Big Spaceship CEO: The future of digital ads is in ‘micro-interactions’

There was a time when TV ads commanded undivided attention, billboards dominated the landscape and glossy magazine ads stopped readers dead in their tracks (or so the story goes). Now, active moments of interaction have largely replaced passive minutes of exposure. The virtuosos of the swipe, scroll and snap have taken center stage, and they’re ready for their applause.

With the deadline extended for the 2015 IAB MIXX Awards, we spoke to Michael Lebowitz, founder and CEO of agency Big Spaceship and this year’s jury chair.

“Where a lot of the best awards shows have existed for a very long time and have kind of transitioned into acknowledging accomplishments in digital, the IAB MIXX Awards were really born digital,” he said.

Take a look at his thoughts on the role of the agency, the state of interactive innovation and more below. Then be sure to enter by July 17.

What’s the agency’s responsibility when it comes to advancing innovation?
The agency’s role is not to reflect the structures of their clients. Clients are stuck in their silos because those companies tend to be very large and their internal organizations have been established for a very long time. An agency that’s very siloed is working against the needs of the clients by reflecting their structure.

The more that people are thinking horizontally or in a more concentric way rather than in a very vertical, siloed way, the more successful they’ll be in really understanding a digital world. Anybody can produce digital work. [… But] that’s very, very challenging if you have a large vestigial infrastructure in place.

So creativity can come from anywhere? Sounds a bit cliché.
As soon as you have a creative department, you say explicitly and implicitly that there are some people who have ideas and are there to be creative and some people who are not. Whether you say you accept ideas from everywhere [or not], you have to back that up and walk the walk within your company and how you structure it.

We’ve never had a department or called anybody creatives, and we generally solicit ideas from analysts and account people, and not just solicit from them, but it’s part of their obligation. I’ve said a million times that creativity is an obligation, not a vocation. It’s a simple thing, but it’s actually not commonly practiced.

And is that all-hands-on-deck outlook reflected in the IAB MIXX Awards jury?
You’ve got somebody who runs all of marketing for Bank of America, somebody who runs all the marketing for Dunkin’ Brands, Nick Law from R/GA, me and then you’ve also got somebody who’s super high-level at Condé Nast. We can debate with each other and learn from each other in equal measure. Watching the learning process going on is incredible because it’s not just everybody standing for what they stand for.

Everybody seems so focused on content, but are you seeing a lot of innovative, interactive features in more traditional formats like display?
Advertising is undergoing a transition right now where it’s harder and harder to break through with a novel piece of interactivity. It’s very hard to surprise someone [with display advertising] when they know where you’re going to be. But that’s a great bar to set, and I’m sure that we’ll see some great display this year. Every time a new bar is set, the industry comes and exceeds it.

So where’s the real innovation happening?
We’re getting into a world of micro-interactions – a glance, rather than sitting down and looking at or reading something, and where does the brand exist in a world of micro-interactions where there’s no real estate left to occupy with a traditional message?

It’s very easy to award work that speaks with a very loud voice, that’s got a great stunt attached to it or is big and shiny and polished in some way. But a lot of work that’s really genuinely great is quiet, simplified to the point of producing no friction in an experience whatsoever. So how do you reward the best user experience that feels seamless, almost transparent, and just gets out of the way?

Why are the IAB MIXX Awards crucial to a creative industry like advertising?
Because they’re our collective sense of what “good” is now. Particularly for digital, things move so fast. Big Spaceship is 15 years old, and I’ve seen an endless number of changes. We started and there wasn’t even an iPod, never mind an iPhone. So in an industry that is so influenced by that high velocity of change, being able to freeze-frame and put those rings in the trunk of the tree and really define excellence now is more necessary than it’s ever been.

Because of the composition of the jury, it’s about as significant of an accolade as you can get from your industry because you’ve managed to break through not just with your peers, but your client-side people, your media people — that’s a really unique thing and something to take pride in.

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