As digital-marketing media spends balloon to over 56% into Facebook and Google, creativity is under attack. It’s time for brands to recognize the impact of these platforms on brand equity and to push for remarkable creative in an unremarkable media landscape.

As a member of SoDA – a global network of digital agency founders, creative innovators and technology disruptors – we had the opportunity to join the Global Summit (AKA “GMM” or Global Member Meeting) last week held in Nashville along with more than 100 other agency leaders from over 60 agencies and 10 countries around the world. These are some of the smartest people in digital marketing today who are currently executing technology platforms and digital creative for thousands of the world’s biggest brands. It’s an impressive organization that truly supports the value that digital agencies bring to brands. And the opportunity to collaborate (and commiserate) with our peers was a refreshing reminder as to why we do what we do: make cool shit that matters with smart people we like.

The theme of the event was “The End of the Beginning”, a nod to a recent presentation made by venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz that argued that this is where we are right now when it comes to internet technology. SoDA summed up the theme this way: “What started in a petri dish as a single cell life form has now permeated every molecule of business, culture and society. If it’s the end of the beginning of the internet, then it’s also true that it’s the end of the beginning phase for the agencies founded on this opportunity. The end of the beginning is not something we should fear. In fact, it’s a celebration that what we’ve created has found a place in the new world order and the next phase of opportunity is upon us.”

So it’s the beginning of the middle, and it means taking a now mature digital environment across e-commerce, social media, and digital transformation, and looking to what’s next. It’s time to help our clients’ navigate the beginning of the future of digital marketing.

But not everything has been positive in digital marketing and technology transformation over the last 10-20 years. As much as we got right about the internet and the positive impact it would have on business and culture, we didn’t foresee the negative consequences. Privacy breaches. Digital bullying. Social media addiction. Identity theft. Fake news. Ad fraud. Trolls. Spam.

And Creativity?

As the center of advertising shifted from the :30s spot to Instagram Stories, Facebook News Feed, Google Search Adwords, and now :06s YouTube ads, brand creative has arguably suffered. As the duopoly of Google and Facebook created powerful targeting platforms with incredible scale and reach in mobile, and consumers who increasingly preferred shorter and smaller ad units, Creativity took a hit. What was once emotional storytelling in a :60s film has now become a lower funnel e-commerce “shoppable” ad at 320×50 pixels on the bottom of a mobile web page. On a certain level, when we think about what “The End of the Beginning” represents, this makes sense. On a day-to-day level this work can be effective, and it moves sales, and that is our job.

But I think all of us who work in marketing and advertising, both for brands and in the agencies that serve them, there is a sense that we have lost something. That we have missed the ability to care about our brands the same way we did 10-20 years ago. That we no longer put the time in to build brand equity, to take creative risks that can result in huge rewards, or to be consistent in our voice across channels and over time in order to build a brand story that mattered in the mind of the consumer.

With the rise of technology and adtech, CMOs have had to become CTOs. And the role of “marketing” in that classic Five P’s way of thinking about it is changing. A lot. Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Machine Learning, Data Analytics, CRM Automation, Predictive Modeling, Personalization, Voice, and Shoppable Video are just a few of the new tools and tactics that are changing everything for marketers and blurring the lines between marketing, sales, and operations. Layer on the trends in shorter planning cycles, agile project management, project-based relationships, and in-housing, and the net effect on brand Creativity is very real.

But is it building better brands? Are we connecting with consumers in meaningful ways? And are we creating lasting value in our brands?

