Article first published in the December 2013 issue of Shots magazine and can also be found on

What we're talking about when we talk about digital has become almost impossible to pin down. The digital landscape is made of isolated islands of unrepeatable genius, so how should you navigate it when your clients ask for the next big thing? Simon Richings, executive creative director at the London office of independent global creative agency AnalogFolk, explores where digital might be heading next.

By the time the 2012 award season drew to a close, the new direction for digital creativity was already mapped out. Service design as marketing was the new mantra – the creation of devices and online services so useful, original and interesting that they’d be endlessly talked about and shared and celebrated. R/GA’s Nike FuelBand was the poster child for a new age of agencies making real products with their clients. FuelBand was a wristband that tracked your physical activity, encouraging you to set goals, do more, get fitter and share your progress. A Nike product to be worn every day, connected to the brand but focused on the user. Making these kinds of things would be how we’d spend our days – and nights – from now on.

Only it wasn’t. And not because FuelBand was a false herald, or that service design as marketing isn’t a valid and powerful way to meet a client’s needs. Just because, well, in 2013 there’s a load of other exciting stuff to make too.

Digital is difficult to pin down. One of the reasons is that the word ‘digital’ has become muddied. Are we talking about new technology? Or any technology generally? Or the web? Or social media? Or anything with a screen? What about film on YouTube?

The other reason is that digital is hard to do well. Instead of a densely populated landscape of technological marketing success stories, we’ve got something that looks like a Tube map – lots of standout points of interest and lots of white space in-between. These nodes of brilliance become the triumphs continually discussed by industry types and eventually quoted by clients: “We want something like FuelBand/Old Spice Responses/Volkswagen Fun Theory/Burger King Subservient Chicken…”

This year, everyone wants their version of Draftfcb’s Oreo Daily Twist. The 2013 Cannes Lions Cyber Grand Prix winner was a social media initiative – 100 simple, pictorial Facebook posts, each a visual pun based on an Oreo cookie and a trending news story. Huge success, a ton of new fans and a remarkable amount of mainstream media coverage later, clients want their own Daily Twist. And they can get it… providing they have a 100-year-old fondly-regarded brand, some great creative talent and a simple but visually distinct product (an Oreo cookie is pretty much its own logo). The formula isn’t as portable as it first seems.

The other Cyber Grand Prix winner at Cannes couldn’t have been more different. Pereira & O’Dell’s The Beauty Inside for Toshiba and Intel is an episodic film, a love story, in which the main protagonist wakes up in a different body every day. It’s a tale beautifully told and, because the central character’s appearance keeps changing, the audience can take part; recording video diary segments as if they were him. It’s a lovely idea that communicates the intended message memorably and features a really meaningful use of interactivity. That element – allowing the audience to star in your communications – is the bit other brands may want to replicate, and they will, to varying degrees of success (mainly, lesser).

All of these winners, these successes, have something in common – they’re all completely unlike each other. None of them have set new formats for the industry to reliably follow. There’s occasional chatter about which platforms are dying and which are the future, whether that’s microsites, mobile apps, Facebook apps, second screen utilisations, games, interactive films, augmented reality applications etc. But these are just categorisations that, divorced from an idea or intent, are relatively unhelpful.

So how do you create great digital work? First of all, don’t say “We should do something like FuelBand.” Actually, the aforementioned winners have another thing in common, and this is the important one: the relevance of their idea and execution to the brand, product or message. It’s fundamental. To make waves you’re almost certainly going to have to invent something new. The key is to look for a technological or cultural opportunity that’s relevant to the brand or product. You’re probably not going to find it on the brief. It’s going to be something you have to invent, with clear value for the audience or end-user, as well as the client.

What else? Don’t start with what was right for someone else. Also, don’t start with the intention of doing something achingly futuristic and contemporary. Start with a fantastic/simple/improbable idea and have the imagination to deliver it in an achingly futuristic and contemporary way or the bravery to do the opposite, getting all analogue on it. There’s clearly a place for great, simple storytelling in this realm, but a word to be especially suspicious of is ‘content’. It’s generally used to refer to something that doesn’t yet have an idea to drive it – a powerful, relevant, sit-up-and-take-notice, rise-above-the-noise idea.

But it’s relevance and value that matter most. Inventing something new is hard, but re-purposing another brand’s invention for your own client is potentially disastrous. This is what is so difficult and so exciting about digital. The next big thing looks nothing like those other big things. But it’ll be extraordinary and original and change the game for everyone again. Here’s to the next node on the digital Tube map. Race you there.