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THE CREATIVITY CHALLENGE: MEDIA CONFLUENCE AND ITS

EFFECTS ON THE EVOLVING ADVERTISING INDUSTRY

Kim Bartel Sheehan, Deborah K. Morrison

ABSTRACT: The advertising landscape has experienced dramatic change over the past several years, as consumers spend more
time online, have more control over traditional advertising vehicles, and chose to create and share their own content. As a result,
some advertisers are evolving to a confluence culture where traditional methods of work must adapt to embrace the new reality of
interactive content, emerging media, and production/consumption methods. In this essay, we show how agencies like 22squared
and advertisers like CNN are finding new ways to connect with consumers and build their brands. Implications for professionals
and educators are provided.

Keywords: Creative, new media, Internet, collaboration.

You cannot open Ad Age or Adweek these days without finding first harbinger of confluence, born decades ago, was the new
bold evidence that significant changes face the advertising emphasis on account planning within the agency process. Yet
industry. Some of these changes are good: interesting new work, another marker of confluence has been the forming and
innovative partnerships, big ideas that show what advertising can reforming of media planning and media buying systems within
do for brands. But after more than a decade of such evidence, we the industry. Then, as digital media exploded, agencies evolved
also know that there are downsides to these changes: brands and changed platforms, either by buying small digital firms or
floundering in digital space, layoffs in agencies large and small, creating add-on agency units to think digitally for clients.
and a workforce often unprepared for new media realities. Confluence culture thus suggests that agencies as units and the
During this time, consumers have changed the game as well by advertising profession as a whole face numerous challenges to
redefining their relationships to traditional media and spending their traditional ways of operation as they grow and morph and
increased time online. Most, if not all, of these changes are react to cultural shifts, particularly when it comes to creativity
driven by the growth of the digital world. The advertising and ideas. We envision four key challenges:
industry, largely governed by decades-old paradigms, continues
Engagement challenge: reinventing the mass message
to wrestle with the challenges of this digital realm.
model.
The rise of emerging media has resulted in a cultural shift toward CGM challenge: helping consumers tell stories.
a "digital culture" (Deuze 2006), which is also known as a Social media challenge: playing in a new landscape.
"convergence culture" (Jenkins 2006). It is our contention that a Training challenge: growing talent with creative
more appropriate term would be "confluence culture," a concept vision
we wrote about recently in the online journal First Monday The Engagement Challenge: Reinventing the Mass Message
(Sheehan and Morrison, in press). A confluence is a place where Model
things merge or flow together, where the obsolete gets sloughed
Mary Beth Kemp and Peter Kim of Forrester Research (2008;
off and strengths naturally evolve as the core becomes enhanced.
summarized in Morrissey 2008b) argue that traditional
Confluence culture is multidisciplinary, nimble, and creative. In
advertising is failing in its purpose. They note that consumers
this discussion, we see confluence culture as a talking point for
pay more attention to the recommendations of friends and
understanding how the advertising industry must change and
family than they do to marketing messages when making
how traditional methods of work might adapt to embrace the
purchase decisions yet that traditional agencies continue to
new reality of interactive content, emerging media, and
operate around a "mass message" model that fails to recognize
production/consumption methods.
the importance of one-to-one engagement and interactions. In
For advertising agencies, specific confluence issues exist. As best addition, traditional channels for advertising messages are less
practices have encouraged the evolution of traditional often used by today's consumers; the increasing use of pull
advertising practices toward more holistic brand visions, the technology, such as TIVO and Web-based programs, makes it
advertising profession has reengineered its core approaches. A

JournalofInteractiveAdvertising,Vol9No2(Spring2009),pp.4043.
2010AmericanAcademyofAdvertising,Allrightsreserved
ISSN15252019
41 JournalofInteractiveAdvertising Spring2009

