Our world has become increasingly digital, and our creative workforce has had to adapt. Gone are the days when an art director and copywriter could put their feet up and their heads together and wait for inspiration to strike. Now more than ever, working in a digital profession—be it at a startup, an agency or anywhere in between—means being expected to both conceive of an idea as well as implement it.
One increasingly popular name given to a role that fits this bill is Creative Technologist, a term that’s been around for a while but still may not mean a whole lot unless it’s printed below your name on your business card. However nebulous its responsibilities might seem, it’s a job title that’s often associated with sleek workspaces with few walls, multiple monitors whirring continuous lines of code, and months of research and development for a single project, painstakingly undertaken in jeans and a T-shirt between games of ping pong and Wii bowling.
The opening scene of a recent Adweek article, for example, introduces the reader to New York Times R&D Lab creative technologist Alexis Lloyd and her office on the 28th floor of the Times Building in Midtown Manhattan:
With the newsroom housed 24 floors below, the seven-year-old R&D Lab acts as a tech startup of sorts inside the New York Times Co., home of the 161-year-old, self-styled newspaper of record. With 20 staffers, the lab’s mix of crazy smart technologists, programmers, designers and business brains are charged with the Sisyphean task of developing tech innovations and new business models to help the struggling Times weather an uncertain future following five consecutive years of falling revenue and net losses totaling more than $300 million over seven years.
If that doesn’t make you want to hop in the creative technologist line, perhaps this will: On a wall in that 28th-floor office hangs a mirror named simply, Reveal. Stop to check your teeth after lunch or adjust your skinny tie before a meeting (during which you’ll likely sit on exercise balls, not chairs), and along with your reflection, you’ll be shown personalized news headlines thanks to built-in face-recognition software. Touch your phone to the mirror, and you can take any desired stories with you.
The big question, at least in my mind, isn’t whether a profession of this sort would be awesome (it would). It’s how one goes about securing such a job in the first place.
Enter Joe Corr, a Creative Director with Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Colorado, and a Lecturer at Boulder Digital Works at the University of Colorado. Corr has a background in a wide variety of interactive tools and over 15 years of professional experience designing and developing for the screen and beyond. I met him recently at a FutureM panel, where he was talking about how digital agencies of the future attract new talent. The role of creative technologist came up a bunch, so I asked him about it after the session. If you’re thinking of getting into the industry, or just want to learn more about it from a guy who’s been there, it’s worth a read.
AEW: Can you define the term Creative Technologists for me as it applies to the agency world today?
JC: Creative Technologist means a developer who understands the creative process and actively contributes to creating new and enhancing existing digital ideas.
AEW: What is covered within the job description and what isn’t?
JC: A good way to think about a CT as well as the other digital disciplines (User Experience Design, Copywriting, Design and Art Direction) is that while you need to be capable in all of the departments, you need to major in one. We ask that everyone picks a day job, and not try to force a hybrid role.
AEW: How has the job role changed over the years?
JC: The actual languages used have shifted over the past two decades. As the landscape shifts and moves, we need talent that is comfortable learning a new tongue. The best developers in our industry are multi-lingual.
AEW: How has the traditional Art Director/Copywriter pair changed?
JC: For decades the ‘creative’ unit … could handle any deliverable that an advertising agency would pump out. But digital is more complex. It’s much more like product development because we make things that people actually use. So in addition to the traditional creative pair, we add in User Experience Designers and Creative Technologists. This core team of four represents all of the skillsets you need to create brilliant, beautiful, emotionally charged work that you can use and interact with without even thinking about it. The medium may be changing, but truly excellent work always looks simple and graceful.
AEW: I’m really interested in the concept of the T-Shaped Person. Why is this important in an agency?
JC: It means that the person is shallow in multiple disciplines, but deep in one. In the digital marketing world, this means that each team member needs to understand what great design is, how the technology works, and the basic principles of interaction design. It evolved out of the idea of hybrids. We have a lot of designer/developers, user experience/art directors, and even copywriter/coders. Slashies. It’s fantastic that they can bring more to the table, we just ask them to focus on what they actually will produce.
AEW: You said there has to be a certain culture of risk for agencies to be successful. Can you explain?
JC: When you are trying to be innovative, you’re going to fail. A culture that is more welcoming of risk has the advantage over a more conservative culture because of the willingness to try. When you’re trying to really push the needle and change culture, you do it by ignoring what a lot of people say. There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, “If I’d ask my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”
AEW: I loved your quote, “We’re always all hiring all the time.” How can a burgeoning CT distinguish him/herself in the marketplace?
JC: [Be a] great communicator in at least one type of human communication channel. I’m half-kidding, but digital peeps are super, super comfortable communicating online. CT’s will be spending close quarters and late nights packed in with their producers, designers and client services teammates who will be relying on them to get the project done. If you say in an interview that you didn’t like group projects in college, you probably aren’t getting called back.
AEW: Any telltale red flags?
JC: Bullshitter. It’s unacceptable. We want people that walk the walk, not talk the talk.
AEW: Anything I haven’t asked that you think is important?
JC: Most people like to ask us geeky types what they think the next Facebook is going to be. I never have any idea, and I don’t today. So thanks for not asking.