It's time to break free from the digital 'spiral of decline' and get creative

Tom Goodwin is the New York-based executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith Media. A self-styled industry provocateur and commentator on the future of marketing and business, Tom's column provides a monthly take on how the industry will be shaped going forward.

Last month Tom Goodwin asked why digital wasn't working, now he issues a call for the industry to escape the digital "spiral of decline" it has found itself in by getting creative and making bold, proud, beautiful, confident ads.

I’m pretty sure one of the most exciting periods to be an architect must have been around the birth of the elevator when ambitions, hopes and buildings could rise like never before, it must have been thrilling. Metal paint tubes propelled painters into a whole new era of painting outside and gave birth to impressionism. Electronic keyboards thrusted eager musicians to explore and then create entire new genres. The internet, by comparison, has largely been considered a problem to our industry.

I’ve never seen any creative excitedly devour Wired magazine and ponder on the implications, I’ve not seen AI discussed optimistically, or seen a group thrilled by the chance to make mobile ads. We’ve done the least we had to. We took the tiny media budget, smaller production budget and when pressed to, told it to link to a website. The opportunities have been outstanding, yet we’ve not created a single new ad unit since the 1960s. We’ve had $XXXm invested in adtech but seemingly every cent on targeting and analytics, not the actual thing we show people.

In the 'medium term' future, digital media will ostensibly be all media. From TV and music being streamed, to mobile eating more time, to voice controlled speakers, we need to learn to love this new canvas. We need to stop the defeatism, raise our hopes and dreams, and shake off the crippling assumptions which hamper current thinking.

Millennials are not hard to reach, they are surgically attached to their phones. There has never been a better time to get them. Just because you can get someone to click on an ad, and you can’t measure that in real time, and track how it changes, doesn’t mean that’s what we need people to do. The idea that any digital ad not immediately clicked, tracked and forced to buy, is strangely dangerous to all thinking.

Digital ads will be amazing if we think about the possibilities, we consider the extra things that can now be done, build new style units without muscle memory, and challenge everything that's been done so far.

Shorter Ads

If I was a creative in an ad agency, I'd be way more excited about making 10 to 20 sequentially served six second ads to tell a story, than three 30 second spots that played in random rotation. Six second ads are hard, we can’t tell the whole story, we need to capture attention immediately, but what a great challenge. A story arch that peaks one second in, a handover to another unit that gives more information. A series of 10 or 20 units, served knowingly to individuals across screens, to hook them in and move them further down the funnel. Users who skipped ads can be given a message to entice them in. Short ads are wonderful if we are to rethink how to earn and reward attention, not hope to barge in like old TV thinking.

Immersive Ads

It sometimes seems to be that digital escalator panels would have been a better starting point for creative for digital media than classified ads of the 1800’s and TV ads of the 1960’s. If we considered digitally placed ads as more like wonder moving images that captured our attention and imagination first and foremost. We’ve technologies like Fyuse that could be used to render our 3D moving photographs, or Cinemagraphs that could convey rich notable imagery, or 360 images that suck viewers in. Telling a story in a media that moves with your phones is an amazing new challenge to rise to.

Shoppable ads

Our phones, tablets, laptops, watches and increasingly TV’s are now the storefront for every retailer in the world. Our devices now know our credit card details, or shipping address, and should soon know our sizes, tastes and needs. In theory every ad on the internet could be shippable with a swipe of the finger or press of the thumb or shout out to Alexa. Instagram is slowly getting there, Twitter tried and failed, so what happens if we make more units that make buying things easier?

New Interactivity

When I supplied my first 'interactive' ad in 2003 we were told a few hours before launch than we needed to tell them where it went to. We were stunned, facing no other choice we found the brand had a homepage website and ensured it directed there. In the last 14 years I don’t think anyone has considered this question. Why should ads even be clickable? Would we actually make better ads if our role was more like print to be gorgeous. What if we flipped it the other way and did more with clicks? What if a click downloaded a mobile coupon to your phone, or allowed you to save the location to your cars mapping system, book marked a page or added to your Amazon shopping list. If you can click, let’s make something exciting happen.

Dynamic Creative

Ads have always been copy and copy is always set. It is an image or video. Dynamic creative is copy as a series of instructions. Headlines, images and also decision trees are made by creatives. What happens if it’s raining? What happens if they live in a rural area, if the stockmarket is up, if the ad is placed next to positive news? Ads are rendered out in real time, they don’t have to be performance ads, destined to retarget people within an inch of their lives, they can be funny, timely, relevant, they can entice people in with relevance.

To do all the above requires a shift in attitude. We’ve never been excited about digital, it’s been too cheap to pay attention to and too ineffective to spend much on media or production, we entered a spiral of decline that never worked for brands, publishers, agencies but most of all, people.

The growing cancer of 'around the web' links at the bottom of news stories, the increased use of ads made by machine that no human could be bothered to sign off, the retargeting that haunts you. We need to reverse this cycle. Let’s make bold, proud, beautiful, confident ads. Page dominant, wonderfully shot, stunningly conceived. Let’s build brands and create demand, not re-serve against it. Let’s raise our ambition, work around the possibilities and be am ambitious again.

Tom Goodwin is executive vice president and head of innovation at Zenith. He tweets at @tomfgoodwin

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