CreateTech 2013 – Bridging Creativity and Technology in Advertising (10/04/2013)
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This week I attended the CreateTech conference, held by the 4As. It was incredibly informative and useful. It presented a lot of new ideas to me, and helped confirm some existing thinking. For those of you who couldn’t attend, here are some of my key take-aways.


This was not your older brother’s tech conference. All of the most impressive speakers were women. Yes, it was a technology-centered conference, attended by a few hundred advertising leaders, but the strongest, recurring themes were collaboration, passion, convergence, and poetry. What does that mean? The future of digital is less about a bunch of nerdy guys coding and more about dynamic teams cross-pollinating human-centric ideas and bringing them to life in iterative phases.

Tech Education and Labs

Many of the agencies that were present had well developed technology groups and more than a few had internal innovation labs and education programs. One great quote summarized the current climate: “What we do for FUN on the weekends will be what we do at WORK in 2-3 years”. In order to stay relevant, agencies have to do more than hire the best and brightest, they have to keep their employees cutting edge through ongoing training and experimentation.

360i has developed an internal education program called 360iU, in which employees can be trained with graduate-level classes. Several other agencies have built internal technology labs, where employees have the space to play with emerging software and hardware, building prototypes that may or may not get folded into paid, client work. Because “the maker community can be over-fascinated with what’s new”, it’s not valuable to fixate on innovation for the sake of being innovative, but rather find ways to better meet clients’ business needs and leverage the latest tools to do so. Frequently clients lean too far towards the extremes: those who don’t have an appetite for trying new things, and those who want to use “shock and awe” tactics without any goals or strategy. The Oreo tweet is a great example of how clients look at the resulting buzz from one single moment, rather than at the teams and systems that were in place during the live event or the many failed attempts that preceded the single success. There’s a lot of testing, trying, failing, and learning required to build a communication strategy that approaches real-time. And many clients aren’t willing to pay for those pre-requisites.

As the discussion about labs continued, it became clear that a common problem is utilizing these resources beyond superficial eye-candy. “Agency labs need to be more than just a stop along the client tour.” To generate excitement and interest, both internally and with clients, cool projects need to be built. But to avoid labs become a wasted opportunity to meet business goals, cool needs to be balanced with useful.

Doing Innovative Work

So, you want your agency to do amazing, innovative work? Easier said than done. “If your company says they’re ’embracing digital’, they’re already about 10 years behind.” To really embrace digital, it needs to be embedded within the culture. Companies need a culture of hacking and a process that has collaboration at its core. Hacking is taking something built for a particular purpose and using it in a different way that hasn’t been seen. This applies to products, tools, and people. Marcel DuChamp was a pioneer of hacking. He took disparate objects and integrated them to flip the ordinary on its head. That was 100 years ago, but the need to try things, break things, and re-work things has never been greater.

As innovative as it was to combine a copywriter and an art director 50 years ago, we now need to rethink this classic duo and build our teams on the fly, to meet the particular needs of each project. What happens when you pair a programmer and designer at the onset of a project? What happens when you pair a strategist and a producer? It’s almost impossible to create amazing work without getting everyone in sync, communicating, and collaborating as early as possible. Frequently this means “going to the meetings you weren’t invited to”.

Nimble Development

There’s no room for perfectionism when you’re moving at the pace of innovation. GoogleX has developed a term called “pretotyping”, which builds on the lean-startup concept of creating a minimum viable product to save precious time and resources. Pretotyping is pretending that you have a prototype. Don’t waste time building code for an app unless you’ve proven that people want to participate in your experience. Can you build a paper prototype? Can you simulate the experience with existing tools, cobbled together? Do that first. Learn as much as possible. And go into the true prototyping phase with confidence that you’re already on the right path.

Be Generous to Your Users

The culture of startups right now is on the wrong track, as it’s being lead by engineers. YCombinator and other start-up incubators are all too often building products and funding ideas that have no audience. It’s a mistake to first build, and then try to get users. “Don’t let the technology itself lead the discussion.” Instead, “engagement and intimacy should be the goal of everything we do. We need to take in our audience’s point of view.” And for this reason, the next generation of technology leaders will not be engineers from MIT, it’ll be women with liberal arts backgrounds who learned to code as a hobby; it’ll be teenagers in Africa with old computers and slow internet connections who extract 100% of the value from the resources they have; it’ll be people who are good listeners and let the behavior of their audience guide their projects.

The Next Generation of Innovators

Who was the most impressive speaker at this conference? It wasn’t one of the ten different chief technology/innovation/creativity officers; it was Rachel Law, a twenty-something technologist who has only worked in advertising for six months, but figured out a way to hack browser cookies, making online identity liquid, transferrable, and entirely controlled by the user.

Where Do We Start?

We start by talking with each other. “Passion is infectious”, so those of us who are already passionate about getting more technical, more creative, and more innovative need to stop being so quiet about how we feel. Tell your co-workers, tell your clients, and, most importantly, tell yourself over and over.