Setting the Bar for Digital Creative: A Guide for Marketers

Eight Things You Should Be Talking About With Your Agency

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Digital creative is still new for most folks judging it. Here are some thoughts to help demystify, debunk and better prepare for the present future.

1. Ask the agency what the idea is.
While online campaigns and programs can follow similar constructs as offline campaign ideas, websites, widgets and other technology-driven ideas aren't as easy to express in a simple single-minded proposition. Plus, digital creatives may not have the same experience as their traditional advertising brethren to know how to talk about ideas. I've witnessed too many clients in interactive presentations perplexed by what the big idea is, but too intimidated by the technology to demand it be made clear. This is unreasonable and unfair to the people paying for work. Technology isn't an idea unto itself. Even websites should be informed by an insight that drives their purpose and role in the mix. Of course, the expression of the idea does not have to be derivative of an advertising tagline, but it must map to the brand or business platform. Or you should throw us out of the room.

2. Tell us how you need to see ideas.
Digital is detailed and experiential and a lot of the magic is still expressed in its execution. The good news is you're talking to the director and the concept creator at once. So if it helps to have something more than a storyboard or key concept frames, by all means ask for it. It may take us an extra day or so to put it together, or a few extra dollars to build you a quick prototype to illustrate some nuance, but if that is what you need to absorb it and decide whether it works for you (or sell it to your own internal boss who doesn't get digital at all), then by all means say so. We want to sell the idea too.

3. Be clear about your priorities.
Most digital work, especially online advertising, is inherently direct response but if attention-grabbing awareness is a huge priority, we need to know this because the work may come out quite differently. While advertising and direct-marketing creatives have separate agencies, digital agencies are comprised of a healthy mix. You don't have to choose; just prioritize.

4. Help us get inside the material.
Digital is well-established in consumers' consideration and preference phases. Offering a product's details and the ability to demonstrate it online should be standard, so the more information you give us upfront, or give us access to, the better the result. It's the equivalent of the 1960s copywriter walking the factory floor to get to know the engineers and production process. We need to know everything, and we need the time to absorb it. Like direct agencies, digital agencies are strong in content development. Too often, however, we only get the general advertising brief, which doesn't go deep enough into the details, the product claims and the nuances. We have to craft pages and pages of content, minutes-worth of long-form video or podcasts -- not just paragraphs.

5. Believe in brand expression.
Brands now are more than identity assets created 10 years ago. If you're seeking integration across channels and across multiple agencies, brand expression -- how a brand behaves -- is a crucial ingredient to add to the mix. Most brand guidelines need an update; in addition to classic topics such as logo, color, grid, type and imagery, brand guidelines now need tone, motion, principles and media usage. Plus, even classic identity elements need to be expanded; we need an extended color palette on the web, we need more photography assets, and we need more flexible guidelines that still differentiate a brand but are updated to the modern media environment.

6. Don't assume advertising equals brand. There's big competition right now for who stewards the brand. In many cases, and rightly so, it's the advertising agency whose legacy includes brand planning and whose retainers and rigor puts them in the driver's seat. But it's also true that digital agencies -- whose work crosses lines, who understand collaboration and who are closer to the consumer and all the marketing touch points -- can help steer a brand. There are ad agencies that don't deserve to direct everyone, and there are digital agencies too immature to direct anyone. We believe the client needs to suss out those best suited and help all the parties define their roles and fund the retainers correctly. Be open to change, however, because things change fast and you might change your mind fairly quickly about who's leading.

7. Fund production.
When I started in interactive, we produced a lot of work cheaply, through friends, through friends of friends. Digital marketing is grown up now, and it deserves production budgets commensurate with print and TV. I still see $500,000 TV production budgets and $50,000 digital budgets, which any outsider knowing the longer shelf life and increased flexibility of digital work would say is insane. Even in a consumer-generated, co-created world, brands need top photographers, professional casting, time for post-production and more. As talent rates and stock usage goes up, it's going to cost more.

8. Beef up internal infrastructure. The digital age means brands co-creating or authoring more content. In addition to three print ads and three TV commercials per year, in-house legal now has to approve webisodes, podcasts and hundred-page websites. Consumers are expecting us to respond in real-time and clients need to beef up their strained in-house marketing and legal departments or we can't reasonably propose and produce the ideas you want and need.
Mat Zucker is VP-executive creative director of, New York. His clients include British Airways, Del Monte Foods, E-Trade and LG Electronics. Mr. Zucker leads a creative department of about 30 art directors, copywriters, designers, information architects and developers.
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