2 Minutes With ... Atit Shah, CCO at Digitas North America

On American Express and 'Small Business Saturday'

Atit Shah has been dreaming up transformative brand experiences for companies like American Express, Delta Air Lines, Converse, Walmart, the New York Times, JennAir, NBC and Vevo since the early 2000s. He is the chief creative officer for Digitas North America, driving activations born out of creative, media, data and technology. 

Some of his team's notable projects include the "Small Business Saturday" movement for Main Streets; "Symphonologie: The Music of Business," an artificial intelligence-born Louvre exhibition; and “Moonshot, an XR documentary for the JFK Library. His work has received top honors from the industry including Cannes Grand Prix Lions, Grand Clios, D&AD Pencils, Gold and Silver One Show Pencils, Gold Effies and more.

We spent two minutes with Atit to learn more about his background, creative inspirations and some recent work he's admired.

Atit, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now. 

I was born in Manhattan, but I grew up in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a little outside of Scranton—hometown of Biden and setting of the American TV show, The Office. It was just as endearingly awkward as you might imagine. I've been back in NYC since my college days, happily camped out with my wife and kids in Brooklyn. 

How you first realized you were creative. 

I told a lot of elaborate lies as a kid. Sometimes I cringe thinking about how far from true many of them were. Like, why did I go there??! I would do somersaults just to lie about the most banal things. But there was conviction, storytelling, and neurosis at play. You know, creative stuff. 

A person you idolized creatively early on. 

Mr. Rogers and his whole neighborhood. He created a place so inviting, with a sense of reflection and calm. The show quietly explored a wealth of subjects—friendships, ethics and aquatic life. But separately, there was this kind of hallucinogenic fever dream of puppets … I used to have nightmares about Lady Elaine Fairchild. Not sure why. A magical alchemy of emotions coming out of that TV era. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life. 

I had an English class in high school that I might butcher in title … I think it was called "Rebels, Misfits and Renegades." It was hosted by this teacher who worshiped the Talking Heads and was in the album art for the Woodstock soundtrack as a photographed festival attendee. Remember, we were in Northeastern Pa., so I thought that was wild. More importantly, this was my first class that felt more about discourse and debate, illuminating the gray areas. The abstract versus the absolute. I was hooked. Professor Moriarity, if you are out there, thank you. 

A visual artist or band/musician you admire.

I'll join the legions and say Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and all their projects. I can't wait to see The Smile live later this year. 

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring. 

I recently read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, a collection of fables by Angela Carter. Gorgeous, frightening and funny. Can't believe I missed this one for so long. 

Your favorite fictional character. 

Favorites are fleeting for me, but I will say I've always been fascinated with alter egos, somewhere on the continuum of fact and fiction. Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, Dr. Banner and the Hulk, Tyler the Creator and IGOR.

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally. 

If I can put aside the calamity of it for a second, the pandemic was a gift of time together. While I was able to work on projects and keep my teams connected, I saw my wife and kids a lot more … to be home to cook dinner, go for an afternoon walk and not be on planes as much. On that level, I feel grateful for that window, especially as my eldest heads off to college this year.

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.

I loved an era working on American Express. It was a time of much evolution for the brand, of investigating what modern membership and belonging looks like as traditional status-seeking was diminishing and emerging modes of media and interactivity were opening new doors. I was one of the leads in the development of "Small Business Saturday," a national holiday born of recessionary times that to this day, brings billions to main street businesses. We had to create a perfect storm of involvement, rallying local ambassadors, small business owners and consumers to take part in the day practically overnight. There were a lot of never-been-done-before experiences and tools created to serve SBS year over year, working directly with developers on social platforms, content creators and major publishers. From new ways to map shop small locations to ad creator engines that helped small businesses self-advocate. A great sense of innovation and purpose working with brilliant people across clients and agencies. 

Beyond SBS, there were so many other exciting endeavors on Amex, from launching Unstaged, a global, digitally collaborative live-streaming music series, to Passion Project, a mission to serve a new generation of creators and community champions, to a Twitter-powered concert experience by Jay-Z at SXSW. We were doing experiments to earn brand love on a different kind of scale.

A recent project you're proud of.

I’m proud of how diverse and multi-modal the agency output is becoming, from award-winning feature documentaries like The Beauty of Blackness for Sephora featured on HBO Max, to a first-of-its-kind XR storytelling experience called Moonshot for the JFK Library, to helping pioneer Walmart's robust presence in the metaverse, Walmart Land. The agency also won Crocs this year, an iconic brand with tons of possibilities. I'm grateful to represent a talented, passionate, and humble team of leaders who are increasingly working in networked ways—inviting in the right creators, developers, platforms, and publishers—to make a different kind of output and impact. We still have a lot further to go, but you can feel the sense of momentum.

Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.

Inspired by so much, but I'll pick a project that's been on my mind recently, especially given the overnight explosion of generative A.I. The Next Rembrandt is only seven years old, but it was a bellwether of a new kind of data-powered expression. It was a very focused initiative, but so elegant and profound. 

Someone else's work you admired lately.

I'll pick the last thing I enthusiastically sent around to some of my creative leads, "The Lotto Max Dream Drop." Such an inventive and cool way to drive demand for a fading ritual. 

Your main strength as a creative person. 

I think about creative and strategic problems dimensionally. And I love collaboration. 

Your biggest weakness. 

I wish I could take it all a bit less personally. 

One thing that always makes you happy. 

Wandering. Walks around Brooklyn with my family, taking detours down streets abroad, doing mindless circles around the office. Just the movement and new vantage points are kind of a balm for me. 

One thing that always makes you sad. 

The feeling of being idle. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising. 

My answer changes often, but something about being a tour guide seems really appealing today.  

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a contributor for Muse by Clio. She's also a recent graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder's College of Media, Communication, and Information.

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