ring of truth and urgency to it: "We will have to stop being one-way pitch men and learn, once again, how to interact with customers and let them give shape and meaning to the interactive communication we initiate."