Yes, Creativity for Creativity’s Sake Can Generate Significant Agency Value

It was nearly five years ago. Mike Fetrow and I were struggling to bring better, more interesting creative work to Olson–the kind that keeps the incredible talent we’d recruited happy and productive.

Back then, Cory McLeod worked in Olson’s studio, creating web banners and microsites and generally bringing far more creativity to his projects than they deserved. A multi-lingual Canadian/Latvian immigrant, Cory had a rich life outside of work, creating public art and collaborating with his documentarian wife, Mara Pelecis (here is the trailer to Surviving the Peace: her emotionally-shattering, powerfully personal film about the effects of PTSD on America’s veterans).

During a trip back to Latvia, Cory struck up a friendship with Rabbi Menachem Barkan, who created the Riga Ghetto Museum to commemorate this overlooked chapter of history. And that’s how a midwestern agency in a city populated by Norwegian Lutherans ended up making a website for a Jewish pro-bono client halfway around the world. We worked on this project during down hours, nights, and weekends. Brilliant people jumped all in, much to the growing concern and outright displeasure of agency management and our militant project managers.

We were scolded for wasting time, since time is money in the agency business. Upper management and our VC owners pressured us to drop it, to do the bare minimum and move on, since they were trying to sell the agency and needed to optimize our margins and billable hours.

But we weren’t and we didn’t. Our only personal payment may have been pride and trees planted in Israel in each of our names, but the Olson agency garnered international attention, earning coverage in high profile outlets like Fast Company. Which proved very valuable to the agency sale process.

In today’s margin-stressed agency world, passion projects are often the first to go, but that’s inexcusably short-sighted. Done right, they serve as compelling ads for agencies, drawing in new audiences by showcasing creative capabilities without restraint.


I bring this old story up again because Cory’s back–this time with a magnificent VR Rockumentary about the Latvian band Perkons. It’s another Cory passion project, one that drove him to teach himself VR filmmaking. And it was only made possible through the continual support of Fallon.

Perkons had its US debut last night at the Walker Art Museum. For ten minutes, lucky people strapped on Oculus GOs and HTC Vive’s and lost themselves in a tale of Soviet repression, artistic expression, and the changing tides of history.

On the surface, Perkons is far from a project with obvious agency value. But ex-ECD Jeff Kling supported it (going so far as to provide the VO) and now Fallon has a tremendous, widely promotable example of VR storytelling that makes any agency envious. The project is beginning to gain press (some amazing outlets are already making sponsorship inquiries) in a way that will inevitably attract client interest.

Thanks to a creative thinker. With a dream about a forgotten Latvian band that changed the course of modern history. And an agency wise-enough to fund it.


Bob Greenberg’s “Apps Not Ads” Philosophy Applies Far Beyond Technology Platforms…

A week ago, Adweek named R/GA their Digital Agency of the year for 2008.  In the past ten years, few saw the sea changes coming to our industry like Bob Greenberg.  So he harangued clients, award show juries, the media–basically anyone he could buttonhole–with his zealot’s vision of a vastly altered communications landscape.  And today we’re living it.  Nice job Bob.

Adweek's Digital AOY.  Again.

Adweek's Digital AOY. Again.

But the thinking behind his shop’s “Apps not Ads” philosophy is nicer still.  In R/GA’s opinion, disruptive marketing techniques don’t work, so they strive to direct their technology in helpful and useful ways, to create positive branded experiences.  In a cluttered world of parity brands, that idea makes a ton of sense.

But this thinking should not be limited to technology.  Social media, microsites, events, sampling, even the humble recipe print ad: all sorts of marketing tools and techniques can provide tremendous opportunities to engage consumers less by being intrusive and more by being helpful.  Thinking creatively, we can bring usefulness and meaningful value to our communications by carefully considering their context and content.

In these times when advertisers no longer control the brand story…  When web 2.0 empowers consumers to share their version of the story…  When social networks enable those consumer stories to spread swiftly, far and wide…  We need to rethink our assumptions about effective messages.   We need to imagine ideas beyond an interruptive, attention-demanding context to a polar-opposite POV: empathy.

But not just empathy, radically-immersive empathy.  We need to get inside our customer’s lives and schedules and values to really understand their needs and wishes. Because the more we can empathize, the more we can innovate ways to intersect their lives with positive, meaningful and memorable brand experiences.

Radical empathy well might be the new creative frontier.  At least, I think so, even if that hasn’t always been valued as a creative strength.  And so I imagine, much like Bob Greenberg back when people like me knew R/GA only as that movie title company, I could well be talking to myself for a while…

But hopefully, it will start making sense before too long.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

CONTEXT: Advertising’s Next Creative Frontier

TV commercials, print ads, posters, radio spots, banners, rich media, long form: most creatives can generate competent content once they develop a feel for the format.  The challenge of content boils down to narrative or stylistic innovation and surprise.

The Right Message At The Right Time

The Right Message At The Right Time

But content won’t be the biggest challenge for creatives over the next few years; context will.  Advances in data farming and technology-empowered customization will challenge creative imaginations to anticipate and empathize, to visualize and speculate around consumer engagement occasions like never before.  Soon, it will no longer be enough to dream up a surprising idea; we will have to go further and determine how to customize that idea based on variables like target age and gender, time of day and social setting, even changes in weather, news and collective mood.

