Michael Nutley: Why brands dont get online creativity

One of the questions Im most often asked is whats the most exciting work Ive seen recently. For most of this year, this has been a hard question to answer. Theres clearly some good stuff being done in the world of interactive marketing and advertising, but there isnt much that makes your jaw drop. And its clear that one of the reasons people ask the question in the first place is that they havent seen much that fires them up either.

One of the questions I’m most often asked is what’s the most exciting work I’ve seen recently. For most of this year, this has been a hard question to answer. There’s clearly some good stuff being done in the world of interactive marketing and advertising, but there isn’t much that makes your jaw drop. And it’s clear that one of the reasons people ask the question in the first place is that they haven’t seen much that fires them up either.

There are a number of possible reasons for this lack of inspiring work. The first is that the most cutting-edge stuff is being done far away from the conventional world of ad campaigns.

This idea is borne out by the success of web applications such as Nike+. Despite winning a Grand Prix in the Cyber Lions at last year’s Cannes advertising festival, it’s hardly advertising. Rather it’s a couple of insights – one about why people go running and another about what they do when they’re running – turned into something that encourages people to run more through a neat piece of technology and a website. So it’s possible that we could be looking for inspiring work in the wrong place.

It’s also possible that the most exciting work is being done in areas that require more time than we are used to giving advertising and marketing. Most offline work has to catch its audience’s attention immediately, and it’s easy to be seduced by something visually stunning, but one of the things the Web makes possible, indeed almost requires, is work of great complexity that takes time to understand and appreciate.

But another possible explanation that I’ve heard a couple of times recently is that the really innovative work being done in new media isn’t coming from brands. The first person I heard discussing this idea was Iain Tate, founder of new media agency Poke. He spoke as part of the creative directors session at Marketing Week and NMA’s Online Marketing & Media show last month, and his presentation was all about Radiohead. He admitted upfront that he doesn’t like Radiohead, but he’s been really impressed by three things they have done online in the past year.

There was the pay-what-you-want model for the online release of In Rainbows. There was a remix competition run through iTunes and Garageband, and another competition, for user-generated video, was promoted through existing communities. Tate’s conclusion (which you can find along with the rest of his presentation on his blog at www.crackunit.com) is that Radiohead are comfortable in the online space. They understand how it works, they’ve not been afraid to experiment, and they’ve been prepared to take risks.

These are not things you can say about most brands. The structure of most marketing departments acts against them. The fact that brand managers stay in their jobs for an average of 18 months means it’s hard to nurture and develop communities to the point where they start delivering value. When the imperative is to do better than the last person in the job, it becomes harder to take risks, as there’s little time to recover from them if they go wrong. And although things are changing, brands still find it very hard to give up the amount of control required to allow user involvement to flourish.

At this point you might ask how much this matters, whether it’s only a bunch of geeky agency types who are concerned about this. Why not let someone else do the innovative stuff, and then just copy or adapt it? After all, being second to do something has tended to work out all right in the past.

The difference now, I think, is that the online audience is captivated by novelty. It’s certainly the currency that drives social media. A great example of this is the success of Stormhoek Wines. This small South African winery wanted to grow its business, but didn’t have much budget, so it identified 187 key wine bloggers and sent each of them some of its wine. Their hope – that enough of the bloggers would be impressed with the wine to blog about it – paid off, and business boomed. A little later, another winery tried the same trick, but it didn’t work as well, and a big part of the reason was that it was no longer a new idea. And even if you decide that you do want to be second to a new technology, can you be sure that your organisation is sufficiently nimble that you’re not third, fifth or tenth?

Or as one of the speakers at last autumn’s Adtech conference in New York put it, security is no longer the opposite of risk. And it’s the culture of risk-taking that brands need to cultivate.

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