12 Ways Digital is Different Than Traditional

We’re proud to feature the following article, another in a series from AKQA creative Nathan Archambault. Thanks for the insights, Nate. (You can follow him on Twitter @NKArch.)

I’m a creative, you’re a creative. Right?

Not exactly.

In some ways we’re the same. We’re briefed. We concept. We revise. We present. Hopefully, we sell. But behind closed agency doors there are a lot of differences between what digital and traditional creatives do. And while I have a writer’s perspective, all this stuff applies to you, too, art directors. Don’t reach for your Wacom tablets just yet. Now where to begin…

Digital creatives don’t make ads. That’s what traditional creatives do. TV spots, print ads, billboards, all that good stuff. Digital creatives develop experiences. Anything that involves a click and a call to action is more than an ad. It’s content. Sites, mobile apps, social media. Videos, products, services. These are all experiences that interact with people differently than traditional ads, both intellectually and physically. Even a static banner that drives to a website is an experience. Unfortunately, that’s why so many banners are ineffective – confused creatives think they’re making an ad.

Digital has to work harder. TV ads have no competition for your attention. They pop into your living room. Then they’re gone. But digital work will only be effective if people choose to spend time with it. It needs to be entertaining, provide utility or both. It takes much more strategic thinking to create a successful digital campaign. You can’t just throw ideas against the wall until one sticks. You’ve got to have a damn good reason for throwing an idea at that specific wall, at that certain time, at that very spot.

Digital doesn’t just talk. It starts a conversation. Digital isn’t about getting people to think something; it’s about getting people to do something. Click here. Proceed to check out. View this video. Take an action, any action, whatever it may be. Traditional media passively connects with people. It interrupts TV shows or appears in between magazine articles. Look at all the TV ads that drive to a brand’s site. Digital is where brands can really interact with people. Take AKQA’s recent award-winning Fiat Eco:Drive work. It’s not targeted at people buying cars, exactly. It’s aimed at people who are trying to decrease their carbon footprint. Fiat listened to them. Now they want to hear more from Fiat.

Digital knows how to multitask. The best traditional advertising does one thing. Spreads awareness, makes something cool, provides entertainment, gives a brand a voice. It falters when it tries to do too many things at once, or tries to reach too large an audience. But digital work has to do everything at once. It has to be functional and entertaining, clear and thorough, concise and explanatory. You don’t know who is viewing your work. Copy has to appeal to different users. A site isn’t going to talk to a first-time visitor and a diehard fan the same way. That would alienate both groups of people. If someone doesn’t like the experience you’ve created, they’ll go surf somewhere else.

The creative departments aren’t built with the same pieces. Traditional agencies are a 50/50 split of art directors and copywriters who usually work in teams. That’s not the case at digital agencies with design- and tech-heavy projects. (I’m not just talking about visual design. There’s user experience design, too.) Digital creative departments are a mix of copywriters, art directors, visual designers, user experience designers, and creative developers. That means writers work on more projects. Art directors become better designers. And everyone thinks more strategically.

Digital creatives aren’t paired with a partner. That’s not exactly true. We’re actually paired with partners all the time. A new one every project. In digital-based shops, it doesn’t make sense to permanently pair a copywriter with an art director. Depending on what the client wants, I could team with anyone from the creative department. What creative really wants to be monogamous, anyway? It’s not natural. Especially for people who choose to get into advertising.

There’s been a shift in the balance of workload. Digital work comes in all shapes and sizes. There are copy-heavy projects and design-heavy ones. Tech-based projects and strategic ones. I’ve written copy on my own, like when I authored seven articles for a client’s microsite. Then there are projects, such as visual branding assignments or web guidelines, that doesn’t require much input from a writer at all. That doesn’t mean anyone gets off easy. Everyone is still on the same team. Sometimes I work late watching the designers work their magic. Maybe they’ll need copy, maybe not. My doctor thinks I could use more Vitamin D, but I’ve made way cooler websites than him.

Digital art directors do more than think. We all know one. Those art directors who can’t draw and fumble through Photoshop. Who knows, maybe they get by on their “ideas.” Well, they’d never make it in digital. Just being able to come up with an idea doesn’t cut it. Digital art directors need to be able to execute and nail the minor details. They can’t rely on storyboard artists, graphic designers and post shops to do the dirty work. They need more talents in their toolbox. Which makes complete sense. If you love design, you should know how to do it.

Digital isn’t linear. Traditional ads live in a bubble. They have a clear beginning and end. Once a commercial has been shot and edited, it is what it is. But anything developed for the web evolves. Before coming to AKQA, I’d never created a 40-page copy deck. But that’s what happens when a project has copy for a brand site, a Facebook page, online banners, digital promotions, and mobile apps. Not to mention all the other shapes that pixels can take.

