What—and how—is the idea of “creative” being redefined in this era of interactive advertising and marketing? In one “sit up and take notice” moment on my part Wednesday morning at ad:tech, Andy Berndt, Managing Director of Google’s Creative Lab, said, “I saw it as a simple print ad.” Wha?

It was an ad for Tylenol, Berndt explained, that basically showed people how to make the type bigger in their Web browsers so they don’t have to squint—and thus suffer fewer headaches. Berndt then imagined the looks of consternation that must have accompanied the original pitch of that idea. “But wait a minute,” you could imagine the client saying, “isn’t the idea that we don’t want people to have fewer headaches, because then they would take less Tylenol?” A logical question perhaps (if not vaguely sinister), but one that misses the point of “creative” in today’s marketing landscape, which comprises, Berndt explained, proud of the buzzwords he was creatively combining, “frictionless distribution of common sense and bravery.” Bravery, in this sense, refers to not being afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, to break with tradition, to think up new things and run with them, and let the chips fall where they may.

The keynote session was called “The Big Idea 3.0: Redefining Creative in the Digital Age,” and it was introduced and moderated by Paul Woolmington, Managing Partner of Naked Communications (www.nakedcomms.com; I do not recommend doing a Google search of “naked communications” if one is of Victorian temperament). Woolmington, aided and abetted by Jessica Greenwood, Deputy Editor of Contagious magazine, opened with a short presentation identifying five major trends that are emerging vis-à-vis creative marketing today:

  • Brands as entertainers—Advertising is not just there to support (and pay for) entertainment content, but is increasingly the entertainment content itself.
  • Brands as Mavericks (Greenwood admits they coined this idea some months ago before the term was “devalued”)—Advertising is now about being subversive, and yet ironically also being mainstream. Brands are increasingly iconoclastic, and that in turn is what is attracting a lot of people to it.
  • Brands as Schizophrenics—That is, advertising operates on a variety of levels simultaneously, often as both short-form advertising and as long-form film. For example, the Coke Happiness Factory campaign is a standard-length ad spot, as well as a 20-minute film, which in turn has a two-minute “trailer” promoting it—and Coke. (Actually, it sounds like it’s verging more on quadrophenia; Coke, reign o’er me.)
  • Brands as Benefactors—Advertising should create something that is useful for the consumer. Think of the Tylenol ad, or a downloadable UPS widget that not only promotes UPS but also lets you track packages from your desktop.
  • Brands as Innovators—Advertisers need to keep pushing the envelope, evolving and developing new ways of engaging with viewers and consumers. “If you don’t innovate, you will die,” said Woolmington, which, he stressed, is especially true in a recessionary economy.

Panelist Stefan Olander, Global Director of Brand Connections for Nike, summed up the changing role of creative. In the past, “it started with an ad, and you built interactivity onto it. Now, it’s about solving a problem.” In other words, he further explained, marketers such as Nike now start by looking at the physical world and asking, “what do people do, and how can we help facilitate it?” For example, Nike asked itself, how do kids who play sports get together and organize their activities? They call each other, they text, they IM, they e-mail. As a result, Nike developed the Playmaker that is a way to coordinate sports teams—oh, and, by the way, it’s also advertising.

Creative is also about extending the brand and the experience of that brand beyond the purchase. Jessica Greenwood cited the example of Dole bananas: the label on the fruit contains a numeric code, which you can enter in the Dole Web site and find out exactly where and when that banana was picked. Commented Greenwood, “You’re getting a backstory on a banana. If a banana has gone digital, than there’s no excuse for anyone else not to.”

Very soon “we will no longer talk about what’s digital, or what’s new media,” said Nike’s Olander. “It’s life.”

The New Frontier

On a post on the PrintCEO blog yesterday, I talked about Wednesday’s keynote “Dispatches from the Digital Frontier,” by Shelly Lazarus, Chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide. At the outset, she described in depth how the 2008 Presidential election was the first in which campaigning really went digital. But she also talked at length about some more prosaic marketing efforts that utilized a variety of predominantly (but not exclusively) digital media.

For example, Lenovo —a Chinese company that acquired IBM’s PC business—took the Beijing Olympics as a key marketing opportunity, and gave laptops to a variety of Olympic athletes and had them blog and vlog (video blog) about their Olympic experiences. The site(s) received in excess of 16 million continuous visitors. In fact, the International Olympic Committee protested that the sites “stole” content that the IOC had licensed to traditional media outlets. They did not get very far with that argument.

Perhaps the funniest—and most successful—example of harnessing the power of creative, and in a fairly media-agnostic way, was the case of Shreddies, a 67-year-old Canadian breakfast cereal brand that was about as hip as shredded wheat is here in the States. Shreddies are square, Chex-like cereal pieces, and an intern at the company’s ad agency had the idea of turning them 45 degrees and rebranding them as new “Diamond Shreddies.” A highly tongue-in-cheek “taste test” video had a focus group of real, unwitting consumers attest to the fact that cereal tastes better when it is eaten at an angle. (It does not speak well of focus groups—but then what could?) The video became a viral marketing hit, receiving more than 800,000 views (a lot for Canada). More videos played on the square/diamond cereal dichotomy, and even the president of the company made a video (hysterical in its restraint) addressing an apparently real complaint from a customer who found that his box of Diamond Shreddies included both batches. (The solution? A Combo Pack! Sometimes this business can be a lot of fun.) The viral component generated 90% of the buzz and sales—of what had been perceived as a stodgy, if not moribund, brand—went up 20%.

Other examples that Lazarus cited included Capri Sun , a foil pouch-based soft drink targeted toward 6–11-year-olds, a demographic which is “the heart of the digital world.” A clever set of “Respect the Pouch” videos made the rounds virally via YouTube and inspired kids to create their own videos. The campaign has since spawned a video game for the Wii.

At the other end of the consumer spectrum is Louis Vuitton luggage (not foil pouches). Their latest campaign began as a series of high-end print ads featuring celebrities such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Catherine Deneuve, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards all photographed by Annie Leibovitz, but the Web iteration took those photographs and built a whole image, sound, and video-based international tour around those images that, as Lazarus said, “go beyond print.” You could also go inside these celebrities’ luggage (though I’m not sure I really want a peek inside Keith Richards’ luggage). The campaign drove double-digit growth in the sales of Louis Vuitton luggage.

And it doesn’t end there; even Hellmann’s mayonnaise realized 250% ROI and doubled sales when a Yahoo-based video cooking program featuring the condiment appeared on the Internet. This was the highest ROI in Unilever’s history.

Both keynote addresses addressed the recession but, as with yesterday’s talks, stressed that companies that curl into a ball and passively wait for better times are doing themselves a great disservice. “Those who spend in times of recession,” said Lazarus, “come out on the other end with greater market share.”

And spending doesn’t have to be extravagant; as Nike’s Stefan Olander said, “The smallest companies with the smallest budgets come up with the best ideas.” In other words, this is a time to be smart...and, well, creative.

On Tuesday, eMarketer founder Geoff Ramsey had pointed out that there were four “strategies” (or lack thereof, in some cases) a company could take when faced with a recessionary or otherwise sluggish economy:

  • Succumb to fear and do nothing.
  • Be blind to the data that show where consumers are.
  • Sit and hold on to the traditional ways of doing something.
  • Come out fighting and innovate; try things and try to be connected and engage with consumers.

Note that these aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The same options are open to everyone in just about every industry. The question we as businespeople, as marketers, as communicators, is: which will we choose? If you were here at ad:tech, number four is the clear winner.