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.
The heart of creativity is discipline.
- Bill Bernbach
Misconceptions concerning creativity abound, but one of the most widespread and harmful is that there's some magical vein of creative thought lurking in the mysterious reaches of our minds. The myth is, those of us who aren't creative types will either never be privy to these lofty thoughts or should jump through a series of quirky, "outside the box" hoops to attain them: brainstorming, creativity training, and hipster culture to name a few.
The reality is, creativity is an applied utility. Bill Bernbach, one of the creative giants of advertising history, once said, "Is creativity some obscure, esoteric art form? Not on your life. It's the most practical thing a businessman can employ." Being creative in some intangible, general way isn't an asset; applying creativity to your work, whether it's "artsy" or not, is.
It's true, illustrators, designers, and art directors are regularly expected to be creative, but so are strategists, developers, and a slew of other individuals in the interactive space. What creative individuals have in common is a certain level of mastery, a sufficient understanding of the fundamentals to be able to bend them appropriately, combined with the discipline to pursue new ways of doing things.
The root of creativity then, in fact, has nothing to do with living a creative lifestyle or being a creative type, and everything to do with practice, the art of perfecting your skills so that you can use them in new, innovative ways. I know this probably isn't the most exciting or easy advice to read, but it's the truth. The old cliche "practice makes perfect" might as well be "practice makes creative."
Most companies look for certain qualities in the interview process. Technical skills. Achievements. Past jobs. But one that often goes under-valued or completely missed is the ability to provide quality feedback.
How do you know if someone will be any good at giving feedback? It's actually quite simple, and it starts with experience.
One of the most valuable things that experience provides is a vocabulary for explaining shortcomings and successes. An experienced writer can function as his own editor; he can review his work, find a flaw, and say to himself, "That semicolon shouldn't be there. That's not the kind of statement I want to make. That's not the type of pause I want the reader to take."
The inexperienced writer goes back and says, "I know something isn't right, but I'm not sure what." Telling the difference between good writing and bad writing, or good design and bad design, isn't difficult -- what's difficult is turning that knowledge into actionable feedback.
Based off this knowledge, evaluating someone's ability to provide feedback should be straightforward. If they're going to be overseeing some of your employees, show them those employees' work, then get their feedback. If their feedback is clear and detailed, bingo! You've got a ringer. If their feedback is vague and imprecise, you might want to reconsider. If they can't give actionable feedback, then they're going to be ineffective.