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Ad executive Winston Binch preaches the importance of invention

Silicon Valley episode 4: Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Thomas Middleditch.

Jaimie Trueblood/HBO

"Remarkable invention kicks ass."

That was the message Winston Binch had for a roomful of advertising executives this week. The chief digital officer of agency Deutsch L.A. was discussing the shift from an emphasis on making ads to inventions. He sat down with The Globe at the Institute of Communication Agencies' Future Flash conference in Muskoka.

Q: You spoke about the way advertising is migrating more toward inventing things – a big trend for advertisers looking to get noticed.

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A: Agencies have been making products for a long time. Alcohol brands have been invented by plenty of agencies, for example. But it used to be an idea and you'd outsource the production. What's different now is a lot more of it is technology, it's digitally based. That requires new people in the building. ... There's a lot of talk about invention right now in advertising. It's startup culture – there's the show Silicon Valley on HBO – that culture is mainstream now. A lot of advertisers are grabbing on to it. Nike+ came about in 2006 right around when I left R/GA [the ad agency that helped Nike develop its FuelBand fitness tracker, and Nike iD, which allows people to design their own shoes online.] That changed the ad world forever. It was a service, and it won big at Cannes, which has traditionally been about the big TV spot. I've been making products for a long time going back to my R/GA days. And then at Crispin [Porter + Bogusky], Dominos [Pizza Tracker – which allowed people to order online and track the progress of their pizza.] It's easy to get people excited as long as you commit to making stuff. The difficult thing is selling it to clients. A lot of our clients all know they need to do it, and they want to, but it's hard to find room for it given the demands of their businesses, particularly the Fortune 500s. ... They're more concerned with short term than long term. Innovation is seen as a long-term thing. And also hasn't been in marketing organizations; usually IT, product design and R&D, not the marketing side. How do we sell more invention products to our clients?

Q: So you created Can you explain that?

A: We sell ideas in 5- to 10-day sprints; prototypes in 45; and products in about six months. It starts at $10,000 and up – clients pay for that first phase. And they decide whether they want to move forward with the development. It's very low risk, when you think of a normal [advertising] project with an agency that could be hundreds of thousands. We've found that a lot of clients are really interested in that.

Q: One example is Fuelcaster, which advertised your client Esurance by providing a free service that let people predict gas prices – so they knew when to fill up.

A: When we invent something, it doesn't always mean we build it from scratch. With Fuelcaster, there was an existing service called Gas Buddy. We are essentially an interface that sits on their data, that we have an exclusive licence with. ... As of last week, we have 70 per cent repeat visitors. That's remarkable, and the last three months it's gone up every month. So we are getting to a stable user base.

Q: It's neat, but what does it actually do for Esurance's business?

A: Everyone's trying to figure this out. CMOs, everyone knows they need to invent. But there is a lingering skepticism about its ability to solve marketing problems. ... We created a game for Pop Secret, Poptopia [a "smellable" mobile game with a plug-in device that would spritz popcorn smell when a person played it.] We made just 30 of [the spritzing attachments] and we had more than 400 million media impressions [i.e. views of media articles or videos or other items related to the game] in just over a month. That was the second most successful ad, when you look at PR and impressions, that we did all last year. The other remarkable thing about that was that our exposure was 29 times the cost of production. So I'm getting data that I can bring to clients to say, 'This kind of work can have a larger impact than advertising.' ... If you look at it side by side, invention is going to get you better returns. And also get you talking about it with your family around a table. That's what we want to do.

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Q: But your agency also makes ads that prove the power of storytelling. VW's "The Force," for example, with the little kid dressed in the Darth Vader costume. I love that ad; I'll seek it out and sit through it willingly.

A: We say we have to make ads that are impossible to ignore, and that means you seek them out. If we've done our job, you should seek it out. But it is all storytelling. Even with invention, it's not just nerds in a room making stuff. It is people who know how to make emotional stories sitting with us who are more design oriented, tech builders.

Q: Digital media have changed how campaigns are conceived. They can't just be clever, they have to be shareable. Do you see that playing a role in, say, the recent campaign by Deutsch and directed by Errol Morris that found real people named Ronald McDonald to endorse Taco Bell?

A: The PR headline is everything in that. Why are you going to write about it? That's what we ask ourselves. ... It's interesting, a lot of these guys were super excited, because they've had the Ronald McDonald badge for some time. There's a two-minute piece online that Errol Morris did that goes more into detail. What we love about it is, we have this philosophy, 'Find an enemy.' All great storytelling, whether it's the Bible, heaven and hell, there's a tension that exists. If you have something to push against, it allows the work to stand out. And it forces consumers to make a decision. It's either, you're a McDonald's person or you're a Taco Bell person. You kind of want people to choose. It's challenger work that does that.

Q: For all this enthusiasm for invention, you said a lot of big ad agencies aren't investing in research and development. Is that true?

A: Agencies are investing in experiments – Wieden + Kennedy has P.I.E. [a collaborative experiment between the agency and tech entrepreneurs]. There's a few things emerging. But what I'm not seeing is a lot of investment in technology internally. Most agencies still follow the traditional broadcast model, where you come up with an idea and throw it to another company for production. ... Steve Jobs bought companies and brought people in, and he wanted that IP and that creation to happen in the Apple building. That's what we want.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.

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