There are few boundaries for what is and isn’t digital
Will McGinness, our guest juror for the selection of digital work in this issue, joined San Francisco agency Venables, Bell & Part-ners in 2010 as Paul Venables’ partner. He arrived there after seven years at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, where he was Creative Director and Associate Partner, working across all media as an interdisciplinary creative. He oversaw award-winning multimedia and social campaigns for Got Milk?, Saturn, Doritos, Rolling Rock, Comcast, Quaker, Yahoo, and most notably on HP, where he developed the Summit on the Summit, a socially-augmented climb up Mount Kilimanjaro, whose objective was building awareness for worldwide clean water initiatives. Will was a force in the agency’s rapid reinvention from a traditional model to a more integrated one. During that time, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners earned the title of Interactive Agency of the Year at Cannes for its work on accounts such as Sprint, Doritos, and Nintendo. Michael Weinzettl quizzed the top digital creative about his career and his recent stopover at the Cannes Festival.
L.A.: Hello, Will, you’ve just returned from Cannes. Would you mind sharing with us your impressions of this year’s festival?
Will McGinness: If you look through the shows, the results in the “Interactive” category are wildly different, which is what makes the digital space so compelling, but also so difficult to judge. There are few boundaries for what is and isn’t digital. Unfortunately, there are too many great pieces that were overlooked to even begin to list. The FuelBand, however, was a fantastic evolution of the Nike+ franchise, and a reminder that great digital ideas can change the way people interact with a brand.
L.A.: What do you think is the Next Big Thing in Digital – or in interdisciplinary advertising in general?
Will McGinness: As we’ve watched digital grow beyond computer and mobile screens, things have kind of gotten more interesting. This continues to be the new frontier and sits at the center of some of the most compelling work out there. The Chalkbot, Bear 71, MINI Getaway, Evian Smart Drop, and the Nike FuelBand are just a few examples of this. Innovative thinking that blurs the real world and dig-ital space will continue but with a keen eye on storytelling. Agencies are getting a lot better at identifying the simple stories that these ideas convey, and at packaging them for the world to digest.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about your background? Did you start your career at Goodby in San Francisco? Did you do traditional advertising, i.e. print and film exclusively, before you got involved in interdisciplinary work across all media?
Will McGinness: I actually started in the digital space at Arnold Worldwide in Boston before joining Goodby. I was part of the VW team that created a website to sell the first New Beetles online, which at the time was a really big deal, but now seems so basic. Over the years, I’ve migrated into a role where I work on everything. Every medium is connected and, as a creative person, I’ve never liked being pigeonholed. At VB&P, Paul Venables and I have deliberately torn down the walls that typically prevent creative people from coming up with ideas in any medium. From an organizational standpoint, there has never been a creative floor – a copywriter may sit next to a communications strategist, who may sit next to a planner. This cross-pollination leads, we think, to the best integrated ideas. We often have interdisciplinary brainstorms and, at the end of the day, the best idea wins. It’s open-sourced creativity at its best.
L.A.: You are credited with having been a major force in Goodby’s rapid reinvention from a traditional model to a more integrated one. What were some of the challenges you faced?
Will McGinness: As an industry, we’re still very much engaged in a perception war. Digital and social agencies don’t want clients to believe that a full-service (traditional) agency could possibly be trusted to handle or navigate the digital/social landscape. Conversely, traditional agencies don’t want to think that anyone else could understand how to build a brand or create great brand narratives. It’s like a big game of Hungry Hungry Hippos where everyone’s going after the same marbles. As clients become more and more savvy, and as the smoke continues to clear, the agencies that create the best work will thrive. It’s that simple. That being said, I do believe that it’s important to have an agency at the helm of the brand, which requires a deep understanding of a pretty shifty landscape. More importantly, it’s about creating an organization that is equipped to embrace the thing that hasn’t yet arrived.
L.A.: And how, would you say, are – or were – traditional agencies in general dealing with the need to become more integrated? Do you think the process has generally been a successful one?
Will McGinness: It can be done. You need to hire the right people and create a culture that embraces the digital/social landscape across all disciplines. Planners, account people, creatives, etc. all need to share a basic excitement for what new innovative marketing ideas can bring to the agency. I really appreciate now being at a smaller, independent agency in growth mode like VB&P. Just in the past year, we’ve opened up Lumberyard, an integrated content producing studio, and vbp orange, a brand innovation consultancy. Given our independent nature, we’re free to take risks we feel will benefit the agency in the long run versus doing what a holding company dictates. I can’t wait to see where we’ll take it over the next five years.
