Companies always want to be cool, but few companies actually are. Most are predictable and boring.
If you're predictable and boring, and you ask an agency for cool, what you'll get instead is slick.
Cool requires only one thing: Be unique and do interesting things. Companies that are cool embrace their quirks. They don't find the latest trend and hop in front of it like a dude desperate to lead the parade. They add to the culture and remix it; they don't exploit it. The more you learn about a cool company, the more interesting they are.
Slick is different than cool. Slick looks like cool from across the room, but as soon as you talk to it, you realize it's just a veneer. Slick companies are the farthest thing from interesting. They're more concerned with appearing cool than being cool. It's a short term gimmick, and it never works for long. Once the veneer cracks, you're back to square one. Like Mitt Romney saying, "Who Let The Dogs Out", your customers can smell the inauthenticity.
So if you're a boring company looking to become cool. Don't expect that a slick flash website or cutting edge social media campaign will do the trick. You'll be slick, but definitely not cool.
Ideas, like tea, need time to steep. Beneath the surface of the water, or the surface of your mind, magical things are happening. Unfortunately, all too often people try to generate great ideas with sheer brute intellect. They suppose if they think about it long enough and hard enough, the answer will come. But that's rarely the case.
In James Webb Young's tried, true, and excellent little book A Technique for Producing Ideas, he describes a five step process for creating ideas. Steeping, or digestion in Young's metaphor, is the third step, and one of the most frequently overlooked. You see, some things the subconscious mind can process better than the conscious mind. However, our subconscious is rarely able, if ever, to engage with something while it's still attracting our surface-level attention. So, we need to learn to let things go.
This isn't to say that good ideas appear out of thin air; ideas can only be processed subconsciously after you've done the hard work of research and exhausted the conscious mind by gathering facts and digging frantically. But when you're tired, worn, and ready to call it a day, stop beating your head against the wall. Walk alway. Sleep on it. Do anything to get your mind off the problem. That's when your subconscious will work its magic, and the right idea will come to you when you least expect it.
There are two theories of history. The "Great Man" theory states that history can be understood by looking at the impact of extraordinary individuals over the course of world events (Hitler, Napoleon, Cromwell, etc.). This theory is contrasted with the "World-System" theory. The "World-System" approach proposes that history can only be understood by properly examining macro-economic factors.
Advertising history generally espouses the "Great Man" viewpoint. In advertising lore, these giants of advertising (think Ogilvy, Bernbach, or in modern-day, Bogusky) shift the course of advertising history, and, through sheer charisma and willpower, they change the paradigms of the industry.
This leads me to the core question of this post: Does interactive need a Bill Bernbach to lead us into the next generation of digital marketing?
The short answer is yes. Digital marketing is ripe for the right person to take the mantle of creative leadership and drive the industry forward. This person's agency will move beyond the execution/production role that so many interactive agencies have been relegated to, and realize the opportunity that presents itself to the agency that can master the art of interactive narrative, culture crafting and customer persuasion.
But, there is a caveat. Bernbach wouldn't have thrived to the degree that he did without the social and cultural context of his time-period. So, you can't underestimate the impact of external factors on world events.
That being said there are several external factors currently driving our industry:
Tactical Execution Is Becoming Commoditized.
Interface design, search marketing, and development are all facing downward cost pressure as crowd-sourcing and in-sourcing eat away at the margins. The top 10% of talent will always be valued, but the bottom 90% are worth a fraction of what they were in the past. Mediocre work will not be rewarded.
Digital Agencies Are Evolving.
Digital agencies are either evolving into "production" houses, or "idea" agencies. The few and lucky might become both, and that is where the next Bernbach will come from.
Traditional Agencies Are Creating Digital Capabilities.
The idea that you have to hire a "digital" agency to create interactive marketing will become less and less common. Companies like Crispin Porter - Bogusky already have greater in-house digital capabilities than most of their digital counterparts.
So, how can someone become the next "Great Man" of interactive?
The answer is simple, but it won't be easy. This person must create a digital agency that is more than technicians; they have to master the art of interactive storytelling and persuasion. They have to develop a capacity and a passion for creativity that pushes the industry to create work on a new level. And most importantly, they have to figure out a way to use the medium to create and effect culture on a larger scale.
You've probably heard of design by committee, and it's probably never been in a positive light. Design by committee is one of those stock phrases that you can rely on to explain why there's so much bad design in the world. "Who approved that?" we think. Everybody and nobody. The truth is, great design doesn't come from a big group of people, check lists and a long series of approvals.
But now I'm preaching to the choir. Let's talk brand by committee. It's just as deadly as design by committee, and it's just as prevalent.
Strong brands are defined by a clear, singular vision. There's no question in the customer's mind as to their position. When you have a brand whose vision is defined by one person -- think Apple and Steve Jobs -- the result is a brand that's more consistent, and therefore more clear, than brands created by committees.
Branding and design have alot in common. They're both frequently mistaken for a mysterious, intangible, hit or miss practice. But branding is anything but mysterious. Good brands have personality, vision, and the will to bring those to life in their products. Everybody knows this. Sadly, many companies still spend millions on brand research and then filter those insights through a committee, who then grinds away any valuable insights and removes all hints of an authentic personality. What's left is a stale, boring brand reminiscent of a thousand others.
There's an old saying in boxing:
"A round is not a round, and not all miles are created equal."
There's a huge difference between merely going through the motions of your workout, versus attacking your workout as if you're life depended on it. Two people can do the exact same workout, but the amount of blood, sweat, and tears they put into it can be entirely different. It's simply a matter of intensity. A mile is as hard as you make it.
The same is true of your day-to-day work. The amount of effort you put into it is directly proportional to the end result. You can't expect to become an exceptional designer/writer/programmer without exerting exceptional effort. Sadly, there are no shortcuts. The road to success is paved with intense, focused, hard work over an extended period of time.
Exceptional people make exceptional effort. It's rarely about talent; it's almost always about intensity.