Remembering when digital advertising was the ugly stepchild
Once upon a time, I worked at Messner Vetere Berger MacNamee Schmetterer Euro RSCG, an advertising agency in New York City.
People called the company MVBMS for short, thank goodness, except for the receptionist. I first visited MVBMS for a job interview back in the fall of 1997. I was kept waiting for an hour, listening to that receptionist answer the phone, “Messner Vetere Berger MacNamee Schmetterer” Every. Single. Time. For the entire hour I sat there, I listened to her repeat this name about every ten seconds. This is the reason why, nearly twenty years later, I can still recite the full company name in one second.
MVBMS created award-winning television and print advertising work for many well-regarded brands, including Volvo, Philips Electronics, Schering-Plough (the makers of Coppertone) and MCI (before the WorldCom buyout, and subsequent flameout). In 1997, MVBMS sucked at doing ‘digital.’ In their defense, so did every other ad agency.
Like many ad agencies in the late 1990s, MVBMS’s answer to digital advertising was a relatively simple formula that went something like this: uncork the engaging allure of “interactive,” a fresh term in 1997, mix it with so-called “traditional” advertising—a good print ad or TV spot—then render an “animated online banner ad.” Interestingly, online advertising has not improved much in the nearly two decades since. (The bells and whistles are louder, though, aren’t they?) But in 1997, a five-frame “shockwave”-powered rectangle window, sitting atop your favorite website homepage, was pretty seductive, especially to the clients. (Shockwave, developed by Adobe, eventually evolved into Flash.)
The digital group at MVBMS, comprised of producers, account executives, graphic designers and a pair of copywriters, lacked any semblance of discipline. The design studio, chaotic and disorganized, was devoid of oversight, producing subpar work, frequently missed deadlines and were notorious for blowing budgets. As added endorsement of the digital team’s fecklessness, the agency’s account teams, overseeing television and other traditional advertising, encouraged their clients to engage competing shops for their digital work. Things were that screwed up.
In order to alter negative perceptions of the digital team and elevate its stature within the company, barriers that separated digital media from traditional media—anything not considered digital like television, print, radio and outdoor—needed to be eradicated. This was nothing short of a cultural revolution, and I was hired on as the instigator. Initially hired as a consultant, I joined the company full-time, sitting on the sidelines assessing staff capabilities and providing leadership to the digital team, with recommendations on who to hire and fire, how best to reorganize the department, and, ultimately, how to deliver a clearly defined workflow process.
We met frequently with senior members of the traditional creative teams to share ideas, bringing digital solutions to the table during campaign kick-off brainstorming sessions. This collaboration, theoretically, would float all boats: with better digital work came improved self-esteem for the digital team, which in turn began to earn more prestige in the agency. The goal was to gain the trust of the account team so that more high-profile work would walk through the doors, building on a cycle of trust.
In those first few meetings, I became the de facto “information architect,” charged with developing the road maps for website design, which was outside my comfort zone but within my skillset. Since no one on the digital team owned this area of responsibility, it was a safe place to park and develop a broader strategy.
In website development environments, an information architect shapes the “user experience:” how you, the user, will experience a website to best extract its utility. One of the first documents that an information architect creates before a website can be constructed is called a “wire frame,” which is essentially a flow chart with boxes and arrows serving as the road map for website designers and copywriters. The road map defines and informs the user experience… “This is the homepage, and if you click this button, it does this or it goes here.” That’s pretty much it, with apologies to those who study this discipline for four years at an accredited institution.
On occasion, I presented our work-in-progress to our clients, and participated in new business pitches to would-be clients, representing the digital team, alongside, but always subordinate to, the “traditional” team. The “traditional guys,” who created the TV commercials, radio spots, print advertising and billboards, earned the agency its big fees. And of course, these traditional teams—account directors, creative directors, art directors and copywriters—were the big dogs at advertising agencies in those days before digital became…traditional.
This separation of “digital’ and “traditional” created a lot of intra-agency strife, and an impenetrable barrier that prevented our team from having direct access to clients. We were often shut out of new business pitches. Digital was an afterthought in those days, the proverbial ugly stepchild. An advertising campaign would often be in full swing, television commercials airing, advertisements already appearing in magazines, before the agency or the client suggested a website or an online display campaign (those ad banners you see on web pages) to augment the program.
It’s worth remembering that during the Jurassic era of digital (1997 to 1998), the guiding website design mantra in those days was design for the widest possible audience and the lowest common denominator desktop computer. Designing for the broadest possible audience is logical and a good business decision. But taken to the extreme, such compromises often give birth to really, awful work.
And speaking of awful, I worked with the team that built the first website for Schering Plough’s Coppertone. The Coppertone project, which occupied the bulk of my time before things became really weird, should have been an excellent opportunity to expand the legitimacy of digital media at MVBMS. After our account team received the website content requirements from the Coppertone clients, I created a wire frame which established the content parameters: what goes where and how it is accessed. We presented this document to the client for approval, and then off to the drawing board we went. Using just thirty-two colors, (the average color portrait photograph actually contains a million or so colors) to fit a computer screen no larger than 12 inches diagonally, we built this quirky little website in just three months. It was “on brand,” which is to say, it had the Coppertone logo on the homepage.
More funding and resources were required to succeed within that traditional agency construct, and ultimately, the agency was not yet prepared to make the financial commitments needed to fully support this digital vision. The digital mandate, lacking sustained funding, eventually lost momentum, and my job became shapeless in a hurry. My amorphous state remained so because leadership did not know quite what to do with me or digital. Curiously, they wouldn’t fire me, either. I had no actual work. But I showed up at the offices occasionally to see if I still had a desk and to check if my phone had a dial tone. In January 1999, the phone went dead.