possible to avoid commercials aired on traditional broadcast The CGM Challenge: Helping Consumers Tell Stories
channels.
The act of consuming media online has become synonymous
What the mass message model does well, though, is provide the with the act of producing media (Deuze 2006). Many online
opportunity for strong branding messages. This capability results users are not content with accessing and viewing or listening to
in a dichotomy in agency businesses, whereby some agencies content from established sources; rather, they want to interact
may be able to provide innovative messages and online with message content by adding to it or repurposing it for new
experiences for users but lack strong branding messages, and and different uses. Some traditionally closed models of
other agencies excel at branding but fail to involve consumers in information distribution (e.g., Web pages) therefore have given
brands to the degree that consumers become brand advocates. way to new, open models. These new systems, including the
Some level of rapprochement must be achieved for the social media sites Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube, enable
advertising business to regain a level of success. consumers to distribute content that they create. Interactive
creativity therefore involves providing consumers with the tools
Interactive creativity is not simply the use of the latest
they need to be creative themselves.
technology or the race to put the most digital bells and whistles
on a site. Interactive creativity is built around engagement, and it To succeed in the confluence culture, agencies must rethink
recognizes that people are inherently social and look to create content, moving away from what Deuze (2007) terms "show and
and maintain relations not only with other people but also with tell" advertising and toward proving content for consumers to
brands. Brand stories, both in traditional media and online, create their own stories. Agencies must find more ways than ever
provide ways for advertisers to engage consumers more deeply before to bring consumers into the advertising process. Deuze
with their brands. An engagement perspective changes the view (2007) also imagines a flattening hierarchical relationship
of a brand from a transactional perspective, in which a brand between the agency and the consumer as agencies adapt to this
addresses a transient need, to an interactional perspective, by new engagement model; he uses the term "bricolage" to describe
which the brand story becomes part of a person's own story the remixing, reconstructing, reusing, and repurposes of audio,
about him- or herself. visual, and textual content. It simultaneously consists of
repurposing and refashioning the old while using and making
The Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant chain and its agency
the new.
22squared used the storytelling concept to move beyond
advertising the chain's attributes (i.e., food and sports on One such example is the M&Ms Web site, where online visitors
televisions) and instead create an image of a clubhouse where gain access to the tools to create M&Ms characters in their own
camaraderie is easy to find. The agency believes that sports, images and then can use these characters in digital images and
jokes, and competition represent the "social currency" of the videos to share with their friends. The holiday sensation "Elf
target, so it makes these three things part of every brand story. Yourself," sponsored by OfficeMax (www.elfyourself.com),
All messages have a strong attitude that clearly resonates with allows visitors to create elves in their own images and then set
the target audience; the agency uses the voice of these messages them dancing to different types of music. To promote its new
as the key means to differentiate Buffalo Wild Wings from other line of coffees, McDonald's developed a site where visitors could
restaurants. Television ads set up the story, and then the story create their own coffee ring snowflakes
moves online to the social media space where patrons can (www.mccafesnowflakes.com). On the CNN site, consumers can
organize their social lives, using the clubhouse as the physical select news headlines to make into t-shirts, branded with the
meeting place. CNN logo. In each of these settings, the brand becomes the base
for the creative product, and the time spent on the sites during
The result of using such brand stories, according to Jenkins
the creation process allows brand registration to occur.
(2006, p. 3), is that "every important story gets told, every brand
Participation suggests that brand stories actually are created and
gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple
disseminated in a partnership between advertiser and consumer.
media platforms." Confluence, then, occurs when media
Kemp and Kim (2008) further suggest that the advertising
industries are less task bound and merge together to allow
agencies that survive will be those that evolve into what they call
content to flow freely among them, empowering technologies
"Connected Agencies" (Morrissey 2008a). In Kemp and Kim's
and practices that are both adaptive and associative in nature.
view, these Connected Agencies will do more than create
traditional advertising messages; they will nurture consumer
42 JournalofInteractiveAdvertising Spring2009

