How to find your conceptual cojones

Wieden + Kennedy’s digital guru is tired of all the conversations about traditional media spend moving into interactive. Traditional media isn’t going away, he argues, so get used to it. [original link at iMedia]

More often than not, Renny Gleeson’s attention is captured by content developed by people working in a proverbial basement than by brand-funded campaigns. The global director of interactive strategies at Wieden + Kennedy thinks that’s a good thing, but it’s also a challenge because of what it exposes. Most brands are pledging time and money to interactive because they simply think they should, whereas average social media sensations do it because they care. The motivation factor and differences between the two is exponential, he says.

iMedia connected with Gleeson at his home base in Portland, Ore., to ask what keeps his creative juices flowing, and how his passion for motorcycles and rock climbing might play into his charge to lead all things digital at W+K.

iMedia: What disruptive technologies are you most interested in?

Renny Gleeson: From a technology standpoint, I’d say that the things I focus on are mobility and the impact of it – social media, but not from the standpoint of how I can get banners out so much as how it’s changing us culturally. And then the third big bucket I’d say that I look at a lot is gaming… those are probably the three that keep me up at night.

Interestingly, there’s this sort of “Revenge of the Nerds” thing where there’s a belief that by playing role-playing games and video games and by using social media, which almost by definition means you couldn’t get a date, that somehow those three are now the core curriculum required to have any chance of success in the medium. It just so happens that those are all qualifications I have, but it does feel a little shaudenfreuder.

iMedia: Can you give your basic elevator pitch for a good campaign? What’s your most valuable pitching tip?

Gleeson: At the end of the day, it’s showing how your work connects with people’s hearts… If there isn’t any insight that connects people’s hearts to your brand, then you kind of wasted it.

iMedia: How has W+K’s digital strategy changed since you came on board?

I like to flatter myself by saying I’ve helped focus the strategy and expand it. I think the pieces have been here. I mean, think back to what W+K was doing in the early 2000s. I don’t know if you remember the whole CK1 campaign, where you could sign up for this soap opera by email. Or maybe you remember the Beta-7 campaign for Sega, where the beta tester was having epileptic fits as a result of the intensity of the action in the football game, and Sega was trying to cover it up. I think there has been some pretty interesting work that has come out of W+K. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity that what people seem to remember most is some of our most iconic TV work, but that’s certainly not the only thing that we do by any stretch.

To be fair, W+K was not going as fast forward into this space as it was willing to do in others. It was just a matter of focus, effort, time, staffing, discipline, and mind share – things like that. So my job has really been three things: You need to make sure you’ve got the structure that can throughput the kind of work that you need as well as have people with conceptual cojones and thoughts to bring great ideas to life.

The second thing I do is work with specific clients. I have a particular group that I work with directly, and I’m helping roadmap ways to grapple with the opportunities and challenges of the space. And a third thing I do is looking forward, because the amount of work you have tends to blot out the daylight quickly. I try to keep my feelers out to ensure that we’re up on what the latest technologies are, the latest capabilities.

In other words, a lot of companies in this space are doing what they’re doing out of fear, not out of love. And if you’ve ever been in a situation where you’ve worked from a position of fear, you know that it shuts down most of the creative capability, and you shift to survival mode. That’s when you start to just get the banners, and the buttons, and crap… This isn’t a matter of a new channel being added to the mix, this is an opportunity, a cultural shift that allows me to reinvent what my brand means to you. And that doesn’t just mean what you do online. It seems there’s a lot of opportunity there as well, a real connective tissue that can link other things that haven’t been done before.

iMedia: Where is the money being spent these days in interactive? Is it more of an integrated approach?

Gleeson: Oh f… no, it’s not integrated! I gave an interactive credentials presentation recently – this will sound mean – but I basically broke down my audience into three groups. One group was the folks who get it, the folks you could sit down with, who recognize that their ships are afloat in a pretty choppy sea right now, and who know that we’re probably still in the trinket phase of interactive as opposed to being anywhere near maturity. That’s a very small group of people, and they’re the ones who when you start engaging with them during the presentation, the entire rest of the room shuts out, tunes out, and wishes you were dead. So there’s that danger zone of whether to engage the people that get it and risk shutting off the rest of the room, or ignoring them and risk looking like you don’t get it.

