Digital has become so central to everything that it sometimes becomes a bit safe.
The 15 digital works featured in this section of Lürzer’s Archive were chosen by Flo Heiss of Dare, London. Michael Weinzettl chatted to the Bavarian-born star digital creative about his career and selection of sites / apps for this issue.
L.A.: Hi Flo, can you first of all introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
Flo Heiss: Hi, I am the Anglo-Bavarian Executive Creative Director at Dare in London. We are a new kind of agency with a media-neutral approach. I know that’s what everybody says, or at least should say, but what makes us different is a true marriage of broadcast and digital post the merger of Dare Digital and MCBD. In non-marketing lingo, that means we are a creative agency that is as comfortable making a mobile app or a website as it is with a cinema commercial … and everything in between.
L.A.: Perhaps you can tell us a bit about your time as a student of graphic design. You studied in various countries before winding up at the Royal Collage of Art. How did all that traveling come about? What did you learn in all the different places?
Flo Heiss: When I was 16, I spent three months in Northern Ireland as part of a school-organized ex-change and I think I caught the “abroad bug” then. I absolutely loved the rugged beauty of Warrenpoint and the stunning Irish countryside and amazing people. Back in Germany a few years later, during my Graphics BA, I won the Erasmus Scholarship for graphic design and spent a year in Urbino, Italy. I finished my Graphics diploma in 1995 in Augsburg, Germany and then went on and applied for an MA at the RCA in London. Basically, I tried to string my studies out as long as I could so I didn’t have to find a job. The traveling gave me a great insight into how different cultures approach design. In Italy, it was all about the look, the colors, the expression, and in the UK it’s more about the ideas. Ever since, I have tried to combine the two.
L.A.: Who were some of the graphic designers you admired when you were a student?
Flo Heiss: Josef Müller Brockmann and Wim Crouwel were a huge influence on me early on but, mostly during my college time, I copied David Carson’s and Neville Brody’s work no end. Ray Gun and The Face were my bible in the early 90s. I fondly remember a session with my typography professor about “Ray Ban,” as he called it. I also devoured Émigré’s design and typography. I subscribed to the magazine, although I don’t think I ever read a single article. The issue about the Designers Republic totally blew my Bavarian mind.
L.A.: Were you interested in advertising at all? Any ads you remember from that time?
Flo Heiss: To be honest, I wasn’t really that interested in advertising. I did watch the Cannes Reel a few times in the cinema but, believe it or not, that was pretty much it. My main interest was, and still is, graphics and art. Looking back, it’s no coincidence, though, that I wound up doing advertising because all my student work was more ideas-based and not so much graphics at all. I just don’t have the patience for proper graphic design. My final piece in Augsburg was a mail-order catalogue for happiness called Placebo. It was crammed full of weird and wonderful products. Some of them have since actually been made – like a film crew you could hire to follow you around and document every mundane aspect of your life. Big Brother, basically. Or you could hire a family if you were lonely. Or get someone else to write a great autobiography about you. A bit like Twitter or Facebook.
L.A.: What was the first time you got interested in digital? What were your first steps in that arena?
Flo Heiss: The first time I got into digital was when I started working at Scholz & Volkmer in Wiesbaden. I needed to earn some money for my time in London just before my MA course started. So I got a friend to give me a crash course in Photoshop 2 (the one when layers were first introduced) and off I went. I was part of a team that made two CD ROMs, one for Vauxhall and one for the launch of the Mercedes SLK – both very big projects in the pre-internet era. For the Vauxhall CD, I drew large 270 degree panoramas of Paris, Rome and other places that you could navigate around. Kind of like QuickTime VR before it existed. No coincidence that my final piece at the RCA also was a portfolio CD ROM for the fashion department – alongside an installation piece consisting of a bag of mayonnaise on a table (I had just discovered Matthew Barney).
L.A.: You joined Dare, Campaign magazine’s Digital Agency of the Decade, back in 2000. What was the digital world like back then?
Flo Heiss: A total mess, to be honest, but digital work then was fun, free, and innocent. We produced a lot of extension work for broadcast ideas on minuscule budgets, but we were free to experiment and everything was totally uncharted territory. Our Axe Feather piece was a total make-it-up-as-we-go-along
production. For Wanadoo, we made banners with flames in them that we filmed in a bin on our roof. Flash had just come out and we experimented a lot with the capability of it. I’d say the ideas were more daring but the production maybe not as polished as it should’ve been. I miss those days sometimes. Digital has become so central to everything that it sometimes becomes a bit safe.
L.A.: And what was Dare like back then compared to today? How has the company evolved?
Flo Heiss: Back in 2000, we were just a bunch of people in a room trying to do good work. No one knew how things worked and how to make stuff and that was half the fun. It was a quite straightforward process: everyone mucked in and, to a certain extent, we have kept this philosophy. The best work happens when the right people collaborate. What is different now is the sliding scale of the work we are producing. A project can be anything from a very small sexy thing to a huge six-month campaign. It’s now more important than ever not to lose sight of the work, and to keep it simple. The most exciting shift in briefs that we work on now is that they don’t dictate what medium to execute an idea in, but what’s the best way to solve a particular problem.
L.A.: Are there people in the digital field whose work you particularly admire?
Flo Heiss: Phew, so many. The digital community is very tight and we know each other very well. I love the work the boys at LMFM produce. Always fresh and funny stuff. Poke always deliver work that inspires. The Barbarian’s work I also admire greatly, and if I say admire, I mean I am super-fucking-jealous. Then there is a whole host of digital artists out there that produce incredible stuff like Grey World, Daniel Brown, Raphael Rozendaal, Aaron Koblin, Oliver Laric. I could go on …
L.A.: You’ve been Creative Director at Dare for the past eight years. What is some of the work created there during that time that you’re proudest of?
