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Why the Divide Between Creative & Media is Unsustainable

Creative visionaries and analytical masterminds have no place working in a vacuum.

Every now and again I see an article with a headline that goes something like “This is the year of media and creative integration” or “The return of the full-service agency”. Adweek published an article with a similar headline once in 2014 and again in 2015. Despite this, creative and media agencies remain divided.

Big business and the status quo

The large agencies are slow to change and the status quo is quite lucrative as it is. Media agencies sit around strategizing and using their analytical brains while creative agencies are busy concepting and squeezing out new and unique slogans, tv spots, print ads, etc. Then, these two agencies throw their ideas together and the result is more or less a frankenstein campaign full of inconsistencies and missed opportunity. Who gets the credit? Whose concept was it really? Who do we blame when it fails? Ultimately, one agency gets undervalued because it wasn’t really a team effort to begin with. Either the media agency has a great strategy that forces the creative agency to come up with ideas for it (rare) or the creative agency has a creative concept in mind that the media agency winds up recycling across its media channels (more common). In the digital advertising industry, workflow can be turned upside down in 24 hours because Facebook or Twitter released a new algorithm. We have to be able to work closely together and inform each other and our clients of these changes in order to create great campaigns that are not only uniquely creative, but uniquely strategic.

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Advertising in today’s digital world

So how did we get here? What happened to the creatives and media guys collaborating in the same office? What happened to the Don Drapers of the world arguing with the Harry Cranes of the world while actually working at the same agency? Blame it on the internet. The wonderful tool we all can’t live without and the heart of modern advertising divided creative departments and media departments into separate agencies in the 1990’s because it became more lucrative and efficient to sell clients digital marketing expertise separately from creative work. Media people promised the best prices and ROI while creative people promised the most impactful ads — and it worked. It worked especially well for the holding companies who own both creative and media agencies. Clients were happy to choose their media agency and creative agency based on what creative ideas and media strategies they liked best. Then, like two children dropped off at daycare, these agencies had to play together.

Recently, however, media has become more creative and creative work has become more technical, strategic, and analytical. Today, web designers need to know the ins-and-outs of SEO if they want to build a successful website. Search engine marketers need to know how to be good copywriters if they want their ads to have an impact (this has become even more relevant with Google’s release of expanded text ads).

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A lack of collaboration is a lack of success

In today’s digital landscape, there is no creative strategy that works without a smart, researched, analysis-based distribution strategy. On the other hand, no digital media strategy, no matter how good, will work properly without a strong message and engaging content. You can have a beautiful website and great content but if your Facebook ads are reaching the wrong people, the campaign will not be effective. If you’ve researched and set up your Facebook targeting so well that every online impression you get is your ideal customer but your product video has terrible lighting and a meaningless slogan, you won’t make an impact.

It frustrates me that the industry as a whole does not strive for a closer synergy between our two disciplines. Creatives need to be more analytical and consider the limitations and opportunities of internet marketing channels. Media people need to learn to think more creatively and avoid cookie-cutter ads to appease clients who don’t know any better. Better yet, media agencies need to stop blindly implementing ads from creative agency partners and/or clients without contributing at least some of their own strategic expertise. It breaks my heart every time I see a TV ad being recycled as YouTube pre-roll for a major global brand. Where’s the teamwork?

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My experience on the inside

Perhaps the worst part about this whole situation is that stepping in between these two disciplines is often discouraged. I have spent my tenure in the industry working at various media agencies: a large global agency in New York, a small local agency in Germany, and the German branch of a global agency based in New York. If the creative agency sends over something that my team or I do not agree with, it is basically considered rude and unprofessional to dispute any of their work. If we don’t think a particular ad copy or video format works best for the channel we plan to use it on, it’s too late to change it. Any online marketer worth his salt knows it’s not a smart move to recycle a TV ad across all digital channels but he lets it happen anyway because, well, the creative already exists, the client already approved it, and the media agency wasn’t consulted from the beginning.

Just because the media guys don’t work at creative agencies doesn’t mean they don’t know what resonates with their audience. They are, after all, the ones researching that audience and tracking their movements online. The result is an advertising campaign with a haphazard mixing of ideas where nothing is consistent, nobody is happy, and the results are mediocre.

Dreaming of a better future

There is hope for those willing to capitalize on it. The big agencies aren’t going to change anytime soon. They’re often too big, so wrapped up in holding company bureaucracy that they become too slow to adapt in our ever-increasingly fast-paced market. Small agencies now have the chance to take advantage of this and create great digital campaigns that are better than those from some of the world’s most well known agencies. This is a monumental opportunity for small to medium-sized shops working today.

That said, not all big agencies and brands are lagging behind. My first agency, Mindshare, was building out the Mindshare entertainment department back when I was an intern in 2013. Now, it’s grown into content+, a close collaboration with POSSIBLE, a global creative agency. My current agency, iCrossing, has done some great creative in-house work in the US paired with a strong digital marketing execution. Vaynermedia is another agency I think is doing it right. When you look at their services page you see paid media, creative & production, and social analysis among others. 1. Analyze your audience, see where they are and what they do online. 2. Develop a paid media plan tied together with a strong creative thread. 3. Execute and optimize. This is, to me, the holy trinity of successful modern digital campaigns. Here are a few examples of what has really impressed me in the last few years:

Doing it right — Some of my favorite examples

  1. Geico’s 5 second YouTube preroll ads — This is a fantastic example from The Martin Agency of how a brand adapts to its medium. In the first five seconds before the user has the chance to skip, a voiceover reads “You can’t skip this Geico ad, cause it’s already over. Geico. 15 Minutes could save your 15% or more on car insurance”. One of the characters quickly mentions something about savings in the context of the scene and then everyone freezes in time after the 5 second mark. The ad goes on to entertain the user with something funny happening to the now frozen characters (e.g. a dog eating all the family’s food at the dinner table, a woman entering an elevator where two men are standing frozen in time). Take a look at the compilation to see what I mean.
  2. Wayfair.com — A great campaign from Wayfair asked users to search Google for things like “wayfair my sofa” at the end of their TV ads. When they used AdWords to buy these pretty unique keywords, they could use the traffic to estimate their ROI from TV ads. I can’t say whether or not it was successful, but this type of cross-channel thinking is where all our heads should be. See the TV spot
  3. Gezondheidenwetenschap.be — “Don’t Google it”. DDB Brussels used Google AdWords to run ads against the top 100 searched medical symptoms. Medical information online can be very misleading and often wrong. Using a set of entertaining videos along with this very unique AdWords campaign, they were able to build awareness and prompt users to “check a reliable source”. This is a perfect example of why creating a campaign around the tools available is so important. This idea would have never seen the light of day without the collaboration of creative minds and digital experts. The case study video

Upwards and onwards

I am excited to see where our industry will go next. It’s the reason I fell in love with marketing in the first place: it’s always moving, always changing. I have become addicted to learning about things that can make my job completely different from one week to the next. However, this excitement dies when we, the marketers and agencies, don’t seek to adapt as quickly as possible and wait for someone else’s best practices to become gospel before we stop regurgitating our cookie-cutter campaigns in favor of newer cookie-cutter campaigns. The internet is an amazing thing. Social media has given us unbelievably powerful tools to market to audiences and collaborate with brands in such never-before-possible ways. Let’s do great work that’s as creative as it is strategic. Let’s do work we can all be proud of and excited about.

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Written by

Online marketer & German translator living in London. Born and raised in New Jersey.

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