connections and create conversations between consumers and can interact and create. Such participation can also create a
brands and among consumers themselves. stronger affinity between audiences and brands.
Confluence culture allows consumers to tell their own stories by A 2008 TNS/Cymfony study of more than 60 marketers found
taking the information provided about the brands and mixing it that the majority of them believed their own agencies to be ill-
with their own experiences, including how the brand has equipped to help them succeed in the social media space
transformed them. Confluence culture will provide messages (Morrissey 2008a). We believe strong brand stories are a key
that are more reflective of the highly customized reality that element for agencies to use when playing in the social media
digital culture provides. Participation, remediation, collective space. Strong brand stories can result in compelling characters
intelligence, and bricolage encourage the development of many that represent the brand, and consumers are more likely to want
more messages, allow many more stories to be told, and enable to engage with a character than an inanimate object. On
users to become much more involved with brands than ever MySpace, for example, the character Helga from a 2006-2007
before. This personal engagement provides a strong, positive Volkswagen campaign (http://www.myspace.com/misshelga)
brand message. continues to have an active presence online; the page gets
updated regularly, and Helga has over 6,000 friends who
The Social Media Challenge: Playing in a New Landscape
download audio, video, and graphics from the page. This
Historically, advertising has been produced in a black box: campaign no longer airs, but the MySpace site remains active;
Agencies seek consumer input during various phases of thus, the character story has transcended the limitations of a
campaign development, but most consumers are unaware of the traditional advertising campaign.
content of traditional advertisements until they see them in print
The Training Challenge: Growing Talent with Creative Vision
or broadcast media. The growth in consumer-generated media,
as evidenced by the popularity of social media sites like Facebook Sternberg and Lubart (1996) argue that confluence theory is
and YouTube, suggests that the black box model is becoming appropriate for studying creativity, because it suggests that many
outdated and that a new culture, a confluence culture, needs to disparate pieces converge and grow together to form a rich
be established as essential to the organization and processes of pattern of the meaning of creativity. Similarly, confluence culture
agency life. New media realities demand such a different way of is a rich conglomeration of ideas and approaches, depending on
working, primarily because they tend to be pull media- how new ideas get generated and developed to become part of a
consumers chose what to see and what to do with what they see- living cultural process. For the advertising industry, creativity is
as opposed to the traditional push media that reflect the vital. Confluence culture requires new creative skills throughout
workflow used by traditional top-down structures at both the agency. Creative skills thus cannot be relegated just to
agencies and media outlets. traditional "creatives" but should be developed and expected
throughout the organizational chart. It begins with researchers
As Palfrey and Gasser (2008, p. 229) describe storytelling on
and strategists, who must see bricolage as a type of consumer
social media sites:
research that unlocks valuable insights about consumers. The
This story of interoperability-a boring-sounding, technical term, bricolage process may help instigate more interesting ideas from
admittedly-means that people who do not work for Facebook advertising writers and designers. As an example, Hill Holliday's
can drive competition and innovation within and across popular Liberty Mutual Responsibility campaign asks the question,
social networks. Interoperability enables a new process of "Responsibility: What's your policy?" in television, print, and
communicating and sharing new discoveries in computing to interactive ads. From the overwhelming response to that
take place. By making these systems work together online, campaign, The Responsibility Project was born, taking root to
developers have a new incentive to innovate and collaborate. find and discuss how ordinary people embrace responsible
New cultural production has always been led by fans, those actions as a way of life. Short films, community discussions,
people who have a deeper-than-average fascination with and blogs, and consumer activism are campaign subtexts, all having
affinity for a cultural artifact. Certain brands naturally develop a grown from the branded concept. The brand concept became
strong fandom. Rabid fans will always find ways to create and content that consumers embraced and extended. It was an idea
disseminate the content they create for the brands they love. built from a strong strategy and smart conceptual development.
Brands with less to offer their fans must find places where fans Talent development for twenty-first century agencies must
depend on universities and programs that understand
43 JournalofInteractiveAdvertising Spring2009

confluence culture and the need for adaptation, as well as an http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/news/digital/e3id1


array of creative skills. Creative strategists, the new professionals 3cf7c770b633b60456549756b829bc.
who are trained to generate new ideas in a strategic setting, no
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Sheehan, Kim Bartel and Deborah K. Morrison (in press).
creative. Instead, leading programs must emphasize the idea and
"Beyond Convergence: Confluence Culture and the Role of the
its ability to change brands, consumers, and culture.
Advertising Agency in the Digital Age," First Monday,
Leaders in the confluence culture will be those creative strategists forthcoming.
who have an understanding of all aspects of the advertising
Sternberg, Robert and Todd I. Lubart (1996), "Investing in
process and use creative skills to solve brand problems. These
Creativity," American Psychologist, 51 (7), 677-688.
individuals-nimble, digital, and prepared for new challenges-will
be able to consider the stories people tell, craft resonant brand ABOUT THE AUTHORS
narratives, and help clients use these stories to connect people to Kim Sheehan is Associate Professor at the University of
brands in new and exciting ways. Agencies embracing the Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. She teaches
creative strategist approach will be poised to provide outstanding courses in advertising management, media and research, as well
messages for clients, protect against economic downturns as as new media courses. Her research involves culture and new
clients embrace the value of such messages, and find even more technology, and she has published extensively about privacy and
innovative ways to communicate. the Internet, and about Direct-to-Consumer prescription drug
REFERENCES advertising. She is the author or co-author of three books about
advertising. She currently serves as Associate Editor of the
Deuze, Mark (2007), "Convergence Culture in the Creative
Journal of Advertising. E-mail: ksheehan@uoregon.edu
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263.
Deborah Morrison is the Chambers Distinguished Professor of
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Principal Components of a Digital Culture," The Information and Communication. She teaches conceptual thinking, creativity
Society, 22 (2), 63-75. and content, portfolio, and campaigns courses from a social
responsibility perspective. Prior to the University of Oregon,
Jenkins, Henry (2006), Convergence Culture. New York: New
Deborah was the leader of Texas Creative at the University of
York University Press.
Texas at Austin for 18 years. Her research concerns professional
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Agency Marketers: Partner with an Agency that Listens Instead process. Importantly, she believes that good advertising can be
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points is available at http://www.mefeedia.com/
entry/024-forrester-the-connected-agency/6749459/.
Morrissey, Brian (2008a), "Social Media: Agencies Don't Get It',
Survey Says ," Adweek Digital. Available at

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