To truly exploit context demands a more fully immersive imagination: a skill previously unasked of advertising creatives, yet one that will increasingly drive the differentiation and success of marketing platforms.  Messages that reference, or at least acknowledge, the world surrounding them will find more receptive audiences.

Context has long been the promise of mobile marketing.  For the past few years, we’ve been promised the revolution of using GPS location to activate messages regarding local offerings and attractions.  It also promises to improve search as algorithms grow more sophisticated at filtering meaning based on user data.  And it promises to reinvent usage of the humble coupon, creating ever more relevant offers based on demographics and location…and perhaps even astrological signs.

Historically, traditional agency creatives have ceded the entire contextual domain to direct marketers.  But as technology continues to improve and refine user data, innovative thinkers will dream up ways to use this information to exponentially improve the relevance, engagement and impact of their ideas.

Because the most powerful messages are deeply personal.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Hope Is Not A Business Plan

How many times have you heard or read that?  In an idea-based industry, some on the business side exert this flat-footed bromide with unhelpful zeal, sure of the immutability of this truth.

And you know what?  It is true, perhaps even immutably.

Yet ironically, while it may not be a plan, hope can certainly be a business asset.  The promise of something better ahead fuels cosmetics, fashion, food, luxury and any number of other categories’ marketing.  obama-hopeWhether conscious or not, we buy certain things to increase our sex appeal, to project a seemlier aesthetic, or even to demonstrate that we are part of a smarter set.  Hope builds brands.  We just inaugurated a President who made hope one of his fundamental platform promises.  Love him, hate him, or plead disinterest all around; among everything else Obama’s election represents, his campaign proved once more that hope can be a genuine motivator to civic engagement.  And thus a good asset for the business of government.

Of course, the challenge of building a business on hope lies in actually delivering results, whether you’re selling a wrinkle cream or a new direction for foreign policy.  We will have to wait and see about that.  And like every consumer of this type of message, we will be hoping for the best.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Birthplace of Bad Work

real1My agency joined a number of our fellow agencies in a pro bono effort to help a big civic undertaking.  The clients were very well intentioned: they have a worthy endeavor, a LOT of material and a LOT of ideas.  What they lacked was focus.  And time.  And a budget.  

So there we sat, hopeful believers representing eight or so local agencies, listening as the putative briefing session for what could be a dream assignment slowly revealed itself as another unrealized opportunity redolent with layers, politics, and inconsistency.  Almost as one, every creative in that room lost their initial zeal.  It reminded me of that old business adage: “Hope is not a business plan.”  Sadly, these days, in both the charity and for-profit worlds, too many business leaders seem to forget that things like focus, discipline, and proper funding–if not financially then at least in terms of timing–are essential to success.  A blank canvas may appeal to an artist, but when your art involves driving action and results, a blank canvas proves useless at best.  All in all, it was a rather dispiriting experience.

But the worst part is, we will all probably try anyway.  Dreaming is what we do.  Even if our dreams sometimes become nightmares.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

On Being Generalists In An Age of Specialists

The Winds Of Change Are Blowing

The Winds of Change Are A-Blowin'

That’s the challenge facing classic advertising agencies: we are generalists in a time of specialists.  More and more over the past three years, clients have turned to consultants and specialty agencies for strategy, insights, and creative ideas, undercutting what had been the traditional  province of advertising agencies.  And so now, we basically have three options to address this situation: 1. watch our portion of the marketing investment continue to shrink, 2. hire specialists in various non-traditional disciplines and broaden our agency offerings, and 3. reinvent what we do and how we do it, including staffing and compensation.

All three options are valid, but all three options also share one common theme: change.  It is necessary.  And coming.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The Motrin Debacle: It’s Less About Twitter Power, More About A Bad Idea

So a couple of creatives thought they would create a knowing, lightly-sarcastic bit about a stress of mommy-hood and things went horribly, desperately wrong in their creative execution.  Is it funny?  Almost, just not quite funny enough.  If it were hilarious, Mom’s less prone to righteous indignance might have weighed in and leavened out the response.  But it wasn’t, they didn’t, and now all of us must read post after post discussing how the microbloggers at Twitter brought the big heartless  pharma company to its knees.  And how consumers quickly replied by generating video content. And how the overly corporate tone of McNeil Consumer Healthcare Companies’ eventual response missed a chance at connection.  And on and on and on…

By Law I Must Reference This Incident Today

By Law I Must Reference This Incident Today

All of which misses the point entirely.  The blogosphere responses only address the symptoms; the actual sickness lies with the ill-considered idea that started everything.  I loved that “Reservoir Dogs” animated typography on YouTube too but that doesn’t mean swiping it and applying it injudiciously makes any sense.  Marketing begins and ends with ideas, but those ideas need to be clever, strategic, and relevant to the target.  On those points, this one missed.  Big.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

It’s Not Either Digital or Traditional, It’s Not Either Push or Pull: The Model Must Be Perpetual Motion.


Push?  Pull?  Or something far, far better?

