In certain musty corners of the advertising the word ‘algorithm’ elicits the same horror as the word ‘Voldemort’ does in the wizarding community. For Daniel Bonner, the digi-phobes need to get over that fear. He points out that one of the most ubiquitous tools in the creative industries is, in fact, essentially an algorithm: Photoshop. His view of creativity is one that transcends media categories – his training was in graphic design but he sees creative agencies as solvers of business problems and builders of brand experiences. He’s an optimist who gets excited about the opportunities and adventures of the ever-changing tech landscape. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to pick his brains.
LBB> You joined Razorfish in 2011 and you’ve been global CCO of Razorfish since 2012 — how has the agency changed in the past five years and what are your creative ambitions for it?
DB> It’s been a tremendously rewarding five years. I was brought on board to accelerate our creative capabilities and continue to raise our game in what was already a well established organisation and a pioneer in the digital generation of agencies. I made significant changes to our senior creative leadership across every region, we codified and articulated a single philosophy and position for the business to rally behind to raise the standards and we focused on showcasing our capabilities and our work to help reinvigorate our creative reputation. I’m glad to say it appears to be working and, while I’m always hungry to improve, it’s very rewarding for our teams to have had the most award-winning year in Razorfish’s history in 2015, and in the eyes of the analysts and our clients we recently ranked as the leading agency in the world in both our vision and our ability to execute it (Gartner Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies, March 2016).
In a highly competitive environment with lots of very capable agencies and professional services businesses, it’s satisfying to get some recognition for the effort we have put in.
LBB> You spend most of your time zooming about between the various Razorfish offices around the world. Which offices are particularly exciting you at the moment?
DB> I get asked this a lot. I find it genuinely thrilling that Razorfish is a truly global brand and we are able to bring innovation and transformation to the market regardless of geography. Some businesses and agencies have a very centralised talent pool across one or two of their larger offices but right now over the last six weeks in our network I’m seeing AI and machine learning innovation for retail, connected products and services in the travel sector and the reimagining of social platforms for both the finance and automotive industries. So no matter whether I’m in Sydney, Berlin, Hong Kong or LA it’s exciting. Ok, also our Paris team has the most spectacular office space.
LBB> In the age of Skype, why are face-to-face catch-ups so important?
DB> There is a code of conduct and protocols when using the phone or video conferencing and to be honest they are not always the best environment for long-format meetings or reviews of projects or ideation or talking things through with a client. I actually can’t believe that this communication opportunity hasn’t gone through a period of disruption and change for the better. Overall it is still a clunky and less-than-great user experience — possibly okay for saying goodnight to your kids but less good for the working environment. Someone should do an Uber for the teleconferencing marketplace.
LBB> And when you’re not flying around the place, what do you do to keep sane?
DB> I’m a keen cyclist — this gives me a few hours to get away from it all but also somewhere, if need be, that can be useful to get inside a problem and think it through.
LBB> Which recent Razorfish projects are you proudest of and why?
DB> I’m most proud when our experience innovation really has a transformative effect on our clients’ business, or more importantly, on the lives of their customers. Recent examples of this would include All Things Hair, an entirely new brand and experience that brought a unique blend of search, social media, content and commerce to answer the haircare queries of millions of users all over the world.
Another example would have to be for Spotify where we were able to utilise millions of hours of listening data married to our own insights of how people understand, consume and discover music and we inspired an entirely new generation of music lovers to be part of a brand in a highly competitive and disrupted entertainment environment.
LBB> Razorfish is now part of the Publicis.Sapient family — what’s that transition been like and what does it mean for the agency?
DB> I have spent the majority of my career in an independent agency environment but what I have learned in the last five years as part of a holding company is that change is the only constant and transitioning to strategically fit in with a bigger master plan is part of the gig. For some that can be distracting but for those businesses that have a strong reputation for what they do and the conviction to innovate in line with their position and role as a key player in that plan – such as Razorfish – it can be a rewarding place to be.
Moving forward we will continue to be a leading partner in the transformation of our clients’ business and we will achieve this through doing what we do best — the alchemy of creativity, technology and media to achieve things that people previously thought were not possible.
LBB> You started out, I guess, fairly traditionally with a degree in visual comms and a job at Edinburgh design agency Tayburns, but quickly moved to the sexy new world of digital, becoming AKQA’s sixth employee in the mid ‘90s. At that time, what was it that lured you over?
DB> They offered to double my salary – that helped. Seriously though, ‘digital’ wasn’t even called digital then – and to be honest ‘digital’ still doesn’t probably do it justice as a headline or moniker, but what it looked like from the outside was a thrilling and heady mix of design and problem-solving and intelligent ways to connect brands with customers through an entirely new device or interface – the desktop and the browser. Genuinely it was curiosity and the ability to apply the design thinking I had studied to something outside of print-based formats. That and the cash.
