Wesley ter Haar, founder, MediaMonks
Wesley ter Haar, founder, MediaMonks
A view from Wesley ter Haar

Think BR: Digital should dump the traditional advertising straightjacket

Digital is not just another form of mass marketing, writes Wesley ter Haar, founder, MediaMonks.

With the advertising award season upon us, I had a strange moment the other day. For the first time since…well since the first time Animated GIFS were all the rage (that’s the late ‘90’s for those of you have only just recognised the majestic hypnotic qualities of a finely produced Graphic Interchange Format) I had trouble naming my favourite digital work of the year.

Oh sure, never a day goes by without something exploding all over my finely curated Twitter-feed, before slowly drip-feeding on to my Facebook timeline. But, it’s hardly ever a digital campaign. It’s mostly a guy, with a tumblr and impressive if improbable facial hair.

Advertising used to push boundaries when it came to digital, it redefined interaction or invention. It was a race to the top, a cold war of creativity with agencies battling each other for the next big thing. And yes, we’re still seeing great work at the summit (insert mandatory hat-tip to Google Labs & anything W+K does for Old Spice).

But let me quote one of the preeminent social media gurus about trickle-down economics: "Here’s the problem: it doesn’t work. It has never worked." This is courtesy of Obama, POTUS/sender of the most shared tweet of all time.

As a founder of MediaMonks, a prodco (that’s a creative digital production company when I’m at birthdays and weddings), I work with ad agencies to translate campaigns into digital. The golden age of our work started in the mid 2000s, when budgets grudgingly started to shift to reflect a media landscape forever changed by the hyperlinked hive mind we call "the internet".

And while we never quite reached the heady heights to warrant a Mad Men-type show somewhere in 2033 (too many late nights with code and cold pizza), the work we did was amazing. I mean the royal 'we' by the way, the we of our industry - production companies from Brazil to Sweden, constantly pushing the boundaries of what was possible and one-upping each other with each and every launch.

While today’s work is shinier than ever, in many cases it seems to be regressing; actively backing away from those elements that differentiate us from other media: interaction and experimentation.

So what happened? Weirdly enough these days, we’re being held back by opportunities, the first one being the proliferation of digital.

Instead of an industry fired up by digital appearing on more screens than ever, it’s triggered fear. Not of the unknown, we’ve gotten used to that nagging "can we pull this off" question. The fear is of context.

The current thinking seems to be: "If it’s everywhere, it needs to be the same everywhere." It means production is no longer a race to the top, but a slow slide towards the lowest common denominator. Creative ideas are being limited to ‘fit’ the smallest screens, the weakest processor and one-size-fits-all technology.

Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating treating mobile, tablets and whatever household appliance is next, as second-class digital denizens. What I am saying is, we should look to tell our stories across platforms without it literally being the ExactSameVersion.

Instead of being excited about the amazing opportunities the spread of smartphones and tablets give us, we seem to have collectively decided to make the work we do for desktops less exciting so it also works for mobile. What a waste.

Which brings us neatly to the second opportunity we’ve managed to collectively fumble into a weakness. Analytics. For an industry awash with the term engagement, we seem to be more afraid than ever to actually engage people, because (Shock! Horror!) advertising does not have a 100% conversion rate. 

And while the TV-industry has smartly deployed the necessary smoke & mirrors to give the impression of measurability, we’ve decided to bask in negatives.

Like pigs in manure, we roll around in drop-off rates (the percentage of people who do not engage in a digital campaign from start to finish) and bounce rates (the people that won’t even deem your work worthy of a single clicks), which means our days are spent discussing negatives instead of positives.

It’s gotten so bad, that more often than not, digital USPs are killed while still on paper. Interaction and invention are scrapped, because we fear losing the couch-potato above grabbing the opportunity we have to create something that lets people actively interact with your brand and story.

Digital is slowly being tailored to fit the straightjacket of traditional advertising, valuing reach and film above engagement and interaction. It’s the reason your twitter feed is filled with personal projects by creatives and coders, that guy with the tumblr about that thing and the latest commercial for Nike (feel free to insert another aspirational brand) but with hardly a digital campaign in sight.

And, it’ll stay that way if we continue treating digital as just another form of mass marketing. It’s not; it is, however, an opportunity to reach the masses with a personal experience, something that allows us to match the true excitement that only interaction, experimentation and engagement can create.

Oh and cats. People like cats as well.

Wesley ter Haar, founder, MediaMonks. MediaMonks is part of SoDA.

With members in 22 countries on five continents, SoDA is the primary multinational organisation focused on representing top digital agencies and elite production companies through unparalleled collaboration, knowledge sharing, business support and exploration of how technology can be leveraged to transform consumer experiences.