What I Heard at CreateTech / by Dan Weingrod

I was fortunate to be at the 4A’s first CreateTech conference last Friday. Not just to have a chance to see the 4A’s make a major commitment towards what I believe is a critical agency role, but also to see how the elusive Creative Technologist is being defined and the issues around that definition. Below are some of the quotes and takeaways that resonated for me from the presentations:  

"The household is no longer physical"

JP Rangaswami, Chief Scientist of Salesforce.com seemed like an odd choice for the opener. A technologist yes, but seemingly more representative of the client side, nevertheless his discussion of social objects and what Salesforce is doing in helping to build the social enterprise helped focus a the kind of strategic opportunity and big idea vision that CT’s might bring to the table.  The quote about the household goes to the role that interactivity, location and context is playing and will continue to play across communities and social objects of interest. It also goes to the, at times a bit creepy, role that data mining by Salesforce, (and us marketers), will play in it.

 

"Ads used to be the be all and end all of campaigns, now they are terrific drivers to other experiences"

Trevor O’Brien and Glenn Fellman of McKinney showed that there are agencies who are really getting it about integrating technology into their process…and they’re getting results. In their tandem presentation they gave structure and life to a CT’s role within a more traditional agency. There was lots to like in their new approach: No Ganntt charts, really embracing transparency across the creative organization, using planning poker and especially their encouragement to “Bogart the good stuff”; Keeping the really challenging and interesting work internally so you can attract and retain the best talent.

They also talked about how McKinney is encouraging innovation by creating a Google like 10% innovation time. What was interesting here was the process, or rather “non-process” of forming innovation teams at McKinney. Instead of creating a mandated team of “one part creative, one part copywriter and one part developer”, teams came together around shared interests and ideas. Proving that maybe culture, as well as process, needs to be changed in order to bring value to the CT role.

 

"The advertising industry model of the creative black box is going away, if we have an idea we’ll go and white board it with the client"

When Scott Roen of American Express and Brian Skahan of CP+B started to present Amex’s Open platform it felt ominously like a promotional presentation, but when the discussion moved to platform, process and the agency/client relationship things got much more interesting. Amex and CP+B have moved past the traditional linear, (and by association waterfall), process and have replaced it with a more circular, flexible Agile process based on regular release cycles and sprints. The benefit and relevance for the CT is that everyone sits together in a team that includes art director, coywriter, technologist and experience designer. The benefit for the agency/client relationship was that the client was very much part of the team. On both the creative and the development side there seemed to be a client willingness to be involved and readiness to accept the inconsistencies, pivots and launch delays of a tech based creative project.

 

 

Andy Hood of AQKA was the first presenter to really take up the thorny question of the definition of a CT. He started by putting up a number of quotes from the “introduce yourself” thread on the LinkedIn CT group. The self-definitions were entertainingly different, but then he polled the audience to see how many were coders and how many were still coding, (60% and 40% respectively). So does a CT need to know how to code? Based on this straw poll the answer seems to be yes, but the challenge still remains as to how the CT can take this capability and express it across an agency.

Hood’s perspective of going from Cobol programmer to leading CT at a top digital agency brought a great deal of depth and possibility to this question. What interested me was how he and his team found themselves more engaged with strategists and user experience types than the usual suspects of creative and copywriter. This was interestingly at odds with a conversation I had during a break about how developers, presumably working in more traditional agencies, felt that strategists were among the biggest roadblocks for digital ideas. Perhaps the challenge for more traditional agencies looking to build a CT role is to adopt a culture closer to that of digital agencies. Hood, based on the quote above, might agree.

 

"The smaller the budget the greater the chance an agency will be creative"

This came out of a panel discussion featuring Marcel Kornblum, Stuart Eccles, Scott Prindle and Saneel Radia. But before we got there an interesting moment appeared  when the panel veered into a discussion of sequential liability, (huh?), a topic I didn’t even know existed, but one that seems appears to becoming critically important . If I got it right, Sequential Liability sits on very slippery borderline of IP ownership where opensource code, code reuse and custom coding live in an uncomfortable truce. The crux of the issue seems to be that if you are committed to the opensource community, how can you grant full ownership rights of code to a client? If you are interested in this topic, and I’m sure I’m missing something, the 4A’s has actually published a point of view here .

