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AKQA on what's crushing creativity

AKQA on what's crushing creativity Rich Cherecwich

While some are bemoaning a lack of creativity in the interactive field, Lars Bastholm begs to differ. According to Bastholm, co-chief creative officer for AKQA, there's plenty of inspired thinking and creativity waiting to spring forth -- restrictive formats are just damming the creative flow.

Staunch regulations for banners and overbearing mobile carriers are stopping agencies from flexing their creative muscles and developing truly great campaigns. When it comes to mobile, the U.S. is a third-world country, and it's simply the carriers that are holding it back.

Save the date! Hear more from Lars Bastholm during his iMedia Breakthrough Summit keynote, "Advertising & Innovation: Fusing the Big Idea with the Business," March 22 in Coconut Point, Florida. Request your invitation today!

"Once they realize what the rest of the world has realized, then we're going to see leaps and bounds in creativity and the possibilities for doing interesting stuff online and on mobile phones," Bastholm said.

A respected member of the interactive community for 14 years, Bastholm has won dozens of international awards for his campaigns. After starting up Grey Interactive, he served as creative director for Framfab in Copenhagen and has been an integral part of AKQA since 2004. iMedia recently caught up with him to discuss his creative process, the fields that limit creativity, and how he keeps AKQA at the head of the interactive pack.

Lars Bastholm is co-chief creative officer for AKQA.
iMedia: Without thinking, name your favorite device, application, and website.

Lars Bastholm: Totally the iPhone, without a doubt, and for a very specific reason. To me, the fact that it's a phone is somewhat irrelevant. It's the fact that it's completely changed the way I interact with data on the go. I literally access anything that I need at a computer, wherever I am, and that's just changed the way I interact with content and data.

For applications, it's Twitterrific to Twitter. Whenever I travel I use that a lot. I use Yelp a lot to find restaurants wherever I am. There are just tons of applications that allow you to make shortcuts that are simpler and easier for you.

And like so many others, my communication has moved to Twitter for the time being, so right now, I can't live without that website.

iMedia: AKQA has been named "agency of the year" by several publications in the past. Do you see the agency as frontrunner in the digital space? How do you stay ahead of the pack?

Bastholm: I guess so. We're always trying to imagine what will happen two to three years in the future and how we can best prepare ourselves for that eventuality. So far, that's worked out fairly well for us in terms of being on the right beat and finding which technologies to use and which sectors to kind of gamble on.

I think one of the big advantages of AKQA is that we're basically a collection of people who are really into what we're doing. We talk amongst ourselves all the time about what's next, how we need to change in order to adapt to what's next, and how the work is going to change. And how do we do that? Obviously we read a ton of blogs and a ton of stuff that's going on online. Everybody spends a good amount of time online just to see what's happening, what's changing, and what's starting to emerge.

iMedia: You mentioned taking gambles on new technologies. Are there any gambles that have or have not paid off?

Bastholm: We started AKQA Mobile almost five years ago. Nobody was thinking of mobile as a marketing tool, and we could kind of see that, obviously, something would happen eventually on the mobile platform. We started thinking about how, even then, we could become a preferred vendor for our existing clients and maybe even start a practice of its own.

Then there are things, like interactive TV, that we've dabbled in but have never really taken off, yet. Who knows -- maybe one day someone will come up with a good solution for how [interactive TV will] play out across different channels and different types of TVs. We've done some very successful stuff in the U.K. with interactive TV, but that's because they have Sky TV over there, which seems to have cracked TV and interactivity, at least to a certain degree.

Talking overall about a lack of creativity, I think a lot of it comes from
Randall Rothenberg's column the other week about lack of creativity in online advertising. I would tend to agree with him to a certain extent; banners in particular have not been a preferred medium for creatives to express themselves in, because the rules have become so rigid. Basically, IAB won, and the publishers all won, and they managed to make everything so structured and so stylized in what you could do that the good creatives kind of lost interest because the box was just really, really small.

If we can all sit down and agree on little bit of flexibility from publishers and the IAB, and a little bit more creativity from the creatives working in the space, we can probably reboot that whole relationship and get to a better place.

iMedia: What is that "better place" that you envision?

Bastholm: Often, what you'd see from a creative standpoint is you have a media buy that encompasses a gazillion boring formats where you could effectively not do anything, and I think that is what has caused banner blindness. People don't see them anymore. Ask anybody who doesn't work in our field which banner they recall the best or which banners they can remember, and I guarantee you 99.9 percent of people will say "none." You don't see them anymore, and that's kind of our own fault for plastering them everywhere. So I think it needs to be much more creative.

If you look at the Mac versus PC spots that have been running on NYTimes.com, people love them and they talk about them -- they're creative and they're fun. So it's not that you can't do something fun with banners. It's that we've effectively managed to kill them by plastering them everywhere and making rigid rules for what you can do in order to maximize sales, not actual consumer satisfaction or consumer enjoyment of the marketing we're doing.

What you don't want to do is something you know doesn't work going in. When you have less than 0.2 percent of people exposed to a banner clicking on it, you're talking about a medium that doesn't work. You basically have to come up with a different way of using that space, and that is the only way we're going to get to a point where it's going to start working again.

iMedia: What's the creative process like for you and your team? Where do ideas come from?

Bastholm: I think it differs from project to project, really. We work very much like any other agency. We get together in a room and brainstorm and figure out what to do, what's been done in the space, and work with some planners on covering what users are interested in. I mean, I don't think there's any kind of secret sauce in terms of working differently from everybody else.

