Report From SXSW Interactive: “I See Dead Ad Jobs.”

I was born in the year 1954 when stamps were three cents.

If you thought, “Wow, three cents??” you’re a digital immigrant like me. You’re a digital native if you thought, “What are stamps?”

Unfortunately, there is a third group: digital rejectors — you’ve met them. The eye-rollers; the shoulder-shruggers; the print and TV addicts who need to go to some sort of media rehab. For the purposes of today’s article, we’ll dub them digital douchebags, but no laughter please; we’re at their funeral and it isn’t polite.

Worse, they don’t realize they’re dead. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, they continue to wander the brand landscape laminating their portfolios and waiting for a fax with the news they got into the local Addys. As my friend Kathy Hepinstall observed, there used to be a small bit of Dick-Van-Dyke-ian charm to a creative person being a technophobe; today, it simply means you’re a digital douchebag.

Full disclosure: I am a digital d-bag. Now in recovery. No one likes a laminated print ad more than I. But the first step in recovery is admitting your old print portfolio is basically Confederate money.

Case in point: From my collection of laminated ads, I offer this one. I wrote it in 1994 for a new website created by Time, Inc. called Pathfinder. Oh, this was the new-new thing, folks. Pathfinder allowed you to use your computer to look up text articles. Kid you not – text articles.

A print ad I did in 1994 for a new website. I still love the print medium for its clarity and simplicity. Headline reads: “Pathfinder Personal Edition brings back just the information you’re interested in.”

I still like the ad but the point here is that it was written in 1994, a brief fifteen years ago; when Netscape Navigator was the big browser and Mortal Kombat II was the hot game. Fifteen years later, Netscape is history, dusty MKII cartridges are available at curiosity shops and, up the street at 7-Eleven, they’re now selling Farmville gift cards which allow you to “buy” “acres” on a “digital farm” and then bother your “friends” on Facebook with that “information.”


(Oops. My d-bag was showing there for a second and I apologize. The thing is, we don’t have to like every nook and cranny of the web in order to embrace it.)

Here’s the point. Not only is the acceleration itself accelerating, the bus has left. Digital natives have most of the nicer seats, we immigrants are hanging on the sides, and for traction under the tires we’re all using the digital douchebags. This just in: the Visigoths are not at the gates. They are in your kitchen eating your lunch.


Okay, so now we’re doing a slow dissolve from 1994 to April 2010. (Wavy lines, wavy lines.) And we’re in Austin, walking into SXSW Music/Film/Interactive. Here, where interactive once occupied only a wing of the four-floor Convention Center, it has engulfed the entire building and much of the adjoining Hilton. I enter bearing a Gold Pass, invited by my friend Damon Webster to chair a Core Conversation titled: “How Does an Advertising Pro Adapt to New Communication Techniques?”

On my iPhone, the “mysxsw” app reveals the details about our session’s focus: “With the advertising landscape changing at the speed of light, how do the traditional advertising pros adapt? Does the market now belong only to the tech savvy? How do you migrate what you know in other media over to 2.0? We’ll be gathering to share ideas, generate new ones, network, and then share the information digitally.”

I think it brave of Damon to host such a session. He admits he is not a guru. Once a producer on the agency side he’s managed to migrate his own considerable skill set online, creating among other things a site called “The First Stop in Your Photographic Life.” What he brings to the table today (as I hope I do) are the fundamental creative skills learned over years in the advertising business. But we’re here in the eye of the digital hurricane today not to preach but to listen.

By 12:30, Conference Room J on the 4th floor of the Hilton is packed. In the crowd we see some folks we’ve invited. David Slayden from Boulder Digital Works is here. So are a dozen kids from VCU Brandcenter’s newest track, Creative Technology. At my side is Nicole McKinney, digital native and friend from GSD&M, who’s capturing everything people are saying while keeping an eye on our Twitter feed (which captures what they’re thinking).

That’s Damon. I loved his tweet advertising the session. “I see dead ad jobs.” I thought it made a good title, too.

