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Is This The End of The Creative Technologist?

October 22, 2012

(spoiler alert – see Betteridge’s Law of Headlines)

Music and Making Stuff

The guitarist in my college band didn’t know much about electronics, but when a guitar cord broke just before we went on stage (this was in the starving student days of no spare parts), he pulled out a huge old Weller soldering gun he probably could have done plumbing repairs with, and fixed it. It was sloppy, but it worked. His primary job was as a musician but he knew enough of the tools of technology to be able to repair simple things that he needed to make music.

A better-known example. Les Paul was a musician who heard something in his head and made some stuff to bring that sound into the world. He did it, not because he was an engineer, but because he was a musician. And in his quest to be the best musician he could be, he invented multi-track recording and the solid body guitar, and changed the face of music forever.

My primary job is education and thought leadership at 360i, but I also have a really nice soldering station in my office. In addition to thinking about and teaching stuff, I know lots of great ways to connect one thing to another (sometimes with Scotch tape or an API, and not molten lead). Occasionally, but all too rarely, I make something that no one else has thought of.


I’ve spent the last 15 years arguing the case for creative technology at agencies. As head of the Creative Technology track at VCU Brandcenter I helped shape at least one definition of the role, have defended the emerging positions from the old-school Bernbackian purists, and helped aim dozens of truly smart and passionate CTs to some great agencies. Those of us who believe, teach, and promote have been gaining traction – there are now jobs called “creative technologist,” and departments where they work, and educational programs to support the jobs and the departments.

But I think it’s time we stop.

It’s time to stop talking about this stuff as though it’s something that needs to be installed, to be accommodated, or requires agency re-architecture.

The Mechanisms of Mediation Matter

It’s as simple as this. If your agency isn’t supporting the idea that influencing culture requires innate understanding of the forces that shape culture, if it doesn’t recognize that in a mediated, media-rich world, the mechanisms of mediation matter, well, it’s not going to go well for you.

Having a job title or a department isn’t enough. Too many people have taken on the official mantle of “Creative Technologist” who aren’t enough of a creative or a technologist to be successful in a newly created silo. Just as musicians need to understand appropriate technology to play music (remembering that music theory and scales are technology), all creatives (and strategists, and account folks, and…) need to understand technology and all technologists need to be creative (and strategic, and understand business, and…).

Attribute, Not Definition

There’s a crossover that’s necessary for the kind of work we need to do now in our business, and, in fact, to be a cultural contributor.

Even a “traditional” creative uses tools – paintbrush, pencil, fingers, camera, an innate or studied understanding of the psychology of color, of semiotics, of context, of persuasion, of rhetoric… Why, then, do we make such a big deal about also being able to use what appears to be (gasp!) technology as an integral and expected part of the thinking and expressive process?

“She’s got a soldering iron? Only put her on special projects…”

“He programs? No need to invite him to the ideation sessions…”

I’ve preached that being a creative technologist is more than having a toolset; it’s having a mindset. Being an active member of modern culture requires some of that mindset. Being successful in our industry requires that mindset to be the default, not something that’s switched on when it’s time to think about activation.

Creative technologist shouldn’t be a definition; it needs to be an attribute of what everyone does.

Is This The End?

So do I advocate firing the CTs you’ve got at your agency? Of course not – if they’re any good, they’re contributing creatively and strategically to your bottom line, and why on earth would you get rid of someone like that?

What I’m suggesting is that you hire more creatives and strategists who are great, who have as an attribute of what they do a decent working knowledge of mediation and culture and technology – and not segregate the roles into silos.

Hire creatives. Hire strategists. Hire technologists. Hire inventors. Call them what you want – but then let them be creative and strategic and technological and invention-y as a fundamental part of all the work you do, not as a black ops team or the “activation club.”

That creates an opportunity to rethink open positions, away from “we need three art directors and two copywriters, and a creative technologist” towards “we need six creatives.” Yes, you also need specialists, but they should be T-shaped… Same goes for strategists.

Everything’s Better with Pi

Hmm… Or even better, they should be pi-shaped, ∏, with one of the descenders being what we’ve been calling creative technology.

And where will you find these people? You’ll still get them from great programs like VCU Brandcenter, NYU’s ITP, and others. And if you let the world know what you’re looking for, you’ll find that there are more of “them” in the wild than you suspected. Some may already be in your agency, but may need to know that it’s okay to express their inner-CT. And you may have to grow some – by the way, most people you’d want in your agency long-term are lifetime learners, so developing an internal education program is a powerful recruiting/retention tool.

Our industry’s job is to create authentic reasons for consumers and shoppers to support our client’s brands – and authenticity requires fluency in culture and the drivers of culture.

When the kind of thinking that’s currently segregated to the creative technology wheelhouse infuses everything we do and everybody who does it, our job will be much, much easier.

  1. October 22, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Excellent post Mark. I’ve been increasingly thinking that silo-ed roles in digital are causing substandard work; when there’s a role called “creative technology” (or even “technology”, “design”, etc.) it becomes very easy for people to say “that’s not my job”.

    I’m increasingly noticing that great digital innovations comes from teams with blurry roles – renaissance men and women who understand technology AND design.

    It will be interesting to see how agencies adapt to this model of thinking (or even IF they adapt), since this type of blurriness is difficult to scale and build.

  2. jeremytai
    October 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Insightful, and rather unrealistic, view of technology and creative in agencies. At least over here in Germany where everything needs a label and a specific job number to be recognized. Of course there are exceptions, and like you wrote, it’s a matter of a mindset and action plan that the C-level need to embody.

