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Is This The End of The Creative Technologist?

October 22, 2012 12 comments

(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.

Success

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.