Creativity Will Save Advertising. Again.

I know, I know–it’s too late; advertising’s already dead. Digital/social/experiential/big data killed it…

The only problem is this constant, dire drumbeat sounds juicy, it creates alarm, but it’s mostly just opinion or self-promotion. It’s clickbait.

If you want facts, follow the money. In the most recent case, digital entertainment powerhouse Netflix bid $300m to buy Regency Outdoor Advertising.

That’s right, the disruptive, disintermediating, digital content giant wants to buy a billboard company.

Their motivation is fascinating. Netflix noticed that big outdoor imagery stokes social sharing. People posted lots of shots of their “Netflix is a joke” campaign to Instagram which promoted their comedy line-up.


In other words, people share great creative.

These days, $300m might not sound like an earth-shattering number, but it represents the largest acquisition in Netflix history. Imagine; a leading digital giant offering to pay one third of a billion dollars on a oft-declared dying medium…a smart company wouldn’t do that unless they knew it worked.

And that’s a fact.


This post originally appeared in Screen Magazine.

You’re Doing It Wrong: Botching the Beautiful Potential of Digital Marketing

The promise of online marketing–all that immediate access to the pertinent information you want, served up within a context of relevant content, targeting to dayparts and geographies–even climate conditions or news events–all that promise still exists.

Unfortunately, it exists in the same reality as miracle diet pills: a wonderful idea we have yet to realize.  Which may explain the dismal findings of a Zussi Research survey prepared for this weekend’s ad:tech London, a series dedicated to next generation digital marketing.  The key finding was that consumers consider most online ads ‘annoying’ and ‘ill-constructed.’  In comparison, they found traditional advertising more informative, entertaining and necessary.  Nearly 70 percent believed traditional advertising was relevant, compared with 45 percent for online.  Worse, among 25-34 year olds, that gap widens to 81 percent for traditional versus 53 percent for online.  And perhaps worst of all, annoyance over advertising on the web is twice as high online as offline; consumers say that digital ads represent a bigger unwanted distraction for them.

Whoops.  That wasn’t how it was supposed to go.Dennis Ryan, Chicago Advertising, Element 79And yet it makes perfect sense.  Consumers don’t get caught up in platforms and communication methodologies: all that matters is relevance and engagement.  You can deliver that on a matchbook cover if you have the right idea.

The real reason behind this eye-opening reset of assumptions lies in execution.  Or more specifically, over-execution.  ComScore says the web was littered with a little over a trillion banner ads last year.  A trillion!  That’s 1,000,000,000,000: a Federal Government sized number.  You couldn’t count to that in a year.  And Facebook alone places more than 50 billion of those banners…each month.

Which means advertisers are foolishly substituting tonnage for quality.  Even the most ideal digital context can’t salvage a lame idea, not in a world where our greatest surplus is distraction.  And when advertisers resort to pop-ups, pop unders and other annoying tricks, they’re just driving away their potential market.

The promise of online marketing is still very, very real.  The affordability, the targeting, the possibilities for deeper, more meaningful engagement have been brilliantly tapped by a few, but the majority lags far behind.

Either because they don’t have a clue or a particularly worthwhile idea.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


So Apparently There’s This CGI Film In Theaters. And It’s Rather Popular.

Fact: Avatar’s first weekend worldwide box office was $242.5 million.

Fact: Avatar grossed $1.3 billion worldwide in less than a month.

Prevalent Speculation: Including marketing, the project represented a nearly $450 million bet.

Tactic: In this week’s Advertising Age, a cover story discusses the way 20th Century Fox marketed the movie: traditionally, with a $150 million ad spend, and big promotional partners.

Conclusion:  Don’t dismiss mass marketing yet.

