Where to start?
A few points:
1) Other countries do it much better than the UK.
2) There’s no real reason why the UK should be so shite. Tough conditions such as low budgets (Subservient Chicken) and big brands (Ikea, Nike, BMW etc.) can produce classics in other countries.
3) UK Digital agencies are now easily in their second proper decade of mediocrity.
So here’s the major reason why: in the UK, digital advertising is still thought of as the nerdy, poorly-hung virgin to the Veyron-driving superstar that is Above The Line (I exaggerate to make a point). The glamour, budgets and salaries are all still in conventional media, and so therefore is the talent. I’m not for a second saying that is right, or good for the business, but if we’re all going to be honest about it, we have to admit that a job in a digital agency is only marginally more attractive than one in a direct agency.
The problem with this is that the vast majority of digital creative jobs are taken by the people who came closer to the bottom of the class at St Martins/Watford/Bucks/Wherever. Of course, there are a few exceptions and the blurring of lines between the two disciplines means that some of the talent inevitably crosses over (is it any surprise that probably the UK’s best-ever digital campaign, Met Police Knife Crime, was done by a big senior team in a big ATL agency? And ditto last year’s online Phillips films), but in general, a digital agency has a smaller and lower quality talent pool to choose from. This in turn means that the work doesn’t really get any better and the job remains as (un)tempting as ever.
Fortunately, some ATL creatives are making the crossover (eg: Alex and Adrian at Glue) and might help to bring things on, but the problem remains that for many digital agencies, much of life is spent doing the digital version of someone else’s ATL campaign, so less creativity is required, less job satisfaction is available and again, the job is less tempting to the best in the business. Also, if ATL agencies have good digital briefs, why would an ambitious person want to restrict themselves to a single medium?
Oddly enough, I have noticed that the digi-guru types (lots of places seem to have one; I’m not sure what the real job title is, but you know who I mean) in big ATL agencies are foreign. They seem to be in it for the chance to do great stuff, not because they couldn’t hack it ATL. Perhaps it’s just a matter of perception: in other countries they have great digi work to look up to, so find it entirely reasonable to aspire to that. They might also have less good/glamorous TV to entice them away (yes, I know UK TV is also pretty poor at the moment, but it’s still better than the digital work).
What’s also funny about this is fact that in 2007 there were doomy, industry-wide warnings that if a creative didn’t have any digital work in his or her book by 2009 they’d be a dead dinosaur, forever banished from the advertising industry. Well, that’s patently turned out to be complete bullshit. It’s nice if you’ve got some but it’s far from essential if you want a big job in a big agency. The emperor’s new clothes aspect of the medium has led to the feeling that ‘wolf’ has been cried (I know I’m mixing my fairy tales). When will digital be a really big deal in this country?
Another part of the problem is that much of digital’s success has ridden on the back of ATL. Cadbury’s Gorilla and John West Bear weren’t designed as virals. They just spread through the interwebz because they were a fucking brilliant TV ads (read the Ad Contrarian on this very subject). Another example of the best ATL-ers doing the real biz (same with Nike Write The Future) that makes digital waves.
So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, like most people who work primarily in non-digital, I’m not sure I care. I can be inspired by great work from around the world and see the UK’s ATL agencies get the closest to emulating it. If the UK’s digital shops don’t smack it out of the park it’s hardly a reason to lose any sleep.