Before you make up your mind, please read the whole article. Don’t just skip to the bullet points.

Looking back

Let me back you up a couple of years. I was studying interaction design in Oslo. Me and a couple of class mates got some freelance work for a digital agency. Let’s call this agency Pizza. They were known for being really top notch and highly respected in the industry. Pizza had just been bought up by one of the world’s largest advertisement companies. Let’s call this company Oatmeal. This meant that all of Pizza’s clients were coming through Oatmeal. Pizza had now gone from an agency that came up with brilliant and creative ideas and created cutting edge interactive experiences to being a production house for an old school ad agency which got most of their revenue through TV and print ads. But I was of course extremely humble for getting this job and worked day and night just to make a good impression at the guys at Pizza.

My first project at Pizza (which was also my first real project as a professional frontend developer) was developing a small campaign site for a big food producer in Norway. They were introducing a new line of food, and Oatmeal had come up with a brilliant idea to wrap the food in a magic theme. TV commercials were being made and the client spent lots of money on this concept. It was brilliant! Who’s not gonna buy food that has a magical vibe to it? The deadline was already set before I started programming the site because the TV commercials were going to air at a certain date. It would be a disaster if the site wasn’t ready for that. As a junior I didn’t really know how processes were being run in real productions. I had only learnt about best case scenarios in school. I’d gone to meetups and learnt about all kinds of different agile development processes, such as scrum. But I was not prepared for a world with deadlines already set before I was handed the project. Long story short, I made the deadline and got a permanent job at Pizza. I was super happy to have a job before I even finished school. But that’s not the point. The point of this article is how traditional ad agencies hand over projects to the digital guys. And I wouldn’t be writing this article if that particular project wasn’t just the tip of the ice berg for me as a professional frontend developer.

Not much has changed since the good ol’ days

As we’ve seen on Mad Men, guys in suits sit around a table and come up with brilliant ideas for how they are going to sell a clients product and squeeze the target group’s wallets for as much as possible. Not much has happened in 70 years in traditional advertisement. And I don’t blame them either. They are good at what they do and always have done, which is giving the client a concept to get the word of their new product out to the world in the best possible way. But the problems occurred when they decided that digital was the way to go. Because that’s what all the kids are doing, right? They decided to hire digital people in house or get sub contractors to take care of their digital productions so that they could be capable of doing digital stuff.

Since the guys in suits now suddenly could do digital stuff, they were now digital experts as well as print experts. Because the difference between a print ad and a digital campaign site is that the campaign site is on the internet and you can view it on a screen and click on it. It is extremely hard for people who have no background in digital productions to wrap their head around the fact that a website or a mobile app can take months with a team of a lot of people to produce. When the creative guys then has the power to land a concept and a deadline together with a client before any digital people has heard of the project is a disaster waiting to happen. And it happens. All the time.

As I mentioned above, my first professional project was just the tip of the ice berg. After finishing school and started working there full time I started to notice a habit.

The bullet points

  • The creative stuff that would affect the digital product later down the line was often done by people that knew little about digital. They may have had the interest and the best intention, but not a background to be decision makers.
  • Their concepts could’ve been improved because they didn’t know what was doable, or the concepts were too ambitious for the scope of the project.
  • Digital often came as a supplement to a campaign, meaning it was put to the end of the project and the digital product was being produced just to fill a gap in the client’s need to have something digital. They needed to meet their clients customers in all channels. This often resulted in bad use of last years buzz words, such as QR codes and Instagram campaigs with some kind of a #hash #tag #involved.
  • Deadlines for digital productions were being set for unreasonable reasons, for example pre booked tv ad air-times or even something as simple as some guy representing the client felt that “August 3rd sounds good because that’s when we have our annual costume party”.
  • The people scoping and estimating hours for the digital product were often incompetent and shot blanks. The developers always took the shots, and the company as a whole suffered because we had to communicate to the client what a realistic estimate looked like afterwards.
  • Hours spent vs. hours allocated and estimated often had a mismatch. Even though we almost always met the deadline we worked a lot of overtime to make them.
  • Our main income came from banners because it was fairly simple to estimate and really easy to sell in large scale. The tricky thing was that nobody wanted to make them because Flash was an outdated technology and you have to make the same banner in 100 different formats and 20 different languages. This makes people hate their job pretty fast. Ironically this was the financial fundament of our business.

Summary

The list above seems pretty harsh, I know. Everything wasn’t of course that bad. In reality I had a great time at Pizza. The people were great and extremely tallented. I got to work with what I loved most - writing beautiful and elegant code. You can put a developer on any kind of project and he/her will always find some kind of way to have a blast. Even though it’s not visible in the end product always, the code that lies behind may be a beautiful piece of poetry. We were misplaced and didn’t fit in. And I’m guessing I speak for a lot of developers working or have been working at a place like I used to at “Pizza” when I say that:

  • Digital advertisement should be done by people that live and breathe digital
  • The people that come up with ideas should be digital fanatics and know what’s achievable with current tech. They should be excellent marketers with a foot planted on both sides of marketing and digital.
  • Developers are creative. We have to find solutions to problems that we have never encountered before. We know what is quick and effective and what is not. Don’t wait until everything is agreed to bring us in to a meeting. We should be there from the start. This is where magic happens - not when someone outsources or hires developers to execute their ideas to fill a digital gap in a campaign.