Krakow, Poland

Yes, we live in radically altered times.  Opinion enjoys new mass channels as consumers actively dis-integrate old mass channels.  And yet, given a good story that piques our interest, raises some classic themes, and gets everyone talking, a compelling mass market message can still drive outrageous success.  It’s just now, when that advertising gets the whole world talking, individuals have places to further the discussion: Twitter, e-mail, even self-important blogs like this one.  When a story captures peoples’ imaginations, they pick up and pass it along for you, expanding the coverage and radically extending the media buy.  Today, if you generate good word of mouth, you get something mass marketing can rarely buy: sustainability.

People who’ve seen the movie, rave about it.  And that drives more sales, as positive word of mouth sways people who were considering seeing it, particularly in the pricier IMAX 3-D.

So Avatar’s wildly successful initial weekend box office results were not driven by social: there was no official Twitter account to follow.  And there was no viral digital experience (those lost favor when the Snakes on a Plane hysteria failed to drive audiences to theaters).

Just a lot of TV–including long format buys and major sponsor support–and some really strong PR.  Clearly, Avatar is a mass brand.  And it advertises that way.  Pepsi meanwhile, has loudly announced its decision to shun the Super Bowl.  Hmm…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Call To Creatives From Every Discipline: Converge Now!

The ongoing debate over who should lead the next iteration of marketing creativity has grown exhaustingly tiresome.  Anyone who still spends their energy debating the relative merits of digital or traditional creativity is wasting precious time.  Today, the only true going-forward solution must be convergence.

The metrics-orientation and experience-centric mindset of digitally-trained creatives must mash up with the video-centric expertise of traditionally-trained creatives to create something wholly new to truly drive sales in today’s marketplace.  Right now, neither has the upper hand.  Neither can claim sole ownership or any real competitive advantage.  The only way forward is collaboration and cooperation as we forge something truly relevant for these instant access, highly-distracted times.

Matt Kaplan, the Chief Strategy Officer for VisibleGains, presents one of the most cogent arguments for this notion in this terrific article from MediaPost last week.  His post outlines a number of practical ways that our use of video must evolve to serve the realities of today’s fragmented messaging market and diverse target audiences.  Matt’s B2B discipline and sensitivity to the buyer-led world rings clearly through many of his points, yet his overall message speaks to a far broader audience of marketing creatives.

Simply put, video has been and will remain an incredible engagement medium.  But anyone who believes that begins and ends with broad awareness messaging platform of television commercials shortchanges the real opportunity presented by that medium today.  People respond viscerally to video–no surprise in a culture that far prefers the immediate sensation of a multi-sensory engagement over the intellectual reasoning of the written word.  More importantly, Google values video as a powerful driver of search rankings, so marketers that expand their use of video into more specialized communications benefit on exponential levels.

The Video As Sledgehammer Medium Party is Over

The Video As Sledgehammer Medium Party is Over

If we continue to treat video as a broad sledgehammer, we miss the many layered opportunities for deeper, more persuasive engagement.  Video can serve as a laser, targeted and tailored to engage various types of prospects along their path to commitment.  Tapping into the vast data engine of the web and developing more targeted messages against various personas, can lead to a use of video that is both more expansive and more specific.

To date, most digital companies have yet to escape their origins as an updated take on classic direct response marketing.  Similarly, the majority of traditional agencies still seem hamstrung as they cling to a dangerously singular faith in broad reach awareness-focused brand messaging.  Neither approach addresses the complete picture and leverages the new possibilities of modern media consumption.

But we can move to something new.  We can consider multiple targets for our video messages and expand our production shoots to gather content far more in tune with how and where buying decisions are made.  By expanding what we shoot and how we edit and repurpose it for a wider variety of uses and target opportunities, we can take video into new worlds of unprecedented persuasion based on deep consumer empathy and customized messaging.

This is where advertising’s future lies, in the converged middle, where laser-targeted video messages impact far more people far more effectively, despite the broad scatter of disaggregated and fragmented audiences.

Kaplan’s suggestions provide an initial, rudimentary roadmap.  If we expand our current concept of video-based advertising creativity to adopt new possibilities, the best of both disciplines can come together to create something entirely new.  And exciting.  And effective.

