Print as a conveyer of the fuller story has passed because it’s too dumb, too expensive, and too damaging to the environment.
Nicolas Roope, who selected this issue’s outstanding digital work for us, is a British/Danish industrial and digital media design-er and entrepreneur. Not only is he the co-founder of famed London digital agency Poke, he also founded product design shop Hulger, which developed an alternative low-energy light bulb, the Plumen 001, for
which he won both a rare D&AD Black Pencil and the Brit Insurance Design Award. His designs have been included in the MoMA permanent collection, the Cooper-Hewitt collection, and at the V&A, and Roope was also on The Wired 100 and Adage Creative 50 lists in 2011. Michael Weinzettl spoke to the prodigiously talented man about his diverse career and the state of Digital today.
L.A.: Your first job was in 1995 for one of the world’s very first interactive agencies, CHBi. What was the digital arena like when you started and what attracted you to it?
Nicolas Roope: They were strange days. It was early but everyone knew, intellectually at least, that this digital stuff was the future. So it had some kind of buzz around it and, as a newly graduated artist, I loved breaking new ground every single day (rather than working with very traditional materials creating art works). But it was a very young community, and for every one person you could find who was really committed to learning about the nature of interactivity, there were 100 gold prospectors yelling at the top of their voices about how they had all the answers. It was difficult to keep a clear perspective and, because the market wasn’t developed, you didn’t get the clear feedback from the user communities you get today, and this fuelled further maddening speculation. One thing I would say, though, is that, 18 years on, I still see the same mistakes today, which illustrates how long it takes us to collectively learn how to approach this stuff.
L.A.: What would you say are the most important changes the whole field has gone through since then?
Nicolas Roope: The biggest changes are really about the dynamic between tools, channels, and markets. The user community has developed so much, enabled by new tools and the growing sophistication of their digital consumption. We have a real, insatiable global market who feedback on everything we present to them (knowingly or not), which demands a hugely accelerated and intensified supply in response. It’s too easy to focus on how the tools and channels have changed in abstract but the biggest headline for me is this dynamic between the supply and demand side. Channels, platforms and tools are part of the wider story about how we’re trying to populate and satisfy this new universe in order to stay in the game.
L.A.: What were some of your personal favorites among the projects you have done with Poke, the digital creative company that you co-founded, and can you describe them for us?
Nicolas Roope: Our first project, The Warholizer, was important because it was a simple, generous concept that showed us how an idea, created and deployed with the right spirit, could distribute itself virally, thus reducing the need for media investment. It was for a big Warhol retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, and we invited people to contribute pictures which, if we thought they had artistic merit, we would “warholize” and add to the gallery. Once in the gallery, images would appear randomly on the front of the Tate Modern site for “15 minutes of fame.” It was very inspiring for us to see a brief that so easily could have been a crappy promo turn into something so much more compelling and efficient, and something that really contributed to the experience of the artwork, rather than just seeing our mandate as shoveling bodies towards the gallery. After that I would point to Globalrichlist.com, which is really a self initiated project circa 2003 we created to prove the power of simplicity. It’s much harder to sell simple things than convoluted ones because clients like big, complex things since this can easily be equated to “value for money” against the budgets they’re spending. The truth, however, is users need really clear, single-minded, simple propositions with significant rewards built into them to ever stand a chance of engaging and building audiences organically. Simple is harder to get to but a better investment – and Globalrichlist is proof of that. We’ve had more than 10 million visits in as many years, and worldwide media coverage and GRL has held the top search ranking for the search term “rich” for the whole period. We’re about to launch (April) an updated version that exploits new platforms and social, and we hope to see it move up onto a new level. And Orange Unlimited would be another favorite. We recently ran the social media part of the UK EE launch, the biggest brand launch in over a decade. This has been so interesting spearheading the establishment of a new brand through content, behavior and responsiveness, planned and played out in social. It’s interesting to see how our philosophy plays out in these kinds of scenarios but our commitment to simplify-ing and adding value to the user experience really energizes social channels and has also been instrumental in managing their reputation though these first kid steps. (You can find these and other project case study write-ups here: www.pokelondon.
L.A.: You have said, “in a commercial context I can’t separate creativity from effectiveness.” Would you say there are many examples to be found in the praxis of the advertising/design industry where the two do get separated? And why? It can’t be intentional, can it?
Nicolas Roope: I think you find separation all the time: creative-centered companies chasing peer appraisal, awards, etc., and business-driven companies with no grasp of how to harness creativity in problem solving and innovation. The real power of creativity only really gels for me when it’s doing the job you’re requiring of it, not responding to an indulgence on the part of creative, agency – or client, for that matter. I’ve sat
on creative juries many times when the consensus rewards what you know is work that didn’t really do the job it was supposed to do, just because there’s a fashion sweeping through the creative community and everyone got seduced. When I used to make art, it mattered to me what the effect was. What people took from it. The very same sense of responsibility exists when it comes to agency work for me. And just so I’m clear, this doesn’t necessarily lead to less interesting or less creative work – in fact quite the
opposite. If you accept, and get your clients to accept, that we’re not just trying to compete with other advertising messages out there in digital media but EVERYTHING that is vying for user attention, then your offering has got to be at least as good as the best stuff out there. Otherwise, it doesn’t stand a chance of being seen, let alone lead to advocacy and recommendation. A tall order indeed but creatively very inspiring and challenging, and this inevitably also leads to “effectiveness” because of what that means for the media equation (more virality = less media cost).
L.A.: On YouTube, I saw a short speech of yours about your work with Poke, and the theme was, “The Internet hates ads, we want to do things!” Could you elaborate on this idea a bit?