  3. mavnet
    October 22, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    Agree, and also with some of the comments on twitter – that it’s hard, and that titles get in the way, and that in a transitional time, we need the role. And that’s all true, except that as long as we act as though it’s a “transitional time” in our field, we give permission to having yet another department set up as another pilot program to test the efficacy and ROI or to see if everyone else will accept the newbies, blah blah blah. On the other hand, we can just say “if you want to work, you need to know this stuff” and hire accordingly. Why should we allow the existing job titles to restrict the people whom we hire?

  4. October 23, 2012 at 2:55 am

    ‘Why should we allow the existing job titles to restrict the people whom we hire?’ – so true. That’s why the smart companies in advertising started moving away from looking at advertising or marketing pedigrees in the people that they hire. Good stuff Mark. Miss you man.

  5. mavnet
    October 23, 2012 at 3:24 am

    Back at you, dude. I hope it’s clear i’m not against CTs and the great work some people with that title do – what i’m interested in is having actual acceptance across the board, and not segregating creative people simply because they are more hybrid in approach, more pi-shaped… Basically, i just think it’s time for agencies to do what they keep talking about doing, and not as an experiment to see if it works.

  6. Scott Witthaus
    October 23, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Great post, Mark. It’s amazing to me how deep the “silo” thought process is and how hard it is to truly tear down in the traditional agency mindset (and academia!). Gonna forward this post to a few folks and see what I can stir up! Hope you are well. Scott

  7. October 24, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    ‘pi-shaped’. lulz.

  8. mavnet
    October 24, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Not shaped like a pie. Shaped like pi.

  9. October 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm

    Going to go and process this further, I think it’s a great discussion. I know at my agency my role as a creative technologist is pretty vague. I mostly use my obscure title to be able to “gap-fill” on projects. I’ve done everything from strategy to design or even copy writing. I personally like having a title that is different from everyone else because it allows me to create my own roles where I see fit. I teach the students at Brandcenter to use their time here to find out what they would like to market themselves as, much like how you taught us. During bootcamp I brought up a visualization of the job titles that graduates of the BCCT program have held to prove to them that you are here to learn a mindset that will carry to a number of fields and titles, they seem to like that theory. Most of them know that the title “Creative Technologist” is not something that fits them, especially when they read what a CT is at most agencies.

    What the students love is the freedom that CT provides them. They love the openness to think big and experiment. They love the collaboration that they track provides versus the competition that the others foster. I still get lots of students in the other tracks coming up to me and saying, “wish I was a CT, you all look like you’re always having fun and making cool stuff.” So I guess the future is integrating this kind of thinking across the board, academically and agency side.

    Let’s talk about this further sometime, hope you’re well.

    • mavnet
      October 27, 2012 at 5:39 pm

      “always having fun” – not a bad place to be. Love the idea of the visualization of titles because, as you point out, the definition of a creative technologist agency to agency, and person to person, is so varied.

      The point I think keeps getting missed at the agency level is that the mindset that we’ve talked about isn’t only found in “that department down the hall” or “that pilot program” or even in people with the title Creative Technologist. It can, and should be fostered in everyone. And taken to a not very extreme extreme, it should be a requirement, the other leg of the pi. And not only in “digital shops” – they have silos just like more traditional agencies do.

      Come to think of it, since so many of digital agencies have risen from a production shop background, they may even have stronger silos, because it’s hard to point out exactly what a person with this mindset does when you’re putting a time plus materials proposal together.

      But it’s not so hard to point out what an agency full of pi-shaped thinkers can do – bigger ideas, more cultural relevance, understanding that the technological part of culture and communication mean that you can’t “make it digital” or “make it mobile” or “make it social” after the ideas have been generated. The reality of connected, social, mediated culture needs to be understood from the start. Not everything needs to have a mobile app – but everything needs to incorporate the truth that people move around and are increasingly always online. Not everything needs to be on Facebook, but everything needs to incorporate the truth that people share and sometimes they share in person and something they share online, and most of the time, they’re not thinking about the difference – they’re just living, and fluidly using the tools of culture.

      And, as I’ve said a few times before, interactive doesn’t mean digital. Engaging doesn’t mean there’s a “like” button. Paper, conversation, radio, tv, word of mouth, OOD – amazingly well integrated into culture, and amazing things that encourage involvement have been done using non-digital media, for, oh, the last 100,000 years or so.

      But agencies are still configured for people to hand off ideas, department to department – business problem (why), to culture (who), to strategy (where, when, and to what effect) to creative (how) to production/tech (platform/distribution) to media (driving traffic) to analytics (did it work). Slightly different flows depending on the place, but more or less this.

      And that clearly works to some extent, and occasionally something brilliant or life-changing comes out of it – but it’s a model that was designed for the snapshot of business and culture and technology of the last part of the last century.

      But the ecosystem has changed, and people and culture have not only adapted to changes in business models and technology, but have expectations, mostly unstated, and often unknown to them, about how things should operate. That means we have to have that hybrid mindset as well, in order to think and make things that are intuitive, useful, and communicative.

      We’ve all seen the video of the baby trying to use a magazine like an iPad – “To this baby, a magazine is a broken iPad.” http://youtu.be/aXV-yaFmQNk And we all have used it as a rallying cry to “think bigger, think differently.”

      And yet the model at the agencies stays the same. So who’s in charge of thinking bigger and differently, when the structure forces hires that sustain the structure that forces hires that sustain the structure? Lather, rinse, repeat. So we bring in the rockstar, or we set up a pilot program that’s not really supported well (“great idea, but our account people don’t know how to sell that to our client”).

      This is why we have to stop segregating this kind of hybrid thinking, and make it a requirement for everyone. There’s no excuse for cultural illiteracy in a business that’s about solving business problems by impacting culture and/or communicating with people who are integral to the culture.

  1. April 3, 2013 at 2:49 pm
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