In digital, measurability isn’t a grey area. It’s black and white. Traditional has the luxury of being cool, philosophical or humorous because it’s building brand equity and setting the long-term tone. But there’s not a single brand in the world that would rather be loved than sell their product. Effectiveness is something that has to be taken into consideration for every digital project. Before a digital campaign launches, benchmarks are set. It’s clear whether any given campaign is a success or a failure. So while traditional creatives may say their project is cool, digital creatives can say their project was effective. And only one of those things is not subjective.

Digital happens faster. It takes a while for a traditional campaign to go from brief to launch. Factors like a shooting schedule and media buy can really bloat a schedule. But a digital agency acts as a creative agency and a production shop under one roof. Producing a project can be much more efficient. With the tech team across the room, we can see progress as it happens, instead of relying on outside vendors. That means less waiting around before an idea goes live.

The dinosaurs are going extinct. Being outdated and reactionary isn’t a problem for every traditional agency. Some of them are doing fine. But a lot of them aren’t. Some of them have become the places where creatives go to die. (Maybe not die – that’s a little harsh – but wrap up a career in peace.) As a young creative, the last thing you want is to be influenced by jaded industry vets who have already checked out. Digital doesn’t have the dinosaur problem. The whole industry is too new. It draws the best talent. The most eager talent. It’s not just people into advertising. It’s people into the latest trends and technology. I chose AKQA because of the people. More smart, dedicated people under the same roof than I’d ever seen before. It was something I wanted to be a part of.

If you’re breaking into advertising, you have a choice to make. Traditional vs. digital. David vs. Goliath. The blue pill vs. the red one. There’s no doubt traditional agencies are learning from digital ones, trying to avoid extinction. While digital agencies are busier than ever and getting more traditional assignments. Then there are these so-called integrated agencies popping up left and right, at least on letterhead. True integration is easier in theory than practice. The most important thing is to find a place where you can do the work you want to do. And then kill it.

Notice anything else? Leave a comment.


12 thoughts on “12 Ways Digital is Different Than Traditional

  1. Nice. These make sense. Out of curiosity, how do these differences affect the approval process internally and with the client? (Maybe that's another topic entirely.)


  2. Nate,
    A lot of our teachers say to start with print before making anything digital to see if the concept works and there is an actual idea. What are your thoughts on that?


  3. Jake – Good question. The approval process is completely different for a number of reasons. Digital has more moving pieces that need to be approved – user experience, visual and tech, for example, are three separate steps in the design process. Each new piece of digital work is (for the most part) a unique experience, meaning there are other steps that have to be taken to ensure that agency and client are on the same page. That's the short answer but I think the longer answer would be a great topic for a future post.

    BennyK – I completely agree. Please thank your teachers for me. This is a point I really slam home in class. Don't underestimate the power of simplicity. In a student book, nothing is easier to get – and like – than print. It's easy to see if an idea works or not. It's easy for creative directors to understand your thinking, your strategy, your headlines, your art direction. Nothing gets lost in translation. Nothing interferes with the idea. A campaign should never rely on technology or trends (apps, aug reality, social media, etc). Start with print, make your teachers happy. Your book will be stronger.


  4. Digital measurability isn't black and white really though.

    On paper it is, everything is tracked, simples.

    But get under the skin of the tracking and it's just trends created by joining the dots between cookies.

    Digital activities have to prove that they are influential just as any marketing activity does. On many occasions, javascript queries and 1×1 pixels based on a last click wins model don't do that.

    Digital's achilles heel is it's 'trackability'. Digital offers the opportunities to do all the things you mention above (start conversations, become experiences not ads, get customers involved) but often they are hamstrung from doing so by having to always provide numbers and statistics to justify itself to an FD.

    And where as TV/outdoor/print is broadcast and is seen to be consumed, digital consumption is often invisible, happening on an individual basis at no set time.

    Which means that when it comes to gauging digital's effectiveness, it all comes down to cookies and numbers.

    The numbers on screen might be black and white, but their meaning can be as grey and seeped in gut feeling as any other media.


  5. I just wanted to thank you for the great post taht really sums up what we do in the industry and how exciting and yet complicated our work is! But as you said, it needs more creativity, more cross coordination and more team work, which is amazing.


  6. At the end, I see traditional agencies embracing digital as a main discipline and also digital ones providing non-digital thinking and concepts (leaving casualties in the process, off course). However, the nature of the digital business has been reshape and readapt. Making it easy to become more or less like traditional agencies, which haven't changed drastically in the last decades and are now struggling in the middle of this fast evolution.


  7. Wow, the nostalgia! In 2010, when this piece was published, I was a new graduate from ad school, working mostly as a graphic designer, but with first website development project. Now in 2020, I’m happily a UX designer after transitioning to graphic designer, to web developer and back to design.

    As a student I read this blog daily, because it was my dream to make ads. Now, my focus is much more specific, interactive and measurable.


    1. Ha! Thanks, Whitney. We rarely post anymore (though I often consider getting back into it), but glad to know the blog made a difference for you. Thanks for the comment!


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