After our opening remarks, the session begins with a few longish speeches, people talking about their own companies, and the Twitter feed gives us our first lesson in adapting to the new world — which is: “No commercials. Let us talk.”

Like consumers everywhere, the people here don’t want to be the audience. They want to be the actors. They crave interactivity and want an immediate response. Which they get. We start moving the microphone faster, encouraging people to step into the middle of the circle, say their piece and move on — itself another lesson. In today’s back-and-forth with consumers we need to worry less about message strategy and more about a conversation strategy. This isn’t an audience; it’s a community.


The microphone is passed to a young woman, a recruiter named Andrea Andrews

“The people with traditional skills still have some catching up to do on the digital side,” Andrea observes. On the other hand, she continues, people with digital expertise don’t always have the skills associated with traditional media like TV. “You need tech skills, yes, but agencies still need storytellers.”

Andrea says most of the calls she gets are from agencies looking for “about a 70/30 split in digital skills versus traditional. A ratio that, to me, represents the ideal candidate, actually.”

As she speaks, I am reminded of a recent interview of Avatar director, James Cameron. Asked what permanent changes technology has made in filmmaking, Cameron answered, “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling.” Which may also explain why some of the Star Wars prequels kinda sucked — it was special effects over storytelling. (Storytelling as metaphor here leans a bit to a “push” platform, but you see my point.)

The microphone is passed to a young man from BBDO Canada.

“If you want to adapt to the new world, you need to understand it. And if you’re not actually on Twitter, if you’re not on Facebook, if you’re not uploading videos to YouTube, well, you’re not digital.”

He goes on: “I’ve been watching movies for years and I talk a lot about movies. But I have no idea how to make a movie. Just because I consume content like that doesn’t mean I know how to create it.”

Another attendee agrees, weighing in later via email: “A lifetime of TV watching helped make me well-versed in broadcast advertising. But now I need to acquire the same amount of exposure to digital content in order to become as savvy with it, to understand its nuances.”

It is advice we hear over and over again throughout the session. Yes, the digital waters are deep and cold, but the answer isn’t to tiptoe down the steps into the pool, torturing yourself every razor-cold inch of the way. Dive in, headfirst, off the deep end.

In fact, most folks suggested going for a one-and-a-half; do a cannonball; risk a bellyflop. In the online space, a sense of play is important, and part of play is failure; the skinned knee, the black eye. Everyone, to a person, said to push past the pain and “fail forward, fail harder, fail gloriously.” Whatever flavor of fail you get, our group said, walk it off and go for it again.

I expected the people giving all this great advice in today’s group to be the goateed and the tattooed — Gen Y’s, full of ironic remove — but that was just my own 3¢-stamp world-view talking again. A woman who could be your mom has the mike now and she’s telling the audience she’s frankly a little tired of that deer-in-the-headlights look some creatives give her when she assigns a job with digital components.

“Get over it, you know? It’s not like I’m some expert. I fail a lot, but I’m doin’ it.”

It appears to be as Kathy Hepinstall said it was. In her talk about attending Hyper Island’s master class she observed, “When it comes to digital there’s not an age problem, only a curiosity problem.”


Years ago, again in 1994, Lee Clow was our guest at Fallon’s creative retreat. We met at an old hunting lodge on a lake in northern Wisconsin and to this day I remember Lee leaning against the fireplace as he talked about Apple, talking about the changes wrought by this amazing company and what they meant for traditional creatives like us.

“Throughout history, the technology always comes first. It’s just technology for awhile. Until the day we artists inherit it.”

And so it goes. Television sets came along and for years all TV advertising sucked — until the artists inherited it. Same with radio. And now it’s time we artists fully inherit the technology wrought by Tim Berners-Lee.

This advice was echoed by everyone in our smart audience. Don’t wait till it’s raining to build an Ark. The web has made creating content as easy as accessing it. “The tools are all around you,” said one. “Pick them up.” Just do it. Embrace the learning curve. Don’t worry about being an expert because in this space you never will be. You need to adapt what’s been called a permanent beta mentality.

