The real lessons we need to learn from Project Re-Brief

Idea first, engineering second.

By now everyone has seen or at least heard of Google’s Project Re-Brief. In order to showcase the potential of online advertising – after 18 years we ought to be able to do something better than the ubiquitous banner ad – Google had the brilliant idea of re-creating some of the advertising industry’s most famous ads and making them digital.

In typical Google fashion, they spared no expense or effort. To re-create Coke’s then epic 1971 Hilltop ad – it feels so small now – Google grabbed art director Harvey Gabor out of retirement, brought him to New York and taught him what the Internet – ad servers, HTML5, accelerometers, touch screens, and real-time video – can do.

If you watch the making of film you can see the reverence that Google shows for Harvey and the respect they convey for the “big idea.” They even let Harvey present using foam core.  (Anyone other than me, and Harvey, remember what that is?)  Granted part of that is the show — after all this is about demonstrating to ad agencies what they could do with Google and its cool tools and toys – but the real point is that a great ad idea is even better when executed to include user participation.

From ads to experiences

The finished experience, while not yet a scalable idea, is very much Nike Chalkbot-like; it connects the user, the web and the physical world in a seamless, magical way. Five Coke machines around the world are tied into Google servers. From a simple online ad that takes advantage of Google’s location services, a laptop video camera and YouTube, it lets a computer (or tablet or phone) user record a message, send the gift of a Coke to the machine of her choice, and include a video greeting. At the receiving end an unsuspecting passerby hears a machine singing the former hit, “I want to teach the world to sing…….I want to buy the world a Coke and keep it company,” as it dispenses the free Coca Cola and the video message from the sender. The recipient can then send a message back and the entire system creates a composite video of the event and uploads it to YouTube. Wow.

Once we had a message, controlled, produced, and delivered by Coke. Now we have an experience enabled by Coke, but created and controlled by consumers. Once Coke said “we’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Now users are actually doing it for each other.  Once we had an old fashioned ad.  Now we have a new kind of ad.

Creating experiences vs messages


Change the team, change the process

But of all the changes evident in the above example, the most important one is the composition of the team needed to create it. When Harvey made his TV spot he worked with Bill Backer and a director. But if you take a look at the team in the room to make something like the Re-Brief version of Hilltop, you have IA, UX, tech, engineering and production.  And you have more of those kinds of creatives than you have of the old fashioned kind.

Many advertising agencies still start the process with a team of writers and art directors who conceive TV like ideas then ask the digital team to come up with something digital to go with it. If an agency is descended from the likes of Harvey Gabor and Bill Backer it’s in their DNA to work that way. (Let’s face it, none of us would start the kind of agency today that we may currently work for.)

But it’s probably time to embrace a totally opposite approach. Put five technologists and one writer in the room. Or gather four developers and one art director.  Or change the qualifications for the title creative director. It’s the only way to create executions – or platforms, or behaviors – this innovative.

My favorite shot in the case study video is the one that says “Engineers build vending machines that connect to display ads,” suggesting that after the creative idea was conceived, the team then told engineering what it needed.

This is the antithesis of the way the world usually works. In the typical sequence R&D comes up with an idea based on what’s possible, engineering builds it, marketing learns what they have to sell, and the ad agency – despite being closer to the market and consumers than most anyone – finally gets handed the product and the story to be communicated. They’re at the end of the line virtually all the time.

Yes, Re-Brief teaches us that old ads can be re-created digitally. And yes, it recognizes the value of an idea. No doubt the traditional advertising holdouts can point their finger at this and say, “See you still need the concept.”  Yeah yeah.

But both of those lessons miss the real points.

If we want to build new, interesting, interactive experiences, we need to change the team dramatically.  Not simply add a token technologist to the traditional creative team, but perhaps take the opposite approach. Add one traditional creative to a full-blown technical team.

And two, we should put engineering at the end of the process, not the beginning. Rather than build something and then convince a consumer to buy it or use it, maybe should start with the ideal consumer experience then back up and build it.

What are your takeaways from Re-Brief?


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This was the most poignant and spot-on portion of this post. I couldn't agree more.


"My favorite shot in the case study video is the one that says “Engineers build vending machines that connect to display ads,” suggesting that after the creative idea was conceived, the team then told engineering what it needed.


This is the antithesis of the way the world usually works. In the typical sequence R&D comes up with an idea based on what’s possible, engineering builds it, marketing learns what they have to sell, and the ad agency – despite being closer to the market and consumers than most anyone – finally gets handed the product and the story to be communicated. They’re at the end of the line virtually all the time."


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I think it's interesting, perhaps relevant to the Coca-Cola re:brief, that I recently read that Red Bull had more revenue on its media 'products' (or enterprises) than it did on sales of its flagship beverage. That's both a reality and unthinkable possibility that didn't exist at the time of the original "Hilltop." And I think it goes to the crux of defining what's the 'idea" not just behind the script but behind the offering. IBM was able to move from being a 'computer company' - so, too (in many ways) has Apple. Not to overlook Coca-Cola, of course. My perspective on the lessons of 're-brief' is that a well-aligned team with a singular objective and some 'institutional' imperative can make great things happen. It's a lot less about technology than it is the commercial application of sociology and psychology (aka, stories that are identifiable and malleable.)

