Rise of the machines: Haydn Kerr on being a creative in a digital world

For the past few years, digital has been brandied about as the big thing in the industry. In that time, it’s become difficult to have a marketing conversation without hearing a reference to digital as if it were some extraneously connected appendage only vaguely associated with the industry—a treatment that has not been applied to any of the more traditional channels. But things have changed. Digital is no longer the siloed side project that’s only tapped into if there’s enough budget left over. It’s now an integral part of the comms strategy of most major brands, and its prominence is only becoming stronger as the online audience grows.

To investigate the changing face of digital, StopPress has launched ‘Rise of the machines’, a new series in which we chat to few brains in the industry about how the channel is evolving. First up is DDB’s digital creative director Haydn Kerr.  


StopPress: Is digital still a thing or has it just become an expectation now?
Haydn Kerr: We expect every campaign to incorporate digital in a significant way. But the art of combining broadcast with interactive media remains a challenge. They are very different ways of engaging an audience – do you want them to sit passively and receive your message or do you want them to actually do something? The traditional model gives the client total control over the campaign, involving your audience means that you need to give control away. You need to talk about what the audience is interested in. And this scares some clients.

SP: The phrase ‘digital skills’ is thrown around all the time. What does this even mean? And what types of “digital skills” do modern creatives have?
HK: I don’t look for digital skills, as much as  a digital mindset …
Traditional creatives are masters in telling a story. They trust that media will ensure that this story reaches the consumer. Digital creatives have been brought up without media budgets – we have always had to earn the audience’s involvement. We constantly ask: will they actually do it? I would say that traditional creatives begin with the idea, whereas digital creatives begin with the audience. 

SP: Are there still a lot of digital charlatans around (those who pretend to have digital skills but don’t add anything to the business)? How do you identify them?
HK: You hear the buzzwords, the systems, the checkboxes – they have a topographic understanding of digital, they understand all the ingredients that make a great campaign, except that they’re missing the essential element – the idea that makes it all work.

I don’t think we have too many of these people in New Zealand. The only ‘charlatans’ I’ve met here have flown in from overseas. 

SP: Are creative teams getting younger to stay in touch with the latest technology fads or can the older guns still keep up? Have there been any shifts in DDB’s staff demographics in recent years?
HK: The best digital ideas I saw last year came from our most senior teams. Maybe they’re more hungry to create work that is ‘of this time’. Or maybe they’re more experienced and know a good idea when they see one.

I will also say that I haven’t been blown away by the digital work I’ve seen at school shows in New Zealand. It seems ad schools still focus on print and activations. Recently, I was amazed that an intern team had never made a Facebook campaign – I thought this would be the most basic digital skill they’d be taught. Interns are far more likely to see a Facebook brief than a print brief.

SP: Do agencies still need a head of digital? Isn’t this role perhaps akin to the head of TV, head of telephone or head of radio?
HK: DDB doesn’t have a head of digital. Instead we trust our suits and planners to manage digital projects for their clients. My title as digital creative director is increasingly becoming redundant – all of the creative directors here are well-versed in digital and very capable of delivering a digital campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised if I was DDB’s last digital creative director.
That said, there will always be a need for a digital production team and currently at DDB we have a team of more than 30 spanning social management, design, developers, technologists, planners and producers. They need a management structure, so in that way, ‘head of digital production’ makes sense.

SP: The ‘Bring Down the King’ campaign was hugely popular. How important is it to create that connection between the physical and the digital worlds. Is this perhaps where the sweet spot for effective digital advertising lies? 
HK: Good digital work has always involved the real world in a meaningful way. But the pace of change is amazing me – I can’t believe how many briefs I have on my desk that are asking for devices or wearable technology. I think this space is really starting to excite creatives and clients.

  • If you would like to contribute to ‘Rise of the machines’, please email [email protected]
  • Click here to see more stories in this series.  

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