How good is Australia @ digital?

DigitalLast week’s IAB awards showcased some of the best of Australia’s digital output but how good are we compared to the rest of the world? Megan Reynolds investigates in a piece that first appeared in Encore.

Last month McCann Melbourne’s Dumb Ways to Die campaign for Metro Trains saw the biggest Cannes whitewashing in the festival’s 59-year history. So when the work was not entered in this year’s IAB Awards, agencies across Australia breathed a collective sigh of relief. This was a chance to show that Australian digital agencies are more than a one-trick pony. Among the campaigns allowed to shine was The Most Powerful Arm created by digital agency Reactive, a literal mechanical arm built to sign a petition for people with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy that called on the Australian government to fund research into the disease. Also in the spotlight, a campaign by Leo Burnett Melbourne that called on media owners to volunteer ad space to promote volunteering opportunities through the website Seek Volunteer. It won three IAB awards.

Best in show was GPY&R Melbourne’s Mobile Medic campaign for Defence Force recruiting which also won in the IAB’s mobile category. The campaign – an app which applies the latest augmented reality technology so medical students can scan posters of Defence Force patients and test their diagnostic skills – while eclipsed by Dumb Ways to Die, was one of the most awarded Australian campaigns at Cannes. Russ Tucker, chair of judges at the IAB Awards and national digital creative director at Whybin\TBWA Digital Arts Network, said on the night that the campaign ticked all the boxes the judges were looking for in a well-executed digital idea – bravery, participation and effectiveness. “In digital, a good idea is something that can travel and be passed around, whereas in other channels, it’s more about whether people are going to absorb that story. The core of a great digital idea is that there’s an element of participation in it,” he said.

It’s one thing to choose a best in show from the Australian pool of digital entries but how does Australian digital output actually stand up on the world stage? Of the winners from the IAB Awards, several have already been recognised abroad. Reactive won a bronze Cyber Lion for The Most Powerful Arm, and The Monkeys’ Reverse Robberies – a campaign created for Oak flavoured milk with production house Jungleboys involving balaclava-clad men charging into shops and shoving other brands off the shelves to stock them with Oak – was shortlisted at Cannes in the branded content category under promo and activation.

Mobile Medic was Australia’s only winner in the prestigious Titanium and Integrated category at Cannes, taking a bronze Lion, while the Titanium Grand Prix went to Nike’s Nike+FuelBand by interactive and digital agency R/GA, which will move into the Australian market when it opens a Sydney office later this year. Meanwhile Asian countries accounted for 101 entries shortlisted for mobile Lions. Smart TXTBKS for telecommunications provider Smart Communications in The Philippines took out the Grand Prix for its work to condense the information contained in textbooks on to sim cards that could be read on mobile phones.

Still, Google Australia’s Lucinda Barlow believes Australia performed well in the south of France. “Australia did really well at Cannes and a lot of the campaigns there had digital at their heart. The big challenge that we have to address now is mobile, which is exciting,” she said backstage at the IAB awards after collecting her trophy for IAB digital marketer of the year.

“However I think we’ve got a good ingredient there because we have a great base of users that are active on smartphones and are really early adopters of technology. It’s just making sure that we as brands are developing product tools for them to use.”

Graham Christie, group commercial director and partner of mobile media company Big Mobile, says the foundations are there for Australia to excel at digital, mobile in particular, with a world class 3G network and around 15 to 20 per cent of consumers using smart devices.

However digital ad spend currently sees only about one per cent go directly to mobile. “In spite of all the fundamentals in place, there’s a reluctance to truly embrace digital and mobile,” he says. Christie believes this resistance partly stems from uncertainty around the economy, and therefore an unwillingness to spend a large amount of money on trying something new as well as a reliance on traditional ad spend. Australia also seems to suffer from a lack of digital skills and has had to resort to flying in talent from other parts of the world. Simon Smith, European digital director at Interbrand and a consultant at Saatchi and Saatchi X in the UK, worked briefly with Naked Communications and BWM in Sydney in 2008 to help them understand and capitalise on the changes digital is having on the industry. “I once presented at a digital conference in Australia where I said that Australia was five years behind the UK and the USA and there were gasps from the audience, he told Encore.

“If the word digital means brilliant websites and social campaigns, then Australia has a lion’s share of awards and examples on a global stage. But this is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital and Australia seemed too focused on the digital industry not the incredible changes digital has, and is continuing to have, on business and the world.

“The word digital is misunderstood, probably the most misunderstood word in business at the moment. The changes in the publishing industry have seen cornerstone newspapers and magazines fall. The change in the retail business has seen the high street struggle. The explosion on Amazon and changes in insurance businesses in the UK have seen 85 per cent of purchases via comparison sites. The list goes on. Has Australia capitalised on this? I would say not. Does Australia have a Google, a Facebook, a LinkedIn or an Amazon?

However, with bigger budgets, IAB jury chair Tucker believes Australian agencies could apply their creativity and courageous innovation to the areas where it has been lagging.

“Australia doesn’t often get huge budgets so we have to think much more innovatively about how we’re going to make people aware of our products. So I think small budgets and the desire to do brave work make Australia unique in that case,” Tucker said. “For creativity, broadly speaking, we’re currently benchmark number two behind the US. With digital there’s still a long way for us to go to really dominate, but we’re seeing a lot of mobile ideas coming up because we have a really high penetration of smartphones. That’s forcing marketers and advertising agencies to get creative around that area of mobile.

“Where we’re probably not as great as we could be is with heavy tech-led brand destination work because we don’t, quite frankly, have the investment. A lot of clients don’t really want to invest huge sums of money on code, but they are quite willing to try different tactics with mobile.”

Rebecca Supanovich, group account director at Soap Creative, who collected the rich media and digital video IAB Award for the Expendables 2: Deploy and Destroy campaign for Roadshow Films said on the night: “Considering the budgets that we have to play with, we’re quite good at making fantastically engaging campaigns with probably not a great deal to work with. We’re definitely up there.”

Jay Gelardi, digital creative director at The Monkeys, who collected the IAB award in the category of brand loyalty and retention for the Oak Reverse Robberies campaign said the success of Dumb Ways to Die could spark faith and investment in digital that the industry has been waiting for.

“I have always thought that in Australia this has been one of those industries where the marketers especially are waiting for this sort of ‘road to Damascus’ moment where they decide digital is a viable option instead of the traditional media mix they tend to favour,” he said.

“We might have just had our big thing in Dumb Ways to Die, where everyone says I want one of those, and with that being effectively an online film that spawned a whole, hugely brilliant, integrated campaign. I’m hoping that will make it easier for us to sell things that are internet born.”

Christie agrees. “Dumb Ways to Die and Mobile Medic are sort of talismans for the sector and are going to provide confidence and give reasons to marketers that great things are possible. Mobile success can be generated. We need to see a lot more of those,” he says.

If these campaigns can spark the investment the industry needs to apply its creativity, courage and boldness to broader campaigns, marketers could embrace Australia’s love of digital and break into a market that’s ready and waiting. “Digital needs to be seen less as a marketing channel and more as a consumer engagement channel,” Christie says. “If you see it as a marketing channel, it gets packaged like other channels, but you need to step back and look more as a consumer engaging. Then you start talking about being able to talk to consumers where you are providing a utility service or entertainment or an ad. If you have a more holistic view of how digital actually works, you are engaging in digital many more times.

“We need to have a conversation about digital fitting into peoples’ lives rather than just about marketing engagement. There’s a massive opportunity to get involved, and it’s more multimedia than we are seeing in this market and probably most markets.”

Issue 23This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.

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