The 6th Sense

Digital- First Creative?

The digital-first creative shop – defined.

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 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 ten years ago.

But now we live in a digital word, where 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.

Always’ ‘Like A Girl’ campaign also rewrote the rules. Initially executed as a piece of digital film content, it became a TV ad and simultaneously started a movement on social channels that advocated for female acceptance. The idea of both rejecting stereotypes and embracing femininity moved the cultural needle. The ‘Love Has No Labels’ campaign by The Ad Council also broke the mold in going beyond the boundaries of one execution, offering a perspective on culture and generating vital conversation about equality, discrimination and love.

At Rokkan, where I lead creative, we are doing our part to stay true to digital-first creative. When we 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.

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Hungry For Change.

It’s no surprise the old media planning playbook is obsolete – and in need of a complete overhaul. But instead of a reactive response to the whirlwind changes confronting agencies like mine – and our clients – we at Rokkan have decided to slow things down and revisit the role of strategy in media.

In the past, media planning revolved around broadcasting a singular message through a trusted, mass channel like television. Now, the conversation is centered around the use of data to help target the right audience in the right place at the right time.

And just in the last few years, the game has advanced to a whole new level – CMOs are increasingly under pressure to drive business growth, the continued dominance of digital is creating overwhelming and complex data sets, and technological innovation is changing the media landscape quicker than the industry can react.

As part of our work helping brands better understand and serve the journey of their customers, we are launching The Connections Group, a broader group with expanded capabilities from solely media and analytics into SEO, CRM and email marketing. This new group will allow us to provide top to bottom consumer funnel strategy and execution capabilities to our clients.

In practical terms, it will mean being a lot more methodical and intentional about which mediums fit which ads, and why – for example, a banner ad will only go on digital channels if there is data and strategy to support it. A TV spot won’t be cut into a :15 second digital ad just because that’s the way it’s always been done, and every media buy will have a distinct trajectory without any dead ends. Each ad will live in its own place, serve its own purpose and have its own destination. In other words, we’re going to marry strategy with creative. Or, in my food-obsessed mind, we’re going to serve the steak on a plate.

Steak? Sounds simple enough. But crafting a perfect meal experience around steak requires orchestration and planning. If strategy, media and creative were in the kitchen together trying to cook a meal, media would be responsible for selecting the dishes while strategy and creative would be responsible for preparing the food. Unsure of what meal is being prepared, the media folks logically choose to serve whatever comes their way in bowls because bowls are the most versatile. (It’s summer, but soup isn’t off the table, right?) On the other side of the kitchen, however, strategy and creative agree on cooking steak. Once the meat is ready, they all realize the bowls are a terrible misfit, but, since everyone is hungry and steak can technically be served in bowls, that’s what happens.

Somehow, having gotten too used to making odds and ends fit, this happens a lot. So we think it’s time for the siloed cooking style to stop. That means putting media, strategy and creative all in the same kitchen so they can talk and work together during meal prep. Media would then know plates make the most sense for a perfect steak experience.

We’ve been putting steak on plates for Mikimoto for more than three years. For a luxury jewelry client like Mikimoto, you might think – without the input of strategy – that glossy high impact takeovers might be the best way to boost online sales. But a closer look at the data revealed that programmatic banner ads and search would actually create the most impact among their target audience. It worked – we’ve seen a two-fold return on investment.

We’ve also made sure to pair the dish with the platter for other clients. For Hallmark Signature, data helped us decide to use stop-motion videos for Instagram and longer-form videos for Facebook. For Café de Colombia, we capitalized on user-generated content to drive engagement on Twitter, distributed :15 second pre-roll video through programmatic tactics and placed the longer :90 second video version on a custom campaign site. All with great success.

The Connections Group aims to finally put the consumer in the center of the ad experience. The group will consider the entire customer journey as it relates to different channels – from TV, print, digital, mobile, social media and retail experiences – and connect all the dots, whether they are seen through paid, owned or earned media.

The nuances of the customer journey, especially through brand campaigns, matter even more today. What will someone do after they watch a TV ad? Will they search something online? What will they search? What about when they are in a store? Will there be something there that will nudge them back into the social realm? Adding CRM and SEO capabilities into our existing offering will allow Rokkan to collect new types of data for our clients and develop a complete understanding of their customers and where they want to be reached.

Clients have caught on, too. More and more, we hear them saying that they want data to drive all business decisions, including content and creative. To fit their needs, The Connections Group is continuing to build out a 360 analytics team with deep strategic and technical knowledge. From data science to marketing analytics, our goal is to offer clients a suite of bespoke solutions that connect their customers’ actions back to their business.

As other agencies and in house media strategists continue figuring out ways to back into digital marketing strategies for products concocted by R&D and product teams, Rokkan will be helping brands connect with clients based on real information: consumer need, behavior and desire. Of course, I know media alone isn’t the recipe for success – it takes a lot of smarts, planning, collaboration and flawless execution to plate the steak. I guarantee it’ll taste better in the end.

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