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‘The internet has won’: Nick Law on crap creative, storytelling and knowing your limitations

R/GA global vice chairman Nick Law is one of the most respected creative forces in advertising. Mumbrella sat down with the Australian to discuss crap work, collaboration, the problems with marketers and knowing your limits.

For the past 15 years Australian Nick Law has been one of the trendsetters in the global creative industry, no small feat for a man hailing from Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

nick-law-rgaIn that time he helped R/GA New York develop as one of the first agencies to truly understand how the internet would transform the way people are interacting with communications, and reshape storytelling.

 

From its roots as a pure play digital agency R/GA has become what some might call a ‘full service’ creative agency, creating acclaimed, award-winning and, most importantly, effective campaigns for massive clients like Samsung, Nike, Johnson & Johnson and Google; including full-blown TV ads.

But while his agency is seen as being at the vanguard of fusing the traditional arts with digital, not everyone is being as successful at it.

Asked what he made of fellow Aussie David Droga’s comments at an Advertising Week event in New York last month that the ad industry is producing “a lot of mediocre crap” Law agrees, pinning the blame on an over-reliance on data.

“I think that’s true. But, to a certain extent it’s always been true,” he says.

I do think the industry is caught between two poles right now, one that’s obsessed with performance marketing and data, and the other pole that’s the intuitive power of creativity.

“And I think David was talking more about the data-led stuff, which even though it’s methodical and intelligent, the creative execution coming out of that data is pretty tepid.”

But Law argues the two don’t have to be “mutually exclusive”, and adds: “There’s this false argument in the industry right now that we have to choose between data and creativity.

“The way I see it all creatives have a set of data that they use, it’s their personal experience.

“As a creative practitioner you get good over time because you do some things that haven’t worked out and have worked out and you live more in the world, you see movies, experience things and nourish your creativeness. And that’s all data inputs.

“I think the great opportunity right now is you have the ability to have more data inputs to augment your own data set and make much more intelligent creative choices.

“In the end creativity is just a bunch of decision trees and a few intuitive leaps, and if you can make those intuitive leaps off much more intelligent data as opposed to the old fashioned planning poetry of trying to guess the zeitgeist, you’re going to be better.

“Our opportunity at R/GA is not to choose between those two poles but to synthesise them.”

David Droga made his comments during an Advertising Week forum

David Droga at a recent Advertising Week forum: The ad industry is producing “a lot of mediocre crap”

He adds: “For me what David points out is one end of the pole that may currently be the source of bad work but needn’t necessarily going to be the source of bad work.”

Whilst the internal industry wars between ‘big data’ and ‘big ideas’ is not new, Law describes both as “overused and meaningless” phrases neither of which “can satisfy what clients need”.

He explains:

They want ROI but they also want to mean something in the world and get attention, and there’s no ad-tech company that’s going to make a brand mean something.

“But there’s also no pure creative idea unattached to metrics that’s going to build a business, and we are a service industry that’s attached to client’s businesses.”

Another thorny issue agencies of all types are wrestling with is collaboration, being asked to work with potential competitors on various client accounts, a process 303MullenLowe CEO, Nick Cleaver, recently said: “Leads to a huge amount of time wasted in reinvention and argument and discussion and deviation”.

Cleaver drew praise from many agency peers for his candid views on collaboration

Nick Cleaver drew praise from many agency peers for his candid views on collaboration

During his time with R/GA New York, Law has worked with some of the biggest marketers in the world. And with big clients comes big rosters, and territory to be fought over.

Law says while their best work has a “singular vision, it’s achieved through a collaborative environment”.

He explains, that to collaborate, you need to know what you don’t know: “If you look at the complexity of the myriad of media we’re working with you need a skill set that 20 years ago you didn’t.

“The nostalgia in the advertising industry is of this time when, as a creative lead in an agency you could conceive of and be part of every creative execution that agency did, from TV spot to radio to direct. It was all within your wheelhouse and you had a depth of craft that could be applied to all that stuff.

“There’s no agency that has a broad relationship with any of its clients – not that you can say that of. On the one hand you’re building software, on the other you’re doing TV spots and everything in between.

“There’s all sorts of systematic considerations that weren’t there 40 years ago, so I sort of disagree with that nostalgia of not collaborating because what you doom yourself into is being a niche player, a boutique of one particular thing.”

