Where Have All the Creative Technologists Gone?

How a job description evolved into a mindset

Remember creative technology? Everyone in advertising was talking about it 10 years ago. The term started to gain popularity as a way to talk about innovative digital work. The internet was just starting to become a relevant marketing channel. Consumers were using more technology in their everyday lives, and that birthed a whole new world of possibilities of using technology to tell stories. 

So if technology is only becoming more ingrained in our daily lives, why don't people talk about creative technologists anymore? Today the term is hardly used. 

The first problem comes in trying to define what a creative technologist is—it means different things to different people. Programming is usually one of the fundamental skill sets; at least, some sort of maker with a tinkerer mentality. Some organizations incorporate more user experience and system thinking philosophies into the job description, while others lean into creative concepting, focusing on using technology and innovation to tell stories. And others define it as a term for their client-facing senior developers or technical producers. 

When I first started out on the creative technologist path, I defined my role as a hybrid one consisting of programming, UX and storytelling. But looking back now, it was much more that that. I would argue that creative technology is not a position or department but a mindset as it relates to how to think about the work. A mindset that can apply system thinking to user behaviors in an effort to find new ways to tell stories through technology. 

The skill sets—that mindset—that make up a creative technologist are more important than ever, so why is the term not being used as much anymore in our industry? 

One reason is the downsizing of digital production at agencies. Digital production teams have shrunk; thus, in-house digital experimentation has been limited in some agencies. In the early years of digital advertising, budgets enabled us to hire bigger teams and give them time to experiment on technology and innovation. Many of us are now left outsourcing this experimentation—and all the fun learning opportunities that come with it—to production agencies. 

Another reason is the impact the big platforms have on web surfing and online user behavior. Today, users are confined within social platforms. There is less online surfing across the web, and these platforms are becoming the entire internet for most casual users. Since most users stay in these walled gardens, this is where we end up advertising to our consumers. It's one of the biggest killers in pushing online innovation. 

Finally, there is simply less of a digital educational gap needed by teams that work in agencies. Agency executives have a better understanding of the fundamentals of the internet—at least, how important it is—and the younger generation is growing up natively with digital as a part of their daily lives. One can argue this is a good thing for creative technologists, as it forced us to focus on sharpening certain skill sets in evolving from generalists to specialists. 

So this begs the question: Where have all the smart creative technologists gone? Not to worry—we're still alive and doing well. Still in this crazy industry of ours, continuing to push storytelling through technology. Some of us run digital departments. Some of us have CEO in our title and run companies. A lot of us are working on actual products on the client side; working in real labs and actually creating the future. Some of us are creative directors leading creative teams, while others have chosen user experience as their craft. 

We all may have different titles, but we've never shaken our creative technologist roots. We're still trying to find original ways to utilize technology in storytelling and to add real value in our everyday lives. Creative technology is not a job description or a department, but rather a mindset on how technology can change the world. A hope for a better future through curiosity and storytelling. Maybe the title has passed, but creative technologist thinking will never go away. I would argue it is the type of thinking we all need looking forward. We are in more need than ever. 

So where has creative technology led me? Fortunately, I get the privilege and honor of driving the digital discipline at a Los Angeles-based independent advertising agency called Omelet. I not only lead digital production but am also tasked to build a culture of digital curiosity for the entire agency, using prototyping and experimentation within the creative and concepting process. As an agency partner, I have a seat at the table and can help reimagine how a modern agency looks and acts. We are evolving our thinking and process to better deliver impactful work for our modern and digital era. And in this evolution, creative technology thinking is needed to help shape the work we make and how we make it. 

So yeah, creative technology is still very much alive. And I'd argue that no matter what our job title is—brand manager, creative director, producer, strategist—we should all be adopting the creative technologist mindset. 

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