Watch, too, for old mentality creeping back in. So warned David Gillespie in a brilliant speech I found online where he described the “classic McLuhan-esque mistake of appropriating the shape of the previous technology as the content of the new technology.” Many early efforts in digital did exactly this; direct mail became email; billboards were resized as banners. My friend Stephen Land here at GSD&M agrees, calling digital efforts which don’t leverage the interactivity of the platform mere “print-eractive.” But this was understandable, says Gillespie, because at the time the alternative was standing still. Now it’s time to push through.


This is how we learn. By just doing it. In fact, this cool quotation I just wikied makes the point: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” It’s from some guy named Confucius, probably an ECD at Tribal or something.

How you do-and-understand is your business. For now, I tender this small list from our talkative group at SXSW as a starting point.

• Embrace low fidelity. Make things yourself. Example: Boone Oakley’s YouTube website. A junior creative team did it.

• Start your own blog, Twitter account, or video channel. Example: A Twitter account called Shit My Dad Says launched just last fall was recently optioned for TV by CBS, and last week (July, 2010) the book was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list.

• My partner, Damon Webster, said: “Get yourself an HD camera. Learn Final Cut Pro. There isn’t going to be a two-day class that will change your life. Put the work in and make it happen. If you don’t have the experience, make the experience.”

• Take a Flash class and learn the language. Download apps. Play with tools like Gowalla and foursquare. Click, you analog bastards, click!

• Start a never-ending education online, today.

To aid you in your education, Damon and I asked everyone at our session (as well as in the Twitter and Facebook universe) to send us their favorite websites, those great places where they get education and inspiration. We gathered all those URLs and (for now) have parked them all on Damon’s website. Visit for a full clickable list. I have my shortlist of faves listed in the Blogroll over on the right-hand side of my home page here on


Okay, we’ve heard all the warning bells. Yes, we know 100 million videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. Yes, we know Facebook’s population is now bigger than Japan’s. And yes, we read how Fast Company predicted “ad agency executive” will be among six jobs that won’t exist in 2016. Fine. Enough already. It’s time to remember what we traditional creatives bring to the party.

As a traditional creative, I know the fundamentals of presenting brands in compelling ways to the right people at the right time. I can write. I can think clearly. I can condense a complicated brief down to a few words and then architect the information into the short flow of a 30-second commercial. I can make a 3×5 space interesting. I am creative, which is something they don’t teach at Hyper Island and you couldn’t learn it if they did. I have the fundamentals, and the thing is, there are no new fundamentals.

So it’s a fantastic time to be in the business, traditional or digital be damned. Creativity matters now more than ever. We can’t buy people’s attention anymore. We can’t keep interrupting our way into their lives. We now have to be so stinking interesting that people put down what they’re doing to come over and see what we’re all about.

In fact, Alex Bogusky said recently that for the first time in history the most important entity in the whole media world could feasibly be the ad agency, being as we are at the nexus of where people who spend money for brands connect with people who spend money on brands.

But it ain’t all unicorns and kittens for traditional creatives. The ROI on our innovation is survival. And there is no safety either in declaring traditional a “specialty.” (“Well, we’ll just do the TV, print, and outdoor and we’ll team up with the digital guys to finish the campaign.”) Ask the Chief Financial Officer at your agency if she can keep paying for two groups of creatives — traditional and digital. She can’t.

So what do we do?

Well, this time let’s dissolve back to the year 1519. (Wavy lines, wavy lines.) Cortez and his marauders have come to pillage and destroy Mexico. The way forward is unknown. The size of the enemy, unknown. So to rally his men, the dude gives a pep talk of just three words. “Burn the ships.”

He removes the option of going back.

What if you burned your ships? What if you had to advertise a brand and you couldn’t use TV and print? Don’t ask me. I don’t know the answer. But I do know it’s probably time to burn the ships and step into the jungle.