The second pool is a group of people who recognize that their annual review will include what they’ve done from an innovation standpoint, and so they’re looking for the least expensive way to check that box, or they’re hoping you will just explain to them what the gross rating point equivalency of all this interactive stuff is so you can shut the f… up and get out of the room. And then there’s the third group of people who came for the lunch, and it seemed like a really good idea until the door closed and they realized they couldn’t get out, and that their really nasty bowl of pesto pasta was just going to be rotting for the rest of the afternoon.

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet at which point massive amounts of TV money will shift into interactive… Interactive as a percentage of overall spend is still not that high, right? There are some brands that have pushed. I’ve seen budgets of 25 percent and even higher on some brands, but at some point, that’s all looking at media bought… it’s talking about media spend. But the tough thing about interactive is that social media and apps don’t get captured on a media spend. MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, and Hi5 are desperately trying to figure out how to monetize their models, but they’re being asked to figure out how to do that by backing it into the old loading dock of “Oh it’s banners and blah, blah, blah,” and I just think it’s wrong.

iMedia: How do you stay innovative in this economy, and how do you convince clients to take risks?

Gleeson: The reality is that pitching the idea is only half the battle. Because even if you get a client who thinks the idea is brilliant, then you have to go through the 50 other people who could say no at the organization, who weren’t at the original presentation, and who fall more toward those second two categories outside of the room.

That’s where stuff gets really hard, especially if you’ve got folks who still look at this as another distribution channel for ads, and so they’re looking for eyeballs, not ideas. Or if you have folks who are looking at this as an experiment and therefore aren’t interested in engagement content. Then you start to run into trouble. We’re all wrestling with this one. I’ve got a theory. I’m going to try this out this year, actually. I don’t want to do another interactive credentials presentation that I don’t do with the client. I think there’s something to be said for having the folks in your organization who “get it” co-presenting with you to their own organization. I don’t know whether we can do it, but I think that will change some of the tenor.

iMedia: Do you have any predictions for the industry this year?

Gleeson: If each brand isn’t asking itself how to reinvent this year, then they’re kind of missing what the opportunity should be… I think the best analogy for what’s about to happen to advertising and marketing… is the music industry, which lost sight of being in the music business and focused on being in the music distribution and printing business. It basically was a series of companies with massive infrastructural investment in particular memory storage – printing and distribution. And so they looked at interactive as either something to fight off or something at the fringe, but they saw their core business, effectively, as CD sales. If they had looked at their business as music and had been willing to start upfront early with: “What does that mean to us, how can we be best at the music business, not best at CD distribution?” I think they might have had a different thing.

iMedia: What are you preparing for the Brand Summit next month?

Gleeson: When I heard the topic “Bottom line or flat line,” it just seemed to me that if there’s a combination that I can lay on interactivity, it’s a failure of our imagination. And by that, I mean I’m tired of the conversations about when media dollars will move into interactive, because that’s the wrong conversation. I think the question is: How are we going to re-adjust our business models to address the possibilities that interactive enables?

There’s always going to be TV, there’s always going to radio, there’s always going to be print, there will always be these other things, it’s the way that you use them… We’re going to have to break some crockery. I’m also tired of people lecturing about things that I can’t change in my organization. But I think there are fundamental things that we can do, and things we need to ask of our organizations, and things that we can do to change the organizations that we can focus on.

iMedia: Finally, correct me if I’m wrong, but after taking a look at your hobbies, I get the sense you’re an adrenaline junkie of sorts. How does that play into your campaigns or the ideas that you come up with? Would you say that it gives you a higher tolerance for untested waters or are you more of a safety-first kind of guy?

Gleeson: I’d flip it around slightly and say I have a pretty high energy level, which I think you need to have to keep up with what’s happening. And I think if I didn’t have that, it would be enormously difficult for me to distill – and I’m not saying that I’m doing the best job in the world. What it gives me is a healthy dose of “I don’t know the answer.” If you think you know the answer when you drive a motorcycle or you rock climb, you die… It comes down to whether you’re able to re-adjust your mental map on the fly, or do you stick to the one that you know?

2008 was also the perfect storm of financial contraction, with clients looking to streamline services, and agencies being asked to do more than they ever did. Our maps don’t work anymore, and if we try to look at 2009 as the next logical step of 2008, then we blew it.

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