But at the same time Law acknowledges that marketers may, at times, be asking more of agencies in terms of collaboration than they are necessarily willing to give.

“One of the things I’ve noticed in the past 20 years is that you went from a pretty standard relationship between an agency and a client – and there were pretty well-defined rules around that relationship,” he says.

“In many cases a client sort of surrendered the leadership of the brand to an agency because there were very narrow deliverables that defined that brand: top down and templated media.

“We’re now in this world where you’ve got all these opportunities and, as a result, clients are typically curating a bunch of agencies.

“What that means is the relationship between agencies and client becomes more idiosyncratic from agency to agency, from skills set to skills set.

“I’d say, in some instances, there are clients that are masterful in creating the container in which you create because they have such a strong idea about their brand, and they know what it is and what roles their agencies need to play in creating that.

“And then there are other clients who still surrender all of those decisions to a suite of agencies.

That’s where it’s ruinous, because it’s very difficult for agencies to stick to swim lanes when there’s a blur between them.

“Early on in the digital agency world there was always this position where traditional agencies would try to steal the work from the digital agencies, because they knew their futures depended on it. Whereas digital agencies were these utopians who thought they’d never have to figure out how to tell stories.

“There was always this weird relationship between agencies when they weren’t managed. I do think it’s become more difficult to be a marketer because of this complexity.”

But that transition to an agency that tells stories is exactly the journey that R/GA has been on for the past few years, moving from being celebrated software, platform and hardware creators for brands like Nike+, to full-on TV ads, picking up a Gold Lion in Film at Cannes 2015 for the Game Before the Game World Cup spot for Beats.

But what has precipitated that move, and what does storytelling look like to an agency with a digital heritage?

“When it first started people believed the future of marketing was not narrative, as the web was a place that you interacted with,” says Law.

“Since then the web has become that plus the repository for all the great narrative work, so you could argue that the language of the web has become video.

“The pipe has got bigger, but also there’s much more sophistication from a creative point of view.

The web won, basically, so all the good stuff’s on the internet.

“That wasn’t the case when these digital agencies started, so they had this image of what the internet would become, and it’s become more than that now. I don’t think it’s feasible to stick to that sort of angry adolescent digital agency point of view, which is, ‘we’ll show those fuckers, it’s not about storytelling’, when the truth is it’s about everything. It’s a suite of channels that has so many possibilities and you still need to tell stories and people want to see stories.”

Law concedes he did not necessarily see the shift coming himself, admitting: “We didn’t ever intend to become a classic advertising agency, what we wanted to do was tell stories that people shared which was a very different thing”.

“So you share stories that people put into the world, they came from the top down. There were things clients wanted to say, and they were passive mediums to consume them on. Media was bought so it would wash over the top of the populace.

“So when we started to become more sophisticated storytellers we came from the bottom up. The first thing you think about in experience design is the user, so when we’re telling stories the first person we think about is the audience, and then try to make it match with the client’s goals.

“If all of our most successful narrative pieces have become successful because they have been shared millions of times on social. For us that is the mark of whether you have got an idea out in the world that people care about. To do storytelling in that bottom up space you need to tell the story the audience wants to tell. You become a proxy for them.

“If they are sharing something it becomes something it means you become something they would otherwise have difficulty saying, and they share it because you’ve said it better. You have to start thinking about narrative not just as something a brand pushes down on the world, but as an idea people want to share in the world which aligns with what a brand wants to say.”

Law points to R/GA’s work for the Ad Council, ‘Love Has No Labels’, as a piece which identifies with topics people wanted to discuss at the right time:

So what are the differences in storytelling as learned from a digital lens?

“It’s a very different thing because then the devices you use, the craft and storytelling are very different from what they would have been 20 years ago,” says Law.

“Even though we’ve come up into storytelling I think we’ve come at it from a different point of view, and I think our craft is different as a result. We rarely use metaphors, for example, because they are a trope from 50 years of advertising that’s trying to make you feel something because there was not a media you could do stuff.

“We’re interested in making people feel something through understanding something, or through getting closer to a truth. So, typically, our best TV work doesn’t feel like TV. It feels like something else, it feels different, something people want to share.”

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