Digital Essays: Ideas that do

Marketers must recognise that the world is now digital and throw caution to the wind to boost creativity and come up with the ideas that inspire.

You've got to love ideas. EBay, the light bulb, democracy, the jet engine, sudoku, the telephone, feminism, Sky+, football. Where would we be without them?

In the world of marketing, the digital revolution may have swept away many a sacred cow, but the importance of ideas is not one of them. With clutter, fragmentation, interactivity, connectivity and, perhaps above all, heightened consumer sophistication has come a need for ideas that is deeper and stronger than ever.

And yet there's rarely been a time when the scope afforded to agencies to actually have ideas has been so limited; when the type of idea supplied by agencies has been so one-dimensional; when the value of creativity has been so disregarded.

Of course, creativity still beats strong in the world of the entrepreneur. New ideas - frightening, exciting, new ideas - have rarely been in such steady supply since the invention of the internet. Which itself must go down as one of the most amazing ideas of all time.

But for established companies, grown-up businesses, strong, incumbent brands (the ones who usually employ agencies), creativity is a difficult bedfellow. Creativity demands an environment that is tolerant of mistakes, that is prepared to fly in the face of logic and embrace risk. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said: "If people never did silly things, nothing intelligent would ever happen." But grown-up businesses don't do "silly".

Recessions are particularly bad times to argue for creativity within a business context. But the marginalised role of marketing agencies can't be blamed on the events of the past six months. As an industry, we are in a terrible place from which to start having these arguments. And we've mostly got ourselves to blame.

It's a bit of a cliche, but nonetheless true, that over a period of several decades, agencies have gone from being arguably the chief executive's most vital partner to the somewhat disrespected supplier of marketing communications material.

Why? Conservatism, vanity, specialisation silos, commercial apathy - it's all of these things. Of course, attacking each of these four horsemen of our own particular apocalypse is fairly important, but even resounding success in this will only provide the foundation for what we should really be all about: the injection of creative ideas that can transform businesses.

In other words, we need to earn the right to be "silly" by also being professionally intelligent and commercially insightful. We need to show a keen understanding of how to apply creativity.

Right now - putting aside the cynical thought that the only application most creatives care about is the one that goes to the D&AD judges panel - the truth is that 99 per cent of agency creativity is spent on crafting commercial messages. I would argue that this is not how it always was and that crafting a commercial message is not the same thing as having a creative idea.

Of course, once upon a time, the creation of a great slogan, such as "Guinness is good for you", could rightfully be called a great idea. But successful brands aren't built on slogans anymore. When O2 switched from "see what you can do" to "we're better, connected", did anyone really notice? What matters is not what brands say, but what they do.

So, having been marginalised into the provision of messages, agencies now find that the value of this service is increasingly diminished.

Digital has done this. There are just too many messages now, too much noise. And digital consumers are too busy to take notice in any case. But digital is also the only escape route.

Time for marketers everywhere to recognise that the world is now digital. Time for agencies to put all their energies into creating genuine ideas for a digital world. Ideas that do. Ideas that inspire others to do. Ideas that - as Russell Davies has said - are shaped without reference to a media budget or plan, and would work without one, but fly much further when supported by one. Ideas that aren't advertising ideas. Ideas that can be advertised.

Ideas such as Whopper "virgins" - I know: Crispin Porter again. Sorry. Ideas such as the Fiat eco:Drive. AKQA, I tip my hat to you. And, yes, there's no getting away from it, ideas such as Nike+, iTunes and Dell Idea-Storm. If you're sick of seeing such a small batch of examples cited time and time again, then get out there and start creating some of your own.

We've had a few at Dare. I'd cite three recent ones: Johnny X, an episodic drama for Sony Ericsson that drew an audience of some seven million people; LiveGuy, a fun sales promotion adventure in which some 50,000 people actively tried to track down one man and his netbook; and Beck's Live Studio, in which budding artists painted to music that had been mixed specially by punters at the brand's website.

I'm proud of them all. None of them has had the impact of a Nike+. But not all ideas will. Not all ideas need to. Some - most - just need to sell stuff. That much hasn't changed and nor should it.

But, by making ideas like this our stock-in-trade, we not only give ourselves a far better chance of meeting the brief, we also carve out some new possibilities. Because, in the process of having ideas - rather than simply crafting ads - we give ourselves the opportunity, whether by accident or design, to hit upon thoughts that can truly change a business.

And if we can recognise them, if we can apply them, if we can demonstrate their commercial potential (yes, all that grown-up stuff really does matter), then we can also transform our own fortunes. We can move from a position in which the agency's fortunes - and income - are tied irrevocably to media spend to one in which the agency is valued for its ideas and its contribution to the business.

If only we'd thought of this before the damned recession struck. That would have been a really smart idea.

- John Owen is the planning partner at Dare