Bring on Digital: Why I No Longer Consider Myself a Traditionalist

Meet Creative X, an Anonymous Adland Author Who Will Occasionally Share Triumphs, Tribulations of Agency Life

By Published on .

Ah, digital. By now, we've supposedly all embraced it -- that vast frontier of untapped potential to interact in new, ever-more creative ways with the consumerscape.

And yet, as I walked up to the entrance to my first Interactive One Show, I couldn't help viewing my agency-paid ticket as much of an obligation as I viewed the digital medium itself.

It's not that I'm an ad delinquent, and I'm just as much an award hound as the next creative. And while like most in the industry today, I've had a "traditional" creative upbringing, even in those happy-go-lucky years before clients gave a flip about digital, I had learned to play the interactive game -- from tacking a web idea onto a TV concept to leading a presentation with a social-media initiative, with little idea how or if it would be executed.

But if I'm honest, even at this late stage in the revolution, some part of me still longs for the perks of the production lifestyle, back when the TV shoot with the right director represented some nostalgic pinnacle of success.

Judging by the attitudes of my co-workers, it seems I'm not alone. Even for the traditional shows, the excitement of going was often directly proportional to how much work you had in, how long you've been in the business, and occasionally how single you were. With little stake in any of the above, we shared our enthusiasm for the event.

"Is this important?"

"What's even in there?"

Nobody knew.

The scene
We entered the soiree with the kind of nervous anticipation of teenagers walking up to a party at an unfamiliar high school -- only now we were no longer there for the promise of free booze, or even the chance of a mention in the award ceremony. We were at least marginally curious to see exactly what the fuss was about this year, to take the pulse on our supposed future. And so we patted our tickets, swallowed our egos, and walked into the massive venue, hoping not to appear too ... well, traditional.

Inside, once our eyes adjusted to the nightclub lighting, we were relieved to find a scene reminiscent of the analog shows of yore: techno music blaring, a crush of revelers in everything from cocktail dresses to flannel shirts gabbing excitedly against the open bar, and those green spotlights that somehow scream "ad party."

There were familiar faces, and the usual kibbutzing and sizing up. "Do you have anything in the show?" (Best to assume yes.) "How is your agency doing?" (Be humble if doing well, upbeat if not so much).

After the boozy fraternizing, we made our way to our table. Walking past the glaring spotlights in front of the stage, I couldn't help but wonder if we were still relevant here. As the lights dimmed, the show launched with little ceremony into what seemed to be the warm-up category: web banners. The entries were standard enough, nothing too outrageous -- a few clever page takeovers, some standard augmented reality.

You could almost hear the collective thought rising from the table: "Hey, I can do that."

Catch this
Then we moved into the experiential and environmental category, and things started to get interesting: homeless people projected on the streets, actually inspiring donations; a never-ending moonwalk performed and submitted by Michael Jackson fans.

Unlike a TV ad projected on a 40-foot screen at earsplitting volume, it seemed the entries were no longer aimed at a group of cynics hoping to be passively entertained by slapstick pratfalls or epic mini-movies. You actually had to pay attention and follow along. And yet, freed from the comforting structures some of us had grown up with, the thinking had an extra dimension to it.

An initiative that turned an entire city into a Monopoly game. A Nigerian e-mail scam that actually rewarded the one sucker who gave his bank-account details.

A gay-pride app calculating the heterosexuality of anyone you Googled. It occurred to me that the money we might have spent on a week at a fancy hotel while we waited for production on a shoot was now going towards something people might actually remember or keep. Even more interesting, given that this was interactive advertising, was the fact that people actually appeared to be interacting with clients' brands.

If the submission videos were to be believed, consumers were spending time with the ideas, passing them to friends and even engaging with the products. Wasn't that what awards were supposed to be awarding in the first place? And if you wanted to look at it from a purely selfish standpoint, even though the work may have been virtual, the Pencils the winners were happily carting away by the armload seemed just as real.

Of course, there were still a few humorous glitches -- submission videos that ran long were cut off awkwardly in mid-self-congratulatory sentence. And some of my comrades were still skeptical. Did this ad really run? Wasn't this one a little like the one from the year before? It was all the old comments you might expect from cynical ad folks at a traditional show. But now the discussion had turned from the old debate over whether this was the future, to what could make this future work even better.

As we left and wandered off into the evening, I thought of that old chestnut our mentors used to scare us with: You're only as good as your next ad.

Now it seemed, we had the additional pressure of no longer knowing just what an ad is. But I think I can speak pretty confidently when I say, it might be a lot of fun finding out. Because in the end, it's pretty much up to us.

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