Interview with Clint Bryce – Space Patrol Car

Clint Bryce as a youngster Our feature of the day is most certainly our interview with one of the most respected men I’ve ever met in the digital space. Clint Bryce is the head honcho at Space Patrol Car, a division of 24.com. He’s also paid his dues at some of the earliest and most pioneering studios in South Africa.

We got him to answer some questions about hiring creative talent in South Africa, the role that agencies play and also that whole thing with the Windhoek banners on the News24 election site. He also waxes lyrical about that curse… the banner ad.

But let’s get him to answer the questions.

What is your background, and how did you get to where you are at the moment?

I guess that depends on how far back in time you’re willing to travel. You could say I’m an art director by trade: I’ve flirted briefly with print when holding a position as a layout artist with Cosmopolitan Magazine – that was way back in the days of a lightbox, NT cutter’s and a wax machine! Shortly after my appointment, I realised that all the stuff I was doing on the lightbox could be done in half the time, with far greater design options, on this cool computer called a Mac SE. I became an evangelist there and then. Spreading the gospel to anyone that cared to listen – and to a few that didn’t. That was 1990.

After that, I moved into mainstream traditional advertising and finally found my home in digital when I joined tinderbox interactive CT – it was shortly after they opened their doors in April 1995. The first year of business was the most fun I’ve ever had pretending to work. We had no rules and the industry had no map whatsoever, but we did manage to capture the digital genie and created some of the most innovative projects at the time. The trophies are still proudly on display here in our studio – including the first digital Loerie Grand Prix awarded. Things started to really heat up and some very creative and smart outfits were popping up everywhere; Electric Ocean – probably the forerunner, Tool, VWV Interactive, Blade and Armadillo. But we were all rushing headlong for the bubble which burst in 2000. I haven’t glimpsed a cocktail of blind passion, sheer craziness and absolute belief in what you were doing ever since. It was magnificent.

After the heady tinderbox days I have remained true to digital, spending time either starting or leading teams both in Cape Town and Johannesburg: [code] digital, SHiFT, JACK! and AquaOnline – a team that truly rode the storm all the way. Kudus to Brent Shahim and his team. Respect.

What do you think is exciting at the moment?

I’ll tell you what’s exciting. The resurrected digital spirit. The new blood: they’re less risk-averse than we were. But good on them! Can you believe we have designers whom have never heard of Delapse!

The abundance and relentless onslaught of technology. The new ways in which to deliver exciting messages and ideas to customers: social networks, paper vision, augmented reality and surface tech, twitter … the list revises itself almost every week.

The curiosity: The number one question I’ve been asked over the past year is: “Tell me how digital can grow my business.’ Fantastic! Let’s get started. We may be in a recession (is it because everybody says it’s so?)  but the lens has swung to digital solutions for tactical, affordable ways to advertise, capture interest and sell products. Perhaps the telescope is now a microscope?

The time to deliver has never been so ripe as it is now. That, my friend, is exciting.

SpacePatrolCar is the internal division at 24.com  – what do you guys do and what is your relationship with 24.com and external clients?

SpacePatrolCar was founded by 24.com in January 2008 to introduce creative services and best-practice principles to online advertising practitioners. Although fiercely independent with our brand and approach to projects and customers, we still enjoy direct access to 24.com’s  infrastructure, people, resources and publishing channels. This puts us in a powerful position to identify what online advertising, marketing and brand strategies work. In our view we treat projects with 24.com and external clients in the same manner: we provide strategic insight and have the capability to create and measure conversations between brands and people. Of course the market and objectives differ in each case, but the same approach is required. For example, we’ll produce the industry Trade Site for 24.com, present a creative paper at a country-wide Roadshow then design and deliver marketing activity for a channel launch. The following day we’ll be in a studio shoot for a digital activation for one of our direct clients. The intellectual currency runs through both hemispheres with equal purpose.

A while back there was the whole Windhoek banner cadenza, are you at liberty to divulge what happened there?

Ha ha yes I remember that. First you should know that SpacePatrolCar had no involvement whatsoever, but I can comment on what I believe the circumstances around Windhoek’s exposure might have been – understand that these are my own musings and bear no other relevance. For readers of 10and5 we’re referring to the post: “Windhoek missed the point?” .