And as to that other quote above. That was Marcel Kornblum responding to Stuart Eccles successful attempts to stir up the pot. The comment brought up some interesting, and slightly cynical, discussion in the room and on twitter. My take is that while no one is really out there hunting for small budgets, big budget projects, overloaded with multiple requirements and locked-down briefs, can often become the proverbial battleship that agile and creative thinking may not be able to turn around. When you consider the movement towards minimal project thinking found in the Lean startup movement and books such as “Little Bets” it seems that perhaps working at a smaller, more rapid scope, (and smaller budget), within the context of a bigger idea may be the more creative and effective approach.

 

"What is Open?"

Gary Koelling, Director of Emerging Platforms at Best Buy, took things in an unexpected direction by challenging the whole notion of the name Creative Technologist. He illustrated this by talking about Edward Jenner, the physician who discovered the discoverer of the smallpox vaccine and essential founder of immunology. Jenner used intelligent and creative insight combined with openly available tools to pursue a hunch he had about smallpox. He didn’t pay a license and shared his learning openly. It was impressive and encouraging to hear this discussion of Open coming from someone working within creative and tech in corporate America. As pointed out above it seems like there are some stirrings on the client side to think ahead of or at least in parallel with the agency side of things. A good sign or a warning? I’m not sure, but something worth preparing for. As an example Koelling closed with this video, made internally by one of his Best Buy team members.

 

"It's your privilege, honor and responsibility as a maker to find out how people are using your systems in real life"

I was expecting that Kati London would be talking about her work at Zynga, but instead, and to my delight, she covered her work with Area/Code (which recently became Zynga New York). The work included some familiar faves like Drop7 and Discovery Channel’s Sharkhunt, but of greater interest were some of Area/Code’s latest real-world community based games.

Macon Money uses the concept of mix and match “bonds” to help disparate communities in the same city meet and interact. Battlestorm is a game that combines physical sport, reality shows and online interaction to build hurricane preparedness, its first iteration occurred this past weekend. Aside from the social relevance of these games, it was also great to see the positive way they both bridged the gap between the virtual and physical world, something we don’t see much these days where everything seems to be all too easily “gamified”. I liked the fact that there was a commitment to portability and especially learning, nicely summarized in the quote above, which extended beyond the initial game experience and into further learning and iteration.

 

"I think they just backed up a Kinect truck and poured it into the exhibition hall"

I’m not sure I have this quote right, it was getting late, but the spirit makes sense. It was from the final, very high energy, panel of the day that included Matt Powell, Eddie Smith, Shailesh Rao, Adam Petrick, and Mike Dory. The panel was ostensibly about “Commercializing Innovation”, but it more or less morphed into a discussion of the ease and delight with which new digital applications are being produced, tested, adjusted and optimized in a culture, (or is it a bubble?) that continues to be open and receptive to it. The quote above was in reference to the latest ITP show where all sorts of Kinect projects seemed to dominate the room. Kinect seems to be one of the best symbols of the energy of a quick hack culture that has sprung up.  Warning signs appeared when the panel discussed tempering client enthusiasm to “do everything”, but overall the energy of this discussion could have had me listening for even another hour.

Takeaways:

  1. I’m still not sure that there’s a working definition of what a Creative Technologist is, (and I’m not sure it really matters any more). Much of the definition will likely depend on agency culture, but it does seem clear that a CT needs to at least know how to code, if not be coding regularly.
  2. Clients seem to be getting it. Maybe this was a crazy random sampling, but the clients who presented as well as the CT’s within client organizations demonstrated a dedication and understanding of the issues and opportunities of working with technology. This could ultimately be the biggest reason why agencies should embrace and create viable roles for CT’s.
  3. Biased here, but agile and iterative processes are likely to be the tools that help create the kind of culture that will allow CT’s, and digital, to thrive within agencies.

I’m sure I missed or likely misrepresented some things. If you were there, what did you hear? If not, what do you think?