A Conversation with Nick Law, Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA, and IAB MIXX Awards Judge
This past May at the What Works & Why in Digital Advertising: Insights from the IAB MIXX Awards event, Nick Law described his thinking on the alchemy needed in today’s digital world to achieve creative success. Although he took just five minutes to lay out his thesis, it crystallized for me the answer to a question I had been furiously pondering over the past four years: what is the right creative model to achieve the level of brilliance in the digital world that marketers have come to expect of the best agencies in the analog one? I wasn’t the only one who found his thinking revelatory; I saw dozens of pens busily scribbling during his short talk.
While Nick was at the IAB Ad Lab in New York to judge the 2014 IAB MIXX Awards, I asked him for a chat about this notion so we could share his thoughts with the industry. Our conversation is captured below and in the accompanying video.
Peter Minnium (PM), IAB: R/GA has a unique model of deploying talent in teams to get the best results; can you tell us the genesis of this thinking?
Nick Law (NL), R/GA: About a decade ago, I looked at the creative skill sets that we had at what was then a very different R/GA, and it occurred to me that if you were to be brutal in your division of skill sets, you would cleave the world into storytelling and systematic thinking. The important point about this realization, as much as understanding that these two ways of thinking exist, was to recognize that are both creative ways of thinking. So if you’re from Madison Avenue, over the last 50 years, what has been considered creative is storytelling, because the mediums that we’ve used are narrative mediums. And since the advent of digital, this type of architectural and spatial way of thinking has become very important. In the advertising world, I think the problem is that this hasn’t been considered creative. It’s been relegated to a sort of an executional or technical path.
So when people talk about the “big idea” in advertising, they still really refer to the ability to tell a story and to distill a brand down to a little narrative. And when they think about this sort of interactive, they think about it from a technical point of view. So then, having come up with the big idea, they wonder how to push that down into this new set of formats and channels. But what I realized was that the sort of creativity associated with systematic thinking was very powerful and very different.
PM: Why is the distinction between the different skills sets important?
NL: This is an important thing to recognize, because if you don’t recognize the difference between storytelling and systematic thinking as sort of categorically different ways of thinking, then creators—because they’re all vain and because there’s this sort of hubris associated with creative people—will say that because they’re creative, they should be doing it all, right? So I would have an instance where someone who grew up designing interfaces and was a systematic thinker couldn’t wait to get over to the content studio and do a film, even though for 10 years, that wasn’t the way they thought. And vice-versa. I think that early on in this sort of emergent digital world, there were many creative executions that came from an art director/copywriter type of narrative team, which in a systematic world, failed dismally, right? I won’t mention any big platforms, but there’s quite a few. And a lot of money was wasted.
PM: Are people born Systemic or Narrative Thinkers?
NL: So if you look at a human brain—and I sort of found out later that we don’t know a lot about neuroscience—we do know that the left-hand brain processes things sequentially and that the right-hand brain processes things simultaneously. So it’s this play between time and space, between the temporal way of thinking and the spatial way of thinking. Therefore, it stands to reason that if you’ve been doing something and you’ve gotten good at something from a creative point of view, the paths in your brain are in a very specific place. So for me, that explains why it’s very difficult for a narrative thinker to connect and design a systematic piece of work, and vice versa because they’re in a habit.
PM: Bill Bernbach revolutionized creative teams in the 1960’s by pairing art directors and copywriters. Is the model different now?
NL: So at R/GA at least, we think that the atomic team is not an art director and a copywriter, but rather a storyteller and a systematic thinker. Another way of looking at this is as a tension. Storytelling is the act of simplifying, because it’s about the revealed moment and good storytelling, good brand storytelling, is really about that distilled moment and how it’s revealed. And there’s this tension between that simplicity and the possibility provided by systematic thinking. So systematic thinkers are good, very good at possibility because they understand how each node plays with each other and can look at all these relationships simultaneously and generate many ideas.
So when you have a systematic thinker and a narrative thinker, you get this lovely tension between simplicity and possibility. When that is absent, when all you have is simplicity, you just have simple brand storytellers, really just a lucid brand but without innovation. And when you just have systematic thinkers’ input of possibility, then you get really interesting and multiple tactics that don’t ladder up to a simple brand idea. So that’s how I can tell whether or not we have the balance right—whether things are simple but not innovative, or innovative but not lucid. That balance becomes very important, that interplay. This doesn’t mean that underneath that organizing principle, we don’t have all sorts of different combinations: art directors, copywriters, data scientists, and strategists, and all sorts of other combinations, but that’s the sort of balance we’re trying to achieve, between storytelling and systematic thinking.
PM: Thanks, Nick; I now better understand the magic behind the award winning work at R/GA.
To learn more about creativity in digital advertising download the IAB MIXX Awards 2013 Insights Report: What Works & Why, which showcases examples of award winning digital advertising campaigns and the genius behind the creative work from thought leaders across the industry.
About the Author
As the Head of Brand Initiatives at IAB, Peter Minnium leads a series of initiatives designed to address the under-representation of creative brand advertising online. He can be reached on Twitter @PeterMinnium.