Flash, Tell Me A Story!

I've been underwhelmed the last few years. Disgruntled one might say. Admittedly, I'm a cantankerous creative guy who is easily frustrated by the eternal quest for all that is new and exciting.

Advertising was beautiful. Technology was beautiful. I wanted them to get married and have kids that I could play with. What happened?

The battle for our attention has become a deafening din and we are more time-impoverished than ever. So why, I ask in my more reflective moments, has advertising not kept pace? Why do agencies still crank out :30 spots with little apparent attention to astronomical production costs or any expectation of addressable, measurable response? Why, I broodingly ruminate, does there continue to be this yawning chasm in the space where technology and marketing are meant to intersect? Is there any relief? Is there anything to warm a disgruntled creative director's heart on a chilly December day? Indeed there is, gentle reader, indeed there is.

There is a grassroots movement afoot that auspiciously melds self-publishing, storytelling, and Macromedia Flash. Yes, yes, I know storytelling has been around since Og lied to the others about some spectacularly bogus dinosaur hunt, but only recently has Macromedia Flash brought the sacred and profane art of storytelling into the digital realm in a compelling way.

As a word of warning, most creative directors like strange things and I am no exception. We delight in things that make our eyebrows shoot up and make us wonder how in the hell anyone ever thought that stuff up. (That would be what we call "creativity.") Whatever would prompt one to create animated shorts on the subject of muffins (http://www.muffinfilms.com/)? Or come up with a series like making fiends (http://www.makingfiends.com/)? And what kind of mad genius would create a 1930's style, black and white animated cartoon for the we(http://www.bulbo.com/)? How exactly does one scare up a richly bizarre character like this one(http://wecomeinpeace.free.fr/)? I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do have a theory. But before we talk about that theory, let's take our creative exploration to the dangerous side of town.

There is a raw, garage band feel to some of the work being produced today and some of it is art of such a personal nature that one tends to just stare slack jawed at the screen long after the whole turgid affair has ended. While certainly not for the faint of heart, "We Like The Moon" (http://www.rathergood.com/moon_song/) and "Gay Bar" (http://www.rathergood.com/gaybar/) are two such examples. You might never use something like this to sell baby food, but man, you don't soon forget it. This is crazy stuff, but how does all this translate into advertising?

By now you have probably seen the work by Mekanism (http://www.mekanism.com/) for Napster 2.0. These animated shorts are, IMHO, brilliant. The concept is tight, totally on-brand, and the execution is flawless. Tommy Means, executive producer at Mekanism said in a recent phone conversation, "It didn't make sense to launch Napster 2.0 with a traditional TV spot. It wasn't right for the brand and the young early adopters, the cultural influencers 15-25 wouldn't have gone for it. We focused on where the critical mass audience is today and storytelling has always been the best way to get a message across."

Instead of launching with television, Mekanism created 12 animated shorts in Flash, which it rolled out with an unpromoted link off the Napster site. Soon, through viral marketing, the animations were seen by over 1 million people. They also repurposed three of those Flash animations into current broadcast spots. Now here is the kicker kids, the cost of the entire campaign (website, 12 animations, 4 spots, tracking and e-mail database) equaled the cost of producing one broadcast spot. Yeah, that got your attention, didn't it?

  • SO WHAT IS IT WITH FLASH? It's been around for a while, but only recently has this compelling work started to appear. I asked Tommy Means why he thinks this is so and he told me, "Tools like Flash and Final Cut Pro are changing the industry. We did some work for Pioneer that came in around $300,000. It would have cost in the millions two years ago using software like Toon Maker." The work for Napster points in an interesting direction. Nielsen has said that the networks have lost male viewers 18-34. Well, creative shops like Mekanism have found them with Flash and storytelling and have found a way to extend the storytelling beyond broadcast. And they have found a way to do it at an awesome price point!
  • SO WHAT'S NEXT FOR FLASH? Well, as I said earlier, I have a theory and here it is: in this age of accountable marketing there will be much less talking to empty living rooms. Advertisers want to dialogue with (not broadcast to) content-attached audiences. One could argue that point-of-sale and online are two of the best places to engage these consumers through storytelling. It can work in-store and it can work online. For years agency creative directors have turned up their noses at the web in pursuit of the perfect reel. Well, all that is changing because the work that I see being done in Flash today is damn compelling and it has the interactive capabilities that marketers increasingly require.

Did you already forward this column or some of the links to someone you know because you thought they would enjoy them? I'll venture that you have, because they're simply compelling. And being compelling is what advertising has always strived for.

We need to focus on the intriguing dance of storytelling, Flash and self-publishing that's taking place at the intersection of marketing and technology. It just might be the future of advertising.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver