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 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.


  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?


When Software Companies Think Like Agencies by Dan Weingrod


One of the best parts of the Lean Startup sessions at SXSWi this year was not just the presence of the Lean All Stars, (Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank), but also how true the sessions were to the tenets of Lean by presenting real case studies and prototype discussions. This ranged from very specific examples to expert panels and even to a King of the Apps showdown, (complete with crown and robe), focused on going beyond ethereal process discussion to real issues of failure, pivot, learning, iteration and success. The best of these case studies was Manuel Rosso’s “Concierge MVP” presentation, because it made me realize that for all the talk in the Ad world about agencies needing to think like software companies, software companies have grabbed this bull by the horns and are already thinking like agencies. Rosso is the founder of a web site called Hs case study was about was his team’s unique approach to customer development and creation of an MVP.  An MVP, before you think this is a sports column, is a “minimum viable product”, or a product with the smallest feature set that will appeal to customers. What was unique about Rosso’s approach was how they achieved the MVP quickly, effectively without spending money on additional resource and by essentially using a variant of research techniques that agencies have been using for years.

Foodonthetable’s essential proposition is that weekly meal planning is difficult, time consuming and costly and that their target audience, Moms, needed a simple effective way to approach it. Their idea? Create a website that maps sale items at local supermarkets to a customer’s food preferences, relate these to a set of tested recipes and create a healthy meal plan and shopping list. In the digital world this value proposition might be the time to start coding a prototype. In the agency world we’d likely take this idea, do some broad market research and put it all in a brief to hand off to a creative team.  What Rosso and his team did was to start with one customer and with this:

They found a Mom in their target group who they thought would be interested and sat down with her in a Starbucks across the street from her local supermarket. Together they stepped through the above page and input information about where she shopped, what her food preferences were, how much she wanted to spend and other information. They had in hand the supermarket’s weekly sale circular and used their laptops to look up recipes online and a printer to print out the shopping list.  Everything was done by hand, no code was involved, no logos were created, (note the “Food Site” logo in the upper left corner), and no tag lines or copy written. Based on the scrawled writing on the form it’s also clear that there was plenty of room for improvisation and change based on actual customer feedback and physical realities. Do we need photos of the food? Let’s write that in for now. Should we add date and time? We can scrawl that in over here.

As time went by the form was adjusted based on customer feedback and actual experience until they added a second customer. The second customer added more variety to the feedback loop, but they continued to use this analog “concierge” approach to define and build a product through actual, real world, experience. Only when they got to the third or fourth customer, and an additional supermarket, did they realize they actually needed put something into code. In this case it became clear that having a database of local supermarket sales and specials would actually save them time over the analogue process of eyeballing weekly circulars in order to build menus.

The result was that after an eight week process Rosso and his team were ready to actually begin the process of coding and automating the processes that led to the finished site. The site itself is rapidly growing across the nation and features a home page one of the best examples of a clear, “why you should sign up” value proposition I’ve ever seen.

When progressive agencies and marketers think about integrating with “digital” or “technology” we often consider the benefits of using technology related processes already ingrained in tech companies. What the experience reveals is that we already have many of the right processes and thinking, it’s just that software companies just might be doing a better job of using them. As an ex-CPG marketer Rosso understood the value of consumer research, but he also knew that doing it in the traditional manner would take too long, be too costly and would not deliver the necessary opportunities to test and iterate. What he did understand, and what is at the core of customer development, was that the only way to succeed was for him to get out of the office, listen to customers and create a product based on small, fast iterations and feedback loops. And if it didn’t need to be polished or coded, so much the better.

Agencies have all the tools to implement these approaches, but our culture and traditions don’t seem to allow it. We listen to customers in focus groups instead of individually, we go through long, torturous research on customer needs and profiles without actually talking to customers. Worst of all, we then take our valuable research and present clients with a “finished” recommendation that calls for costly investments that offer no opportunity to revert or iterate. We might consider paying attention to the fact that software companies are using the tools that we’re traditionally expert at to make small bets, fail more quickly, spend less money, but ultimately end up with better results. Instead of worrying about how agencies need to think like software companies maybe we should think about how software companies can teach us to make better use of our own tools.


SXSWi - The Awesome and the Meh-some by Dan Weingrod

I’ve been late in getting my initial thoughts from SXSWi out. It’s been a combination of overload at the office and a bad stomach bug that kept me grounded for a couple of days, (nothing to due with ribs and beer). So, slightly delayed, here’s my first quick, somewhat random and very much personal take on what worked and what didn’t.

