Digital trailblazers and Shift Disturbers

Standing out in the agency world of the future will mean embracing digital and engaging consumers with participatory campaigns.

‘Once upon a time, clients believed that what we do is magic,’ Cindy Gallop, founder and CEO of If We Ran The World, told the creatives assembled at Shift Disturbers yesterday. Presented by stimulant and strategy, the half-day lecture series saw visionaries from the worlds of advertising, art and design present at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

Back in the Mad Men days, Gallop said, clients were dazzled because they couldn’t do what agencies could. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

The way to reclaim this magic, Gallop said, is through digital: putting together teams that unite creatives and the tech savvy, and showing clients the way through the new digital world. ‘This is our opportunity to be true strategic partners,’ she said.

According to Gallop, part of being a digital trailblazer is embracing full transparency: putting materials out there, seeing how the audience responds and being ready to respond back in real time. Even if the response is negative – like it sometimes has been for her provocative work on – responding immediately means that ‘you can change the dialogue.’

The future of advertising lies in walking the talk, Gallop said, with brands ultimately judged on what they do: ‘The future of advertising is about agency, not agencies.’

Nick Law, EVP, chief creative officer of interactive digital agency R/GA, picked up the thread of technology and action. In his lecture, ‘A Complete Creative Brain,’ he said that advertising must move beyond the traditional left-brain role of storytelling and incorporate right-brain systematic design, with messaging that facilitates behaviour. Law says it’s no longer about the big idea parlayed through storytelling, and that now you need to offer something more concrete to the ‘why buy the product’ proposition. He believes the biggest opportunity is to ’add a service layer,’ and advises that rather than looking to Hollywood, now the industry’s guiding light, advertisers should ‘turn to Silicon Valley,’ and create things that improve people’s lives.

Law pointed to examples from R/GA’s work for Nike and the Ad Council, which saw digital executions inspiring participatory action – high school athletes downloading football tutorials on Nike’s Head2Head site, runners joining a 10K ‘Human Race’ marathon anywhere in the world united by their Nike+ footwear, and teens taking action against digital abuse at These case studies underscored Law’s point that creative must not only break through, but also be useful, with interactive designers playing a key role in every agency.

Law says that with Nike+, they’ve acheived a base platform that campaigns can help build upon, rather than just relying on the ebb and flow of audience attention inherent in the old successive campaign model. And as per Law, this is now the grail as brands’ ability to be entertaining has diminished with consumer control over choice. ‘For 50 years we had this singular vehicle, TV. Now we have multiple contexts, multiple screens and platforms. New contexts, new locations are created every day, they’re always mashing up and multiplying.’ Law believes that when you step back and ask ‘what is a brand?’ it’s fundamentally a relationship between a company and an audience, and of the various signifiers charged with building that relationship, as the role of commercials wanes, the other half – behaviour – is rising.

Then again, you could always hire a robot to build ads, suggested Stéphane Xiberras, president and ECD of BETC Euro RSCG. Xiberras presented a computer program called Creative Artificial Intelligence (CAI), which allows the user to make basic selections (Category, Product, Objectives, Target) and instantly receive completed ad mockups, including photography and a tagline.

The audience had a good laugh as CAI instantaneously whipped up ads for chocolate, diapers and perfume, but Xiberras pointed out that an auto ad generator like CAI could conceivably become reality. The take-home message was sobering: advertising must do more than just recycle what we’ve seen out in the world or online.

Xiberras built the system in his spare time, but he asks, what if you had 100 people actually program this with a database of high-quality materials? ‘It’s not so sci-fi for me,’ he said.

While CAI was building ads, Brian Richer and Kei Ng of Toronto’s Castor Design were busy showing off their artistry by making a stone carving for Shift Disturbers. After a brief appearance live from their workshop via Skype, the pair appeared later in the afternoon with their completed stone stool.

New York-based graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister was originally scheduled to appear at Shift Disturbers, but illness prevented him from making the trip to Toronto.