When I read the post I had a huge grin on my face because I concurred with everything mentioned: am I missing something? There must be something more to this than 3 TVC’s? What’s the deal here? Granted, I didn’t ‘tamper with the microsite’ to see if any video measurements were in place though.

Here’s the deal: 14 years on big big brands are still dipping toes into digital waters – something that still fascinates me every single day. But I believe we should commend the individuals behind these decisions . The gamut of understanding what digital channels are capable of is still surprisingly wide; you get the digirati at one end pushing the envelope … and then on the other end you have the seasoned brand experts who believe in the potential but do not have the insight, knowledge and specialists at their disposal to translate the activation into a deeper, more interactive, engaging experience. In Windhoek’s case I assume that a pure brand decision was made to capitilise on the enormous readership 24.com received over the voting period. In fact, on further enquiry after reading the post, I learnt that during the month of April, the Elections Hub on News24.com reached almost 600 000 people. On the day of elections alone, more than 340 000 people saw the ad. In total, the Windhoek ‘Keep It Real’ standard banner ads were viewed over 5 million times! That’s some serious branding.

Yes, I believe Windhoek had an incredible opportunity to provide detail, functionality, interactivity and depth to engage with an enormous audience – but you know what? I think the brave individuals behind the campaign should be congratulated for taking the steps they did. Can you image the delight when they flip the switch the next time!

You’ve had quite a bit of beef with banner ads, specifically that they offer no utility once you’ve clicked on them, could you explain a bit more?

Are you referring to the bane of my existence? hehe. Yes. The Banner (Capital B please) is probably the most misunderstood piece of real estate on the planet. Think about it. Creatives balk and squawk at the mere thought of working on a ‘banner brief’. Customers ask for a quote … then suggest that ‘maybe we should do 2 and not 3 executions’. It’s all because the term ‘banner’ is a single word that is used to describe an entire spectrum of online advertising possibilities. Lost in translation the lonely banner is.

I have to acknowledge that on the far left of the continuum there is a home for the static brand message. The classified ad, if you will. That’s all well and good. The problem arises when the the smart creative folk at agencies approach this little piece of canvas – the equivalent of the side of a box of Lion Matches – the same way as they would a TV commercial: with an emotional story line and the great unveil. It simply won’t work. You have 3 seconds to convey your brand, message, product and offer. And get this, it should appear on every frame (if it’s animated). Tough? You bet your mighty mouse it is.

Regarding utility, the web is, in essence, software. This means that functionality is inherent in it’s makeup. And I believe there is a trend toward ‘useful advertising’. In other words, advertising on the web and mobile is becoming not just about messaging, but also about providing value to customers. To date, functionality has often not been the role of advertising. This opens up all sorts of opportunities and complications. We have already seen the emergence of ‘branded utilities’ and ‘sponsored applications’ that provide useful experiences – those that are not focussed on themselves. People select these messages voluntary and Want To Be There. That’s very powerful for any brand. For example, imagine a household detergent that sponsors a small anti-virus application? Or an anti-histamine product that produces a series of traffic intersection webcams to ‘avoid the congestion’? I don’t know about you but I am far more likely to check the handy branded widget that will show me which intersection to avoid at home time than click on the ad that interrupted my reading. And I will do it every day.

I think it’s because of this belief that I always look toward packing the banner full of punch – but admittedly, I have recently come to accept that sometimes all that’s really needed is a beautifully crafted brand message. With the logo on every frame of course. What were you thinking?

What do you make of separate digital agency’s – it seems that a lot of traditional ad houses set up “new” digital unit to look after the digital side of things for them, what do you think of this approach? Should digital not be part of the toolkit of the core agency as well?

Great question! Where do you come with this stuff? First I need to check what year it is …. yup 2009. It seems absurd that this questions is still being asked. Talk about GroundHog Day. I’ve witnessed the swings and roundabouts: separate digital agency’s as well as the ‘new’ digital units and the combinations continue.

I believe that Ad Agency’s, and I’m generalising here, have always viewed digital specialists as being ‘production houses’ or digital ‘post production’ outfits. Maybe they see the individuals as artisans of their craft, much like talented Photographers and Directors? They do respect these valuable people. Nothing wrong here at all.