The Awesome

Does the Future Include Synthetic Life? Utterly humbling. Craig Venter, the man who led the drive to map the human genome described how his team has been able to create synthetic life by essentially treating DNA as software, reprogramming it, introducing it into cells and creating the first synthetic life . What was particularly striking to me was that their process really had to combine very deep science with very high art. The science is in the massive computational power is needed to program the new DNA "software", but the art is in their ability to mix new and old DNA together in the cell in a sort of messy, controlled serendipity. Or at least that's how I understood it. That along with the fact that the DNA code they produces included a URL and quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynmann was simply a staggering and frankly uplifting display of technology. It made me feel very small, thrilled and a bit scared all at once.

The Lean Startup - This set of all day sessions was held in the clean, corporate ascetic confines of the AT&T Center nearly 2 miles away from the hubbub of the Convention Center, but were in many ways the most intensely relevant of my entire visit. The basic idea of Lean takes agile development processes and grafts onto them the concept of customer development, (or customer understanding), to create products that customers want in a highly efficient, creative and successful process. That’s a very thin explanation, but it’s something that anyone working in interactive media of any sort needs to be paying attention to. After all, wouldn’t we all like to know how to make a digital product faster, cheaper and most importantly, more delightful for our customers and us?

So where was the awesome? First of all in the presence of the all stars from the Lean movement: Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank who all gave brilliant, inspirational presentations that went beyond what I had already seen on Slideshare and random videos. More importantly a solid supporting cast of panelists including startups, developers and UX experts went through real world results that covered not only how they succeeded, but also how and where they failed, pivoted, learned and moved on. This is what set these sessions apart from many others at SXSWi. Where many focused on positive demonstration and great results, not necessarily a bad thing, the Lean panels talked more about building the roots of success by moving quickly and positively past mistakes. Seeing real demonstrations of Lean in action from groups as varied as Pivotal Labs and startups like Food on the Table, (more on this soon), was downright inspiring and contagiously exciting.

The Last of the Launch and Leave 'ems

I learned last year to be careful about panels. When they work they can be great and when the don’t, (see below), they are an embarassement for all. I went to the launch ‘em and leave ‘em panel partially to finally meet @anjali28, the session’s moderator, but to also get a better sense of the thinking around sustainable Web products. Do we create Web sites or online products as short one-time campaigns? Do we sustain them through social media? and whose job is it to do that?

What worked here? Unlike others the panel really got to the heart of the matter quickly, through some well positioned intro slides by Mel Exon, (Update: you can find 'em here:, declaring that “agencies should show some respect and get out of the way” and Conrad Lisco maintaining that agencies have a role especially in amplifying the conversation between paid, owned and earned media.But the most refreshing part of the discussion came from, of all things, the client representative, Peter Parkes of Skype. Throughout the panel Parkes doled out equal, targeted praise and withering criticism at the agency side and client side alike. His candor with statements such as “Agencies say they can't sell in smart stuff, but why do we see so much crap online” and “Agencies have this bizarre fear of being the same” left many of us marketers in the room enlightened, but also wondering if we were on the wrong side of the table.

The Meh-Some

There’s always one panel that makes you swear you’ll never, ever go to a panel again. I should have known I was in trouble when the walk-in slide for this panel included the USA network logo and their tagline. The participants included a representative from Oxygen Network and a group from the USA show Psych, including the show’s star Dule Hill. The problem was, that all they really wanted to talk about was all the good things they were doing using social media to connect their fans to the show. Yes, there were a few of the expected nuggets about increased user engagement and recall, but overall this was just self congratulatory pablum. No real examples, no learning, no failures and pivots. The only bright spot was Dule Hill, who had only recently started tweeting. His newbie reflections on social media, “Now I know what you mean by the second screen”, were honest and on target. For the rest of us it was a waste of time that could have been better used elsewhere.

The other disappointment this year was the size and scale of the event. Last year, my first year at SXSWi, had 11,000 registrations and even then I was hearing complaints about how big things had gotten. This year the number was up to 20,000 and I was hearing the complaints from new and experienced visitors. The biggest impact of this new scale was the creation of 3 separate session tracks, (Journalism, Social Graph and Lean), located far enough away from the Austin Convention Center that it would be impossible to get from one location to another to see consecutive sessions. I wrote about this here and it pretty much came true. For me, this meant a lot more thinking, planning, tough decisions and ultimately missing out on panels I wanted to see as well as the serendipity of walking in on panels I knew nothing about.