I think we're integrating the creative technologists more and more in our brainstorming, because they're the ones who have a grasp on newer technologies and know what's moving, what's shaking, and what could be interesting to use in order to achieve a different interface with people.

Old school advertising was a copywriter and an art director who sat down together, locked themselves in a room for two weeks and came out with "the big idea." That's not really how it works anymore. We'll often get the whole creative team together and just brainstorm stuff. A lot of the technologists here are really considered part of the creative team.

iMedia: Do you look at the existing technology and let it dictate your campaigns, or do you go to your technologists and say, "We want this. Can you do it?"

Bastholm: It sort of goes both ways. A good example is something we did in London called Nike PhotoiD, where you use a mobile phone to take a picture of anything that interests you, send that picture to NikeiD, and they will send you back a picture of a pair of shoes in the two dominant colors of the picture that you took. That came about because one of the tech guys said, "Did you know you can do color recognition through cellphone cameras?" It was something that people didn't know, and that's an idea that you never would have had if you didn't know it was technologically doable. That's an example where technology berthed the idea.

Often, we'll also go down to the guys in tech and say, "You know what? We have this really crazy idea -- is this doable?" The great thing about our tech guys is that normally, they'll be like, "Huh. I can't think of how to do it right now, but I'll find a way to make it happen." We never get a "No, that's not possible." We always get "I might not know how right now, but I will certainly crack that."

The tech guys we have are actually interested in what we do and exploring new territory. If you want someone who wants to just sit there and hack out code day after day, then it's certainly the wrong company for them.

iMedia: Is working that closely with technologists the model at most agencies now?

Bastholm: I sincerely doubt there are more than a handful of agencies that work this way, but I think there some that are starting to understand that creative and technology drive and push each other.

iMedia: On a personal level, where do you get your inspiration from?

Bastholm: I spend a lot of time online, just trying to figure out what's going on and where things are heading. I try to talk to everybody in here. It's a young company -- I'm probably the oldest person in this office and I just turned 40. There are a lot of kids around who do interesting things that I try to follow as well.

And being in New York -- I think the city is one giant inspiration. If you ever get stuck on anything, then just go for a walk. I don't think that you always get inspired by surrounding yourself with just more stuff that you do for work. Go see a play, read a book, watch a movie, stroll through Central Park in the winter. I think staring at a piece of white paper until an idea appears is highly overrated.

iMedia: Do you encourage the younger people at the agency to get outside and draw their inspiration the same way you do?

Bastholm: I've always had this mantra that input equals output. I think it's extremely unhealthy to spend seven days a week at work, because eventually you become an empty vessel. If there's no more content inside of you, no more ideas will come out of you.

iMedia: Do you draw inspiration from other interactive campaigns and work?

Bastholm: When you see something, you either go, "Damn it, I wish I'd done that because that's clever," or "Oh my god, they really missed the boat on this one. It would have been so simple to do this and this and this and make it a really good campaign." But generally, you shouldn't necessarily look at people in your medium to get inspired. Look at all kinds of other things.

iMedia: What was the last campaign that made you say, "Damn, I wish I'd done that"?

Bastholm: Right now nothing springs to mind, which is kind of sad. [In a follow-up email, Bastholm said he enjoyed Virgin Mobile's
Music Wrongs campaign. "It's funny, viral and just all-round entertaining," he said.]

iMedia: When working with larger clients, do you work hand in hand with that client's traditional agency, or are those two aspects kept separate?

Bastholm: It depends from client to client. We work with Wieden + Kennedy on Nike, and Smirnoff's a big client here in New York and we work with JWT. Other clients prefer to have us very separate. It's really up to how the client wants to play it.

Most traditional agencies we work with wouldn't be good at we do, and we wouldn't necessarily be good at what they do. Every now and then there's a bit of friction. If we don't think the sort of stuff we have to align to is necessarily creatively very strong, that can sometimes be a little bit of a challenge. I'm sure on the other hand there's also times when the traditional agencies feel they should be more involved in what we're doing. There's always going to be a little bit of friction, but I think we've been working together with other agencies for so many years at this point that we're pretty good at it and managing that aspect of what we do.

iMedia: Do you ever find yourself repeating something again and again to a client when it comes to interactive?

Bastholm: Let me put it this way: It's getting better. We now have mostly very savvy clients who understand and are interested in the space. But when I started out doing this about 14 years ago or so, Jesus, no one knew anything about this, so you started with Adam and Eve every single time you had a meeting. Thankfully it's gotten better.

I think [marketers] understand that digital media is the only 24/7 channel where your brand resides at all times. Everything else is just an emissary for the brand -- TV, billboard, print ad, radio spot, whatever.

Rich Cherecwich is associate editor, iMedia Connection.

A former reporter and editor, Rich Cherecwich has an intimate knowledge of how journalists conceptualize, craft and write their content. At WIT Strategy, he works closely with clients to develop, edit and publish high-level thought leadership...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Lori Shecter

2009, March 17

Really sorry here, but it's like ALL media has stinky creative. Unless you have a client that is willing to take risks and go out of their safety zone. I mean, what was the last great TV creative (other than Tom Cruise sending Jimmy Kimmel into a burning house?) It's NOT about the gimmick, it's not about the rigidity of the publisher, it's not about allowing advertising to interfere in such a way the user leaves the site, it's about what the message can and can't be creatively. Tell me that Skittles did not have a fantastic campaign. That didn't seem too hard, did it?