Seize the Space – Why Technology is Creative

If you happened to be in a certain conference room in midtown Manhattan last April, you would have witnessed something seemingly normal: two executive creative directors (ECDs) reviewing campaign work and debating brand attributes, customer aspirations, and engagement. What made this meeting extraordinary is the fact that one of the ECDs was a gifted programmer perfectly capable of writing and compiling computer programs at will.

Culture and business models are what make agencies digital—not titles. So while agencies rooted in traditional media eagerly add positions like “creative technologist” to their ranks, digitally confident agencies are doing the exact opposite. At R/GA, “technical creative director,” the pleonasm we coined in 2006, is now simply “creative director.” Yet it’s not just agencies that have evolved; smart clients also realize that seamless cultural continuity is more important than wearing technical capabilities on agency shirtsleeves.

R/GA’s current business model is just a recent stop on a journey that began 30 years ago when Bob Greenberg and his brother Richard unleashed the mysterious powers of technology and creative—and won the Academy Award for technical achievement. And while it’s true that R/GA reinvented itself four times since then, the technical/creative combination has always been a consistent theme. The impetus for change is the need to seize “white space”: that is, the need to evolve our business model to adapt to uncharted business territory and underserved markets. All great companies transform periodically: Procter & Gamble reinvents itself every ten years and Apple every four.

In Seizing the White Space, Mark Johnson explains how uncharted territory (white space) for one company is the provenance of another. “Digital” is unexplored territory for agencies rooted in TV and home for agencies like R/GA. Although some may argue that the switch to digital is simply a matter of technically minded recruiting and staffing, Johnson explains why an entirely new business model is required. In addition to discussing staffing changes, he underscores the need to change processes, profit models, and the customer value proposition.

White Space
Poor fit with current organization
(Irresolute Digital)
Core Business
(TV and Print)
Good fit with current organization
Existing customers served in fundamentally different ways
Existing customers served in traditional ways

R/GA’s core value proposition is anchored in technology and creative. This, in turn, reflects the reality that creative decisions drive technology and that technology is a design choice. Technology doesn’t just impact visual design and user experience; it can drive copy too. For example, Twitter’s haiku-like 140-character constraint derives from a programmer’s choice to adhere to the 160-character short message service protocol (minus room for the user name and colon).

Simply put, technology is creative.

Successful agencies recognize that programmers are like copywriters and designers, except that to thrive, they require a specific culture and process: e.g., congruous leadership, common vocabulary, source control, testing, quality assurance, systematic task management, and special computer access. Also, like their counterparts in copy and visual, programmers require a degree of creative control.

More than anything else, it’s this second requirement that necessitates a new business model because agencies with insular creative cultures tend to silo technology. This segregation, in turn, leads to limp adjacent offerings instead of true white-space transformation. From the outside, segregated agencies appear to have comprehensive digital offerings, but since it’s business as usual on the inside, technical teams may feel one step removed and out of place.

What’s clear is that many gifted creative leaders also happen to be programmers. The willingness to accept this reality is a litmus test, and a good way for leading brands to spot agency partners with the culture and business model to succeed.

A version of this article appeared in AdAge on June 6, 2011, entitled “Why Agencies, Talent Should Seize the Space Between Creativity and Technology”