On Death and Dying: the five stages of post digital grief

May 5th, 2010
Written by Mark


Could the good doctor be talking about advertising?

Sean Duffy wrote a provocative post recently on TalentZoo.com titled “Advertising Agencies: Kiss Your Creative Teams Goodbye.” He contends that to maximize the potential of digital media, traditional agencies must be willing to restructure the venerated copywriter/art director team. As you might imagine, the eye-popping title of the post led to a flurry of emotionally-charged user comments. Ah, digital. How do we love thee? Let us count the ways.

Reactions fell neatly into Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Let’s examine reactions to the post through the lens of each of these stages. When assembled, the individual responses paint a great picture of the psychological and emotional trauma the advertising industry as a whole is currently experiencing.

C’mon it’ll be fun, I promise.


So many quotes, so little time. I like this one:

The essence of a great, memorable and powerful advertising communication – that “killer line” and that awesome concept that expresses the idea – that’s still best born of the “arcane” marriage of writer and art director.

But I love this one:

First of all, what this article is actually saying is that the creative team became a creative herd. And I think we all know that too many cooks… What died is the idea, the concept. I agree that with a good concept anyone who has never written or art directed for the web would do a better job than those “experienced” in executing drek. There is so much shoved in our faces right now, it’s too bad that none of it has a concept. If it did, I’d probably remember it. I remember most of the great concepts in the One Show books before the book became one huge encyclopedia of everything out there. Quick, can anyone out there come up with a great campaign that’s currently running ON ANY MEDIUM?

Gotta love that raw emotion. Digital, you are so good. What did we do before you?

For those still in the denial stage, take a look at R/GA’s Nike+. It is not the work of an art director/copywriter team. To put it in proper perspective, it is the digital equivalent of Doyle Dane Bernbach’s seminal Think Small ad. I would argue that it is the most important work done by any creative agency—traditional or digital—in the past ten years. Listen to what Goodby’s Director of Digital Strategy Gareth Kay has to say on the matter. In traditional advertising terms, a committee created this. In the post digital age, it’s referred to as a cross-discipline team.

I think the problem lies in the fact that the great concept traditionalists are looking for is no longer a smart headline. It’s not a visual solution. Frankly, it’s not a message at all. The great concept is now an experience. To quote Gareth Kay, it is an idea that does. We need to stop using conventions we are familiar with to place constraints (or express our denial) on the emergence of new forms of communication and engagement. Read what Faris Yakob, Chief Innovation Officer at MDC Partners has to say about our new digital reality:

The emergence of a new media system is typified by a period of transposition, where the behavioural grammar of the previous system remains dominant. The first television shows were radio shows with people talking directly into camera. The first films were stageplays that had been filmed. And the first marketing forays online took what we knew about media and branding from broadcast media and applied it to a whole new space.

But digital is different.

Digital is not a channel. It’s a suite of platforms, channels and tactics that will, ultimately subsume its parents entirely.

Amen. All the denial in the world will not change this new reality.


This assault on the 2-person creative team is really becoming annoying. Two smart, talented creatives can take a business problem and develop an idea that addresses/solves it better than any other number. Then that idea can be executed appropriately in all the media.

What a dumb, misleading headline. Any agency that devalues its creative team does so at its own peril. Who’s going to create the um…creative? AE’s and coders?

Harsh. But I get where it’s coming from. I get it better than you think. For over 10 years, I regularly logged 70 hour weeks in the pursuit of the big idea. Some of those ideas can be found in The One Show and Communication Arts Advertising and Design annuals. It’s harder than hell to do great work. It takes a combination of talent and grind. And I would never suggest that traditional advertising is a) dead  b) irrelevant or c) unnecessary.

I think a lot of the anger that traditional creatives feel is that suddenly, out of the blue, you’re supposed to think about web, and mobile, and social, and now ads for the iPad. You have smaller budgets, less time to do it, and you probably took a pay cut in the last two years. And now there’s something called crowdsourcing that everyone is enamored with.

Yes, I get it.

But the fact of the matter is, it’s not a two-person job anymore. Brands still need to create awareness. They need great TV spots. They need great print ads. It’s just that these messages should not be replicated in digital. They need to be translated (insert shameless plug here) into digital experiences and that takes a broader skill set—a.k.a. the bigger team—which is the point of Mr. Duffy’s article.

Unfortunately, when you start off with “Kiss your creative teams goodbye,” you’ll lose the very crowd you need to convert.


It usually goes something like this: We’ve hired some geeks and they have their own area. Ghost of Transformational Change, would you please leave us alone now?

Sure, add more people to the team. Copy and Art Creatives always benefit from more input. But don’t make the mistake of equating technical advice with true creative development.

Ummm, ouch. Another sentiment I often hear is that as long as you add a web designer and a developer, you’ve got it covered. The box has been checked. Yeah, digital, we’re down with that.

Let me straighten myself up in my chair as I type this.

Between @deziner, @adny and myself, we spend a lot of time here reading, thinking, and writing about digital. It’s difficult to keep up, because every damn day there is a new development. What does @anywhere mean? What is Facebook changing this week? Which Mashable article should I read? How are all the different platforms, properties, channels and touch points best used to create an experience?

Bargaining in the post digital age offers little value to your client. Yes, you may be able to build a site. Maybe even an app. Congratulations on assembling the modern mousetrap. Now the question is, did you just spend all your client’s money on a trap for under the kitchen sink when the mice are actually in the pantry?


Of course, some in the industry are ready to wave the white flag:

Interesting article. I agree print advertising is dying, it is pretty apparent that people are cutting costs, and investing those funds into online marketing.

