What it means to be a creative director in 2017

We sit down with Possible’s executive creative director in London to find out what working for a leading digital agency with clients such as adidas, Aston Martin and Specsavers looks like in 2017.

“The sense of what digital agencies are is changing so much,” says executive creative director Pablo Marques from the couch at digital agency Possible’s London office, based in London's diamond district, Hatton Garden.

“Before, digital agencies meant building websites. No one really builds websites anymore," he continues. “When you build things, you build things of value.

"And because you don’t build the same thing over and over – like when you were building websites – the skills are always varying. Learning new stuff needs to be part of your abilities.”

Joining the Possible team from his own digital production company Wilderness, the Brazilian-born, motorcycle enthusiast (who wears black even in mid-summer) has been in the creative industry for more than 20 years. With obvious passion the size of a mountain for what he does, Pablo tells me what to expect from brands in our current digital-saturated, globalised world, and what he expects from his creative team – no doubt a seismic shift from when he began his career in 1996.

Executive creative director at Possible London, Pablo Marques

What a creative team looks like in 2017

“Before, we were seen as advocates for the brand within the world. Now, we’re more like advocates of the world within the brand,” he tells me. Creative teams now look for ways that a brand can serve its customers, not vice versa.

And that means a whole lot of innovation and complementary talents. No longer is one person labelled as the copywriter, and another as the UX designer – everyone can be anything, and all at one time. Pablo says one of the biggest shifts in design is abiding to no set discipline anymore, his creative team is constantly evolving – it’s a “cross pollination”.

When a new person is hired, Pablo expects them to be able to learn new platforms and possess what calls a “hybrid skillset”.

He says that he mainly wants to hire people who are flexible and able to learn – rather than having a complete set of skills. The places the onus on him to let them know it's ok not to already know how to achieve something, encourage them to learn by doing and to give them challenges to enable them to do so.

“The ability to tolerate that risk and live in an environment where you’re figuring things out is important,” he says.

One of Possible's latest projects is the Glitch app for Adidas

His team is a testament to this philosophy. Many have side projects including VJing, learning typography and illustrating comic books. One copywriter has moved into learning UX design.

Pablo himself has worked as a freelance creative director after co-founding Wilderness in 2014. He was a creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) London before that, and was previously the executive creative director at Publicis Modem (now Publicis Nurun), and worked at Wieden & Kennedy.

Digital strategy in 2017

Now leading the Possible creative team, he’s just finished a Cannes multi-award winning project for Adidas, labelled Glitch. Glitch is Adidas’ new football boot. Anyone who follows Adidas football influencers, and gets access to a specific code given by the influencers, can choose two outer shell designs of the boot, or “skins”, and one inner sock before purchasing through the app and having the boots delivered to your doorstep the same day. Buyers also had the choice of a two week home try on before committing. Watch the explainer video here

Footballers can mix and match the skins as much as you want, and Adidas has released new designs frequently.

Adidas Glitch football boot with outer shell and inner sock

“There is desirability in things that are done in a smaller scale...things are hand made now, they need to know they are special somehow,” says Pablo.

This same outlook applies to customers.

“We don’t like to think of someone as a ‘consumer’ because it dehumanises them," says Pablo. "Then you’re thinking of them like an orange – you’re going to squeeze something out of it and throw it away, rather than building a relationship with the person.”

The entire product launch rolled out on social media exclusively through Adidas influencers, and the boots could only be purchased by obtaining a special code that was given out by the influencers to their followers.

The campaign allowed Adidas to not abuse the social reach of the influencers with an embarrassingly obvious ad, but rather the notion of the influencers bringing their followers into an exclusive secret – a uniqueness valued in the face of mass production.

“We thought, let’s not waste time putting something in a store. A lot of people looked at that and thought ‘Oh, that’s very radical’, but it’s not very radical, it just makes sense,” says Pablo.

Aligned with uniqueness, people crave influence and input.

“The idea behind [Glitch] is allowing people to be a bit creative without knowing the full idea of it [or having to configure the boot],” says Pablo. “Allowing you to have some influence over your product but not having the creative pressure of choosing the colour of every bit of the product.”

Footballers can mix and match and purchase the boots only through Possible's app

By bringing a small team of influencers (who were already working with Adidas, and who have a huge online presence within the football community) into the Glitch project from the beginning, they were able to have input into how the app and boot should look; they even decided on the name. They had first dibs on the boots, and could post their content on the app. The influencer-led coverage follows Adidas’ expensive yet successful campaign around Kanye West’s Yeezy Boost trainers.

