Agencies Value, Craft New Post: Creative Technologists
"Creative technology is now a core agency competence," stated Nancy Hill, president and chief executive officer of the 4As, in remarks at the association's first CreateTech conference, Friday in New York.
Although increasingly important, the "creative technologist" position at agencies is still relatively new. As JP Rangaswami, chief scientist of Salesforce.com, pointed out, the words "creative" and "tech" have not merged often. Hill refused to define what the creative technologist does, saying the position "must have organic freedom in order to evolve."
Two co-chairs of the 4As' new Creative Technology Committee offered their own take. Trevor O'Brien -- creative technology director of McKinney, the 40-year-old, Durham, NC-based agency that went independent in 2008 after seven years under Havas -- said the creative technologist has five functions: research and introduce emerging technology; suggest concepts; build prototypes as proof of concept; help manage the clients; and guide projects to live date.
Creative technologists, he said, don't have to be app developers, but should have a background in coding.
The other committee co-chair, Scott Prindle, vice president and executive creative technology director for MDC Partners' Crispin Porter + Bogusky, stressed that creative technologists should not push "technology for technology's sake." Rather, brand ideas must start with messaging, and the technology should tie into larger brand concepts. At CP+B, he said, creative technologists attend client briefings with traditional creatives, such as copywriters and art directors.
But what exactly does a creative technologist do? Think of all the tasks so-called ad agencies now undertake on the digital side that, well, aren't exactly advertising. As Glen Fellman, McKinney's group creative director, put it: "We don't just make ads anymore, we make marketing platforms."
Brian Skahan, CP+B's vice president and creative technology director, referred to a changing agency/client relationship, saying: "We're not just working on ads for a product, we're working on the product."
For example, earlier this week, CP+B launched a new version of the American Express Open Forum site. As compared with traditional creative agency teams that had consisted of a copywriter and art director, CP+B's "digital creative pod" for Open Forum 3.0 also included a tech person and an experienced designer, Skahan said.
CP+B now does 80% of such digital development in-house, said Prindle. For McKinney, the figure is up to 85%, according to O'Brien. Fellman pointed out that many agencies "tend to give away the most difficult digital assignments." His advice: "Keep the challenging things ... if you want to attract and retain the best digital talent."
McKinney and Crispin Porter, of course, are traditional creative agencies adjusting successfully to a digital world. Indeed, McKinney now gets 40% of its revenues from digital, O'Brien noted.
So what's the creative technologist's role at a digital creative agency?
"Digital agencies are creative technology organizations," declared Andy Hood, a pioneer in the creative technology field, who has been performing the task at AKQA for the past 12 years and formed the agency's creative technology team in 2000.
Currently, executive creative development director, Hood told CreateTech the creative technology function has evolved since the early days when it "lived very firmly inside the creative team" and later days when the prevalence of Flash pushed it into the creative side. Now, with the boom in delivery technologies in the past few years (phones, tablets, etc.), he said, AKQA's creative technologists partner equally with the agency's experts in user experience and strategic planning, as well as technology and creative.
Hood said there are now some 15 creative technologists at AKQA, out of 350 total employees. The creative technology team, he said, serves anyone at the agency who "comes to us."
That's a bit different from the structure at McKinney, where O'Brien said a creative technologist is now part of every creative team, with 10% of the agency's 220-person staff functioning in that role. The first agency employees with the exact title, however, were introduced earlier this year, and O'Brien said that four will be on-board by June.
McKinney's Fellman said that clients had been asking for creative technologists to be on their creative teams. (This has the added benefit, he pointed out, of billing them to clients on a fee basis, rather than as an add-on, if they were in the technology department.)