If we open up our minds to new ways to innovate the medium, reinventing both uses and expectations, we can soar far beyond the limits of partisanship over yesterday’s debates. It is a scary time in advertising these days, but change can also be a time of unprecedented growth.

Convergence is an imperative.  Expanded thinking is critical.  Today, if you’re not learning, you’re dying.  It really is as simple as that.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Free Will vs. Determinism: An Unexpected Lesson Regarding Digital and Traditional Creatives

Today felt markedly different at the agency.  We have something of a hot streak going lately, selling big ideas and innovative programs, particularly to clients that once resisted them.  For the first time in quite a while, the department is stretched very, very thin with people juggling assignments and deadlines.  A large portion of our creatives will work this weekend to keep up with the demand.  Better still, this work encompasses gaming, rich media banners, television, content, events, social media, radio, wild postings, couponing and probably another half dozen platforms that escape me now. 

"Unknown Caller" U2  No Line On the Horizon

"Unknown Caller" U2, No Line On the Horizon

But even as this sudden burst of reinvention elated me, it made me wonder: what changed?  What spurred this flurry of creative innovation?

And then it hit me: since losing the Pepsi brands, almost everyone that joined Element 79 when we bought a small digital company named Tractiv has left.  And that’s made all the difference.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I don’t say this because those people were awful—–hardly.  To this day, I miss some of them terribly.  But that failed experience proved that buying digital specialists and expecting them to drive integration works about as well as hiring a surgical team and expecting them to run a wellness program. Much like surgeons love operating, digital specialists love doing digital work.  They couldn’t drive integration because they weren’t motivated by integration.  So they kept a separate name, separate e-mails and a separate unit within the agency.  In hindsight, the signs were obvious: just buying a digital company didn’t work for us.  I doubt it works for other agencies either.

That said, some of our best creatives today do boast strong digital backgrounds, even deep expertise.  And one extremely valuable team leader even remains from that original acquisition.  But none of these creatives are merely digital people.  They all think in convergence and so they represent the next evolution; not determined by their background, but rather inspired by it to become something totally new.

Platform agnostic, these converged creatives mingle and work easily with their traditionally-trained creative counterparts, encouraging them to evolve as well.  Because just as hewing to digital work limits a creative, clinging to traditional media stunts creative growth just as severely.  But by focusing on ideas not platforms, each expands the other’s imagination and occasionally invents entirely new combinations.  To me, that represents the bleeding edge of creativity—forging new, never before tried ideas through the clever melding of various disciplines.

No, digital creatives are not the future.

And traditional creatives certainly aren’t the future.

Converged creatives represent the future of advertising.  Creatives who use their free will to choose a new path for a changing industry.

And I am lucky to work with more and more of them every day.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

If You Point Your Finger In The Blogosphere, Does Anyone Notice?

Web-based news media attract many users through the ability to choose the topics that interest you, and the political perspective of those feeds.  All of which means you get your online news just the way you like it, without any opposing viewpoints or tedious articles on boring subjects.

Of course, now that changing consumption habits compel every major newspaper to simultaneously publish their articles online, traditional editors find themselves in a position similar to traditional ad agencies: proving their mettle in new media while arguing for the viability of their traditional product, in this case–newsprint.

Yesterday, as part of a series on the future of journalism, Charlie Rose interviewed a panel including Robert Thomson, Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal.  He set online advocates’ tongues wagging by opining that , “Google devalues everything it touches. Google is great for Google but it’s terrible for content providers.”  Mr. Thomson’s issue stems from his contention that Google doesn’t consider the quality of the content around the ads it places, being far more concerned with quantity than quality.

One for you, Three for me

One for you, Three for me

Almost immediately, a hue and cry lit up the blogosphere as the acolytes of new media assembled like torch-wielding villagers, looking to burn Mr. Thomson’s effigy.  Their comments expressed histrionic outrage against this guardian of the past, featuring words like “dead trees,” “buggy whips,” and “30% margins.”  One respondent considered his attitude to be so quaint, he wondered “do you have a cat?”

