A Brave New Digital World: Part 2

Makin’ Ads has asked our pal, Nate, to do a series of guest posts on his transition into the digital realm. This is the second in that series. Read the first here and follow Nate on Twitter @NKArch

Last week I recounted how interactive freelance projects set me up for the switch to digital. The lesson, if any: you’ve got to be focused to land the job you want. This week I’m going to talk about how digital ads come from a different place than traditional ones.
Digital agencies start with a digital foundation. They’re not founded by general agency ex-pats who wanted to give the next big thing a shot. They’re start-ups founded by people who were born and raised digital. HTML is their first language. A true digital shop is not an evolution of the traditional agency. It’s a whole new model. There’s no age-old battle of Creative vs. Account. Work developed at AKQA comes from an equal combination of Creative, Account, Strategy, Information Architecture (IA), User Experience (UX) and Technology. Everyone works together like one big pixilated family, and each discipline’s expertise helps create stronger product for the agency.
The age of integration is far from over. Integrated agencies are great in theory, but the practice is far from perfect. We’re in the midst of the first generation of integration. There will be growing pains. Some can pull it off, but most efforts fall a little short. Traditional agencies try to build interactive work with a traditional toolbox, and the nuts don’t always fit the bolts. At the same time, clients are starting to trust digital agencies, giving them a chance to produce offline work. There will always be some agencies that focus on digital or traditional, while others adapt to do all things for their clients. One of the first projects I worked on at AKQA involved more print, billboards and POP than digital work. But what did all that traditional media do? Lead back to a mobile site. Our work isn’t limited to the computer screen. It’s limited to the best medium that communicates what our clients want to say.
Concept is still king, but tech is crown prince. While most traditional ad agencies outsource production, most digital ad agencies have in-house tech talent capable of pulling off amazing work, no outside vendor needed. If crowdsourcing has taught us anything, it’s that just coming up with an idea isn’t enough. If an agency is going to succeed, it must know how to actually do something. When I worked in general agencies, producing in-house was a last resort. It didn’t matter if I was recording radio, editing video or folding fitted sheets; top-quality production value wasn’t there. That all changes when tech gets a role in the creative process. Then the talent comes in-house and becomes a strength, not a weakness.
Pixels have more flexibility than paper. One of my favorite qualities of working in digital is that if I can dream it up, my agency can bring it to life online. Digital ads aren’t limited to predictable formulas like print and TV. There are expandable rich-media banners, site takeovers and microsites. Mobile sites and mobile apps. Social media strategies that span Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. Viral, seeded, user-generated and branded content. Flash animation, video-tagging and augmented reality. These examples are already out there, and digital work continues to break new ground every other day. More often than not, the only boundaries of a digital agency are the creative team’s imagination.
Out with the obtrusive and in with the engaging. Content that hunts down and interrupts the viewer doesn’t cut it anymore. People have too many options of how to consume media. If content is going to succeed, users must choose to spend time with it. Good digital campaigns blur the line between ad campaign and product, like how this Smirnoff media player gives DJ Tiesto fans more of what they want. Interactive can be a tool, offering functionality and serving a purpose beyond pitching a brand. The ultimate goal of any campaign that lives online should be to empower the user. The digital process starts with the consumer, not with the product or media buy. That’s what makes it so effective.
These are just a few of the ways that digital agencies operate differently than traditional ones. If you’ve noticed others, drop a note in the comments. Next week, I’ll go over some things I’ve noticed about how the role of a creative in a digital agency is different from a creative’s role at a traditional agency. Until then, make yourself familiar with this list of the top 20 digital campaigns of all time.

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