We need to be thinking about the world as a fractured environment where brands aren't in control.
Iain Tait is one of the world's leading digital creatives. In his role as Interactive Creative Director at Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, he has been continuing the exciting work he began as Creative Director at Poke in London. Iain has also been a member of the Cyber Lions Jury and Titanium Jury in Cannes. In this interview, Hermann Vaske speaks to him about digital creativity on both sides of the Atlantic.
L.A.: What drives you? Why are you creative?
Iain Tait: The creativity that really inspires me, and the reason that I'm in the digital space rather than anywhere else, is that it feels like there's still infinite possibility, and it feels like … because things are changing so quickly, it feels like there's a potential to invent a new thing almost every day. If you look back at the strapline of Lego – "It's a new toy every day" – I think the thing for me that means that I'm in this space is that, every day, there'll be a new thing, so next year, I know, we'll be talking about something completely different. That constant sense of momentum and exploration and excitement is, for me, incredibly captivating, and it's the thing that drives me.
L.A.: You were Creative Director at London digital agency Poke. For your client Orange, you came up with an idea for the Glastonbury Festival. How did that develop?
Iain Tait: It came about that we just really wanted to do something different and a bit fresh, because so many brands are doing so many things with music. So there was lots of sponsorship going on, lots of things that we'd all seen before. And we knew that, in order to engage with people online, we needed to do something a little bit different, something interesting that they could tell stories about, that was just a little bit quirky. If you look at a festival like Glastonbury, it's not all about the music. It's also about the things that people do, and about the strange attractions in the odd field. So we knew we could be a little bit more quirky with it and still for it to make sense. And I think the original idea, ... when we were having a brainstorm, we sort of thought it would be funny if a cow was kind of running, rampaging through a field, and standing on tents, and people could choose a tent that they would be sleeping in, and then if the bull trod on your tent, then you would be the winner. And then, from there, we just played around with the idea and came up with something – using the GPS collar originally – that made sense for them.
L.A.: Yeah, I think it kind of fits the spirit of Glastonbury, which is a bit, like, independent and a little …
Iain Tait: … unusual …
L.A.: Unusual, different, subversive.
Iain Tait: Yeah, that's right. I think the subversiveness of it was part of the charm. And what's interesting with it as a campaign is that we've now run it for three years. So the first year we did it and it got picked up because it had never been done before. And the second year we did it, we evolved it slightly so that you could play it with friends, and you could select a square as a group of people, and the more people who chose a square, the more tickets you'd win, which was just as popular. And then we ran it for a third year, and it was the most popular ever. But we really simplified it, and we allowed people to enter via mobile phone and via text message, so that we could really broaden it out to people who weren't sitting in front of their computers every day. And it's an interesting thing because we all get really excited about the fact that doing new things on the internet generates a lot of buzz and a lot of traffic. So for us initially, we really didn't want to do "Spot The Bull" for the third year because we knew that bloggers wouldn't be so excited because they've seen it all before and there's no new story in there, but what we realized is that, just by broadening it out, we were able to kind of pick up and exploit new communities, to get new people to see it. So by simplifying it, it wasn't necessarily the same audience that had played it before but it was much broader and much bigger. And I think there's a tendency that digital agencies have sometimes to not repeat things, and sometimes you can repeat things, provided there's enough people that haven't seen it the first time to do it again. People are very dismissive of things that they've seen before. But the life of ideas can be much longer, and they can go to new audiences and reach new people, and it's not always about the early adopters, which, I think, is where a lot of the digital creatives in agencies focus all of their efforts.
L.A.: Why did you like the campaign "The Best Job In The World"?
