are we storytellers? or … are we a technology company?

One of the chapters of my dissertation deals with digital agencies’ “identity crisis”. The title sentence comes from an email exchange among the executives of a large digital marketing firm i worked for. I think it accurately describes what a lot of digital agencies are going through [i already wrote on R/GA here]. After all, they are the ones who need to somehow marry traditional marketing practices with properties of digital technologies. Making this combo happen is challenging enough for Sillicon Valley and Madison Avenue (a recent AdWeek article talks about it), and considerably more so when it’s happening under the same roof. In a nutshell, I think that the core of this divide is the way of thinking that separates “storytelling” from “technology”. That is, here is a story, and then, here is a technology that is going to be used to communicate it. The problem is that the technology IS the story. To make this statement less obscure, just think that digital media are all about interactivity — and as a result, communication there depends less on messaging and more on creation of tangible stuff, like applications and websites and minisites and widgets which attract people to interact with them. So really there is no story before this interaction. And there’s no story that is told just in a message — a person really needs to participate. So the story is kinda in-between the two. How one designs interactions then pretty much shapes the story. Think branding, for example. Traditionally, brand is regarded as an abstract communication entity that manages brand image, logo, andpersonality. It does so through the representation of perception of products (operative word being “representation”). But the actual brand strength resides in our real-life attachments to products and services. Who cares what we are going to say when we may not behave in that way? Decline inbrand loyalty & in brand power makes this say/do thing pretty apparent. There is a yawning gap between the world of communication and the world of, well, reality. What are agencies about to do then? Focus on how people behave, and don’t really bother much with what they say. Forget about communication. Don’t do research for messages that will resonate with the target audience. Do research about the target’s life and then design something that will become natural and invisible part of it. Something that really seamlessly fits in their life. Now, what does all of this have to do with the agencies? First, their work process is still pretty linear and segmented: it revolves around the “idea” part and then the “execution” part. And the two are connected in a linear manner. Good luck with that. Truth is, those two things are inseparable — the same way the story and the technology are (so yes, I would have credited Big Spaceship in Cannes back in June). Second, where are the account planners? And why is design at the end of the whole process? And why does each team work separately? And, finally, why are we all still in the business of creating messages?? In order to marry technology and marketing, first there needs to happen a shift in thinking about the relationship between the two. Or, as Guy Kawasaki put it, a “jump to the next curve”. Then the agencies can start to do business differently. This might seem a bit of a “chicken and egg” situation since agencies are the ones to make the change … the good news is, if they don’t, consumers will. It’s all about the interaction, after all …

This post was originally published in I [Love] Marketing on September 21, 2008