Here’s Where the Creative Technologists Went

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An AW360 piece on the seeming disappearance of creative technologists in the caused some debate, so we approached some creative minds from across the world for their take on what has changed, and what that means for the industry.

Rosie Yakob, partner and managing director at nomadic agency Genius Steals

When we first saw the rise of creative technologists, it was to bridge an educational gap. Creative Directors still bragged about not being on Facebook, and their ultimate goal seemed to be to make TV spots more often than not. When clients were looking for digital solutions, there needed to be someone who could point out that, no, you can’t have a Facebook homepage takeover. Without the creative technologists, agencies were pitching time machines that were impossible to make. Remember, this was the time when agencies were hiring other companies to upload their content to YouTube because there was such a lack of digital literacy. (When I was at Saatchi, they literally asked which production company we would brief in to upload a campaign to YouTube. Seriously. In like 2011.)

And now? Creative technologists have all but disappeared from agencies. Often to the client side. It makes sense — (As you point out)  advertising seems to be more focused on awards, than on making products, despite what they might like you to believe based on their award entries. Creative technologists often came from a “making” background — Not a “brief a production company to make something” background. Now they’re product managers at places like Pinterest or Hulu, and they’ve taken what they learned about advertising and advertisers to fortify the brands they’re working for, while actually impacting products that customers use — rather than case study videos that production companies make. And more often than not, these places they join seem to have better hours, better perks, and better payments than agencies.

Wayne Deakin, ECD, Huge London

Good interesting question to raise. So true that CT have disappeared and be forced out by agencies trying to streamline costs or the reverse with many walking out of agencies in their disappointment in the model or lacking to understand their value.

Many have now headed into highly valued (and better paid) gigs in other sectors or to the big tech platforms where their positions can be repositioned in fancy ‘innovation’ or ‘emerging’ type titles. Places where there’s less friction with traditionalists who probably didn’t get their use or role unfortunately.

The problem was that leadership and models are not set up for true experiments or discovery thinking and they were doomed to fail in a 1950’s model based on time and materials.

Instead it’s being reinvented in two different ways in my humble view.

One within new look creative teams that now might be made up of less traditional skills sets and wired with a very strong digital slant mindset anyway. So the CT in isolation has disappeared and become more a cross discipline creative. Just check out a lot of the big awards and explore the background of creatives nowadays.

The second is by incorporating the old standalone role into a number of people who explore real-world solutions that have ROI. At Huge, we’ve created a real world coffee shop that has to stand on its own feet and has its own P&L. So instead of a fake lab in an agency, we have a real world living playground that is used to try out and prove ideas, tech or approaches against real paying customers who don’t give second chances. So theory has been replaced by cutting edge commercial solutions to help our clients get an edge.

Daniel Kee, ECD, MullenLowe Group Singapore

For a time, the “creative technologist” was more of a generalist maker-producer who helped the creative department bring to life ideas that traditional film and print producers had little clue how to. They were the genius who could hook a Kinect to a gesture-enabled, 3D- printed Rube Goldberg machine that streamed live videos of itself through a Facebook app. A coder-engineer-designer-craftsman. In practical terms, an enabler for a creative generation who were transitioning from traditional to digital and activation.

The truth is, I have only ever worked with one person who could fit this description comfortably (an accessible, everyman version of Nathan Myhrvold)—the real ones were rare, and advertising was not necessarily their calling. As younger, digital-native creatives started filling up agencies, the role became increasingly redundant—due too in part to the shift in the agency-client relationship: today we’re doing more work at a faster pace within tighter budgets and “efficiency” is often given importance over what is perceived as riskier, developmentally time-consuming “inspiration pieces”. In the name of (financial) efficiency there’s also little room for a true technologist, whose role is often vaguely consultative and whose time is not obviously billable across most brands looking simply for somewhat predictable solutions.

But take a look at any solid creative department today: at MullenLowe Singapore, our “traditional” folk are now producing interactive Instagram experiences alongside key visuals; we have a junior art director who dabbled in cybernetics in his graduation project, creative directors—one copy-based who’s published highly rated games (available on Steam), another a maker of mobile accessories that carry some clever and cutting cultural commentary, and a team of UI and UX specialists.

In the past year alone, we’ve found ourselves capable of producing work that range from talking teddy bears that remind children to wash their hands to a silence-detecting Shazam experience. Most recently, we developed AI bots with the capacity to fall in love.

Where has the creative technologist gone? I believe, through exposure and infusion, the role has simply been absorbed into the creative DNA—as it has to be when the demand is for us to be engineers of efficiency, too.

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