In Defense of Creative Technologists

Kurt Roberts is chief creative technologist at RP3 Agency, an advertising, marketing and communications agency in Bethesda, Md. Find him on Twitter @kurtroberts

To borrow from the Bard: Would creative technologists, by any other name, smell as sweet?  Depends on whom you ask.

Back in 2008, VCU BrandCenter introduced “the world’s first” creative technology degree track, calling it “the answer to the question heard so often and so loudly from agencies and brands: where to find people who really have digital DNA and who are also experts in traditional aspects of advertising.”

Just three years later, Wieden + Kennedy’s Igor Clark posted a lengthy piece on the agency’s blog, “Why We’re Not Hiring Creative Technologists.” This April, Digiday published “The Creative Technologist Fad,” and the International Advertising Association’s Australia chapter hosted a panel titled “Creative Technologist – help or hindrance?” AIGA members, this summer, asked by recruitment firm The Creative Group to name the hot jobs of the future, responded, among others, “creative technologist.”

This ongoing debate pains me. I’m frustrated by the continued lack of understanding that our industry is shifting – that emerging media channels and technological trends require that our agencies do new kinds of work, and need different kinds of people with new skills and roles.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about technology-related roles out there. Even in Digiday, writer Jack Marshall called ‘creative technologist’ a fad title, describing those who carry it on their cards as, in most cases, “simply developers that consult with creative teams.” This  demonstrates precisely what bothers me about the debate: that the industry still looks at all “technical types” as functionally interchangeable, and assumes that “traditional creative” are equally proficient across all media, new and old.

Marshall’s article acknowledges the complexity of the debate, even if in places he does interchange terms and definitions of creative technologists. Unlike other writers on the subject, he acknowledges that in addition to people who can use technology creatively, there are both charlatans and great coders who are not cut out to be creative technologists. These coders have valuable places on our teams because they are the coders that make sure your “great idea” still works when a million people notice it. Those calling themselves creative technologists who think using Twitter makes them technical can go pound sand.

Computers are very literal. A creative technologist can look beyond this literalism and see the potential made available by technology. She knows how to code and understands how people interact with each other. She understands what both people and computers are capable of doing, and how to press the boundaries of those capabilities. Perhaps most importantly, she can show you a practical demonstration of how her idea works.

Whether we use the exact term “creative technologist” – or any other – is not important. What does matter is that as an industry we understand the future challenges we face and that we gain fluency in the new tools and skills necessary to execute for our clients. Our collective future depends on it.

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