In the digital, interactive and social media-focused agency world, it’s easy to talk a big game, but for disciplines that require true, deep knowledge of the subject for success, there’s a fine line between “understanding” and “expertise”. Our Creative Technology Director Igor Clark explains why ideas aren’t enough, below the jump.
By Igor Clark, Creative Technology Director
I’ve pretty much had it with the term “Creative Technology”. I’m a “Creative Technology Director” myself, and even I’m over it: already it seems clichéd at best, and at worst, bordering on the meaningless. Here’s why.
Not so long ago, the rise and rise of “digital” meant agencies having to come up with increasing amounts of interactive work. They didn’t know how to do it, so their developers got screwed, and the work suffered. Horribly.
Few outside the tech teams grasped what was involved in building the software needed for digital campaigns. Crazy deadlines, unrealistic expectations, ill-considered and even ill-advised requirements led to ever-more “inventive” technical solutions. Then, when the last-minute hack they had to cobble together failed to stand up to the traffic they never promised it would, developers were cursed and vilified.
But this wasn’t the really bad part. Software folk who found their way into agency-land either loved it, and stayed – or they didn’t, and left. For the ones who stuck around, and who felt the pain most acutely, the really bad part wasn’t the pressure or the deadlines: it was that their work wasn’t understood, so it wasn’t properly recognized.
Their work wasn’t purely science or technology; though grounded in both, it was far from the simple application of formulae or solving of equations. Developers knew that you couldn’t take a creative brief as a set of instructions and just “translate” it into software. You have to interpret it, and that takes an extra spark. A creative spark. They saw this was a fundamental part of the overall interactive creative process, and yet a parallel, creative process of its own. The naming perpetuated the misunderstanding, and so it had to change.
At the same time, people across agencies were recognizing that their existing creative model just wasn’t working out for “interactive”. Crews outside the fortress walls were doing innovative and engaging work, not only through using new and different technologies to do it (openFrameworks, Processing, robots and Arduino, computer vision & Kinect, projection mapping, the list goes on), but also by trying out different approaches and processes. Namely: the technology was the creative.
In this way, “creative technology” was born: partly to assuage the accumulating angst of downtrodden developers; partly to enable those developers willing to step up to the creative plate also to step outside the conventional development toolkit; and partly – perhaps most importantly – to spread awareness across the board that where interactive work is concerned, creating involves making; making interactive stuff involves technology; and people can be creative in a range of disciplines, not only blue-sky ideation.
At its inception, this was A Good Thing, and it happened for Good Reasons. So what happened? Why do I now find myself wondering whether Creative Technology, as a label and a discipline, is effectively bankrupt?
As in any new, burgeoning and (to many) incomprehensible field, most people have neither the background nor the time to get under the surface and really understand what it’s all about. So they need people to help do that.
Unfortunately, in any field requiring background and time to get beneath the surface, the ninja dust is easy to throw in the faces of the uninitiated, disguising the underlying truth – which is, all too frequently, only a surface-level familiarity with the necessary materials.
University and training courses spring up, servicing the new market of people wanting to get educated in the new field. Courses need funding; funding requires admissions; admissions policies get broadened; broad admissions policies welcome novices and amateurs. Ergo, disciplines become ill-disciplined, specialization becomes flabby and watered-down to the point of meaninglessness.
Outcome: “creative technologists” who think that their daily use of social media, “passion for digital” and pile of half-baked ideas about QR codes, mobile integration and Facebook apps constitute an entitlement to have those ideas brought to life by the still-downtrodden developers, still languishing in the dungeons of overworked production companies and in-house development teams.
Photo by Igor Clark
As a result, “Creative Technology” has become watered down to the point where people fresh out of “creative tech” courses need only sprinkle some of that digital ninja-dust on their resumés, and those without the requisite background, know-how and experience to sort the wheat from the chaff are none the wiser.
The talent drifts off. The ninjas plan and conceive the work, and analyse its success, using metrics no-one else understands. Bad work proliferates, becomes accepted and normalized within the industry; the really good people get further alienated, more dust is thrown to disguise others taking their places, and round and round it goes, until no-one knows who’s a ninja and who’s not. Except for the best people, who’ve left the agency scene in the dust – and the audience, of course, who are left unmoved. Or, worse, switched off.
Is this pattern inevitable? Can we, as agency-land technologists, do anything about it?
Clearly many non-technical factors are involved, but there is one simple and concrete thing we can do: stop hiring “creative technologists”. Hire coders. Reject compromise on this front, and resist pressure to give in to it. Only hire people to work at the crossover of creative and technology if they have strong, practical, current coding skills.
