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Research Insights | Highlights from CreateTech 2013: Left Brain Meets Right Brain 

The third annual 4A’s CreateTech, October 2–3, Brooklyn, NY, was an honest and open discussion among creative technologists and innovative thought leaders, providing them opportunity to share emerging trends, the newest ideas and coolest innovations in the field. 4A’s CDO Chick Foxgrover and the 4A’s Creative Technology Committee worked to develop a unique and eclectic program.

This Research Insights, written by 4A’s Information Specialist Christine Pelosi, discusses some of the many highlights of CreateTech 2013; the 22 presentations were videotaped and are available for viewing at the 4A’s YouTube channel.


Three important themes emerged from the two-day CreateTech2013 conference:

  • Education: Agencies and clients must gain the knowledge that allows them to satisfy growing consumer expectations.
  • Failure: Failure should be encouraged among creative technologists as an accepted part of the learning process.
  • Make: It’s not about what is made; it’s about the act of creativity.

These takeaways are discussed in the following report along with highlights of presentations focused on the creation of innovation labs, ways to empower creativity and the characteristics of the modern creative director.


During the “Creativity, Technology and Education” panel , the panelists discussed that by educating our agencies and our clients we can gain the knowledge that allows us to satisfy consumer expectations and create advertising that is relevant to them.

You don’t have to be an expert to use technology

The key to getting clients and agency peers engaged with technology is to break down the fear associated with it, and education is a way to get over that fear. Allowing people to take even baby technology steps (without judging) will build confidence and the desire to learn more and fuel ideas. The goal is to get people involved and excited about projects.  

Invest in people

On the same panel, Mark Avnet, Dean of 360iU, said that while it’s often difficult to find people with full technological skill sets, his agency is willing to spend resources to educate and invest in its current staff.

Mark said that education is the missing piece in getting people comfortable with technology. He gave several tips on how to best teach your agency about tech, a view that was supported by his fellow panelists, including Limor Fried, AdaFruit Industries; Georgia Krantz, Guggenheim Museum, NYU ITP, MoMa; and Zach Lieberman, School for Poetic Computation:

  • Bring education to your employees: Make it easy for them to learn. By making it a holistic experience they will be more apt to participate.
  • Get your top management on board: They are the ones who have the power to make decisions and are more apt to take a risk. If you position education ventures as “afterschool clubs,” it seems more like a pilot program, appearing low risk and may help it get approval. 
  • Not everything has to be a meeting: Quick conversations and impromptus can be rewarding and may break down silos and create more communication among employees.
  • Teach people how to teach: Create a culture of learning by first learning how to teach and then teach your employees how to teach each other.

Educate your clients

A job of the creative technologist is to educate clients to help steer them to the right solution. Many CreateTech speakers agreed the biggest challenge concerning clients is they don’t understand the time and effort that go into their projects. One way agencies can bring clients into the design process is to show them something concrete; it’s easier to understand a high concept idea when you can actually view something and see how it works. It’s valuable to educate clients about how long the creation process takes and what goes into developing a new technology or product so that both parties will have the same expectations.


Since continual learning is a part of the culture of creative technologists, mistakes should be embraced. In her presentation, Wendy Clark, SVP, Global Sparkling Brand Center, The Coca-Cola Company, said that we have to be willing to pursue agendas that make us fail because you’re not on the edge if you’re not failing.

Failure should be expected and accepted as part of the process

Unfortunately, failure is not rewarded at agencies, declared John Lax, partner at teehan+lax, during the “Agency Innovation Labs” discussion. Failure needs to be reframed; making mistakes should be encouraged. Lax explained that the majority of items in an innovation lab go nowhere. If a project isn’t working, stop what you’re doing, discuss the issues, shelve it, and come back to it later. You might fix the problem or find another use for it in the future. All that matters is you’re learning something and moving forward.  

Stop being embarrassed

The outcome of overcoming embarrassment is creativity. Stacey Mulcahy, Technology Evangelist at Microsoft, said in her presentation that design should be a collaborative process. By sharing ideas and work with peers, people will overcome their embarrassment, which will foster more creativity. When things don’t work out, colleagues can build on top of each other’s ideas and create a new solution to get around the problem.

Get out of your comfort zone

Tight, collaborative groups force people out of their comfort zones. Such environments have immediate feedback and rapid successes and failures that many are not used to; we all know when we work very closely on a project that we can lose perspective. During “Game Design as Creative Development,” Phoenix Perry, Adjunct Professor at NYU, Poly, ITP and Steinhardt, said that the key is to kill your ego and let the product be tested. In her experience with game design Perry has found that it’s best to throw projects out into the world and allow colleagues and even consumers to give input. You will quickly discover any issues. Getting out of your comfort zone allows people to redesign, refine and move on.


