Where creativity meets technology

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 02 July 2010 12:00AM

Creative technologists might be an oddity, but their appeal to mainstream agencies is growing. Alasdair Reid talks to five of them.

Creative technologists have, in one form or another, been with us for many years now. They have been a mainstay of digital agencies for more than a decade - in fact, the founders of many of these agencies are, almost by definition, archetypal creative technologists.

Unfortunately, until recently, they had a rather limited impact on mainstream advertising and creative processes. Last year, something changed. A debate began in the US on why, during the digital decade, in which new technologies were supposedly rewiring human behaviour and rewriting the economic rulebook, the advertising industry failed to come up with a single memorable digital ad.

An equivalent, say, of Bill Bernbach's "think small" work for Volkswagen in the 60s. Why was interactive advertising, as Randall Rothberg, the president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau in the US, put it, "still characterised in the public eye and practitioners' minds by its technical sleight of hand instead of its narrative and emotive power?".

Good questions, well put. The answers, some reckoned, were to be found in historical analogy. There were those (helped clearly by a more than a passing familiarity with Mad Men) who argued that the ad industry's last big creative leap forward came in the late 50s and early 60s, when art directors and copywriters, who had previously sat in separate rooms, began to form genuinely collaborative teams.

Surely, so the argument ran, we needed a 21st century equivalent of that leap forward in creative team structure - one in which a bona fide technologist, someone who not only knows how hardware works but can also cut code on software platforms, has equal status to those with traditional creative feathers in their caps.

That hasn't quite happened yet, not even in the US, where some agencies have been hiring embryo creative technologists in their droves. But the industry seems to have recognised broadly that something has to change. On this side of the pond, the role (and indeed the job title) is growing in recognition - and here and there, in ones and twos, they are beginning to appear in agencies across town.

Often, they come from a production background and are code-cutters well versed in a core group of consumer-facing software platforms and programming languages - PHP, HTML, Flash, Java, Android. Previously, they were the developers that agencies would call on when they needed to bolt some fancy-dan digital stuff - show-stopping web destinations, banners, mobile apps - on to a campaign.

As yet, however, the creative technologist resource tends to be spread pretty thinly. Most agencies make do with a single exponent (although they may employ many "ask-no-questions" developers) who are expected single-handedly to change the entire company culture.

Which can be doubly daunting when they are also expected to undertake a broader educational role, too, presenting regularly on deeper technological trends and making predictions about emerging platforms.

The truth is, they are still rather exotic creatures - missionaries, strangers in a strange land.

HOW TO SPOT A CREATIVE TECHNOLOGIST

When you ask agency people if there is any sure-fire way of spotting a creative technologist in his (and, yes, we really are being gender-specific here) natural habitat, they sometimes dredge up the hoary old joke that originated at MIT in the 70s. Question: How do you know if an electronics engineering student is an extrovert? Answer: When he talks to you, he looks at your shoes.

Creative technologists certainly come from the more flamboyant end of the engineering and computer science spectrum. And yet, to a man, they still claim to be geeks. It is a badge they wear with pride.

No, they are not exactly geeks in the most widely understood definition of the term - they are not children of a different god whose uncanny mathematical skills are complemented by autistic behaviour and a total absence of social skills. Nor are they the sort of hardcore code-cutters who never take their earpieces out during daylight hours.

These are people who can present. It is just that they have remained deeply, obsessively passionate about technology - and it is true that the way they dress would not result in them being thrown out of Geek Club. But they have an ambiguous relationship towards (what they regard as) the media-created notion of geek chic. So, to style yourself on David Tennant in the role of Dr Who would be a terrible mistake.

It was the London 2009 Creativity and Technology show that really put the cat among the pigeons, though, when it labelled creative technologists the "new creative rock stars". There was a growing sense of panic among these people as they wondered whether this meant they had to throw away their nerdy spectacles and start styling themselves on Russell Brand. Only Jon Andrews at Bartle Bogle Hegarty has come anywhere near to fulfilling this sartorial ambition.

Many, though they may be southern English born-and-bred, have speech patterns - characterised by the rising inflexion (which makes every sentence sound like a question) - distinctive of a Pacific seaboard high-technology zone stretching from Palo Alto to Seattle. One of their favourite adjectives is "super". Not in the sarcastic Reggie Perrin sense. No - if something is fast, it is super-fast. If something is faster than super-fast, it is super-super-fast.

Educationally, they are an intriguing bunch. Usually, they have set out to become respected and rather noble computer scientists, but at some point it all went horribly wrong. They switched university courses half-way through or took an unhealthy interest in art-house cinema. Or they slipped over to the dark side by succumbing to the lure of a post-graduate course in marketing.

At some point (you can't help feeling) they have begun owning up to themselves that, all along, they really did want to hang out with the wild bunch who smoked fags behind the bike shed, dogged off during maths and ended up going to art school.

But here is the real acid test. Can one creative technologist recognise another creative technologist if they have not been introduced? Yes, Gregory Roekens, the chief technology officer at Wunderman, says: "There's a spark in the eye, a confidence in talking about technology in a creative way that is absolutely distinctive, and you say immediately, 'Yes, you've got it.'"

