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Today, you’re head of the digital creative department at Baltimore-based agency Planit. How did you get started in digital and learn the necessary skills? I guess I was having a bit of a quarter-life crisis when digital found me. I was restless at my agency job and started questioning everything: Is graphic design what I want to do with my life? Maybe Baltimore is too small to get the right creative opportunities? On my quest for a creative challenge, I even went on a few interviews for some really strange jobs—story for another day. Then, a friend of mine saved me from myself.

He was working at another Baltimore agency and said they needed help in their digital department. Despite my nonexistent coding skills, he thought the culture would be a good fit. After a few interviews, I’d found myself a new gig and the anecdote to my creative woes—the ever-evolving and always-connected digital landscape.

It wasn’t long before I was obsessed with all things digital. For me, obtaining the necessary skills meant endless reading and tinkering, plus absorbing everything I could from my digitally savvy coworkers. I took on more freelance work than I probably should have as a way to get more digital projects and exposure to different phases of the process. Mistakes were made. Code was broken. But I loved it. Still do.

What are some of the challenges that advertisers are trying to overcome now? Across the board—small agencies, big agencies, small brand, big brand, internal team, external partner—we’re all still trying to figure out how to maintain brand and creative integrity in a high-volume, fast-paced and very connected world. What once was a few TV spots that took months to produce with a healthy budget is now hundreds of assets in less time with the same budget. Basically, we’re all trying to achieve efficiency without sacrificing quality.

The other challenge that’s becoming more and more prevalent is the integrity of the online platforms we use. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal feels like the tip of the iceberg for Facebook and other social media channels. Privacy, age-appropriate content and even accurate media reporting are starting to become major sticking points for brands looking to protect themselves and spend more wisely. Ultimately, I think this will be good for the industry if key players like Unilever and Procter & Gamble continue to push for transparency and integrity in the digital space, but I imagine it’ll be a bit bumpy along the way. Data ethics, here we come.

Data ethics, here we come.”

With the prevalence of ad blocking, what do you think the online landscape will look like in five years? I believe ad blocking will continue to make marketers more mindful and even respectful of the audiences they are trying to reach, and I actually think it will improve the overall quality of the work produced for online consumption. Rather than churning out high volumes of irritating “stuff,” less ad space means more purposeful ads. Maybe even smarter, interactive ads that genuinely help customers find what they need.

Bigger picture: I think we’ll continue to see brands getting more clever about how and where they interact with consumers—both online and offline. Everything from conversational commerce to ad platforms on smart speakers creates a whole new world of opportunity for brands to directly connect with the consumer.

You launched a passion project for Women’s History Month—the #rADicalwomen social media campaign, which celebrates historic women in the creative industry. What were the most amazing things you learned over the course of creating this campaign? Like any good student of the industry, I knew all about DDB’s Think Small campaign for Volkswagen, which set the creative revolution in motion. Changed our industry forever. The headline of all headlines. But, I only recently learned that when Volkswagen wanted to bring the Beetle to the United States, the company didn’t really bid the work. It sought the agency handling the Ohrbach’s account—Phyllis Robinson’s account. So, without her refreshing wit and the conversational tone in her copywriting, Bill Bernbach’s team of Helmut Krone and Bob Levenson may have never created one of the greatest ads of all time. Obviously, that doesn’t take anything away from those guys—their work deserves to be celebrated. But learning that Phyllis paved the way for their opportunity made me incredibly proud of her, and proud to be a woman in what is still a predominantly male industry.

What emergent technology or platform should agencies start taking advantage of? Not really an emergent technology or specific platform, but with so many ways to interact with computers, agencies should be finding new ways to encourage smoother user interactions. Instead of defaulting to typical form input via keyboard, should we be activating voice controls? Rather than seeking feedback on an e-commerce site through an intrusive pop-up survey, what about a more conversational chatbot interaction?

What’s the hardest part of overseeing a cross-disciplinary team at Planit that spans motion design, art direction, user interface and more? The hardest part is also kind of my favorite. During a time when so much of what we do gets automated, commoditized or repurposed, the hardest part is reminding everyone that the creative process still gets messy. And that is OK. Collaboration is hard, and if anyone tells you otherwise, that person isn’t being honest. I have an incredible team, and sometimes I forget to remind them that they all have different roles and job responsibilities—but we’re all accountable to producing great work. And we need each other to make it happen.

What’s one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? I wish I knew that this industry is just as much about understanding people as it is about understanding design principles. My perspective broadened and my work improved when I finally realized it.

As group creative director at Planit in Baltimore, Maryland, Jess Brown oversees the creative process that transforms insights into ideas and ideas into remarkable executions. Her team embraces the challenges of today’s ever-changing digital landscape, using technology and social trends as much as copywriting and art direction to shift buyer behaviors and deliver memorable brand experiences. Through the power of social media, Brown helped make Louis Jadot’s French wine relevant to young Americans and grew a loyal following for Mally Beauty. She’s helped companies like Dr. Brandt Skincare, Kleenex Facial Cleansing and Marriott articulate their brands and launch new products. She has also had the pleasure of producing work for PBS Kids, McCormick International and Universal Music Group.

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