  1. Wow, this blew my mind! I’ve never read a more accurate analysis of this whole traditional vs digital situation we currently find ourselves in.

    I’ll be forwarding this post to all the digital douchebags I know.

  2. Great article. Reminded me of something that happened to me a long time ago (1985 I think.) I’d called my film rep to get him to come in and give a quote. He said, “Why don’t you just fax me the specs?”
    “Great idea,” I went upstairs found the fax machine, (one of those you had to put the phone receiver into the holes.) found a secretary, we still had them, and got my first lesson on how to use a fax machine. Life goes on. Technology changes. Creative people are still needed. But you do, as you so rightly pointed out, need to embrace the future. Whatever that turns out to be.

  3. Amen. Put it all in perspective for me. I too will be e-mailing my fellow douchebags.

    Thank you.

  4. I loved this article – very balanced, very well-informed and totally funny. I just turned 40 so I’m somewhere in that 70/30 split (leaning to digital) – it’s challenging at times to keep up with tech, but the alternative – staying away from it, or even just holding back out of fear – isn’t a reasonable option.

  5. GREAT read. I, being a fellow digital d-bag, was sitting right behind the picture-taker in that shot up there. Love the opening “stamp test.” Hilarious.

  6. Wow. So well said, and so acutely understood. Media, tools & channels will always change. Curiosity and creativity will always rule. There is no douchegap unless you create one by believing it into existence.

    • “Douchegap.” Officially in Webster’s dictionary as of today. Love it.

  7. What a fantastic read. As someone who is just getting into the business it is great to see that all the digital skills I am learning will be put to use with the storytelling skills I’ve developed since I was a kid. I will be forwarding this article on to my fellow students, so they can see that what we are doing te way we are learning it makes sense.

    • Yo Trav: Thanks for showing article to your prof at BYU. Man, when I was a student at your age, I was not nearly as advanced as you guys are. Man, the next gen of ad people are gonna rock.

      • Hey Whipple, thanks for the reply. Since I’ve got you here, I want you to know your book was a major inspiration to me. Before I had read it I wanted to be a copywriter, after I read it, I HAD to be a copywriter. Thanks a lot, good sir! Keep up the blogging or write a sequel to your book, either way make sure I have something to read 🙂

  8. Luke,
    this is why you are awesome. You leave no room for excuses. For me, a native, it makes want to keep learning and push others to dive in. Thanks for being such a great example to us all.

    • Well, THAT was a nice ting to say Pablo. Glad you liked it.

  9. Thanks, Luke. Great read, brought to the attention ( of dozens of BYU AdLab students’ by one of our best copywriters, Travis Meidell (comment above). I am going to get your book this week and look forward to using it in the classroom and the ad lab. Thanks again.

    • Hey Jack: thanks for the RT of the SXSW article. Glad you liked it. And also thanks for plannin’ to use Hey Whipple in class. I tried to make the book funny and easy to read, along with smart. Hope you like it.

  10. I know this is about digital in general, and it’s quite excellent, but lemme hone it down to social media specifically. After being teased by an interviewer for FourSquaring and enduring a long eye roll from another when I mentioned Twitter, I asked a panel of Ad Gurus, a guy who edits CNN’s website, and one comic book writer at SCAD’s Out to Launch panel exactly how much a job applicant should use social media and how much they themselves used social media. All the Adsters said applicants are expected to be versed in social media, but they, themselves, HATE it. (For the record: the comic writer who said he treated social media like a rabid wombat, and the guy from CNN adored Twitter beyond words.) But the whole thing makes me wonder how they’ll even know that I, as a job applicant, am versed in social media when they refuse to even create a Twitter handle. Will they just look at my birthdate and make an educated guess?

    That was a rather long-winded way to say: choir successfully preached to. I hear you, brother, and am with you in the fight to rid the world of the Digital Douchegap.