L.A.: You were awarded a Black Pencil by D&AD – perhaps the most prestigious award the ad industry has to offer – for social and multimedia campaigns for Got Milk? Can you tell us a bit about this? Got Milk? has, of course, been a classic ad campaign in print and film for a long time … What were the elements of the multimedia approach you developed?
Will McGinness: “Get the Glass” was one of the first really engaging gaming experiences produced by a brand – combining design, animation, film, 3D modeling, programming, and production. The interesting thing is that, when we started it, we didn’t necessarily set out to create a great interactive idea for that campaign, nor was it a simple checklist of boxes that we were trying to hit to make an “integrated campaign.” It was an idea that led to new ideas. The best ideas are like that – so contagious they multiply like gremlins and become almost impossible to stop. The challenge then becomes connecting them all into a cohesive brand story, which we were able to do for Got Milk?
L.A.: What about other work you’re really proud of?
Will McGinness: Overall, I am really proud of the diversity of work we’ve produced over the past two years – from Super Bowl spots to the eBay Give-A-Toy Store mobile experience that allowed holiday shoppers to donate toys from a digital display via their mobile phones, to Intel’s “The Chase” and Google Maps “Explore Your World” online films, which reached millions of views with zero media spend.
For Audi, we’ve created everything from Facebook games to big production TV spots to helping improve their customer service experience. One of my favorite projects this agency has produced has been permanently redesigning two blocks of Powell Street in San Francisco. It was an idea that wasn’t really digital or traditional. In fact, I’m not quite sure how you’d categorize it. We worked with a famous landscape designer, Walter Hood, to re-imagine these two blocks by pulling our design cues and inspiration from the design of the new Audi A7. It was such a paradox – a carmaker giving the road back to pedestrians, and a great example of the kinds of ideas that open up to you when you’re not really worried what box they even fit into.
L.A.: What about the Summit on the Summit campaign for clean-water initiatives that you developed for HP? How did that come about and what is HP’s connection to clean water?
Will McGinness: HP came to us wanting to do something with a group of musicians, actors and activists who were climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro for the global clean water crisis. We decided that we wanted to put technology at the core of the experience and use what HP does best to help raise awareness for the cause. By creating an experience that allowed people to virtually climb with the climbers up the mountain in real time, we not only helped raise awareness but we gained some goodwill for the brand in the process. The authenticity of HP’s role in the program made the experience that much more compelling.
L.A.: You joined SF agency Venables in 2010 as Paul Venables’ partner. Had you known Paul Venables from Goodby? What were some of the reasons to leave Goodby and go to Venables Bell & Partners?
Will McGinness: Our paths didn’t cross at Goodby. I think he may have left to start the agency just as I was arriving. I love Goodby and had many great years there. It was just time to try something new, to be honest. There were a lot of things that drove me to VB&P, including Paul, the partners and everyone I knew who worked there. Beyond everything else, the basic ethos of the company was in lockstep with everything I believe, putting the culture of the agency front and center. At the end of the day, we want this to be a company that people love coming to work for. Another thing I love is that, since it is only eleven years old, VB&P very much has that entrepreneurial spirit embedded in its culture. In addition to having a HATCH contest where employees were invited to submit business ideas that the agency would fund, we held an office space contest commemorating our ten-year anniversary, inviting entrepreneurs in the Bay Area to apply for a $10/year lease for VB&P office space. So, now, we have a filmmaker; the founders of Schoolbags for Kids, where for every schoolbag sold, one bag with school supplies will be given to a child in need, and a Cal Poly engineer who invented the DayOne Waterbag™, a reusable personal water treatment device used in disaster relief. They’re all working in the building and we treat each of them as one of us. In addition to making the water cooler a little more interesting, they make us all feel silly for worrying about ads so much.
L.A.: You have served as chairman on Interactive juries at the Clios, the One Show, and the US Art Directors Club Awards. Is interactive work more difficult/problematic to judge than poster, press and film?
Will McGinness: Yes. The variety in execution is kind of mind-boggling. It’s hard to pit an interesting Twitter innovation against a crazy holographic experiential stunt, for instance. Having different categories can only get you so far. The nice thing is that it really forces you to focus on the idea and the story it conveys, rather than the novelty of the execution.
L.A.: Where do you get the inspiration for your ideas from?
Will McGinness: Deadlines.
L.A.: How do you relax? What are your interests outside advertising?
Will McGinness: Well, I wouldn’t say, “relax,” but I try to spend as much time with my three children as humanly possible.
L.A.: Can you tell us a bit about your criteria for the selection of digital work in this issue of Archive?
Will McGinness: I wanted to select a body of work that both illustrates the complexity of the digital space and showcases the sorcery of its diversity.