Along with this change in scale, there seems to have been a change in participants. In one panel the audience was polled as to who was on their first visit. The vast majority of hands went up. When they were polled as to how many were in marketing the same vast majority of hands showed. An unscientific poll for sure, but it made me wonder if this year has really marked the triumph of marketers over the revenge of the nerds. It’s likely been coming for a long time, but if its true it does change the alignment of things. Its likely to be more and more about networking and more about networking within like minded industries. The promise I’ve always seen for SXSWi is that its one of the only places where people across multiple disciplines can really meet across common themes. The creation of the separate tracks and an overwhelming population of marketers could ruin that promise.

Mike Leigh: Agile Planner by Dan Weingrod

With the Oscars mercifully over I’ve been thinking about Mike Leigh. He had two nominations this year. In fact, since 1997 Leigh has been nominated for 7 Oscars for directing and screenwriting. He hasn’t won any yet, and his films aren’t exactly financial blockbusters, but it’s a pretty consistent track record. One of the things that fascinates me about Leigh is that he uses a completely unique approach and process for creating his films, and the more you look at it the more you can see echoes of Agile and Lean processes.

Leigh starts his film projects with a germ of a story idea and then gathers a group of actors around him to “workshop” it. When the workshopping begins nothing is written down. No script, no plot and no real idea of what the film is going to be about. Leigh says he has three rules he sets out for the actors when they begin:

“I can’t tell you what it is about. I can’t tell you what your character is because you and I are going to collaborate to make a character, to invent a character and also you will never know anything about this film except what your character knows at any stage of the proceedings.”

The actors go off and independently research their own characters, create their own stories and meet with Leigh to flesh out their characters against the background of the growing project idea which remains in Leigh’s head. Once the actors have completed this initial phase they come together and Leigh creates the outlines, scenes and situations that ultimately become the film. The actual film production is shot more or less traditionally, with the actors rehearsing and building scenes as filming progresses.

For Leigh, the benefit of this process is that it builds an environment where actors approach acting very much like real people. They know what they know and don’t know what they don’t know. They also have more “skin in the game” because they are a fundamental part of creating the story. This encourages risk taking, innovation and a sense of empowerment and teamwork. The results are films that regularly achieve awards for acting or screenplays, the key beneficiaries of this process.

What I love about this process is how it seems to use many of the principles of Agile and Lean. They seem have been adapted through trial and error to the filmmaking process and demonstrate the same effectiveness that can be seen in development:

  • Iteration is ongoing as characters are developed from a “minimally viable persona” are continuously iterated based on their relationship with other characters and the changing texture of the story.
  • Pivots occur as actors adjust their roles to make them more effective within the story or the story is adjusted as characters become more interesting. During the making of Happy Go Lucky, an actress who ended up playing a Spanish flamenco teacher was not Spanish nor did she know anything about flamenco. But when it was agreed that this was where her role would be going she suddenly had to learn everything about flamenco and create a Spanish persona, (and she gave a memorable performance).
  • The “creative team” is a cross functional team that reaches across traditional silos to drive critical input that builds the whole. The actors help create the story and the director helps shape the character. Within this interplay the final work is developed.
  • Most importantly, by approaching the project with the sense that the end result is unknown the entire project has a sense of openness and opportunity for testing and innovation.

Leigh’s films are rarely popular blockbusters and many people find them downright depressing, but they consistently achieve critical acclaim. In fact, it amazes me that they even get made. Try to imagine his elevator speech: “ I have a film, but I can’t tell you what its about” or “ I’ll need six months up front and then I’ll tell you what we’re making”. It has only been on the basis of past art house success, and great actors who are willing and thrilled to work within this process, that he has been able to continue to make his films and get regular Academy Award nominations.

We can learn a lot from Leigh’s experience because we often find ourselves trying to make the same elevator speech, but without the benefit of his prior success. We eschew the big “campaign” and recommend small, iterative steps. We try to connect experts across multiple disciplines or media to help us build our story, we try to work within a lean enough structure so that we can pivot if necessary and we regularly test our assumptions and we even approach projects without complete certainty that they will work.

When this works, the results are creative products and experiences that are truly useful, creative and add value to the client/customer relationship. A certain successful bodywash campaign may be a good example. Unfortunately it just doesn’t happen too often. It’s hard to sell uncertainty that may lead to success and its difficult to move people away from traditional blockbusters and campaigns. But if we were willing to open the door just slightly more for a more open, iterative and agile planning approach we may find ourselves reaping more benefits than we had imagined.