Iain Tait: "The Best Job In The World" is a campaign that everyone fell in love with. It's a campaign for the Queensland Tourist Board in which they put out an advert saying you could win the best job in the world, and you had to make a short film, saying why you should get the job, and the job is basically lying around on a beach all day, and You get paid $150,000, or £150,000, a year, and all you have to do is feed the tropical fish, and even from the job ad itself, it's an advert for a wonderful life that we can all only imagine. And it was such a contagious idea that, the day after it came out, it was in all the newspapers, and then they cleverly orchestrated this thing. You know, the server crashed because it was so popular, and so, the next day, the newspapers were reporting that "The Best Job In The World" ad was so popular that people had flocked to it, and the server had crashed. And, ultimately, people had to do their applications online to be voted for by other people, and they had to submit videos, so the original idea made people make more content, and so it became this infrastructure of creativity, which was amazingly compelling, and people just fell in love with it. For me, it's one of the strongest ideas that I've come across in many years. Even the very title of it, "The Greatest Job In The World," is so confident and so brave, and you just want to know about it, and be a part of it, so I think it's definitely a sign of things to come. And, interestingly, the people became the campaign, so, you know, once the initial idea had been seeded, people's creativity, and the way that they created their applications … if it hadn't been popular, then the campaign wouldn't have worked, so it shows that effectiveness and creativity are massively linked. Without people building these things, and doing their applications, the campaign would have stayed very, very small, and no one would have seen it, so the more people that got involved, the bigger the project became, and the bigger it was. I think it's rare that, in creative awards, people look at effectiveness but, this time, without the effectiveness, the creativity was somehow less.
L.A.: How did this story end?
Iain Tait: They picked someone to be the guardian of the island, and their job is to blog from the island and talk about their experience of being there, so even once they've awarded the person the job, the campaign is kind of only just beginning, and it's part of this trend, I think, that you can sustain interest, at quite a low level, over a much longer period of time. You can imagine, next year … I've no idea if they're going to do this but you could imagine them saying, well, "Best Job In The World" is open again, you know, who's going to be the replacement? A bit like – you know, we talked about "Spot The Bull" – you could run it year after year and open it up to new audiences, and modify the creative, and tweak it, and develop on it, and so I think, for that reason as well, it's incredibly impressive.
L.A.: What ways are there to reload an idea like that?
Iain Tait: It's a really interesting question. I think because the media that we're working in, is changing so rapidly all the time. It might be a technology thing that might give it new legs; it might, you know, be a new audience that's come to digital media in some way. Two years ago, who would have thought that iPhone apps would be a massive channel that we could work with? Twitter, two years ago, wasn't a mainstream thing. Now, if you do something interesting on Twitter, it takes on a life of its own, a bit like the "Baker Tweet" thing that we did. Three, four years ago, Facebook wasn't important … and these things have a cycle and a rhythm but new things come around. We can tell similar stories in new and interesting ways every time one of these things comes to light.
L.A.: You also mentioned that the server crashed. Do you think it crashed for real or was that part of the PR game?
Iain Tait: I have no idea. And, in a way, it doesn't matter because, obviously, it would be bad, in some ways, for servers to crash but at the same time … One of my favorite things is Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who allegedly said a few years ago, that the web will always be a little bit broken. And I really like that as a sentiment and as a thought, because it shows that the internet is made by people: it's human, and we're fallible, and the internet's fallible, and one of the challenges that we sometimes see is that organizations and clients want things to be perfect because it's in the DNA of business to strive for perfection. But people quite like fallibility and randomness, and inconsistency in personalities. Things that make the world interesting. So websites crashing, or not working … although on the one hand, as people who create these things, we never want that to happen, but at the same time the fact that they're fallible makes them feel somehow approachable and real, which I kind of like.
L.A.: So it's always slightly wrong?
Iain Tait: Yeah. And I think … it's a good message. I think that people who create the best things in the world will always be a little bit broken as well, you know.
L.A.: Let's talk about "The Bakery," which created quite a buzz from a very small microcosm next door, basically. How was that story?