Push? Pull? Or something far, far better?

In the ongoing tussle that characterizes far too many competing agency interactions, separatists on both sides make blanket statements asserting the superiority of traditional reach or digital engagement or whatever approach favors their current business model.

And everyone loses, the brands first among them.

In a converged world, marketed brands require both.  The balance may change from brand to brand due to factors like where they stand in their product lifecycle or their specific consumer demographic, but all require a carefully orchestrated pull and push.   Since ‘push/pull’ reminds me of that goofy llama from the Dr. Doolittle movie, let’s refer to the converged marketing approach as the Perpetual Motion model.  In other words, our work must flow back and forth in an endlessly interactive cycle.  You announce then you engage, or you attract then you inform; you set a lofty brand goal and then take small daily steps to bring your market along to that better, better place.

In a dynamic world, brands take on their own lives.  And as anyone who has ever cared for a child or a pet knows, living things demand perpetual motion to keep them growing healthy and safe.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


Five Things I Learned Speaking In Madison Today

The Madison Advertising Federation

The Madison Advertising Federation


I drove the 143 miles to Madison today through light flurries (!) to speak at a luncheon put on by the Madison Advertising Federation.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I discussed convergence and Element 79’s experiences as we, like every other marketing entity in America, struggle to master these emerging mediums.  Preparing the speech proved rather reassuring: considering how the market tags us as a TV shop, we have a number of highly successful viral and social networking programs to highlight–always a good reminder.  Yes, despite what the creative head of Akqa might contend in public panels, traditionally trained creatives can create powerful integrated programs so long as they insure their idea includes meaningful and relevant interactivity.  Do that, and you don’t have to apologize to anyone about your background.  Hell, in three years, those of us fortunate enough to still be working in this industry will look back at these times and think how quaint it was back when we made such a distinction between offline and online marketing: those are simply media, our true business is ideas.

But that’s what I walked in knowing.  I walked out knowing a number of new things, particularly after fielding questions at lunch and a subsequent breakout session…

1.  I like people from Wisconsin.  Who doesn’t like people who are honest, direct, and polite?

2.  I only spoke about video-based virals.  One woman questioned whether viral existed–or could exist–in other media as well.  When you think about it, chain letters, certain health tips and pop culture jokes could qualify as viral as well.  This is probably a better question for Paul Rand and his word-of-mouth experts at Zocalo Group (

3.  Everyone worries about shrinking ad budgets.  And reallocation of dollars away from their specialty.

4.  A lot of people work in business-to-business advertising and wonder how viral and digital can help their clients.  Given the specificity of the target, viral and social network solutions could be particularly powerful.  I referenced the classic story about Google (this excerpt taken from Inc.:  “The quintessential employer brand is Google. In 2004, the company posted obscure math problems on billboards in several major cities. Any enterprising math geek who could solve the equation was directed to Google’s hiring website. The billboards drew a lot of press attention as well as thousands of resumés.”  Speaking so selectively identifies individuals as members of a Godin-like tribe, and everyone likes to be on the inside.  Additionally, to establish themselves as a leader, doctors or lawyers could start blogging.

5.   Everyone, from agency types to designers to specialty in-house creatives, misses having media partners right down the hall.  Holding companies may have aggregate buying power, but they inadvertently destroyed knowledge centers.  Pity that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

What ASI, LINK and other Quantitative Tests Have In Common With Inflatable Love Dolls… …

–they are all lousy reflections of real life.

Baal Probably Lived for A.I. Scores

Baal Probably Lived for A.I. Scores

Look, I understand the need for testing.  I’ll even admit that some of my work has improved through qualitative.  But in nearly twenty-five years, I’ve never seen any piece of work escape the soul-crushing process of quantitative testing without compromising everything that made it remarkable in the first place.  Worse, this kind of testing ignores the undeniable fact that people lie.  Not intentionally or maliciously, but when we’re asked to reveal ourselves to another, exaggeration and overstatement rule the day.  Just read the personal ads…

There may once have been a time when a product could actually have a unique selling proposition without three identical alternatives lined up beside it on the Walgreen’s shelf.  But that was long before the personal computer, the cell phone, and eBay.

Still, too many otherwise smart advertisers continue to worship these false gods.  Some corporate cultures even dole out media dollars based on AI scores.  And so whether to earn a larger investment dollar or to simply cover the brand manager’s butt, marketers plow ridiculous resources into long processes where the only sure thing is that the advertising they develop and test will absolutely not result in sales.

Imagine if those same advertisers took the money they spend on animatics and instead made two or three rich media banners.  They could then run them on-line in test markets and know immediately which one performed the best.  On the fly, they could adjust the creative, tweaking the art and copy to see if it made any difference in conversion.  By running this kind of real world test, you remove the all too human penchant for exaggeration and overstatement and instead, see how people actually respond in real life when there are no two way mirrors or bowls filled with M&M’s.  Better still, even ads that don’t perform as well, will still drive some sales for you.  It’s an indisputable win-win.

So why don’t more advertisers innovate their testing?  Probably because it’s hard to tell the difference between a benchmark and a bad habit.  And that’s a darned shame.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79