The digital-first creative shop - defined
A view from Brian Carley

The digital-first creative shop - defined

Rokkan's CCO asks what it means to be a digital-first creative shop in a world where everything is digital.

Digital-first. You hear the term everywhere. Digital-first campaign, digital-first strategy, digital-first creative shop. It’s a major buzz word lately, and everyone in the creative space is trying to own a piece of it. What does it mean exactly? Well, it means different things to different people, and its meaning continues to evolve. 

So it might be easier to start with what digital-first is not: digital-first is not approaching a campaign from a digital medium right off the bat. In other words, it doesn’t mean coming up with a campaign for Instagram or Facebook before you do print or creative. It doesn’t mean seeing everything from the digital perspective, either. In fact, it actually means thinking of creative independent of medium. It means not being married to digital, print or TV, but crossing boundaries and mixing and matching to fit the job. 

Historically—fast forward past "Mad Men" and into the internet age circa the late 1990s—campaigns primarily revolved around a TV spot. The rest was matching luggage—the print ad, which was a compelling still of the TV spot, and the banner ad, which was the animated version of the print ad, etc. If anyone in the world saw an ad from a brand, they knew it was from that campaign. That was the world we lived in 10 years ago.

But now we consume on our computers and our phones. We are constantly connected to and see the world through that medium. So what does it mean to be a digital-first creative shop in a world where everything is digital? More than anything, digital-first means being willing to break the rules around where, why and how creative is made and consumed—all with the goal of tapping into a collective human behavior, desire or feeling. In short, digital first means creating, connecting to or impacting culture. 

It’s a philosophy of abandoning the old ways or prescribed creative process, of throwing to the wind a brand book or set of codes. It means breaking down the old rules of marketing and advertising and realizing that good ideas go beyond one medium. Digital-first means not looking at a brand problem or a client brief as solvable through one TV spot, two print ads, a set of banner ads and a social blast. Being a digital-first creative shop means thinking about a campaign as an incredible idea. 

Remember Fearless Girl? The most highly awarded work at Cannes? That’s digital-first creative. Why? The medium was not TV, digital, social or out-of-home. Instead, its medium was 250 lbs. of bronze. It broke all the rules and had a cultural point of view that, no matter if you agreed with it, was contagious. Hundreds of thousands of people took a picture of her. And we all heard about her digitally—online news outlets, our friends’ Instagram accounts, Facebook and beyond.

Being a digital first creative shop starts long before the campaign is even born. It starts in the meeting with the client, or, for brands, in the CMO’s office. It starts by questioning the brief that calls for banner ads or TV spots. Every CCO should ask: Why do you need banner ads? Where do they go? Once I click on them, where do they take me? Being digital-first means blowing up the brief and doing more than what’s being asked of you. We need ideas that are big enough to change culture, create culture and drive someone to act. That’s digital-first. 

In 2015, Honda broke all the rules around how video should work in their ‘The Other Side’ two-minute film. Only available in its entirety on a digital device, the film showcased the Civic and Civic Type R in parallel in two different scenarios, giving the user control to switch between the two. The original film features the Civic, in the daytime, driven by a man with errands to run and people to drive. Press R on your smartphone and you see the same man, alone, at night, driving the Type R, living more dangerously.

When Rokkan first started working with Cadillac on their Oscars spots late last year, our job was to convey an image of reinvention for the brand. So we did something risky that nevertheless felt right—we made an ad for Escala, a concept car you can never buy. We made a website dedicated to this vision and allowed consumers to see a future that couldn’t (yet) be bought.

So what is digital-first? It is a campaign that can only be viewed with a digital device. It is a sculpture of a little girl standing defiantly in the face of a bigger, more formidable foe. It is an ad for a car that will never exist. Most simply, it is work that impacts a digital audience both hungry for the new and nostalgic for the old.

Brian Carley is CCO at Rokkan.