Marketers used to know that to make an impact you had to be remarkable. Full stop. Creative risk could result in huge rewards for a brand. We’re talking share and category growth that would hockey stick a brand trajectory, creating mindshare for generations… for some brands, increasing their equity value at 10x-100x levels. Career-making growth. Think about:

  • Whassup
  • Where’s the beef?
  • Just Do It
  • 1984
  • Hey, Mikey
  • Got Milk?
  • Most Interesting Man in the World
  • Get A Mac
  • The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
  • Campaign for Real Beauty

And although we certainly still see some brands take great creative risk today that results in significant success – Nike’s Colin Kaepernick billboard in 2018 for instance – there is a growing concern amongst both agencies and marketers that brands are starting to get the short end of the stick. Marketing budgets have moved away from broadcast and into digital, and digital advertising units are incredibly well suited for lower funnel, last-click attribution kind of ads. That “Buy Now” kind of creative that results in instant sales. And because of all of advertising is now driven by data analytics, we are rewarding our brand (with our budgets) with what’s “working” by optimizing the hell out of the same ad format, repeatedly.

So today, that means the creative brief is to improve the 1.08% CTR on a Facebook Carousel Ad. Sadly, not a joke.

You can see how we got here, and it makes sense. We’re doing the work that works.

But it’s also at times ridiculous and seems to be missing the point completely of what we’re supposed to be doing as brand stewards, which this Tweet from Adweak so perfectly mocks:

It’s not just agency creatives who feel this way. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of marketers are saying that senior management will no longer support pure brand-building, and almost three quarters (72%) feel that a culture of measurement is killing creativity. “Many markets are growing increasingly concerned over the lack of balance between measurement, data and creativity.”

Another study, which surveyed more than 500 brand marketers, found that few have figured out how to bring digital advertising and powerful creative to work together. ”Nearly 70% of marketers surveyed believe that digital growth in advertising has come at the expense of the quality of creative. And 91 percent of marketers say the need to make digital ads more engaging to meet brand goals is a priority over the next 12 months.”

Business Insider, on the rise of the :06s video, had this to say: “The ad industry seems to agree that it needs much shorter video ads. And the six-second video ad is quickly becoming the new 30. That doesn’t mean everyone likes going so fast. Creative executives at top ad agencies worry that six-second ads are simply too short to tell a story or connect with consumers on an emotional level.”

And it’s not necessarily just our new media channels that are impacting this change. Standards in UX design and social media tools are also adding to the impact on Creativity.

Google’s Material Design is seen by many as a double-edge sword. “On the one hand it’s a great tool for helping designers put their efforts in the right places. Instead of reinventing the wheel with each new project, designers can use best practice for standard elements like navigation and sign-up flows. But on the other hand, if you don’t have access to your emotions or creatively, you risk creating something generic and boring when you work directly from an established design system.”

And of course we have Social Media. Viewed as the great leveler, and resulting in the (very creative) rise of the influencer, DTC brands, and an entirely new way of reaching consumers directly. But few believe it to be a contributor to “quality” in our advertising and brand storytelling. From The Drum: “The growth of social media has lowered the bar to allow anyone to advertise, but it has also seen a decrease in the quality of online ads.” Creative tools like Canva are great in democratizing social advertising for all, but they’re also partly to blame for creating mass uniformity. Look at the profile page for your brand in Instagram. Now look at the page of all of your competitors. Now look at the pages of all the brands in an unrelated industry. Although there may be a few creative nuances, you’ll see essentially the identical product shots, lifestyle images, text quotes, influencer posts, and “special-national-whatever-day” creative in near mediocrity across every account. It’s safe. It’s the boring middle. It kind of works. Yay, you get to keep your job.

I’ll let Campaign magazine sum it up:

“Digital growth is killing creative quality.”

Okay, so what can we do?

