Make It Big 

Dan Ng

Tribal DDB and DDB London 

As 2008 ends, it feels (perhaps wrongly) that interactive creative agencies are maturing. Economically, we’re not growing as quickly as we have been. And creatively, a screensaver-albeit a beautiful one-won most of the same awards that had been won by RGA’s Nike Plus, something most of us agreed to be more exciting, more innovative, and more like the way forward. It feels like perhaps agencies are becoming almost comfortable.

The agency I work for, Tribal DDB, won AdAge’s Agency Network of the Year. The fact that a digital agency won the award for the first time was less a surprise than a sign of the things to come. We’ll soon be leading marketing discussions with our clients, and if we keep going the same direction, we’ll soon have the majority of marketing spending and a leading role in the marketing mix. Are we ready?

We have potential clients coming to us asking for the latest thing that their teenage sons and daughters are playing with, even when it doesn’t make sense for their businesses. Furniture? Facebook application. Shoe polish? YouTube video. Boat anchors? MySpace page. You get the idea.

We also have prospective clients who feel like they’ve finally figured the Internet out and have fallen into a routine of “traffic-driving” banners and a “destination” microsite. It’s not that we can’t do good and sometimes interesting work from a brief for a banners-and-microsite package or for the social networking flavor of the week. It’s just that it’s not the right thing to do.

If we take the briefs as given and decide that we cannot lead clients, then it is over for us. You could pretty much automate the work or send it to some corner of the world where labor is an exploitable commodity. Or worse, a bigger, nastier part of the digital industry will make us obsolete. Pick your fate: “BannerMax 3000,” prison labor camps, or a Google AdBot all give us real inducements to innovate. Otherwise, we lose our reason for being, along with all those nice fees we charge.

Taking innovation seriously means addressing the balance of power across all the entities in our food chain. We must compete or cooperate with the advertising networks like Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft to define what we’re trying to achieve with advertising. We need to set measures of effectiveness that make sense for us. We should not let clients, media agencies, or networks set those measures for us, because they often do not fully understand the power that a great experience might have in building a business. To many of them, “interactive” still means “informational” or “transactional.”

We need to beat the remaining institutional publishers out there, as well as the everyday folks who generate their own content. We should be creating games and environments as popular as Guitar Hero (even if Activision is a client). As for our everyday folks competitors, we hire talented people and have bigger budgets than Joe and Jane Public; we should expect to do better than they can. We should be able to beat the market for content.

And finally, we should not shy away from innovating in technology. Google, Apple, Yahoo!, and Microsoft all employ legions of technical people-never mind the open source movement behind Linux. We need to work with the infrastructure community to ensure that we’re not just picking up “off-the-shelf” solutions when we have specific needs. A project we did this year for Volkswagen was built on a prerelease version of an operating system for just this reason: We wanted in on the platform. We cannot wait for the perfect solution to come along; we have to help build it.

This is where scale comes in. There are real benefits to being an agency network. We have offices that have expertise in different areas and draw on that expertise when required. We can shift work around to create advantages in costs and timing. And we can use the collective spending of our clients to innovate. You can get literally millions of Chinese to cheer with McDonald’s during the Olympics using cheering booths in restaurants. Or you can coordinate the selection of a new design for Pepsi’s cans globally.

It takes big numbers though. When you’re swimming in the same pool as Google (and really, a lot of industries are), you have to have big teams of people, and yet we tend to think of innovation as a solitary activity. We think of Edison working alone in a quiet lab to develop the light bulb, when really he had a team of people at Menlo Park working day and night on different filaments. (You almost wonder if his famous formula was worked out by his contribution of 1% inspiration and his laboratory’s input of the 99% perspiration.)

Jay Chiat famously asked, “How big can we get without getting bad?” before selling Chiat/Day to Omnicom. Those of us at big interactive agencies should be asking the companion question: “How big do we need to get before we get good?” With the right scale, we can define the interactive space. Let’s make it big. 

About the Author

Dan Ng is Head of Planning at Tribal DDB London. Tribal DDB is a leading interactive communications agency with 45 offices in 28 countries. Client work at Tribal DDB London crosses many practices, including social media management, mobile telecommunications, technical innovation, and behavioral modeling, to name a few. Dan heads a department of 30 strategists with specialties ranging from brand theory to database marketing to econometrics. His particular area of interest is the fostering of creativity across disciplines. E-mail: [email protected]