Why isn't there more great work in the interactive space?

There’s a debate that, if not quite raging, is certainly simmering about the perceived lack of breakthrough creativity in digital brand advertising (for example: http://bit.ly/14HeCe). I think everyone would agree that great work does exist. But maybe just not enough of it. So why the paucity?

Well let’s get one thing out of the way right away. It’s almost certainly the case (please argue with me if you think this is not true) that the percentage of “great work” in interactive is no less than that on any other canvas. Great work is rarer than a Texan in a Smart Car. Full-stop. But there seem some quite specific reasons why there’s not a whole load of stunningly great creative in interactive.

So, a few linked observations about why this might be the case.

One, as an industry, it seems as if marketing is mesmerized by the (very welcome) potential efficiencies & measurability of digital and that this can lead to blindness when it comes to the creative opportunities. The talk is frequently of driving costs down through zero wastage, or improving efficiency (all good of course), and less often about increasing engagement, forging deeper links with consumers over time, storytelling across screens, and so on. How far away are we from work of the quality and ambition of Aaron Koblin or Jonathan Harris in what we produce for clients? To some extent, even average digital work can be more accountable than much of the work produced for the offline world, and sometimes that accountability can veil what is actually remarkably humdrum work. Here one’s reminded of the John Banham quote: In business we tend to value most highly that which we can measure most precisely. Traditional agencies are, in particular, often in the position of knowing they need to produce both more effective and more emotive interactive work, but not knowing remotely how to develop it.

Two, we probably need to stop looking at digital creativity as somehow different . . . (more)

. . . and divorced from the other elements that a brand uses to engage customers & prospects – a separate stage or world. Too often interactive agencies and skills are involved way too late to give them the best chance of producing greatness, because interactivity is something that needs to run through campaigns like a strand of DNA, not a module that can bolted on to something that’s already been produced. Partly this is a structural issue to do with different companies working together, often a tricky area clouded by egos and budgets. Partly it’s an attitudinal issue, with agencies sometimes wary of involving anyone else until they are forced to. One approach to solving this disconnect is to merge the teams of different people & skills currently tasked to separately produce on and offline. There must be an improvement in creative collaboration, perhaps through the deliberate creation of what ex-MIT organizational consultant Warren Bennis refers to as ‘Great Groups‘ – handpicked teams of people gathered by a (hopefully) visionary leader to produce exceptional results in the creative or innovation fields (examples he’d cite might include those involved with Pixar, Apple, Manhattan Project, Lockheed’s Skunkworks or more recently Obama’s campaign team). These groups are full of talented people who can – and want to – work together and who frequently believe they’re on some kind of ‘mission from God’. They are optimistic, not realistic. They bury their differences for the greater good of the objective. Most of us have at one point of another been part of these kinds of teams, and it is an enthralling and inspiring experience. This may mean (shock, horror) that we need to collaborate with people who don’t work with us or for us at the moment. I say, bring it on. I think it was an ex-CEO of Sun Microsystems that once said, ‘no matter where you work, most of the smart people work somewhere else’.

Three, and in a related vein, we don’t always build the right types of skillsets and backgrounds into the teams that do develop the work. The whole configuration of account & creative teams needs to change, with the introduction of technologists and engagement thinkers as central contributors to creativity at the very earliest stages of the development process. That means Day One. They must be used as architects, helping provide some of the art and magic, not just bricklayers, ironing out the issues around execution & deployment. Together, the ambition of these hybrid teams should be to engage the hearts and minds of the people they are talking to with content, tools, & experiences that move them – to do something, to think something, to feel something.

Four, and again linked to the first three points, we need to agree on what ‘great work in interactive’ is. This is a debate we’ve all heard again and again over the last 5 or so years, with little resolution or consensus. My take is simple. That great work in interactive is actually not that different to great work in offline. And my starting point here would be to look to how we benchmark breakthrough creativity in non-digital channels to help us work out how we might generate more breakthrough work in online. Does it tell a story? Does it have impact? Does it leave room for the reader, viewer or user? Does it credit the consumer with intelligence? Is it based upon a compelling insight? And so on.

In particular, though, I think there’s too often there’s a gap between technical knowledge and geeky creativity on one hand, and marketing know-how and strategic savviness on the other. Too often half the smart people – the digital artists, geeks & information designers for example – aren’t talking or spending enough time with the other smart people.

If we do nothing else except start to build bridges across that gap then I sense we’ll be on our way to seeing interactive work that genuine moves & touches people, that feels like magic, and – as the Americans would say – hits the ball right out of the park for clients.

We certainly do not have all – or perhaps even any – of the answers. Would love to know what others think.

(NOTE: a follow-up post to this original post, in which I attempt to summarize some of the emerging themes, can be found at: http://bit.ly/14HVJo; the conversation continues there, B)

(A version of this post was previously published on Revolution’s new – & tremendous – website: http://bit.ly/3JfrTL)