But they have also finally acknowledge that the medium is receiving huge global attention. What would you do? Invest in the capability? Of course! This is their effort to retain control over the relationship and, most importantly, the budgets.  But shortly after the digital unit is set we have what I call the ‘country cousins syndrome’. All the work is done and then there’s the ‘oh shit we need a website and some banner ads. Can you guys do something with this great idea of ours?’ The corner office with the geeks will never get the respect, floor time, and ultimately the support to work on a holistic solution with the rest of the creative brains. The DNA of the ad agency needs to change. And this is a monumental task. It’s complex and deals with many, many years of tradition that has, until a few years back, worked brilliantly for everyone concerned. This is exemplified by the snubbing of Big Spaceship by BBDO in regard to the gold Cyber Lion for the HBO Voyeur site, which caused a bit of a stir. On the surface it might have appeared to be an scuffle about who should win what, but looking deeper it might be more. In fact, it might not be about who’s reception gets the trophy at all. It might not even be about Big Spaceship and BBDO at all. I think it’s all about the money and control and who gets to keep the strategic relationship with the client … making sure they are at the table when it comes to influencing the media and marketing budget spend. This creates big problems for businesses that want to change the way they operate.

Yes. I believe digital should be part of the core agency toolkit. But for this to happen you will either need to start the agency of the future up now and invest heavily in equal portions of Ad talent – as well as Digital capability – granting each equal amounts of respect and airtime. In fact, you would need to design the processes and environment very delicately so as to ensure they work together on idea generation and execution across all surfaces. You would either need to do that, or find someone that is prepared to fundamentally shift the belief system, from the highest circles of governance to the water cooler. And that, in my opinion, is practically impossible. So I suggest we head down the former road.

You’ve working with some great people – Dylan Jones, Jaco Crafford and Umar Jakoet. What have you found about the talent pool in South Africa?

I’ve been very fortunate with finding our Patrolmen. It took almost 6 months to find Jaco and Dylan. Umar is a recent acquisition. South Africa is home to brilliant talent. But the talent pool is closer to a pond. Believe me when I tell you that all the talent on the radar are friends on Skype, Facebook, Gmail Chat and Twitter. Don’t fool yourself – these creatives are chatting to each other everyday about what drives them. Sharing passionately. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve always been very proud of the fact that our digital ambassadors seem to care more about the medium than the companies they keep. There’s a challenge for all Creative Directors right there. Think of ways to keep your people.

We do have huge talent. Johannesburg and Cape Town are very very different. Jozi has the ability to find and secure brilliance – through sheer weight and pocket. You have the opportunity to work with some of the biggest teams, brands and – as an added bonus – share equity. Talent is drawn like a moth to a flame. And it’s working. Cape Town, on the other hand, is a teaming hive of razorsharp fireflies all fiercely independent and have the capability to remain tight, small and in control of their own destiny. It took me over 27 interviews to find my first Patrolman. There’s something about an iMac and a 1967 beetle that can generate enough income and satisfaction for a digital warrior. This makes a contract look like death. But given these scenario’s I still feel that we are lacking deeply in the mentor category. I’m referring to large, brilliant, creative personalities that are grooming young talent. The like’s of John Hunt, Mike Schalit, Matthew Bull and Graham Warsop. We don’t have these teachers. There’s a layer missing. Although Pete Case has done a great job with raising the profile of digital over the past 5 years. We need more. And we need the senior, seasoned veterans to become the mentors and teachers . Accept the role. If you’re in the game and you’re past 36 raise your hand. You’re needed.

What do you find is the biggest challenge that you face as an agency and creative?

Oh thats easy. As an agency the single, most greatest challenge is the cost-of-sale investment you make. Each solution is bespoke. First you need to educate. Then you need to illustrate. Then you have to cost the services. The only benefit is that by the time the quote is signed off the work is practically finished. We’re not selling light bulbs in Cansas anymore!

As a creative the biggest challenge I face is finding the available genius out there. Once that’s done you still need to convince them to climb onboard. When you’ve managed that you need to run a business and still come up with the next insanely great idea. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

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Thanks for the chat. And congratulation’s on between 10and5, which is really gaining traction. We will be sure to throw our work at it from time to time.

You can follow the Space Patrol Car blog here,

Clint’s Twitter profile is here, and this is his personal blog. Take a look at his professional profile on LinkedIn.