Why Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley are co-dependent

By Lisa Lacy | n/a

October 3, 2016 | 6 min read

At IAB Mixx last week, Nick Law, global chief creative officer at R/GA, pointed to Madison Avenue, which tends to have great nostalgia for the simpler time embodied in Mad Men, and Silicon Valley, which, like the HBO series of the same name, is on the other end of the spectrum, looking toward the future with a “crazy utopian view.”

Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley need each other.

Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley need each other.

“No one is in the present,” Law said. “These are very different cultures.”

But, funny enough, the two need each other because creativity is a craft with two worlds not unlike the two hemispheres of the brain, Law said.

“Now the world of storytelling is ignoring what is the most important literacy on the face of the earth, which is coding,” Law added. “We’re failing young people if we don’t educate them in coding as much as Shakespeare.”

Although, to be fair, Law also noted brands still need the right people working on the right projects, not like Michael Jordan trying to play baseball. I.e., teams are better served when Jordan plays basketball.

Nevertheless, per Law, even though these two cultures think differently, they can still learn from each other.

For example, while Jakob Nielsen’s 1999 book Designing Web Usability is considered the web design bible and helped standardize features like underlined hyperlinks and left-side navigation, Law said R/GA won Nike as an account in 2001 and immediately started breaking those rules on Nike’s site and you don’t need to look much further than the first homepage to see why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“In a digital world, everyone is breaking rules habitually,” Law said. “That’s the difference between principles and practice.”

And there’s obviously much more of this to come as brands grapple with emerging platforms like Snapchat.

“When you first open Snapchat, you’re not familiar with it,” Law said. “But we have a generation willing to scratch and sniff and learn a new interface.”

And that’s where Silicon Valley can teach Madison Avenue a bit about cutting to the chase in terms of messaging and understanding consumer context, Law said.

A similar concept is at work at the R/GA Accelerator, a program in which the agency mentors start-ups and exposes them to investors because “start-ups need creative capital in addition to venture capital,” Law said.

Alumni include breathing trainer Alvio and intelligent navigation firm Hammerhead.

“From the Madison Avenue point of view, they help build a brand as they build a product, but there is such arrogance in the agency world. Silicon Valley is convinced that the accelerator model works and the last thing you should think about is marketing,” Law said. “But the whole idea is to go back to the ideas of storytelling and systematic design…in which a story is only as good as its next revealed moment. And systematic thinkers are really great at possibilities and taking two things that seem unrelated and bringing them together for a third thing.”

In other words, agencies must be more strategic and brands must combine stories and systems for optimal results.

Law noted that R/GA started working with Qantas Airways five years ago and convinced the airline to get rid of its tagline, “The Spirit of Australia,” because the message is top-down — or representative of only the agency mindset — and does not signify a broader behavior.

“We had to create a digital service. They’re competing against Arab airlines and Asian airlines and in order to be [a dominant player], they had to figure out how to behave, so we needed a whole idea – ‘Well Traveled,’” Law said.

This new message is also something for consumers to aspire to — far beyond just a traditional message — and gives the brand much more fertile territory to work in, he added.

Beats, too, is a good example of this dual mindset in action, including both its Beats Music spot that talks about bringing humanity to music streaming, as well as the #StraightOutta campaign, which Law said was “the biggest social campaign of 2015.”


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