LBB> The creative industries are, again, at a transitional point, where it seems that what we call ‘the ad industry’ isn’t really just about advertising, and it’s sort of summed up on your Twitter bio: ‘making stuff people want, not making people want stuff’. Where do you see the industry going – and is there still a place for old-school, straight advertising agencies?
DB> The role of all agencies will change, that is 100 per cent certain – and to be honest the digital generation of agencies is no less susceptible to this change. We as agencies fighting and scrapping over marketing dollars are in a commoditised business and with so many players playing the game, the ideas have become the easy part. However, bringing them to life and realising them is where the real challenge (or opportunity) lies and I’m not just talking about ideas for a campaign or a promotion, I’m talking product and service design, or business invention or diversified service offerings that will transform our clients’ business. No longer is marketing in a convenient media box over there sitting next to the product…the experiences that we can deliver can be as valuable and indispensible as the physical product itself – they can be the differentiator. Where the role for advertising agencies might change is that they are advertising the experience innovation that the ‘digital’ partner has created.
LBB> I love your argument that Photoshop is one of the most prolific algorithms in the creative industries. How persuasive have you found it with more, er, traditional creatives?
DB> That’s actually an example I use to help make the point that algorithms aren’t killing creativity, they are in fact liberating it and accelerating our thinking beyond what we thought possible. The Photoshop reference is a penny-dropping moment – no one would argue that software like this has killed creativity or dumbed it down or devalued the role of it. Also, bringing some efficiency to the creative process does not mean that the human component is redundant…it actually offers opportunities for the human component to think and dream and imagine like never before.
LBB> Like the word ‘research’ before them, words like data and algorithm have kind of taken on a life of their own and are now associated with their worst incarnations (like you said, dreadful ‘targeted’ programmatic ads that stalk you with the trainers you already bought the other week…). How can the industry change these perceptions?
DB> I think the industry at large needs to embrace and believe and see the opportunity for itself. It’s easy to berate these new inputs and ingredients, and disregard them as interference that is going to somehow tarnish the precious ‘art’ of advertising – that highly prized, coveted and slightly mysterious process of creativity that many people don’t quite understand and consequentially ‘proper advertising’ somehow retains an old-school value and cache.
I recommend people open their eyes. The audience – any audience, pick one – has never been more dynamic in terms of media consumption, socially motivated, experience focused or advertising averse, so the industry has to accept this and extract the best from what these new tools and insights offer and steer clear of the clichéd, ill-conceived programmatic display ads as the poster children for how technology can liberate creativity.
Let’s be honest, there was a tremendous amount of terrible advertising campaigns and promotions long before data and algorithms came along – optimism tells me that data and algorithms will give us more chance of getting it right (and reaching people with meaningful stuff they want) more of the time.
LBB> Artificial intelligence has been gaining traction in the media this year, with AlphaGo and, perhaps less positively, Microsoft’s rogue Twitterbot Tay. Do you think the creative industries really understand what AI is and its potential?
DB> I can’t speak for the industry at large – but what I can say is that we at Razorfish are already developing specific IP and solutions for our clients that integrate and utilise AI technology. Facebook’s announcement last week and commitment to AI through their ‘bot’ platform as part of their Messenger product will also ‘normalise’ this AI opportunity. Their 900 million active monthly user base already have the interface on their devices to access that type of experience and this will be significant.
LBB> And moving on from that, McCann Japan just launched their own AI creative director. What was your reaction to that and do you think that AI technology has the potential to revolutionise the inner workings of creative departments?
DB> What is exciting is that no one really knows the potential and to what extent AI can prove valuable in untested environments (outside of playing complex board games of course). If pushed though, I would have to believe that in an industry that is prepared to unleash a whole load of average, re-hashed, familiar and generic advertising on unsuspecting audiences – of course there could be a role and value in a more efficient process to get clients to that mediocre solution faster and without the mirage of artistry and weeks of creative witchcraft chewing up the marketing budget.
LBB> I read a brilliant piece you wrote for Edinburgh University’s alumni site where you recalled the first day at Edinburgh College of Art. You said you were asked to divide an A0 piece of paper into 50 rectangles, spent ages doing so…and then were given one word which you had to represent 50 different ways. And the next day, you were asked for 50 more ideas! In the digital age, and one where the power of AI to help iterate ideas is growing, does pure pen-and-paper thinking still have a place?
DB> Of course. Humans have an amazing capacity to think, and when we think we have to document it to allow us to progress and not get lost on the way. What that very first exercise at Edinburgh College of Art demonstrated to me is that there are always more answers than you think there are and our capacity to re-think and re-engineer and perfect and broaden and deepen our thought processes when given the space to do so is way bigger than you could imagine at the start of the task.