Abolish Your Interactive Department

February 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

(I wrote this in early 2007, shortly after we merged the interactive creative department at Draft FCB with the “traditional” one.)

In a mainstream advertising agency, the interactive department is a constant source of annoyance. Get rid of it. You don’t need one.

I say this as the leader of the interactive department at one of the largest agencies in America and not because I wish to have more free time during business hours. No one believes in the inevitable dominance of interactive media more than I do. In fact, that’s precisely why I am for the immediate abolition of all interactive departments.

Nothing prevents an agency from moving towards genuine integration more than walling off the interactive group. Even in agencies where the leadership is sincere in its desire to embrace convergence, this separation is harmful—just not to the people you might expect. In actuality, the existence of separate interactive departments is hurting mainstream creatives. It is sending them a message that they don’t have to adapt, that the world they know is safe and immutable, that interactivity is a black art with which they need not concern themselves. All these are comforting thoughts, but they are also spectacularly wrong.

After reading the previous paragraph, mainstream creatives—particularly those over 40—will hitch up their trousers and inform me that regardless of what I think, television is not going away. I agree. However, the way we currently watch television is going away, and that makes all the difference.

In the Media Daily News, Wayne Friedman reported that live-only broadcast ratings this season are down between 11% and 15%. That’s an enormous drop. Of course, some of it can be attributed to the rise of the DVR, which is now in14% of all U.S. households.
Before you take solace in the knowledge that all those time-shifting viewers can account for at least part of the decline in ratings, I have some more bad news for you. A DVR is basically a robust interactive device waiting to happen. TiVo users can already upload their own home movies and send them to other TiVo users across the country. And that’s just the beginning. How long do you think it’s going to be before people can chat, browse the internet, play games, and do pretty much whatever they want through their DVRs?

Although market penetration of DVRs is rising, old-school advertising people will hasten to point out that 86% of U.S. households still don’t have them, so that means the traditional way of watching television is going to be around for a long time to come.

Consider what Mark Cuban has to say on the subject. He recently predicted that in three years mainstream televisions will have 70-inch screens and cost less than $1,500. That sounds like a promising future for the creators of traditional thirty-second spots. There’s just one more thing. Those TVs are also going to be loaded with interactive capabilities. The ramifications of this for the advertising industry are enormous. Instead of leaning back when they watch TV, consumers will be leaning forward. They’ll have the power to watch whatever they want whenever they want. They’ll be able to click on things that interest them to get more information. They’ll be able to chat online with friends during their favorite programs. They’ll be able to play games related to the video on their screens. Ultimately, they’ll be able to interact with content in ways that no one has even thought of yet. The idea that they will continue sit still for the same old thirty-second spots delivered into their living rooms on the advertiser’s schedule is farcical.

Increasingly, consumers are going to choose the marketing they see. This will create a dramatically different relationship between them and advertisers. Consumers who want to watch their favorite TV program for free will be able to choose which company they want to sponsor it. Of course, they are going to choose a sponsor that offers something relevant to their lives, but perhaps even more importantly, they’re going to choose a sponsor that communicates with them in an engaging and entertaining manner. The worst sin an advertiser will be able to commit is to bore the consumer, to waste his time. Companies that do so will find no viewers for their advertising. Agencies that do so will find no clients that are willing to pay them.

It’s not enough simply to acknowledge that whenever a powerful new medium emerges, the world changes. We must acknowledge that the changes are not entirely benign. There will be winners and losers. The written word killed epic poetry, which was essentially a tool for remembering long spoken stories. (When was the last time you curled up on the couch and had someone read the Iliad to you for eight or nine hours?) The printed word, by making it possible to mass-produce the Bible in languages other than Latin, destroyed the Catholic Church’s monopoly on Christianity. In a very real sense, Gutenberg made the Protestant Reformation possible. In our own time television has indisputably humbled the printed word. To believe that interactive media will leave television and other lean-back media unscathed is to ignore the lessons of history.

To fight against new media is to fight against the irresistible forces that have shaped culture and human thought for thousands of years. Nonetheless, some will continue to fight. Others—the ones who recognize the futility of opposing the movement of the continents—will adapt and survive. They are the ones who will recognize that it is actually harmful to have a separate interactive department. Starting tomorrow, interactive is everyone’s job.

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