Code Worldwide

What’s in a name? Why ad agencies and their Creative Technologists are limiting their horizons

18.01.2012
Matt McNeany

Matt McNeany

Founder and Chief Executive Officer

There’s been some thoughtful and comprehensive views on Creative Technologists lately from the likes of Wieden + Kennedy (why they’re not hiring CTs – by Igor Clark) and a follow-up from Sermad Buni from BBDO NY (why they are hiring CTs). But despite all this worthy debate on the nature, skills and importance of the role, most ad agencies are still missing the point. And they’re doing so at a time when it’s really important that they don’t.

Defining the role is crucial

Don’t get me wrong, by and large, I completely agree with Igor and Sermad’s posts. They help our industry define a necessary consensus or baseline on what this (not so) new role is.

From my own experience as a new-business person, I was lucky enough to be a member of the IPA’s New Business Group in London. They continue to define and promote the role of a dedicated agency new-business director and champion best practice within the evolving ‘formal’ new-business discipline. And even though the battle to formalize and recognize newbiz as a career choice had largely been done by the time I joined in 2006, the experience of reading a job spec or going to an interview for a newbiz role now is very different to it what it was 10 or even 5 yrs ago.

Candidates, agencies and recruiters alike now have clarity on what can be a very broad role, so everyone can plot their requirements and skillsets against that spectrum and find themselves the right match.

Evolving roles and creating diversity

From this baseline of common ground, it allowed the newbiz role to evolve; reflecting the nuances and enabling the needs of different people/agencies to be matched. Humble newbiz folk have certainly come a long way since ‘new-business person’ meant ‘person welded to the phone whose role it is to schmooze us onto pitchlists’.

A quick look at agency CMOs, for example – such as Simon Bond at BBDO, the wonderful Helen Weisinger at McCanns in London, and Debra Coughlin at Draftfcb – shows you not only how the brand-focused elements of newbiz have developed into a separate role, but also how these three leaders in the field have reached their positions via very different routes.

And so it is with the Creative Technologist role. The industry needs a baseline, so we need debate and consensus. And by understanding the role, we also get a very healthy diversity in the backgrounds of those coming to the role.

Where next for the Creative Technology community?

Clarity, diversity and evolution; that’s all good stuff but, for my money, we have two issues. Firstly, we now have that baseline. It’s done. Agencies hiring Creative Technologists know what they’re looking for. Candidates will flex their skills and résumés accordingly. More chin-stroking on the fundamentals isn’t going to make much of a difference. Let’s move on.

Secondly, and far more importantly, the role is far too narrow – especially now. Newsflash: adland is largely insular, risk averse and conservative. Go on, admit it, we are. I don’t mean the innovators, the early adopters and the hyper-smart strategists; I mean in general. Operational innovation is rare in the advertising industry. Especially when it comes to technology. Look at the media – rich, diverse, dynamic, and rife with technological innovation. Same with clients – tech-driven NPD is bringing us game-changing products every year. And more and more clients are reorganizing themselves around the growing influence of technology in marketing.

But compare that to the Creative agencies – drop Don Draper into most ad agencies today and he’d soon pick it up. In fact it’s the media agencies who are investing in game-changing technology. So at a time when the traditional ad agency business model is under serious threat, with the automation of so much of the deployment of big ideas eroding agencies’ freedom to give away the clever stuff and make their money on production, it’s more important than ever to widen horizons and find new revenue streams.

Time for Creative Technologists to think bigger

These threats are why agencies and their Creative Technologists need to think bigger. In fact, even the name is devalued and self-limiting. I remember working at a design agency about 17 lifetimes ago and being told that we couldn’t say we were ‘creative’ because everyone would assume we were an ad agency. Hang on, isn’t ‘creative’ an adjective?

At the risk of my own chin-stroking indulgence, conforming to the ad industry’s definition of ‘Creative’ isn’t helping. Creative Technology isn’t just about using technology to make advertising better. It’s much more than that. Creative Technology is also about enterprise architecture; about smart, innovative and, yes, creative applications of new technology that make the business of advertising and marketing better – be that entirely new ways of working, new business models or, yes, engaging with audiences in new ways.

Like small-c conservatism, you can be risk-averse without being a Tory / Republican and you can be creative with technology without working on an ad campaign.

Names schmames

Am I talking about ‘marketing technology’ (see Scott Brinker’s brilliant overview of this every subject)? Well, maybe you could argue that it better reflects what we do at Code. But I’m not convinced – what happens if Code chooses to work outside of the marketing and advertising sector? Anyway, it’s just a name. Code Worldwide is a Creative Technology agency.

We’re essentially a marketing agency with technologists instead of creatives. And we use technology to make marketing better. Do we expect to single-handedly change the ad industry’s understanding of the word ‘creative’? Nope. But can we encourage everyone we meet (clients and agencies alike) to think bigger – about technology as a force for entrepreneurial change and the importance of enterprise-level thinking? You bet. Because that’s what clients are asking for from us.