Iain Tait: I think it was a coming together of a few perfect moments in time, and I think, you know, in a year people will look at it and see it as a novelty, and a stupid thing that we did, but at the moment that it came out it was exactly right. Twitter was just becoming popular, people were looking for brands to be able to do things on Twitter, and we found a way for the bakery next door to our office to be able to send Twitter messages to say that fresh things had just come out of the oven. And we built a machine, so it was a box about this big, with a very simple knob on it and a button, so that they could select rolls, cakes, croissants, hit the button. Because, obviously, in a bakery you don't want to have a laptop or a mobile phone there – that's too complicated to send the message, and this is something that's very straightforward. And the idea was that people sort of local to the bakery could subscribe to the Twitter feed, and every time that there is something like "Oh yeah, fresh bread …" – because we all know how much better fresh bread tastes than bread that has been out of the oven for half a day. So in the beginning we thought it would be fun, and we thought actually something we would quite like to get, so we could do that with the bakery. And then we realized it actually was really significant in terms of using what seems like a very mundane and pedestrian channel like Twitter, and people talk about it as being this thing where, you know, "Here's what I had for breakfast," and there's this criticism that it's just used for very silly things. And we believe that all of these channels can be used in interesting ways for business. So we hoped that what they would ultimately do with it, at the end of the day, when they have leftover cakes, to send a Twitter message saying, okay, we've got 50 % off all of the remaining stock, and on their way home from work they can pick up things cheaply. And you can start to see how these things can help drive commerce. It might just be a small incremental example of that but I think creative ideas that feel like they're leading to something bigger massively attract people, and I think that's what this is. It's a moment in time that we or other people will take, and they will evolve it and turn it into something better. And one of the most exciting things about "Baker Tweet" was that there were a couple of people who took it, and there's one guy who took it and he almost remixed it. He took it and used a different web service to only send him the messages when he was in a certain location, which was really smart, so he didn't want to get messages about the bakery when he was, you know, ten miles, twenty miles away. He only wanted to get messages from the bakery when he was within, say, one mile of the bakery. And we hadn't considered that, so it's great that we had an idea that someone else could take and evolve and grow, and turn into something better than we'd originally considered.
L.A.: It's interesting that you used the term someone else took the idea and he "remixed" it, a music term, or a recording or DJ term. Is that a common term, is that how things work, and are shared, and evolve into something else on the net?
Iain Tait: I think there's a culture of that; it was certainly very prevalent a couple of years ago, when everybody was talking about mash-ups, and that could be technology, or it could be people taking two video clips and combining them together in a way that nobody had ever seen before. That feels a little bit passé now but, at the same time, it's still a massive part of web culture because the tools are now there for people to be able to take things and improve on them, or make them worse, or fuck them up. But they can make them their own because people know how to download a clip from YouTube, even though it's not officially there, and they know how to use iMovie or Movie Maker and make a version of it, maybe only ten of their friends will find it interesting or funny, but they can take it and make it relevant to their own tiny audience, and I think it's something. Going back to the "The Greatest Job In The World," I think part of what made that a brilliant campaign is that people could express their own version of why they wanted to get the best job in the world by making their own videos. I think we're only seeing people doing interesting kind of experiments with user-generated content, and some of it succeeds, and a lot of it fails, but I think, you know, you see the ability of people to create their own stories, whether it's 140 characters in Twitter or a short film. The general population is getting much, much better at telling stories online in interesting ways.
L.A.: What's the volume of Twitter these days?
Iain Tait: I'm a big fan of Twitter. I love it, I use it a lot … It was interesting to see something perhaps less, arguably less important, the death of Michael Jackson. The traffic to Twitter was just all over the place and there was so much messaging going on, you couldn't avoid it. I think I was out, and people were trying to check on news sites on their phones. CNN was overloaded, and the BBC was overloaded, so in a strange way, because it's very efficient and very lightweight, and people are hearing it from people that they know, or that they're connected to somehow. It's really an efficient, clever way of transmitting small bits of information.
L.A.: And it's totally current – from Michael Jackson's death to the Japanese earthquake.
Iain Tait: It was just really interesting to see a big moment in popular culture. And I don't think there's ever been something that everyone, or large numbers of people, are connected to that's quite so instantaneous. In years gone by, people would have perhaps texted each other sort of, "Have you heard the news?" But this was hundreds of people all going, "Oh my God, Michael Jackson's just died!" And it gives you almost an instant cultural barometer of things, because at the moment Twitter gets talked about a lot but it's still pretty early-adopter and not mainstream and if you sort of project forwards and you think about what would happen if everyone is connected to a service like Twitter, and everyone is sharing, you get this real-time sense of everything that's going on in the world, and that might scare some people but I think it's incredibly interesting as a thought. And you become, if you're contributing to it, you become instantaneously part of the zeitgeist, and that's a really interesting thing because, as I was saying before, the level of creativity that you have to employ to be part of that is so lightweight that I don't think there's anybody who's literate who couldn't express something in 140 characters. I think that's why it's taken off so much. It's because the barriers to entry feel very low and they've made it a very smart service. You can text it, there's apps, you can access it through a website, you can access it through a box in a bakery. There's many ways of contributing to this ecosystem that exists online.
L.A.: Why is Twitter so exciting?