The act of making comes from the merging of creativity and technologyit’s not about what is made, it’s about the act of making. Ryan Habbyshaw, Senior Design Lead at IDEO, shared that the key to foster creativity is to make something every day, work out in the open and share the work within the agency. Such sharing sparks conversations and leads to inspiration for future client work. Habbyshaw said that creativity is a reflex that needs to be conditioned. All you need is some time (and maybe some breakthrough technology) to do something cool and keep your brain engaged.

Passion Projects

Bring your passions to work. Everyone likes good ideas and likes making fun stuff. Passion projects should not be isolated to the innovation lab. An open-door policy allows everyone in the agency to participate. You never know where the next great idea will come from; giving all employees a chance to share their passion and have it actually made is very inclusive and powerful.

Solve Real Problems with Technology

Create something that solves a real problem. Gela Fridman, VP of Technology at HUGE, said that the usefulness of a new tool matters because if users perceive a value in it, they will adapt their habits and incorporate it into their routine.

Relevant insights help solve problems, e.g., in the “Toyota Makes Car Shopping Social” panel, Toyota revealed that they gleaned the insight that car buyers seek advice from friends and families when purchasing a car. This is a problem for dealerships, so Toyota teamed up with Saatchi & Saatchi LA and Google to create a new online tool where buyers, their friends and family (and even car salesmen) can meet online to discuss the car, share opinions and create their ideal car in real time.

Don’t Use it Just to Use it

Technology has to make sense and be central to the story. Quite a few speakers discussed that it’s too easy to get caught up in the hype of the coolest, newest, shiniest innovations and technologies on both the client and agency side. The onus is on the creative technologist to step back and make sure the technology works and makes sense to the story they are telling.  

Innovation Labs

The Agency Innovation Labs segment provided many agency insights. The panel, which included Tom Nolan, BBH Labs; Rick Gardinier, Brunner, Jon Lax; teehan+lax; and Imari Oliver, McGarry Bowen, gave advice that will help others who are planning such labs at their agency.

How to Create a Lab

The agency needs to dedicate money, time and staff to the creation of an innovation lab. Document your process; it’s very easy to waste time early on playing around, and you want everyone on the same page. Realize early that it’s okay to not turn out a lot of ideas and product because the real purpose of an innovation lab is to foster creativity. More importantly, it needs a purpose to exist.

The Mission of the Lab

The core purpose of the innovation lab is to gain new knowledge, share discoveries and solve clients’ biggest problems. Innovative labs are there to make agencies smarter and to stay ahead of what’s next. Another purpose of the lab is to extend further than clients are willing to go. In the future, when clients are ready to push boundaries further, agencies will be able to support them. The lab should also be fun and participatory for those within the agency. While not everyone will gravitate towards the lab, the option should be there to contribute to its output. The excitement and sense of community in lab participation can also be a tool for employee retention.

A Lab’s Physical Space

An open, collaborative space is essential when creating the physical space for an innovation lab. It was the consensus that the traditional office space broke the flow of communication and collaboration that nurtures creativity. There is no substitute for the physical proximity of co-workers for generating ideas. It’s important to bring a variety of people together. You never know what kinds of solutions will be found when people with different skill sets and perspectives come together.

If creating a separate space for an innovation lab is not feasible in your agency, give employees breaks between projects so they can work on something they are passionate about. No formal lab is necessary; just make sure they have the tools they need and leave them alone to create.

Empower Creativity and Be Quick About it!

The insights that Pete Stein of Razorfish and Coca Cola’s Wendy Clark shared about advertising in the post-digital era can be useful not only to creative technologists, but to the entire agency community.

Stein reiterated that the consumer’s day-to day activities are now totally incorporated with technology. Because of the proliferation of tech in everyday life, consumers’ expectations have changed and they feel that advertising is no longer relevant to them. To fix this problem, Stein’s solution is to put the consumer at the center and create a predictive consumer experience. This means that creative technologists should help find solutions to consumers’ daily problems.

Five ways to market to consumers in the post-digital era:

  •  Know your customer: Returns are dramatic when you customize
  • Give a gift: Creates a strong connection with the consumer
  • Provide a service: Find a solution that fixes a consumer problem
  • Partner: If you want to go fast do it alone, if you want to go far get someone to help you
  • Be agile: Pay attention to social media and respond quickly.

