Don’t be fooled by the talk in the ad industry: it is as deeply conservative as accounting. I’ve always found that odd, considering it’s a place where it’s OK, even expected, for 45-year-old men to dress (and often act) like 20-year-olds. Yet when push comes to shove, advertising refuses to take many chances. This isn’t just on the client side, either.
That’s my last takeaway from Skittlesgate. The commentary I’ve read, even from the self-appointed social media experts, is distressing, some of it just factually wrong. In advertising, everyone talks about trying new, different, even daring approaches. They rarely do them. They’re scared of failure. There's a stigma to it. This is diametrically opposite to the attitude of Silicon Valley, where failure is viewed as an important part of the innovation process.
And why not. Look at the commentary out there about the Skittles site. Mind you, this is a package goods Web site that a few thousand people would normally visit per month. I'm reminded of Allen Iverson's "practice" tirade. "We're talking about a candy Web site?" The story has been predictable. Agency.com got vilified for “stealing” from Modernista. Then some people thought it could have some value. Finally, the naysayers looked for holes. Look, some people wrote about putting Skittles up their asses! This is the worst thing to happen to social media! Skittles has “pulled the campaign” because it rotated the landing page from Twitter search to Facebook! Never mind that it rotated the page from Wikipedia to Twitter search originally. Oddly that didn’t warrant claiming the brand “pulled” the campaign. People are even debating whether this was “planned.” (It was.) But in digital, the magic is you try things, you see what works, you adapt. That’s how it works.
Skittlesgate reveals the underbelly of the advertising industry. It revels in failures, real and imagined. (I don’t think you can plausibly say Skittles.com has failed.) It loves nothing more than tearing others apart. This is not just a traditional advertising phenomenon. That would be amusing if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s corrosive to innovation. The way forward in reaching consumers in innovative, effective ways through digital media is trial and error. Is Skittles.com perfect? Far from it. Is it an attempt to do something very different? Yes, it is. Most would play it safe, as Agency.com and Skittles could easily have done. They could have created a Taste the Rainbow casual game, and add in a “viral” option for uploading your photo to a Skittle and emailing it to friends. Instead, it not only talked the conference talk (“consumers are in control”) but it walked it, albeit imperfectly.
There are some, like AKQA's Lars Bastholm, who have offered reasoned critiques of the site. Most, however, have just settled into the typical vitriol and deathwatch scenario. I’ve seen it before with Honeyshed and many other efforts to try something undeniably new. There’s a price to pay for this reflex to tear into anyone who dares cross the status quo. It's dangerous for what should be the most innovative part of the industry to ape the backbiting and navel-gazing of the traditional ad world. I’ve always thought the industry needs one more awards show, The Fails, which would award those who tried something new, came up short and learned from it.