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

This is awesome stuff edward. But i still need to caution doesnt matter how cool or great ads are they rank at the bottom of our choice of to do today lists. With a few exceptions. So i always see 'if ads arw better this will change'. I can't believe it ever will. That doesn't mean they ahouldnt be more relevant or engaging or social. I just feel us marketers and advertisers need to remember we povide a service but keep our importance in perspective.


I think one of the real reasons that ad agency muscle memory is so strong is that agencies haven't made the shift in their underlying economics to support the sort of staffing you suggest.  It'd be great to have 5 or 6 people pitching in on the creative ideation (UX, tech, connections planner, etc) but without adding 50 or 60% to budgets (already under ferocious margin pressure), it's hard to pull off.


Clients won't pay for it in most cases and agencies won't take the margin hit, so they try to pull it in around the edges, but neither are sustainable. Leaning on teams of hybrid folks, agile approaches, and outsourced digital production can help but are a long way from a steady-state answer.


The fact is that a team of two can easily create and spawn major tv, which can be produced with healthy margins.  Until agencies and clients grapple with the unpleasant economics of complex multichannel idea development and production,  campaigns like this one will be rare.


(And one additional hidden barrier: TV shoots often involve a measure of glamour: a big-name director, travel to somewhere exotic, maybe a celeb or star.  Scale digital involves a ton of detailed decisions with an unwashed tribe of anonymous kids in a cube farm.  If you were a client, where would you want to spend your time?  We need to find better ways to make the digital making sexy...)


Many thanks for a fantastic and resonant post, Edward. This is something that gets right to he heart of what agencies are for, and how the client/agency relationship needs to develop in order or both sides to generate value.  Speaking as someone who works in a London media agency, it often feels like I'm living in Project Re-brief full-time.  So often it's clear that what a client has bought (and been sold) is a not an idea, but a script. Digging beneath, finding the idea behind the idea, is an essential part of what a media agency's de facto job has become - making a limited executional idea into something that can travel across channels and be shared between people.  This can yield fantastically creative and participative experiences (as in the Google/Coke example). It can also be incredibly unforgiving work, because it requires some distillation and sacrifice.  If I really know why people should like my brand, then generating engineering ideas becomes really exciting - I know what I want my audience to do, to think, to feel. I can translate those out-takes to the real world, and afford myself a whole new landscape of creative possibility.  If, on the other hand, all I really know is the proposition I've been given and need to articulate for 'consumers', then I focus on just that - the articulation. Generic brand stuff becomes generic advertising stuff very easily, and TV remains a surprisingly central mechanism that clients have for understanding their own brand.  Success becomes about translating that brand intent/ positioning for as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.  But the experiences you (rightly) advocate are seen as delivering insufficient scale, or only fulfilling one part of the (ill-defined) strategy, or as asking too much of people. Clients ask: Why risk all that effort for only a few people to experience it, to communicate a fraction of what we need to, in a way that most people will ignore. Therefore what clients think they need is matched by the way ad agencies best articulate their idea - a TV script. But of course this is a short-cut route to value, and therefore really no kind of value at all. I know this isn't a fair reflection of all ad agencies  (and less still an honest picture of how all media agencies contribute!) and many are at he forefront of helping clients see the benefits of change.  But clients themselves need to understand it. I'd like to see them start  demanding fewer script-centric ideas and more idea-behind-the-ideas, to be evaluated on their potential for variety and innovation in execution. As always, Mad Men has a lesson for us. We all wondered why Don got engaged to his secretary when he clearly loved Dr Faye. The answer - because he'll feel less challenged, more in control and more able to avoid the fundamental truths about what he wants versus what he needs - doesn't make the unsatisfying outcome seem any less inevitable.  Agencies: resist your inner Megan. Clients: recognise the value of those who make you feel uncomfortable. 

edwardboches moderator

 @Ericvanf Institutional imperative. Let's get into Wikipedia. And explain the importance of vision, mission and corporate culture and goals. It is true that change can only happen if there is buy in from bottom and top.

edwardboches moderator

 @Payday Advance Of course it was paid for by Google. It's an effort to get ad agencies to get it. And TV is sexy, but revenues continue to decline. Over time, traditional media will continue to shrink and web, mobile, apps, online will grow, both in use and in money.

edwardboches moderator

 @harperjones I believe you have nailed at least one of the primary reasons. As Deep Throat said, "Follow the money."  Go to the staffing plans for most accounts in most traditional agencies and there is the problem.  Challenge is create staffing plans, which drive hiring, for the future needs of a client, not based on the past work done by previous agencies or in previous years.

edwardboches moderator

 @jamescaig Resist your inner Megan. Brilliant line. And awesome comment overall, as good as the post. Thanks for engaging.