Wendy Clark’s motto at Coca-Cola is “embrace creativity.” She said that agencies should let creativity exist and be more concerned that they’re not breaking things along the way. Her presentation focused on how advertisers and agencies can no longer control the message. Social media has established a dialogue between consumers and brands, but sometimes the conversation is happening in real time without brand involvement.

According to Clark, in order to engage in the social dialogue with consumers, brands should stop simply creating more content, they must create more good content.

  • Be share worthy: This is vital because it’s not about the audience you can reach, it’s about those you cannot reach. If your brand has good content, consumers will share it with those in their social networks.
  • Fans and consumers are your new sales force—embrace them: Marketers sometimes get nervous about great consumer-created ideas. Instead of being nervous, embrace these ideas and let them thrive.
  • Speeds trumps perfection: Marketers are perfectionists, and perfectionism sometimes hinders agility; brands stay relevant by being a part of the conversation in real time. Marketers have to remember that no matter how good the content, it doesn’t matter if it’s out of context.
  • Measurement is real time: Every brand decision has an outcome. Using social media allows brands to quickly know when something is wrong, giving them a chance to act fast to fix it.
  •  Be ambitious: If we aren’t ambitious for our brand then who will be?

Modern Creative Director

Stacey Mulcahy, Technology Evangelist, Microsoft, thinks that the role of the Creative Director needs to change. She listed the characteristics she believes make a great Creative Director:

Multilingual: Creative Directors must be able to speak strategy, design and tech. They need the ability to communicate what they want to both creatives and technologists.

  • Know what goes into something: They have to understand the process that goes into bringing an idea to completion. They don’t need to know everything, but they need to know enough to be able to accomplish their goals.
  • Duality--be a maker and consumer: They must to be able to “make” because making instills empathy, which is a good thing for the team and the user because it drives home what can and cannot be done. Creative Directors need to be consumers because they need to know what’s out there, where their client’s audience is, what to say and where to say it.
  • Agnostic: CDs must be both platform and process agnostic. Platform agnostic means knowing the different platforms that are available and the pros and cons of each; process agnostic means that the design process should shun embarrassment and create a collaborative environment. Both will help Creative Directors take new approaches to different things.
  • Fearlessness: Things change so fast. Creative Directors must be able to fearlessly navigate new water.

 A Google Hangout with Matt Jones and Ray Kurzweil

A highlight of the conference was the virtual talk between Matt Jones, Interaction Design Director, Google, and Ray Kurzweil, Author, Inventor and Director of Engineering, Google. Kurzweil encapsulated the main theme of this year’s CreateTechtechnology enables creativity. He said that the tools we have created have expanded our mental reach. Technology is changing at a rapid pace and we need to keep up with it and use education to enhance our skills to remain competitive.

Kurzweil also said that creativity is like the Grand Canyon; one little stream can alter the entire landscape. All it takes is one small insight to change everything. By converging technology, education and creativity, agencies will remain innovative and continue to stay competitive. 

Big Ideas and Cool Innovations

  • Virtually Exploring Production in the World’s Largest Oil Field: Susan Kattelus, Exxon Mobil, and David Schwarz, HUSH, discussed how the agency and the client worked together to do something that hadn’t been done before. With Exxon providing the data (and then getting out of the agency’s way) and HUSH pushing the boundaries, they were able to create an interactive display that allowed consumers to understand and become interested in oil production.
  • Data Collision in Digital Advertising: Rachel Law, CHI & Partners, spoke about the ideas and creative process behind Vortex, the controversial platform she created while in grad school that allows consumers to control their own metadata, or cookie identities, through a game.
  • Bits in Atoms: Interactive Media in Built Environments: Gideon D’Arcangelo, ESI Design, Catherine Patterson, McCann, Matt Powell, kbs+, and Karolina Sobecka, artist, talked about creating experiences in the physical world using storytelling and technology.
  • Beercade: The Last Barfighter: Who doesn’t love arcade games and beer? Jim Russell and Adam Carroll, both from McKinney, spoke about everything from character design to intellectual property rights behind the arcade game that rewards players with beer they made for Big Boss Brewing Company.
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum Interactive Experience: Lee Statham, JFK Library and Museum, Dustin Carlliff, Tool of NA, and Brian Williams, The Martin Agency, described the many pitfalls that can occur during the creation and implementation of a new product and how a great client/agency relationship can make anything work. 
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