I believe it’s time for a creative renaissance in digital media. That “The End of the Beginning” is the exact right moment to be remarkable as a brand again. We can only A/B test and optimize our Instagram ads so much. At some point, that optimization does nothing for real brand growth, and in a world of increasing brand switchers in shorter-and-shorter product lifecycles, the time is now for brands to own their stories, to make deeper emotional connections with their consumers, and to generate passionate brand fans because you’re different. I believe we can achieve remarkable creative that matters in a digital media world by following three key principles:

Digitally First

  • The :30s spot is so engrained with creative teams that it’s difficult for many to not start creative ideation at the :30 – we have to break the cycle in creative ideation that centers on the TV commercial first and then builds the digital legs from there
  • I encourage teams to start at the media plan and think about “big ideas” in the context of the plan
  • This can mean starting the creative thinking around paid social, programmatic, or short video – and then considering the connecting channels and legs from there
  • That can be challenging, starting at a media plan that is only leveraging search, display and paid social can be disappointing to some creative teams due to the size and static nature of those ad units – but thinking creatively about these platforms and working to create a foundation idea within the box you’re given can help discover breakthrough ideas
  • Adding an HTML5 layer with in-ad interaction, using motion graphics and transitions uniquely, connecting digital ads to live video or real-time events, data personalization used in humorous ways, creating hundreds of short videos that work together to tell a story, or leveraging unexpected CTAs are a few tactics that can help creative teams bring innovation to these platforms while making them more effective as well
  • By being Digitally First and starting ideation around the most challenging digital ad units, we can discover innovative new ways to bring a brand story to life and to thread brand narrative even in short, static digital ads

Variably Integrated

  • In the era of specialized teams, multiple agencies split by channel, and the silo’d separation at many brands of e-commerce operations vs traditional retail sales, being integrated in brand storytelling is increasingly hard to do
  • Despite these operational challenges, brands and agencies need to collaborate together and tell a single brand story across all channels and be mindful of the overarching brand goals, as well as the channel-specific ones
  • This isn’t easy to do when we have been set up for performance by channel, where we are being measured to reach the best possible KPIs within a single channel without taking into account the impact on the total brand story and macro brand growth
  • CMOs and other brand leaders should work to ensure that briefs have a connecting line to the emotional brand story even in the most tactical of briefs
  • And agency strategists and creative teams should be asking the right questions that allow for an understanding of how the work at hand will connect and support the larger brand story
  • Along with this integrated approach and work to build a brand story across campaigns and channels, consider how variable and personalized creative can come in to play and where connections between digital advertising and digital engagement can strengthen the brand story
  • Connecting the digital advertising to the website, retail experience, loyalty program and other customer engagement platforms with personalized and multi-variant content will create a flexible system that feels personalized to the consumer, in a way they now expect: a brand who knows them in the data age

System-Wide

  • I believe that one of the biggest challenges brands face today is consistency of voice and brand story across channels and the integration of all consumer touchpoints to tell a single brand narrative
  • In a messy and complex set of marketing and sales channels, System-Wide creative consistency can feel nearly impossible to master
  • Whether it’s closing the gap between agencies and in-house teams, or focusing key business lines in vertical integration vs tactical specialization, brands increasingly have to do more with less – and with digital media becoming more and more of a focus, it might start to lead marketing communication more than follow
  • Adding to the challenge is that not only do brands have to do more with less, but they have to do it in shorter planning windows and a more dynamic, interactive approach that can react to the KPIs on the business in, ideally, real-time
  • As a result, we work with clients to try to integrate Sales, E-commerce, Retail, Website, and Social through a series of playbooks designed to act as living, agile documents made for collaboration across teams and agencies with a singular focus: tell an emotional brand story across the system while optimizing performance at the highest level within each individual channel

Our entire industry is doing an exceptional job at all of the same stuff. From the network agencies to the independent creative shops and client-side in-house teams, we have all become great at executing the boring middle. Afraid to take a risk. Unwilling to break (channel) conventions. We collectively create millions of pieces of new content a year that checks a box, that meets a need and drives some engagement, but is rarely groundbreaking or breakthrough for the brand. By being mindful of the sameness amongst these platforms, and by taking an approach that is Digitally First, Variably Integrated, and System-Wide, we can make a Whassup-level impact on the brands we touch and deliver next-level results today, along with an emotional connection with the consumer that could last forever. Let’s challenge ourselves to think differently and to be truly remarkable with our Creativity, it’s “The Beginning of the Future” after all.


Also published on Medium.