Online All Stars, Creatives: Alan Schulman, Chief Creative Officer, U.DIG> THe Digital Innovations Group

by , Sep 13, 2011, 5:43 PM
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Alan Shulman

Rhythm and Breakthroughs

As the head of U.DIG> The Digital Innovations Group, a project-oriented boutique headquartered in New York City, Alan Schulman is supposed to preach pixels and platforms. Hes supposed to deride old-school marketing mavens for their worship of the idea. Hes supposed to spend his idle hours hyperconnecting with the online world around him.

Instead, Schulman trumpets the virtues of poetry over plumbing (read: the preeminence of compelling narratives over beneath-the-hood technologies and applications). Since his Twitter debut on January 5, 2009, he has fired off a mere 440 messages, as many having to do with online curios (the first-ever map of the u.s.) and John McLaughlin (look him up) as with dispatches from the cybermarketing front lines. When he gets home from work, he trades his new-world thinking for an older-world joy: a 1968 Gibson l5 ces guitar, which he wields at clubs and rehearsal halls alike. To wit: he plays in the Emmy Awards orchestra every year.

In other words, Alan Schulman is not your typical digital-agency prexy, a fact people who have worked with him quickly affirm. He stays on the cutting edge but doesnt live on the cutting edge, like a lot of these other guys do, says Steve Buchanan, senior vice president of media and entertainment for Gaylord Entertainment and chairman of the Country Music Association board of directors, which has tapped Schulman for a range of projects over the last decade. He knows about opportunities that are out there, but he has a great sense of what makes sense at the right time. Its not just about the latest and greatest.

Coca-Colas group director of worldwide interactive marketing, Michael Donnelly, on the other hand, touts Schulmans selflessness and loyalty. He took me under his shoulder when he didnt have to, Donnelly recalls. I wasnt an extremely valuable high-spending client and I couldnt give him tremendous amounts of business. That didnt matter to him.

While his peers eagerly trumpet his virtues as a person and as a musician, they make it clear that Schulman is quite skilled in his primary line of business. They attribute this, as does Schulman, to a background that is very different from that of the standard digital-agency wonk. He started his career in Chicago, where he spent thirteen years learning what is now quaintly referred to as the traditional side of the business. By the time he ascended to creative director at fcbs Chicago outpost in the early 1990s, Schulman was already looking for new inspiration.

Id written and made something like 50 commercials, so I had enough of a tv reel at that point, he says, recalling his belief that the business was on the verge of transformation. I started to sense that we were moving towards more non-linear forms of communication. As a creative guy, I was intrigued. What would that mean for the 30-second commercial?

He wouldnt find out right away. As befitting a guy who fancies himself a storyteller, Schulmans career took a storybook turn what he calls a hard left. In 1993, his wife at the time scored a job offer in Washington, d.c., then as now not exactly an advertising/marketing hotbed. So he chose instead to pursue a masters degree in jazz arranging and composition at Howard University. I was the only white guy in the program and probably the only Jew at the school, he jokes.

Yet much of what he learned at Howard (and during subsequent appearances alongside artists like Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker and Wynton Marsalis) has proved useful in the world of digital marketing. Being in a jazz group is the ultimate metaphor for democracy and creativity. Each person gets to express himself but when your solo is over, its time for you to be a part of the band, he explains. That taught me so much about building cultures. Its a real challenge in our industry, because the creative world has a culture of individual rock stars, as opposed to teams.

Upon returning to marketing/advertising, Schulman dove deep into digital. While at FutureBrand Worldwide and Universal McCann Futures, he sought to burnish his storytelling-first bona fides amid a marketing climate that was all about the technology. We were getting seduced by what one application could do. Thats still happening now, he says. In 2004, he set out on his own, cofounding digital-only shop Brand New World with former aol interactive marketing exec Alan Feldenkris. Schulmans goal there was to seize the slivers of budget that big-name marketers were starting to devote to digital, even as they struggled with the messy merger of technology and message.

It was about how we can get this [new] medium to make people feel, in the way that we can use television to make people feel, he says. Thats what got me out of bed then and gets me out of bed now: using the canvas of digital media to make people feel, not think. To reward people for time spent with a message by letting them crack a smile. Thats where some marketers miss the point, Schulman believes. They become so laser-focused on the technologies in front of them that forging a bond not to mention prompting a behavior, brand affinity or purchase becomes secondary to multiplatform ubiquity. At Brand New World and then at imc, where he served as executive creative director for a stint before forming u.dig Schulman found himself frustrated by one type of client (what he calls fearfully hysterical marketers) but energized by another (the thoughtfully urgent).

That first group, when something new comes down the pike, they have to have it RIGHT NOW. All they do is react to the new channel, he explains. I turned down business from clients who came in saying, We want a storefront in Second Life. Well, why? If 60 percent of the activity in Second Life is sex, what good does it do you to be there?

That seems to be Schulmans dream role going forward: one part seer, one part proselytizer, one part pragmatist. At u.dig the name derives from his after-hours gigs, where communication between musicians often comes in the form of a riff, a sideward glance and a You dig? Schulman works exclusively on a project basis. This, he says, keeps things interesting for him and his team of eight (with up to 20 more staffers rotating in and out on a freelance basis), and at the same time allows him to sidestep questions of scale.

Scale I hate scale, he says testily. Everybody says scale, scale, scale, but at the end of the day, creatives dont like to do the same thing twice. Im not interested in what scales; Im interested in what moves people.

A-list marketers like AT&T, Dell and Target have bought into U.DIG's approach. Were the special forces, Schulman jokes. We establish the beachhead and teach them what to do, then its like, Our work here is done.

Although Buchanan envisions a teaching gig in Schulmans future He has an amazing ability to help people learn, Buchanan says Schulman sees himself continuing on his current path. He plans to preach the storytelling and digital gospels as long as theres an audience willing to listen.

We have to show marketers what good looks like in digital, or theyll just retreat to what they know, he says. Rather than say, Oh, the agency model is broken, the client model is broken, the tv model is broken, we should be asking, What can I do personally to effect change? I see it as my job to take personal responsibility for this.

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