The role of the ad creative in emerging media

You’ll hear every social media marketing guru, expert and armchair commentator spout the basics: “it’s a dialogue” or “socalise your brand”.

Once we get past these trite little nuggets, it opens up the question of how the traditional advertising creative fits into this new many-to-many-facilitating-dialogue-engage-the-community way of talking to consumers.

In the past the creative’s job has been packaging the client’s message in stories, jokes or beautiful images. They’re in charge of crafting the carrot to win consumer engagement. Thing is, on social media, the carrot is built in.

People are there to engage: to talk, ask questions, share information and whine about stuff. Getting people to engage with brands is more about being relevant to the platform, being likable and being active than it is about jokes, stories or quirky characters.

I don’t mean to say that successful social media campaigns aren’t tricky. It’s just that the hard bit is in the strategic managing of conversations and communities– something that creatives traditionally haven’t had a lot to do with.

Air New Zealand’s @AirpointsFairy was essentially a way to get people talking to and about the airline. Its success lies in giving people something they want, and then being available when they want to engage.

The part the traditional creative plays is in creating the story around it – making it a fairy, giving it a personality, having it grant wishes, illustrating the avatar as a cute, partially-clad blonde etc. Arguably the campaign would have been just as effective with a different story:  an @RobFyfe profile, a rogue employee, or a treasure hunt.

If anything is to survive online it needs to be strategically pitch perfect – relevant and targeted to audience behaviour, not just the coolest, most creative or most innovative implementation technique. So when it comes to social media campaigns the mantra shouldn’t be “creative is king”. It’s “creative is important, but only if it fits the strategy”. So where does that leave those carefully disheveled, part-time filmmaker/musician/artists loitering around the creative department?

If they want to stay relevant to the digital consumer they’ll have to pack in the foosball and go learn from the nerds in planning. They might make Latin jokes and wear too much corduroy, but in the digital world, they’re the real kings.

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...


  1. Amar Trivedi Reply

    Hi Helen, nice write-up. Good read. Esp. liked the shift you mentioned from crafting carrots and casting hooks (sound familiar?) to creating conversations and managing communities. Led me to ask:

    Can Digital Strategy & Creative Direction co-exist? They better. It's the role of today's Digital Director. Creative & Strategy if you ask me, they're a given.

  2. Helen steemson Reply

    Hey Amir,

    Cheers for the comment. I'm not sure it's matter of creative and strategy co-existing. I think the best case scenario would be a merging of the roles, or at least a marriage between them, like the old art director/ copywriter set up.

    However the roles change I'd say there probably needs to be an atitude shift.

  3. dan Reply

    Hi Helen,

    Interesting article. I was at Aim when they created the airports fairy, and it was a great proactive idea which was actually a response to somebody on twitter asking for points from the 'air points fairy'.

    The character development went through s few changes. So it was interesting to see what you thought of it. I think the original fairy was designed to be a bit more child like.

    With regards to creative and planning, I hope the two can co-exist. At the agency I'm currently at the Planning and Creative directors are constantly involving each other, but still have clear areas. I think it's a good compromise (the planner isn't that funny, and the creative director can barely plan lunch.)




  4. helen Reply

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for your comment – and I totally agree. Collaboration is the ultimate goal and it sounds like your shop has gone a fair way down that track. I suspect that direct, like digital is so measurable that the agencies have by necessity evolved to be more collaborative than your average behemoth full-service.

    Although I dreamed about a merging of the roles, the amount of constant training and research each require would make it a bit tricky – how can you get drunk and be rude about all the winners down at the Palais, when you also need to be interviewing middle-aged women about their emotional attachment to incontinence pads?

    As a first step, more respect and more understanding of the importance of strategy would go a very long way in some creative departments.

    In regards to how the Fairy was born – it's proof that proactive ideas can (and should) do wonders for the client's business. It's also a great example of the ideas that creatives can be coming up with once they start thinking about audiences, instead of just execution.