    P.S. Stamps are still necessary to pay my car tax to the state of Georgia. I know, right? I had to go buy some.

    • Yeah, there are people who give just lip service to it. Some may be scared of it. Some bored (which isn’t against the law either, just isn’t their cup of tea). But I don’t see how they could get away with faking it forever. it is what it is. This is where the world has gone.

  11. Man, as a traditional creative who dove off the deep-end and embraced digital, this is about the best damn piece I’ve read. Thoughtful, balanced and dead nuts on. And you are still a damned great writer, Luke.

    • Dude, that was about the NICEST thing to say. Thx much. Glad you liked.

  12. Thanks Luke. Great article, as relevant here in Australia as your neck of the woods. Cheers!

    • Man, thanks tons. I love have a reader in Oz.

      • 2 readers in Oz.
        Thank you for this article. What a refreshing change to read something informed, not condescending and balanced.

        • Linz: Sooo glad you liked that article.

  13. A. Good recap and thanks for the shout.
    B. This is probably what I should’ve added at the panel. Creativity is always going to win out BUT you need to know your tool-set in order to get really creative with it. Unfamiliarity can also breed some real unexpected and creative results because you don’t know the limitations, and I think that’s what a lot of creatives hope for, but usually that’s not the case.
    C. I’ll contradict myself and say you also don’t need to try and stretch digital too far. Use the tools that are simple, easily accessible and within that box and try to blow it open, experiment. OldSpice, perfect example, they know the tool set of video and twitter. The only thing they really added was effort and creativity. Good stuff.

    • Hey Bill: sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Agree with everything you just said, in partick point #3. the Old SPice stuff simply listened to tweets and turned around answers extremely quickly. I wonder if they’re going to do a follow up because now that tweeters see what happened, even more will follow. Wonder if they can afford to keep doing it. But it was soooo cool.

  14. Nicely done, Luke. I’d like to hear your take on the democratization of content creation. Everyone is a creator and the sifting function is left up to the marketplace, which has to plow through mountains of trash to find the good bits. Maybe the real dinosaurs are editors.

  15. Luke,

    This is a great reminder to “burn the ships.” In order to become 70/30 digital/traditional is an exciting challenge for anyone who came up in the business 100% traditional. More importantly, who wants to end up a Digital Douchebag?


  16. SO on point, so hits the spot dead on that I heard it in my head a nanosecond before I read it, line by line.

    • DUde, I am realllllly glad you liked it.

  17. I heard today that Steve Jobs is taking his third medical leave!! So he can focus on his health. Is this the end of the Apple era? The stock exchange of Frankfurt responded with a share value which was 7% down! I am wondering what the share value will be tomorrow at the NYE

  18. Sorry, but I can’t by all this. Whilst I embrace everything digitally and have done for years, it is proving to be a massive failure as an adverrtising medium. If traditional is dead or withering on the vine why is tv ad revenue growth exploding. Why is the 2nd most popular consumer electronic purchase next to the iPod the widescreen tv? Why is 99% of all video still viewed on the box. Can anyone name a single non digital native brand ( like a car or beer or soap) that has ever been successfully built through digital?
    My friends traditional is not dead or dying. Not by long shot. And in the words of a pre eminent marketer here in Oz, “I can’t sell 1.8 million cas of beer a year through facebook”.

    • Yo Adrian. Thanks for readin’ the article and am glad to have you talkin’ here on my blog. Perhaps to make my point I leaned too hard on traditional media (callin’ your print book “Confederate money”). I agree, traditional ain’t goin’ anywhere. it’s just gonna be a different mix goin’ forward. As historians have often noted, radio didn’t get rid of print, TV didn’t kill radio. It all finds a new equilibrium. Until something disrupts it all yet again. I wonder what the hell the next disruption will be?

  19. I know thiѕ іf off topic but I’m looking into starting my own blog and was wondering what all is needed to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog liκe yours would cost а pretty penny?
    ӏ’m not very web savvy so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    • It’s free. Just go to



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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.