Iain Tait: It's still in flux, so if you'd asked people, you know, four years ago … there's a lot of people I know who are very active, very well-read bloggers, who have stopped blogging because Twitter feels more exciting, more fun, more vibrant for them right now. And I can sympathize with that but I think everything's moving. It's always moving to somewhere else, so a couple of years ago, Facebook was totally the thing that was going to change everything all the time. I can see, just within my own group of friends and people that I socialize with, that with Twitter it's kind of … I don't bother with Facebook as much as I used to. I don't think it's going to finish with Twitter. I think there are other things because Twitter actually has this quite interesting open architecture. It could mean that it's someone's remix of Twitter that actually becomes the dominant player. An interesting example is this thing called "TwitPic," where you can take photographs and they appear in a Twitter stream. Twitter was never kind of designed to deal with photographs, and I don't think Twitter was either sort of supposed to … didn't feel like a thing that was designed for people to share links but a lot of people are now sort of not using RSS readers because all the interesting stuff comes to them through links in Twitter, through people that they know and that they're communicating with in real time, so we are constantly seeing this kind of shift in behavior, which is fascinating.
L.A.: A statement Deepak Chopra gave me a couple of years ago: "If you want to know about the human condition, check the internet." It's as simple as that, isn't it?
Iain Tait: I think that's why Jonathan Harris' project "We Feel Fine" is something that has been around a few years and continually comes back again and again as a landmark in digital creativity, or digital art. What "We Feel Fine" does is it looks on the internet, and any time anyone expresses a feeling, i.e. they type in a text of a MySpace page or a blog, saying "I'm feeling …" a certain way, it will pull that into a site, and it uses data in a really interesting way. So if it pulls it from a MySpace page, it will also look at the age and the sex and the location of the person who's put it in. So you can take the feelings of the world and cut them up, and slice and dice them in a really interesting way. So you could say, "Show me how women in America were feeling on a certain day," and it will show you the data that they've done. But it's done in a simple, beautiful, artistic way, and you can also sort by emotions. You can say, "Show me when people were feeling depressed." It feels like a real-time window onto human emotion. Twitter's kind of similar to that.
L.A.: Twitter had quite an impact on what happened in Iran …
Iain Tait: I think what happened in Iran, and the way that that got transmitted through Twitter, is another really good example of just how much that's plugged into real life and the real world, and how it becomes this really great way for people to stay in touch, in real time, with what's going on. And, again, it shows that it is not just a frivolous thing that has no meaning. It's not just about people saying what they had for breakfast, or people's expressions of what's happening right now, which is the basic premise of Twitter, the line above the box that you type into. It's something along the lines of "What are you doing right now?" And it's such a broad, simple, open question that it can be used for so many things, whether it's political, social, funny, romantic … you know, anything that's human can be expressed in 140 characters. I think if you look at Twitter and you look at the diversity of the messages that go on in there, that you realize that, at the moment, it does feel like an expression of humanness, which is what great technology should always be. It should always feel connected to people and a way of actually bettering who we are as a human race.
L.A.: What will the impact of mobile be in the future?
Iain Tait: It's hard to say. I think it depends when you're watching this. It might be that digital, that mobile has come of age. And what's really interesting for me, as someone who works in the business, is that this year has always been the "Year of Mobile," for about the last ten years, and everyone's saying, "This year, mobile's finally going to take off." And what the iPhone's done by being a platform … they've realized that it's about getting the developer community able to make brilliant things, and finding a way of distributing them to people. So that's why it's taken off so dramatically: it makes it easy for creators to get things out there. And the platform's well understood – and it's well developed. The thing that has stopped mobile from taking off outside of the iPhone environment is that there isn't ... to develop something that works across a Motorola, a Nokia, a Samsung, all of these different handsets have slightly different ways of doing things, which makes it very difficult for creators to conceive of things that have an experience that's going to be consistent. And I think that, as a creative person, what you want is to understand what the experience for people is ultimately going to be like. And the iPhone has a very consistent tone of delivery, so you know that, ultimately, people will be seeing the thing that you originally hoped they would see.
L.A.: Do you think that everyone can be digitally creative?
