Digital Evolution

As more clients embrace digital marketing, we look at the creative talent configurations behind interactive work.

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IBM "Help Desk"
With the popularity of broadband internet service, a shift in budgets that allocates more spending in digital advertising and the coming of age of a generation of consumers raised in computer-friendly households, the new crop of interactive advertising is showing what the format is capable of, both conceptually and technologically. Now, digital creative talent is coming of age itself. Starting with a traditional copywriter-art director team, interactive agencies have tweaked the creative process by adding roles and merging creative with other teams -- and in the process they've bred creative talent that's taking interactive content to new levels.

Though "interactive" content is not necessarily interactive. As a term widely used to mean all web-based creative, it's clearly a misnomer. "The whole 'interactive' term was corrupted a couple of years ago," says Lars Bastholm, ECD at global interactive agency AKQA's New York office. "I love the work, but BMW Films is not an interactive project. It's putting films online and calling them interactive. Interactivity, to me, is more than pushing a Play button." Bastholm prefers the term "digital," which blankets the evolving technology and includes advertising media like the internet, outdoor and cellphones. "Some people think that everything that happens on your computer is automatically interactive," says Bastholm, "but I think that interactive has to be involving."

Bastholm also notes that interactive creatives often work in complementary pairs or groups. "One creative may come from the old school of advertising -- people who discovered interactive in the '90s, like me. I came from an old-school agency copywriting background, and I discovered the web in the mid-'90s. I thought it could turn into something that would revolutionize the world. People like me bring traditional skills and conceptualized thinking to digital, and in a maturing medium this can be incredibly helpful. Then there are the people who came to the industry from the technical side. They have an extremely useful knowledge of what is doable and how you can push the medium forward while attaching creative ideas to it."

The core creative unit may still be a copywriter and art director, but Flash coders and animators are indispensable members of the creative team, making projects look good and ensuring that everything really works. In interactive, after all, function can be just as important as form. "If you have someone who can make code do something it hasn't done before, that in itself is a very creative skill set," Bastholm says.

Having coders, developers and engineers as members of the team means creatives can devote themselves to the idea. "I'm still not a technical person," says Patrick Clarke, creative director at Atmosphere BBDO, who has worked in interactive advertising for about eight years. "That's one of the misconceptions. You don't have to be a technical person to be successful in interactive advertising; you just have to have an open mind and be on top of an evolving medium. If you're working on a print ad, the parameters of the print ad are pretty fixed. Bit if you're making an online ad, technology is moving so fast that whatever you make will look outdated in a year. So you don't need to be a technical expert, you just have to be aware of the possibilities."

In a medium where the way something works can be as much a part of the idea as the way that it looks, it's important for interactive creatives to keep up with technology and internet culture. That may be easier for OgilvyInteractive CDs Simon Foster and Alastair Green, who work exclusively on the agency's IBM business and enjoy access to updated software and research. Both come from traditional agencies, but Green has worked in interactive for four years, while Foster made the transition only eight months ago. The two fit Bastholm's model, as Foster affectionately refers to his partner as the "uber geek" who ensures that their projects exploit the latest technology. "There's such a competitiveness in this industry, every time somebody does something new, people pay attention," says Green. "The interactive creative community is very concentrated. A lot of people know each other, and we'll pass things around. You'll see the stuff and then you'll take it to your technical people and that's how we stay on top of it all." He cites Crispin Porter + Bogusky's "Subservient Chicken" as an example; when it first appeared, he worked with techies to figure out the programming behind it until they could replicate it, then they used that information to move forward. Their latest project, IBM's "Helpdesk," (, uses embedded video in a pseudo 3-D environment to make a content-rich site that informs people about the company's contributions to the environment, medicine, government and education. And "Helpdesk," of course, needed just that -- an internet developer worked as a third team member to smooth over the tech-heavy sections.

Another development in the interactive arena is the relationship between creative and production, whose functions are often combined. "We work with large teams of people internally, and then we work with large teams externally, and that's true of filmmaking and TV commercials -- so the first thing creatives have to understand is how to keep their creative vision intact throughout the process," says Robert Greenberg, founder and CCO at interactive agency R/GA. "Everyone knows now to use the tools, so that gives them the ability to not just do design and motion graphics but compositing, image processing, music and sound effects and editorial, integrated with full-motion video and computer graphics. It's really everything that we as a production company in the past used to do, but now it's available on a single desktop. We have all those tools and assemble a team, and there really is a blending between the creatives and those who normally would be doing production."

Looking toward the future of the medium and recruiting new talent, many creatives say that while they had trouble finding people who wanted to go into interactive advertising after the dot-com bubble burst, young creatives are now more willing to enter this growing field. "Where young interactive creatives are strongest," says Dorian Sweet, creative director at in San Francisco, "is on raw talent and creativity toward building ideas and embracing new technology. They're generally low on brand building and on how to create a marketing communication. That can be a double-edged sword, but you do get new and fresh ideas. I think that interactive creatives are more like game programmers. They have to build an experience as well as a marketing communication."

Many creative teams have adapted to the fundamentally democratic nature of the medium. "The web makes everyone equal," says Sweet. "Everyone has exposure to the same technology and information, so there's no hierarchy of ideas. It's all about the best idea that embodies what the clients want, executed in a way that feels right and natural -- and the person who finds that key can be anyone."

(This article appears in the May 2005 issue of Creativity.)

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