New Media, Same (Fascinating) Process

W. Glenn Griffin

SMU-Temerlin Advertising Institute

It seems odd that college professors spend so much time reading, but so little of that reading is for pleasure. So whenever I get my hands on a new awards annual, I feel entitled to hide out somewhere and pour over some really good work that I don’t have to critique in a classroom. Of course, just like in the classroom, not all the stuff will be good: I can always find fault with someone else’s “Best in Show” or “Gold Award” campaign, wrinkling my forehead or muttering I don’t think that’s so great… without disturbing the other Starbucks customers. But there’s always the inspirational, the funny, the surprising, and the smart in there too (see also: Classroom). Invariably, I’ll dog-ear pages that carry good examples I can use in class or those listing the names of friends or former students in the credits. You could call this a ritual, though that term feels a bit too reverent.

A couple of months ago, my indulgent exercise focused on Communication Arts Interactive Annual 14. I’ll admit to you here that I’ve always found the Interactive Annual a little scary whenever I start flipping through it. I think I’ve figured out the reason why: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the technology, the portals, the Javascript, the terabytes of lingo and programming languages I don’t know anything about. I know that I’ll find cool ideas and feel a little less ignorant after reading CA IA 14, but this undertaking is starting to feel like homework. Then I remember I’m at Starbucks (way off campus), with no one to see me sweat this one out.

The seven professional jurors for this issue are, of course, experts in interactive media design. I’m comforted that most of these folks hold the title of creative director or principal (I know what those terms mean!), until I encounter the bio of juror Liz Danzico, information architect and usability analyst for Happy Cog in New York City. Is Liz trying to hurt me? These are job titles for which I can make up responsibilities in my head, but I don’t have any real clue about everything they must entail. Desperate to change the subject, I look down the page and focus on the jurors’ key observations about 2008’s crop of work. They make three primary observations, which I’ll paraphrase here:

  1. Interactive media are still primarily used to deliver content “passively” (i.e., without requiring interaction with the consumer).
  2. The solicitation and publication of user-generated content is more widespread than ever before.
  3. The Web browser is losing ground to other modes of digital content delivery, such as widgets and smartphones.

Okay, I’ll dog-ear that page. That’s practical, accessible information that makes me feel a little more interactive-savvy. Good for you, Glenn, I say to myself. It’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the industry. After all, I was an art director in the 1980s and 1990s before becoming an academic. But so few people spoke Internet back then.

I finish reading the introduction and move into the pages that feature the best interactive projects of the past year. Some of the agency names listed here (BBDO, Ogilvy & Mather) are more familiar than others (mono, Big Spaceship). There is work produced for big brands (Nike, Dove, GE, Honda, and HBO) and smaller ones (Glacéau and DoubleClick). I read about the viral videos, online games, retail installations and applications featured here, supplemented by commentary from the creative people who developed them. In some cases, 20 or more individuals are listed in the credits for a single project (that’s impressive, given that art director/copywriter duos often struggle to collaborate harmoniously).

The more time I spend reading about each project, the more I begin to realize that what I’m looking at shouldn’t make me feel anxious or ignorant. Underneath all the XHTML and handset detection algorithms (!), the fundamental purpose of all this work is to deliver an idea-a clean, simple, and elegant one. That’s still the key ingredient, as we find in print, television, radio, outdoor, and all the other media categories that don’t scare me (as much).

Whether we call them information architects or art directors, those who create advertising think about brands and how best to tell their accompanying stories to consumers. That’s how it always begins. Once they find that clean/simple/elegant solution for doing so, the rest is construction work, really. Don’t take that point the wrong way: A Web site or a widget can be a thing of beauty. It’s just that most creatives make an important distinction between ideation and execution.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying the creative process and asking some of the most talented ad professionals how it plays out for them. When they talk to me about that process, I don’t hear much at all about media during the conversation. Their priority, they tell me, is getting to a great idea. That’s the real value they bring to the table. Translating the idea into 72 dpi or 30-second scripts will happen, but first things first.

This process makes perfect sense when I think about the aspiring writers and art directors that I teach. As beginners, they are ready to make some ads. Now, please. They are sweet and full of energy, and they want to be good. They bring all kinds of enthusiasm. But they don’t want to fiddle with research or write a creative brief or write a hundred more headlines. They want to build the house before carefully laying the foundation. So, one of my most important tasks as a mentor is to help them understand what their industry idols already know: The idea is king. Wrestling with and learning to master their own process for finding it should be their primary goal. There will be time to build the beautiful house. Later.

Maybe I shouldn’t be intimidated by you, Interactive Annual 14. Sure, I might need Google to decode a lot of your vernacular. I won’t always understand how they did this or that either. But I know what you’re really about. All great work, whatever the medium (“new” or otherwise), is the byproduct of a fascinating, idea-making process undertaken by people who engage in that ritual every day. Now there’s a proper use for that term. 


Communication Arts (2008), “Interactive Annual 14,” 50 (5), 90-161. 

About the Author

W. Glenn Griffin teaches courses in creativity and portfolio development, and leads the Method Creative program at SMU’s Temerlin Advertising Institute in Dallas, TX. His research interests are in the areas of creativity, cognitive and educational psychology, social responsibility and advertising education. His work has appeared in the Journal of Advertising, Journal of Advertising Education, Journal of Interactive Advertising, and Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, among other publications. He received his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin and M.A., B.A. degrees from The University of Alabama. E-mail: [email protected]