Last week, rather than celebrating the best output from across the country, spectators at Campaign's Digital Awards were distracted by a transatlantic scrap between Dare and the New York agency R/GA. Dare picked up gongs for its work for Vodafone and Lynx, but could not slow the force of the Interpublic-owned digital shop, which scooped the gold for its Nike+ work. More tellingly, aside from Dare, there was little else memorable enough from the UK to come close to R/GA. And all this when, barely three months ago, the limp performance at Cannes left the Cyber Grand Prix untouched, with Profero and glue London the only UK digital shops to even get on the scorecard (one gold, a silver and two bronzes, collectively).
The argument runs that digital in the US continues to innovate in the digital space. Meanwhile, British advertising's attempts to turn its hand to digital has led to too much clunky and haphazard digital work that, while professing all the planning and copywriting credentials, lacks the advanced integration of Nike+ to register in the minds of global judges. Is it any coincidence that UK-based agencies, such as Wieden & Kennedy and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, are looking to the US for digital talent?
The former Tribal DDB managing director Bill Brock cites differences of approach as one reason for the difference in quality of output. "The internet boom of the 90s happened in the US. Entrepreneurs such as Bob Greenberg (R/GA's founder) and Joel Hladecek, the executive creative director of Red Sky Interactive, came from backgrounds outside of advertising. The UK's leading digital agencies, on the other hand, have been largely spawned from advertising backgrounds. Vodafone is a collection of brilliantly crafted ad experiences, while the big winner from the US, Nike+, is a product innovation. US digital agencies have product innovation in their DNA. Only if UK agencies can marry their craft skills with a passion for brand innovation will they have a good chance of competing with the likes of R/GA and Anomaly."
But do these different approaches equate to differences in creativity? Yes, Chris Colborn, R/GA's executive vice-president and chief experience officer, argues. "As the effectiveness of traditional media waned faster in the US, clients grasped the impact of digital media sooner and were eager to embrace the possibility of deeper consumer engagement."
But Dan Ng, the head of planning at DDB London, argues otherwise. "Having worked on both sides of the Atlantic, both are just as strong when you look in terms of the technical and digital creativity. Where we tend to fall down is integration. R/GA's success comes from the way it has integrated its Nike+ campaign with the product. When it comes to creativity, the UK is second-to-none."
Wayne Arnold, the chief executive of Profero, agrees. He says the tangible differences in quality between the work of either country is driven largely by budgets. "The US is catering to a market that demands practically the same spend as a pan-European campaign," he says. "Take Profero, glue and Dare and ask them to show you the top five ideas they had that couldn't get signed off because of budget restraints. Only then can you make an adequate comparison between the quality of ideas. Digital work coming out of the US is superior in terms of production values, but not necessarily in terms of great ideas."
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US DIGITAL CHIEF - Chris Colborn, executive vice-president and chief experience officer, R/GA
"The US is still ahead of the UK in digital creativity. The US has the experience edge ... for now.
"While there are technology differences in terms of consumer adoption, more of the differences may be cultural. In the UK, there is greater reverence for the craft of the 30-second commercial, making digital-centricity a more difficult sell.
"However, digital creativity in the UK is definitely on the rise. In some areas, such as mobile marketing, it's likely to be ahead. Electing Simon Waterfall of Poke to the D&AD presidency is evidence of the industry momentum."
UK DIGITAL CHIEF - Mark Collier, managing partner, Dare
"R/GA won the gold because it produced a brilliant piece of work for Nike+. I don't think this means that the UK digital domain has suddenly become creatively barren - a range of great work from UK agencies was also awarded.
"More interesting is the type of work awarded. Nike didn't just win for Nike+, it also won for Run London. Similarly, Vodafone won in three categories for different pieces of work. This is no coincidence. These are clients that have recognised the power of interactivity in their marketing.
"If there is one big difference at the moment, it is probably in the size of budget. Consequently, US digital work tends to be far more technologically advanced."
By all accounts the Nike+ budget was significant. Consequently, US digital work tends to be far more technologically advanced than that of the UK."
DIGITAL STRATEGIST - David Pugh-Jones, creative strategist, Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions
"US agencies are certainly winning more awards and edging ahead. Yet this could be for more reasons that just advertising per se.
"Digital is a relatively new medium and most people operating within it want to break new ground for a digital first.
"There is an argument to suggest that some of the largest global brands have their headquarters in the US, giving agencies there more influence among client decision- makers. But UK markets have similar buying power, as the work has to go to the top for sign-off, regardless of budget. Whether or not the creative is watered down on transit up and down the chain is a wider question."
CHAIRMAN OF JUDGES - Simon Waterfall, president, D&AD
"Creativity in the UK is just as strong as abroad. R/GA swept the board not because it made a website, but because it built an entire community. But similar sites are doing that here, albeit with a smaller budget to play with. Ultimately, the whole web is global and where the content is centred isn't the main issue.
"The UK is still a creative leader, and we're a small enough island to trial new technology. Little wonder we're the country with the greatest percentage of upload video; all the interactive TV platforms are here; mobile phone use is more advanced than the US and the BBC is one of the best-known brands in the world."