Iain Tait: Absolutely. You know everything is becoming digital. Even if you're a painter, you should still be looking at how you can use the internet in interesting ways. Even if it's just … when you finish a painting, you tell a bunch of people who like your work on Twitter, and you tell them in an interesting way – that's a form of digital creativity. And, I think, the skills and crafts are just as simple as they've always been. People shouldn't look at digital as being a separate thing. They should look at digital as being a way of connecting, and I think that's where the power comes from. It's about connectivity, and about being able to share things, and so whatever it is that you're creating, or what your art is, or what your way of expression is, digital can make it better, and more connected, and more exciting.
L.A.: For the past two years, you have been with Digital Wieden+Kennedy Portland. How does that differ from Poke?
Iain Tait: In some ways, it's very similar. Both are creatively focused companies that thrive on independence. But in other ways it's incredibly different. The scale, for one, is an interesting challenge. At Poke, it was easy to be nimble: we could get the entire company together in a room and make sure that everyone was pointing in the same direction. Whilst W+K doesn't feel like a big company, it's at a size which introduces new opportunities as well as challenges when you're trying to make changes in internet time. From a cultural and organizational point of view, it's important to see scale as something that allows you to be ambitious, bold, and confident, not something that makes you slow and lumbering.
L.A.: Where do you see the differences between digital and traditional agencies?
Iain Tait: I think the differences between digital agencies and traditional ad agencies at this point are mainly about legacy and history. It feels backwards looking to even talk in those terms, but there's a reality that the things you've grown up doing are important. Not only from an internal standpoint but also in terms of the expectations of outsiders, whether that's partners, clients or potential recruits. The challenge for all of us is how to innovate and flex in ways that build on our strengths but without those roots strangling radical change. I was very fortunate to join an agency that's always had chaos and risk-taking as part of its mission. It makes today's world easier to navigate.
L.A.: One of the extraordinary campaigns you have worked on at W+K is Old Spice. How did you make Old Spice work in the world of the new digital advert?
Iain Tait: Another fortunate event for me. I joined just as the agency had created one of the greatest ads of the last few years (I think I'm allowed to say that as I had nothing to do with it). The original "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" ad was a masterpiece in so many ways. When I came onboard, the team were sharing some ideas about what to do around the new campaign. And I suggested that maybe he could respond to people on YouTube. It seemed totally reasonable, there was this incredible guy who people seemed to love, and he naturally talked directly to camera. The team liked the idea and we went from there. This is an example of taking the traditional strengths of the agency and applying them in the digital space. I think we're seeing this kind of campaign: great content, made interactive, distributed and amplified in digital channels, as being the sweet spot for advertising agencies. Whereas the place that more digital agencies are shining is in the creation of software, platforms and services. The battles are being fought in the middle.
L.A.: What about the work you did with Coca-Cola and Maroon 5. Can you tell us about that?
Iain Tait: Coca-Cola have a platform called Coca-Cola Music, which is an initiative aimed at teenagers around the world. And they'd signed up Maroon 5 to write a track in 24 hours. We worked to bring this to life and create an interactive experience that would put fans right at the core of the studio and the recording process. In collaboration with Hellicar & Lewis and a team of great creative coders, we put an interactive sculpture into the studio We used projection mapping, customized Microsoft Kinect software and social media tools to bring inspiration from fans into the studio live in real time. And rather than the band having to hunch around screens in order to interact, the whole thing was life-sized and in their faces. The entire event was streamed live for 24 hours and teens from 139 countries took part. And the song ended up being pretty good too!
L.A.: Another global brand is Nike. Could you elaborate on the Ronaldo ad?
Iain Tait: Although this looks very different to the Old Spice campaign, it's another example of the agency playing to its strengths. Obviously, we created all kinds of digital activations around the content, which allow people to engage and share in interesting ways. But, fundamentally, it's another great piece of content distributed smartly – not targeting individuals using Twitter but, this time, with global takeovers of Facebook and YouTube. But to put these successes purely down to creating great stories that work well in digital channels combined with smart distribution would be missing the point somewhat. I think the shift that we're seeing is that we all need to be thinking about the world as a fractured and distributed environment where brands aren't in control. People are in control. And sometimes companies like Google or Facebook help people to locate the things they're interested in. As people who are paid by marketers, our job is to create things that people flock to and enjoy, that tell the right stories about their wares – whether those things are pieces of film, pictures, words, bits of software, or fragments of stuff that we don't even understand yet. We've always been in the attention-getting and connection-making industry – the nature of those things has just changed recently. And it's going to continue to change faster, and more radically, than we've ever imagined.