GREGORY ROEKENS, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER, WUNDERMAN

The education structures of some European countries are more eclectic than ours - there are few colleges in the UK offering the electronics and cinematography degree Gregory Roekens took at Inraci in Brussels.

Following a spell at IBM, he joined Euro RSCG in 2004 and moved on to Wunderman, impressed by the agency's determination to use technology to unlock creativity.

He says: "It seems natural that technology should be intrinsic to the overall strategy, especially for direct business. I've done a lot of work in the artificial intelligence space - new ways to interact with machines are exciting, as are the ways in which machines increasingly understand humans. Those notions dovetail directly with Wunderman's 'impactful conversations' mantra. The question is: how, from a technology space, can you help to implement that?"

The agency's "oversharers" work for Pringles poked fun at social media fanatics - a Twitter feed and a Facebook button let users draw attention to banal updates.

Roekens looks forward to the day when people from a nominally "creative" background take more interest in the nuts and bolts of technology. "If you become interested in how Flash works, you can soon become proficient in coding. Anyone can do it."

JON ANDREWS, HEAD OF CREATIVE TECHNOLOGY, BARTLE BOGLE HEGARTY

Jon Andrews qualified in design and technology back in 1998, but he says he learned all the really useful stuff as he went along - working at small agencies, then as a freelance developer, then with the digital agencies Profero and Agency Republic.

In recent years he has been best known perhaps for his work in Flash, but his interests and skills stretch across the whole technological spectrum. Andrews is so into gadgets (pulling them apart and rebuilding them in mutant form) that he is known at BBH as "Q", after James Bond's boffinish quartermaster.

One recent project that he is pleased with is the teeth-detection algorithm developed for Mentos. You smile into a webcam and the application captures an image of your teeth and whitens them.

Andrews says you need time and space to play and experiment, but you can't lose sight of the fact that you are absolutely part of the team.

And he reckons that BBH is at the leading edge in making real sense of the role.

He adds: "I speak to people (who are nominally in the creative technologist role) at other agencies and I sense a lot of frustration that they are not really at the top table. They are asked to do a bit of bolt-on work here and there. I'm fortunate where I am because I'm not in any way frustrated."

MATT OXLEY, HEAD OF TECH, TRIBAL DDB

Matt Oxley, a computer nut since the age of eight, had an inkling he wanted to create computer games for a living, so he eventually plumped for an intriguingly hybrid "Media Arts Lab" degree at Plymouth. His placement year was at DDB, to which he returned after graduating in 1999. He has been there ever since.

"Creative technologists are geeky," he admits. "But they also have the ability to push those technological thoughts into the creative process. Here, we don't just work with the creative directors, but the planning directors, too. When you get it right, the combination of planning, creativity and technology is a potent one."

He points to the agency's work for Guinness that led to the client sponsoring the use of radio frequency identification tags to track rugby players and the ball during a game. It was a technology-driven idea that went beyond run-of-the-mill digital work. "We have any number of people who don't just do programming. We look at devices to give the client a unique product. With Guinness, we turned the whole thing into something the client could own," he says.

NIK FINAN, HEAD OF DIGITAL PRODUCTION, JWT

Nik Finan did a degree in electronic media - a course that was way ahead of its time in the early 90s. He then took a job at a small 3D design studio in Leamington Spa, making computer-generated video walk-throughs of designs. From there he joined Brann in Cirencester, moving on quickly to Brann Interactive in Bristol, where he worked on Microsoft's online presence - basically a news and stats site - as a tournament sponsor of Euro 96.

He moved to the online business development consultancy Clarity in 1998, working with the likes of Railtrack and Royal Sun Alliance, becoming the creative director of Proxicom when it snapped up the company. In 2001, he joined The Walt Disney Company, working on its sites for the EMEA region, before joining JWT in 2008. "My role here is partly educational - showcasing technologies to the rest of the agency - and partly about working with creative teams, making sense of ideas and developing them. It's about making people aware of the different directions you can take an idea using technology," he says.

One project was Nokia's "shot by fans", where 100 fans of the Noisettes used their handsets to film the band in an empty swimming pool. The video was collected and put online, allowing anyone to edit the material for their own Noisettes video.

SERMAD BUNI, CREATIVE TECHNOLOGIST, WIEDEN & KENNEDY

Having just graduated with a somewhat hybrid degree (he started in electronics and switched to computer science), Sermad Buni knocked on the door of Kerb, a games-maker in Brighton. This was back in 2000 - and he has never looked back.

In 2004, he moved to Holler Digital, still small then and based in Dalston, where he worked on websites for music industry clients such as Island and Polydor, as well as 4Music. Next up, in 2006, was glue, where he was an interactive producer working on online ads for Sky, Adidas, Bacardi and Nokia.

But Buni realised that above-the-line advertising agencies were often given lead creative roles, even as regards to digital strategy - and he wanted to work further up the food chain. So he jumped at the chance to continue working on Nokia at Wieden & Kennedy.

It was, he says, obviously headed in the right direction: "It was clear that the agency was championing that side of things generally. It's about evolving the legacy (of creative craft skills) in print and TV - because they're different to the skills needed to create a mobile or web experience."

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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