Don’t fall for the illusion that a candidate is creatively strong enough to compensate for the weak code. Spending a year or two on a training course gaining a passing acquaintance with a couple of trending technologies isn’t good enough. They need to live and breathe this stuff, and to use the appropriate languages and tools fluently and transparently, without stopping to think about it. So if a person puts “creative technologist” on their resumé, but doesn’t know how to code, can’t show you things they’ve made, and can’t prove they made them by explaining why they wrote the code the way they did, don’t hire them. Simple as that.
Think this sounds elitist? Well, it is – and there’s a reason.
Photo by Igor Clark
Agencies don’t hire writers just because they know the rules of grammar. We hire them because they’re eloquent, lucid, imaginative wordsmiths. We hire them because of their practised ability to lovingly craft words into things that work. Things that make people feel.
There are people who engineer excellent software. There are people who come up with amazing ideas. The interactive space by definition requires the fusion of the two, and technology at the heart of creation. At the point of intersection, you’re going to need people who understand both, and who have one foot on either side. As Forrester’s Mike Gualtieri recently wrote in a fresh piece about how to create great software, that means “renaissance developers who have passion, creativity, discipline, domain knowledge, and user empathy”.
This is difficult territory for creative agencies. Maybe you don’t know how to hire these people yet. Maybe it doesn’t fit with your structures. Tough, isn’t it? But you’re going to have to deal with it, and fix it.
Ultimately, to do that you need to provide an environment that’s as appealing and satisfying for extraordinary, creative software people as the one you already provide is for traditional creative folks. But it also needs to be as appealing to this new breed as their potential alternate settings at Google, Facebook, Tech Startup X. Fortunately, you have the potential to make it even more so for genuine creative coders – because they’re not looking for pure engineering any more than you are.
While you don’t need to become an engineering company, you face some of their challenges. You need to understand, accept and embrace some of the nuts and bolts of software development, and take on board the work dedicated shops are doing on its processes. You need such a strong streak of code running through the atmosphere that coders want to come to you, and everyone else gets code spilling over them.
But “digital” is a hybrid realm, and you need to provide a balance. Fortunately, you’re in a perfect position to counterpoint the engineering-first environment that others have so successfully developed, leading so successfully to technically excellent, efficient, and often creatively uninspiring work. You have the creative angle covered (right?), so to get to the hybrid middle-ground, you have to allow developers the flexibility, the leeway and the time to engineer solid work – and you have to welcome the hybrid creative coders into the heart of what you do, to make a hybrid place where they feel at home, and where they can help ensure that what gets sold makes sense, and that it can be made without actually killing a team of engineers in the attempt.
Photo by Igor Clark
Don’t get me wrong, this is hard, and it’ll take time. It’s not just procedural, but cultural, so a big part of doing it comes down to who you hire and how you let them do their thing. But that’s exactly the point. That’s why it’s most important, way before you get all that fixed, and as the first major step on that road: just don’t hire “creative technologists” who aren’t strong coders.
Bottom line, these people need to make stuff, fast. They need to prove or disprove concepts, in ways that non-technologists understand, fast. So they need to know how to code efficiently, economically and effectively. They need to understand the appropriate technology stack from top to bottom, know which tools are right for the job – and most of all, they must be prepared to crack their knuckles, roll up their sleeves and get their fingers into the code. Up to the elbows.
You’re probably thinking, “OK, those people are few and far between; we still need people to bridge the gap between them and the rest of the agency”. You’re not wrong; you’ve put your finger straight on the really interesting corollary, and the exact reason why creative agencies could be the most inspiring environment for creative coders, which is simply this: we have to be.
With integrated interactive work ever more critical, creative agencies need to change drastically, in ways that suit perfectly those people we most need to attract. We need to adapt and evolve to survive. The serious talent is doing it for itself; going to small shops, shooting solo. To reach the very best people, we need to change in ways that make them want to come to us; to allow and even help them to change us, and to help us shape our evolution.
Photo by Igor Clark
This is more than “building a digital team”, or “covering digital bases”. The agency as a whole has to step up to the tectonic plate and realize that not only are digital, social, interactive, gaming all here to stay, but they already permeate the entire landscape of what consumers are doing. We need to change our processes, structures and approach to how we create in order to accommodate this stuff, and open our arms to the people who make it happen.
Start off by refusing to believe people who tell you that hiring them to do the understanding for you means you can carry on as you were. Instead, hire the right people in the right places, and make the changes necessary to let them do what they do. Creative people who can code up a storm, and, critically, experienced people who can properly assess the code they’re shown. These are the people who will help us flourish – if we can help them to do the same.
At W+K we’re always looking to meet good technology people, and we want to read your code. Developers, engineers, creative coders. If that’s you, if you’ve got the endurance to make it this far, and if you’re interested in applying your creativity through code with us in Portland, then why not get in touch?
Find Igor on Twitter at @IgorClark.