  5. mike langton Reply

    It takes a more inclusive, interactive planning approach:

    – listening/tracking online conversation;

    – public relations contingency plans;

    – integration with transmission ads;

    – clear verbal branding guidelines;

    – training client & agency front-line.

    That's far easier for the average planner to grasp and deliver on than for the average creative person silo-ed too long from planning, digital and, (heaven help us) from consumers / users / customers.

    Could be easier to train a whole new breed of creative talent from those who have grown up online than for the old guard to reinvent themselves usefully.

    1. helen Steemson Reply

      Hey Mike,

      Cheers for your reply.

      What I've come up against in some (not all) creative departments is a disregard for practical things like targeting, client management and contingency planning. The subtext being that we need head space to let our creativity run free. True of course, but at some point the art we create needs to start solving business problems, too. I suspect that creatives who have been trained to go after genius at the expense of audience relevance etc, will find it increasingly difficult to connect online.

      On the flip side, I've met and worked with a number of 'old guard' creatives who thrive in the digital space. I wonder if it has more to do with their abiding interest and understanding of the practical, than a digital nativeness.

      I've certainly met my fair share of creatives who've grown up online, and still get it pretty wrong.

  6. King of the world Reply

    I personally dislike the bias in your tone. I believe your take on the Social Media space seems pretty one dimensional. And your articulation of what Creatives do, insulting. “Carefully disheveled, part-time filmmaker/musician/artists loitering around the creative department”? Really?

    I don’t know how this article is supposed to help anyone.

    Yes there are some spaces where the idea is less important than the management and strategy. But this should not take one bit of attention away from agencies trying to develop powerful ideas that people want to engage with.

    Look at; Old Spice (Twitter not just the TVC), VW (the fun theory), Nike (ChalkBot) – amazing ideas that people want to engage with.

    I don’t believe that any “average behemoth full-service” agency that has been paying attention (over the last 10 years) will be unaware of the changing landscape and the opportunities arising in the space. How are you helping again?

    This is not a war. The argument you make is an old one. Get over it. You don’t have to rip others down to build yourself up.

    If you are supposed to be the authority of ‘creativity’ in the social media space. I am NOT coming back here.

    PS. I am a Planner (AKA King)

  7. Jessica Desmond Reply

    I don't know King of the World (if that is, in fact, your real name),

    It doesn't really sound like she is trying to incite a war between departments. It felt more like she's making the point that there needs to be more understanding, respect and collaboration between the two.

    Clearly identifying siloing in agencies as being a problem isn't revolutionary. The idea that creative isn't always king however, is a big shift for some agencies.

    If that's not the case in your agency, count yourself lucky!

    Where do you work? It sounds awesome.

  8. King of the world Reply

    You are right – I’m not really king of the world. If anything I would be queen. In fact, I’m not even a Planner.

    My point is:

    It just doesn’t matter who thinks they have the power, and pointing out that they don’t, isn’t going to help agencies transition into taking a holistic POV toward their Clients business. If this blog is just for single-minded digital geeks to pat each other on the back – then I’ll shut-up. But I suspect it has the ability to be a little bit more helpful than that. And that’s what annoys me.

    I get really sick of Digital experts who feel the need to point out that traditional channels are dying, irrelevant, tired etc as a way to make what they do feel more important. It just isn’t. It’s one of many spaces that agencies need to get comfortable in. Real quick.

    I’ve meet a few wonderful digital biased people who get the big picture. And it’s only then, that people stop feeling threatened by the shift. The shift is happening. I just really don’t believe someone claiming to be an authority on the matter should be able to be so scathing of Creatives and ‘old school’ agencies.

    Yes strategy is as important as Creative (it always has been). But those of us who already know that should be helping others who feel a bit more threatened get into it.

  9. Helen Steemson Reply

    Hi King, Queen

    Thanks for your responses.

    I understand your frustration – there's been a lot of hype about social media and the 'death' of the traditional media.

    This article, however, is less about hyping digital (and belittling the traditional) and more about offering a way of staying relevant online – collaboration, learning, and taking a more strategic approach than some creatives have done in the past.



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