Actually, that’s kind of funny, but still, this partisan posturing must stop if we are to move the medium forward.  Randall Rothenberg set a great example just days ago, calling for the better creativity this sector has long lacked, forfeiting it to pure technology.  Both sides have to stop taking their cues from the idiots of congress, stop pointing fingers across the aisle in kneejerk fashion, and begin looking for ways to connect and cooperate.  As I watch agencies like Tribal DDB staff up with traditional creatives, I can’t help but wonder which digital agency will be the first to earn heavy PR for the ‘man bites dog’ story they would exemplify if they were to acquire a traditional agency.  And you know it will happen.  Because that’s what’s called for with the needs today’s clients want filled: full spectrum, platform agnostic creativity that drives business and builds loyalty.  Cooperation is the key to convergence; working together, positively, for the greater good of our clients.  That’s a far cry from fingerpointing.

Besides, whenever you do that, you always get three more fingers, pointing back at you.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Regarding The Critical Intersection of Traditional and New Advertising Platforms published something from a conference rather extravagantly titled “The Empirical Generalizations in Advertising.”  Wow.  Anyone who knows me knows I like my generalizations to be empirical, so I read it closely.

Amidst other findings, they published this from the Keller Fay Group regarding Word of Mouth advertising.  Citing interviews conducted since 2006, they concluded that over 20% of conversations included a reference to advertising.  Further, they suggest ad-influenced WOM is 20% more likely to include an active recommendation to buy or try the product.

As a traditionally trained advertising creative, I’m wearing a huge happy hat over that news.  Because in the perpetual motion experience that defines the best of modern advertising, a medium labeled as ‘traditional’ as television, still drives engagement.  It can still push out a message that starts conversations.  And changes minds.

Not on its own, not in a vacuum, and not at the expense of other engagement points…but still, good TV advertising works.  It relies on the power of creativity.  And it doesn’t stop with TV.  The trick is to ensure that every touchpoint reinforces and advances one message.

Which, as any experienced ad practitioner knows, comes down to Advertising 101.

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

In A Time Of Convergence, No One Wants To Be The Omega Man

Charlton Heston, Pre-NRA

Charlton Heston, 1971. Pre-NRA, Pre-Damned, Dirty Irrelevance.

At first blush, today’s post by Kendall Allen continues the faddish piling on of advertising agencies as out of touch and increasingly irrelevant.  But her piece contains more than a fair share of truth.  And ultimately, Kendall makes hopeful, positive statements about convergence and its availability to anyone tireless enough to “evolve during complicated times.”

She makes a number of valid points concerning both how marketers from all disciplines can benefit from cooperation and the entrenched barriers to it.  More than anything, her characterization of the entitled attitude at ad agencies reflects the accumulated hubris returning like a tide toward traditional agency people who have long expected online and direct partners to follow our lead.  Because as we all know–or should know–traditional agencies can no longer assume that they drive the bus.  As marketing tactics grow increasingly driven by pull, engagement and experience, that attitude represents a dangerous assumption and a direct roadblock to true integration.  Ultimately, Kendall’s post is a call toward collaboration, across channels and platforms, all in service of cooperating to find solutions.

To be fair, she hardly takes any real sideswipes.  So maybe it’s not her.  Maybe it’s me.  Maybe as a longtime leader at a traditional agency, I’m a touch over sensitive on this topic.  After all, I’m looking to evolve, and most (but not all) of my traditional agency is actively trying to grow as well.

But sometimes, the world changes and ‘experience’ becomes another name for ‘habit.’  The business evolves and you gotta figure out where exactly that cheese went.  Hmm…

And maybe, just maybe, all of us traditional agencies owe an overdue ‘mea culpa’ to our friends in the disciplines rising to the fore in today’s marketing world.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79