Flo Heiss: As mentioned above, I still think Axe Feather and Lynx Blow were defining pieces for us, and possibly the only truly viral pieces we have ever made. Our Desk Crusher project for Vodafone was epic too. A boring B2B brief ended up as a two-ton metal steel crusher destroying desks. The one project I am most proud of, though, is the work we did with British Magnum photographer Martin Parr for Sony Ericsson back in 2006. That was a real first – to use a camera phone and hand it to a world-class photographer. We ended up publishing a book with Parr’s and other people’s photos in it. I am well proud of that campaign.
L.A.: What, in your opinion, will be the major changes in web-based communication we can expect next?
Flo Heiss: I think technology will, and should, become more and more invisible and the content and the stories we tell come to the fore. All the mechanics used at the moment – like Twitter or Facebook – to fuel campaigns are being used because we can, and not because it makes sense. I believe that we are in a transitional period where we are trying out stuff to see what works best, and sometimes forget about the emotional part of an idea that connects with consumers – real people in the real world that have never heard of the Cyber Lions. Yes, I know, it’s hard to believe, but these people do exist.
L.A.: How do you see the role of social media in brand communication today?
Flo Heiss: Social media is crucial for every campaign and always has been. If your idea isn’t social, i.e. people don’t talk about it or share it, your idea is dead. Social media doesn’t mean to simply stick something on Facebook, though, or to connect it to Twitter and you’re done. A social idea has to have talkability built into it. The best campaigns have a certain something that elevates them into pop culture. People love what you have done and want to share it. That certain something is always different, though. Sometimes, it’s a funny line (Whassuup!) or a kickass track (Flat Eric) or a celeb. You never really know what flies. There is a bit of alchemy at work, what connects with the zeitgeist. It’s hard, but it can be done.
L.A.: Would you say that traditional ad agencies have a problem adapting to all this? What do you see as some of the challenges facing a traditional agency trying to adapt to this new world?
Flo Heiss: I am not sure traditional agen-
cies exist any more in 2011. There might be some agencies that are working mostly in the area of broadcast, but I wouldn’t really call them traditional. Everyone is coming at this from a different angle and having a go at making cool work for this digital world we are living in. There are so many ways to run an agency and all of them have a place. Digital can learn a ton from broadcast. To boil a complicated message down to 30 seconds is a skill that we digital lot could sometimes do with when we build complicated campaigns with multiple layers.
L.A.: Do you think there will be a role for print advertising in the future?
Flo Heiss: Print/display advertising will always have a role in the mix, just as TV advertising has. The only thing that has changed is the definition of that role. TV on its own is probably less powerful than it was five years ago. Still – ask your friends down the pub what ads they have seen and chances are you will get a TV ad.
L.A.: You have sat on many international juries. In what way is it different to judge work created for the web as opposed to print and film? Seems to me it must be vastly more time-consuming.
Flo Heiss: Oh yes, it is. It’s
a real problem within our industry because, more often than not, we are judging the work based on a filmic description rather than the actual work. We all hate those awards entry films, but they are kind of necessary (agencies PLEASE keep them under 60”!). Sometimes the work is site-specific or time-specific, or not live anymore, or only works in a certain context. It’s not easy. Most of the time you get only an impression of the campaign. Not sure what the answer is, but unless you install a kiosk and hand out 50 iPads and Android phones and send digital installations to Cannes, it will always be like that. The best juries are those that have people in them who have experienced the real deal. And, to be frank, if you haven’t seen most of the work you shouldn’t be on a jury in the first place.
L.A.: Where do you get your inspiration, your ideas, from? How do you feed your creativity?
Flo Heiss: Ninety-nine per cent of all ideas are autobiographical, so you have to make sure you are actually out of the office experiencing life. Otherwise, you become stale and repetitive. I like to do real things, like chopping wood or paint-
ing with my kids. The internet is a bad place for inspiration. I am a firm believer that the best creatives are a bit like sponges. Suck up everything. Don’t edit your life. Watch everything, read everything, talk to everybody, and you will find the stories that fuel your ideas.
L.A.: What is your attitude towards advertising awards?
Flo Heiss: A love / hate relationship. If we win, I love them; if we lose, I pretend not to care. Personally, I love to judge them and hear other people’s opinions on my and other people’s work. It’s a humbling and inspiring experience that helps me focus and want to create better work. Awards can be fickle and quite random too. You never know what juries will love. But that’s ok. It’s a snapshot of how the jury felt at the time. Awards are very good to attract talent and are a measurement of the quality of our work and a barometer on the industry.
L.A.: You have kindly selected for us the digital work you consider the most interesting at the moment. Can you tell us about your criteria for inclusion?
Flo Heiss: It was really difficult. All the work out there is so different and good for different reasons. If you ask me in six months, I will probably pick a totally different bunch of sites. What I was looking for is a little twist, something that grabs me and gets me hooked. But that’s the thing with digital: some stuff is useful, some is funny, some is weird, some is technologically awesome, etc. I love all that diversity.
L.A.: I was thrilled to read that you’re “President of the Animated Gif Appreciation Society,” as I’m a great fan and avid reader of American blogger Rich Juzwiak (fourfourt.typead.com), who, apart from writing brilliant blogs on the lowest depth of pop culture (i.e. reality shows, horror films), does these “gif walls,” which are like the perfect art medium for the web. Please tell us all about the amazing world of gifs.
Flo Heiss: I take my presidency very seriously. It’s a tough job, especially if you need to multitask as president and the only member of the society but, you know, someone’s got to do it … Not every gif makes it onto the site and I get sent loads! The animated gif is for the internet what vinyl is for music. Love them. Ap-preciate them. They are simply beautiful.