Honestly, I’m not sure that anything is dying. But it’s definitely evolving. There’s less to feel down about and more to be excited about due to the endless new opportunities that lie ahead of us. How can you watch the Wired approach to storytelling on the iPad and not be inspired? Print isn’t dead. It’s about to be reborn.

The media universe is expanding, and that reality includes consumers who now expect not only to be part of the conversation, but active members of the storytelling process. As creatives, have we lost control? Or is the cavalry finally arriving?


A month ago, I sat in the front row as Edward Boches gave a presentation during which he described himself as an “advertising refugee.” Yesterday, he posted this superb article on assembling and cultivating the new creative team. I had started writing this article a week ago, and planned on ending it with a reference to Edward Boches, and damned if he didn’t write the perfect conclusion for me. This is just one of many gems from his article:

So what do we make if we don’t make stories? Experiences. Experiences that earn attention, invite participation, inspire co-creation, provide utility and inherently generate more content.

Bravo, sir. That’s Friday Morning Bacon material. Rather than “kissing your creative team goodbye,” it offers positive ways to embrace the challenge that lies ahead for us all.

Please, go read it. Then be open to change, don’t be afraid of making mistakes, and always be eager to grow. We’re a smart bunch of people. Together we can deal with this.



  1. I think this is a very opportune and exciting time for people new to the Ad Industry like myself doing a mid-career change or people just starting out. There is a lot of opportunity for creative destruction of processes and operating theorems. Social Media, Mobility, and the Internet allow people to be successful in a myriad of ways without having to be part of a large organization. This has happened with many industries that have gone digital from music to media to news and now with advertising. Talent can be anywhere, work with anyone anywhere, and do incredible things when combined properly.

    From the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying there is only one thing guaranteed in life; Impermanence (Change).

  2. The creative team has never really been about an AD and a CW sitting in an ivory tower. I’ve been at this game for awhile and have always accepted input and help from multitudes on the way to the completion of a job.

    When writing and producing TV spot 15 years ago these are just a few of the people who were helping to make it great besides the creative team: The CD, the executive CD, the client, the producer, the director, the casting director, the production art director, the DP, the the actors, the stylist, the executive producer, the editor, the colorist, the sound designer, the composer and those are just the few I can name off the top of my head. The creative team has always needed to be collaborative to be successful.

    Mr. Duffy was just using a little hyperbole to make a point that we need to be even more inclusive with out team members because of the rapid pace of change today. I’m not an expert at coding but I was never an expert at Avid editing either.

  3. Howie,
    I absolutely agree. I just spoke to a group of college graduates last week, and one of the things I told them that there has never been a greater time of opportunity in this industry, as long as you’re open to never-ending learning and unlearning. We must take the approach that we are never done. I’d say that is at the very essence of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

  4. Mark, great application of the grieving process on the evolution of advertising from one and two dimensional “big ideas” to three and four dimensional experiences.

    It’s certainly not easy keeping up on the edge with this stuff, but it’s definitely a great opportunity if you’re willing to think, absorb and collaborate with others.

    I’ve already made many transitons in my own career, from print design to web design and then into app development, UI design and social media.

    Here’s the reality: the waves will keep on coming, so you have a choice to either wait for them to crash over you and toss you who knows where, or you can get on your surfboard, start swimming out to meet them, and surf them.

    You may crash trying to surf the waves that are constantly changing and coming in to the beach, but eventually you’ll figure it out how to surf. When you do, that’s when the opportunity is wide open and keeping up with the waves gets easier.

    Old school Adversaours and Designasaurs — it’s time to go surfing!

  5. Jimmy,
    Don’t get me wrong, I liked Sean Duffy’s post a lot and I agree with his point. His hyperbolic headline probably caught my eye in a RT. But once I got down to the comment section, it was clear he had hit a raw nerve, and the emotions were all over the place.

    As a life-long traditional creative who’s become a digital immigrant, I wanted to put myself in their shoes to examine why there was such negativity about having to collaborate with UX, strategists, and developers. In a bit of serendipity, Edward Boches post provided the perfect counterpoint to show how a respected traditional creative powerhouse like Mullen changed the make-up of their creative teams in order to succeed in the post digital age. Their recent wins of Jet Blue and Zappos prove that it’s working.

  6. First, Mark–very nice post. ‘The five stages’ was a great way to more succinctly define what’s happening in the current culture and in response to Duffy’s article, whether good or bad. Change is neutral. It isn’t good or bad; it just is. Good vs. bad enters the picture in terms of how one looks at things… how one responds. Is the glass half empty or full? I can’t help but think of shows like Top Chef, where there’s bound to be one in the running who might be brilliant, but loses the game because he or she can’t get around a particular obstacle. Could be approach, could be handling of criticism, or a response to something new/foreign. I agree; it’s about constantly being aware and open to new ideas/experiences and making adjustments as we go. This can be a challenging thing for many creative types. It’s easy to get comfortable once you find something that works, but I honestly believe that we are at our best when we’re on that surfboard–and not quite so comfortable. I added some additional thoughts on my site http://CreativeBeasts.com/. Here’s the post: http://bit.ly/aeXcPQ. Stop by and chat any time.

  7. Pingback: Re-imagining the agency proposition | eyecube

  8. Pingback: The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated « Translator: A Digital Experience Agency | Milwaukee, WI

  9. Pingback: Culture for Change: Iterative Marketing Part 2 | Webtrends Agency Partner Program

Leave a Reply