It’s a fine line to walk, but when it can be micro-managed within a small community like Adidas and Possible engineered, it’s possible, if not a genius business model.

The experience is purely digital-based, and mobile first. Not one cent was thrown at traditional advertising such as television or billboards. There were risks involved, like whether the influencers would get the right tone or not, but overall the experimental project was deemed a success at Cannes Lions this year, winning silver for use of co-creation and user generated content, and four bronze awards for social community, media insights and UX design among other categories.

For Pablo and his team, design for this project was focussed around business logistics, a two-way communication app, and not much more. The project achieved everything a campaign would, without having to be a campaign.

Adidas Glitch app, designed by Possible

It’s all about creating value for the end user, rather than purveying a message and hoping someone will listen to it, says Pablo. The biggest shift in advertising is making the relationship between the brand and it’s target audience, mutually beneficial.

Is influencer marketing dying in 2017?

Glitch is starting to roll out across Europe after its success in London, and Pablo and his team are in the process of expanding this business model with Adidas.

With much of the success of the Glitch project down to the influencers themselves, we wondered if Possible is an advocate for influencer marketing, despite fear swirling over the last few years (Possible itself even posed the question) that influencer marketing is dead due to the risk of fake accounts, specifically on Instagram?

Pablo doesn’t know how long brands are going to invest so heavily in influencer-led marketing, noting "there’s a lot of fraud in the system”.

What's happening with influencer marketing in 2017 is not a new phenomenon. A decade ago, bloggers were the key influencers that brands 'had to' engage with – and there were the same problems around poorly executed campaigns, media saturation and a breakdown in trust due to some bloggers not declaring commercial relationships. The rise of Instagram has meant that images and photos have replaced words as the medium of choice – but the problems persist.

“People are getting weary of things, it’s getting like an arms race,” he says, referring to the tension between authentic content and outright product placement in an influencer’s feed that doesn’t align with the rest of their own brand image.

Authenticity in 2017

But most importantly, above all, is the value of authenticity. We’ve seen a huge shift towards the fate of brands lying at the hands of the people. Premium ice-cream brand Haagen Dazs is one example of a brand moving its image toward a lifestyle brand.

“We’re living in a world that’s more accountable, and brands are starting to take accountability for what they do,” says Pablo. “Marketing that way is not only socially better, but I think it will be better business as well. There’s no back lash, you’re being authentic, you’re not being too greedy. And you’re giving them something of value.”

Adidas may be a wealthy brand that can experiment with social media-led product launches like Glitch, but Pablo believes smaller brands can, and should be, engaging in a digitally-led, transparent business model.

“There’s something about having a positive impact on the ecosystem that you’re benefiting from," he says. "Every brand should be able to do it. There are small brands who understand that, and are able to get big quick.”

Being a motorcyclist himself, Pablo uses Australian surf, skating and motorcycle brand Deus Ex Machina as an example of a brand built from the bottom up through social media engagement only. It’s a motorcycle brand that was brought to life by “three and a half surfers, who rode motorcycles”.

Deus Ex Machina's Instagram account has over 350,000 followers

“They’re just a bunch of surfers, and they hired a bunch of surfers and motorcycle people. It’s an amazing story, because the meteoric rise of that company, they are doing really well and they do no marketing."

Pablo means marketing in the traditional sense – Deus Ex Machina's marketing is a massive Instagram account with over 350,000 followers and other presences across social media.

“They’ve understood the idea of authenticity and they don’t do videos trying to sell stuff.”

Another example is Red Bull – one carbonated drink, yet its content is recognised globally. And that content has more value than the product itself, Pablo says.

The role of a designer in 2017

How does this new business model change the role of a creative director and designer? It’s about the questions you ask, says Pablo.

“The process is still the same. You’re trying to sow the challenge, but the way you frame the challenge is what’s changed. Instead of saying, ‘Oh how can I make this brand look good?’ it’s actually, ‘Oh, how can I help this brand do the right thing so they look good without having to pretend to be good?’”

He says that in the past, advertisers have hired agencies “to make them look good when they’re not really doing good”.

“Now they have to do things that are mutually beneficial otherwise people will find out,” he says. “That’s the biggest shift. We try to engage with the companies to help them build something for their consumers, rather than just believe we’re going to tell people something and they’re going to act on that.

“Being good is good business right now.”

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