Nicolas Roope: The talk was a kind of cartoon portrait of the tension we face trying to reconcile the client’s desire to shoot messages into people’s faces with the obvious truth that exists in digital media, which is people gravitate towards interesting, informative, useful, entertaining, experiential things – not ads, which they’re generally trying to ignore. So the talk just simplifies the argument and says that Poke is only interested in things because users are only interested in things, and thus it follows that clients and businesses who want to reach those users should be interested in those very same things. It was a few years ago, and I think the sentiment is more mainstream now but I remember it got a good reaction. It’s not to say that Poke only does things as, of course, we think and work more broadly, connecting messages to philosophies, to things, to users all the time. Reality is always messy, which is why talks need to be more crystallized and provocative.
L.A.: What are your thoughts on the future of print?
Nicolas Roope: The boring side of print is gone. The interesting part, where its physicality and presence in the real world really resonates, can only get better. Print as a conveyer of the fuller story has passed because it’s too dumb, too expensive, and too damaging to the environment. The web is so much more powerful at conveying deeper stories because dynamic interface and personalization combine to draw salience and relevance out so effectively in contrast to print. And when your stories can be available to anyone (with access, of course) anywhere, then why would you do it any other way? Photography liberated art from having to look “realistic” because the camera took over painting’s role of accurately recording imagery. Art could suddenly become much more potent, more open, more transformative. I think print has the same opportunity now that the hard informational conveyance part can be handed off to digital channels via codes, NFC, etc.
L.A.: Is there any digital/interactive work that struck you as particularly groundbreaking in the last year or so?
Nicolas Roope: I really like Chirp (http://chirp.io/). It’s a little service that uses audio-encoded “chirps” to share files with smartphones that are in reach audibly (i.e. people in the same space or on a live video connection). It so wonderfully combines some clever tech with a simple insight about the special relationship that exists between people who occupy the same space (they’re likely to know each other or have something in common if they’re physically next to each other), as well as the inherent trust that comes with being able to see the people you’re choosing to share with. I think brands could use this kind of thing really effectively.
L.A.: You also have a product design company called Hulger that has created a special kind of light bulb, the Plumen 001, which was awarded a Black Pencil at D&AD and was named the Brit Insurance Design of the Year. It has been also been officially included in the MoMA, New York permanent design collection. Can you tell us about this project and others from Hulger?
Nicolas Roope: My product company lives off the same philosophy I bring to Poke, which is the more you can bake interest in
to the product and the way it behaves, the easier and more efficient the marketing portion of the business is going to operate. The phones we used to make, and the Plumen light bulb, are both exceptional ideas with the courage to go against the grain of the mainstream. Traditionally, this may have seemed like madness but I understand the environment we’re in and I know how much people in the world hunger for extraordinary, passion-driven ideas. The truth is, people have always been like this, so nothing’s new in terms of motivation. What is new is that we have this beautiful digital fabric that connects everyone together around their passions, so if you drop in a simple, compelling, motivating product with an identifiable philosophy and values present in its behavior, you can galvanize support very quickly. When we launched the phones in 2005, on zero media budget, we were selling product in the best stores in 25 worldwide markets on day one. So there is a clear economic argument here too, of course, as this means building communities of direct relationships rather than costly mediated ones. So Hulger and Plumen have been great opportunities to show the philosophy in practice as I think most of the world still feels more comfortable leaning on big, seemingly reliable media budgets rather than risky product-level innovation to fuel their conversations with markets. But I suspect this will change, so it’s good to have a sound case study to hand. Beyond this I also just love inventing and making things and building stories without too much interference. The artist in me is still very much alive.
L.A.: How do you find the inspiration for what you do? And have you ever had the experience of being blocked inspirationally?
Nicolas Roope: The answer is I try to never play myself short and always hold something back. I interview so many people who are so hungry and ambitious that they want to shoot up the ranks at any cost, and I look at them and worry that they’re moving too fast to ever really develop any intimacy with their personal creativity and meaning. Creativity is fragile, and there’s a world out there that wants to suck it all out and give little in return. As creative people, we need to protect ourselves and nurture our craft, openness and purpose, because it’s these things combined that provide the muscle of inspiration. I’m never low on inspiration because I’ve never traded it for something seemingly more attractive.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about the criteria you used in selecting the digital work showcased in this issue of Lürzer’s Archive?
Nicolas Roope: I have deliberately selected a broader set of examples than just choosing things that fit neatly into the “Digital Advertising” bracket. I’ve done this for two reasons. One is that the “Digital Advertising” category itself contain all the useful stories and insights needed to feed our creativity and our strategies in these times. The second is that most of the web’s audiences are spending most of their time trying to get away from advertising, so getting to know what makes their favored environments so compelling is surely interesting to communicators, particularly because there’s no reason why brands can’t exist within these spaces. Brand and product communication through digital channels is less and less about “campaigns,” and more and more about sustained community activity, service, utility, entertainment, etc., and therefore we need to learn from those who do this stuff best, which in many cases is not the advertising fraternity, I’m afraid to say. The changing relationships between all things that digital is driving creates some incredibly exciting opportunities for those with open minds.
L.A.: What advice would you give a student who wants to embark on a career in the fields of digital/interactive/advertising?
Nicolas Roope: Plough in to social because you’ll see more, do more, influence more, learn more than you will by following more established practice, where there’s a long line ahead of you. Developing knowhow, empathy, mechanics, tactics, rhythms and cultures inherent in social will be useful for the rest of time.