5 minutes with... in association withAdobe Firefly

5 Minutes With… Ed Brojerdi

London, UK
KBS+ President & Co-CCO on creative technology, tempting talent away from the dotcoms and why accounts people should learn coding

It’s tempting to describe Ed Brojerdi’s enthusiasm as infectious, but given his background as a creative technologist it might be more accurate to say viral… or perhaps shareable. President and co-Chief Creative Officer at KBS+ - and co-founder of the agency’s creative tech boutique Spies & Assassins – he is an exemplar of a new breed of agency leaders for whom creativity, innovation and the makers culture have become almost synonymous. According to Ed, new tools are paving the way for bigger, riskier ideas and technology is giving creative people the opportunity to enact more meaningful change in the world. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Ed to find out why he’s just so excited right now.

LBB> You became co-Chief Creative Officer about two and a half years ago and co-President a year ago - since taking these roles, what have you been keen to bring to the agency? How has the agency evolved with you?

EB> Without a doubt there's no way I can personally take any credit - we have such a collective agenda within our executive team here. In terms of what I bring to the agency, my background is in creative technology. We have a content practice, the Newsroom, and I was one of the co-founders of Spies & Assassins, the creative tech group here. I love building and I want to do my best to help the agency be future-facing. 

We look different today compared with a year ago, in terms of our services, our output, our work and to be honest I hope we look different a year from now. That's what inspires and motivates me. It's what fuels a lot of our collective desire in the executive team here. We want to build something different, we want to build something of value for our partners, brands and clients. We pursue putting out, like many other folks, great work that makes sense for today and is beneficial for the world today.

LBB> It really struck me that putting someone like yourself with a creative technology role in such a high-profile leadership role is quite a statement of intent from the agency. 

EB> I think so. I think we saw this many years ago when agencies started putting people from the creative leadership into the CEO or President role. It gave an indicator that 'this is what matters to us'. 

For us creativity matters the most, without a doubt, but the creative technology thing gives outsiders a peek into how we view the world. For us, some of our best output is in that space. BMWi Window, for example, is representative of our output as an agency and what our agency stands for. I think when you look at the agencies out there, some will stand for a big, beautiful TV spot and others will stand for a beautiful website or e-commerce site. I think this project is an encapsulation of us, of myself in many ways, and many of the other folks at the agency.

LBB> Does that change the kind of people you're looking to bring into the agency, then? What sort of skills and backgrounds are you looking for - and where would you even find them?

EB> I'll give you an example; when I first came here about four and a half years ago and we were really blowing up Spies & Assassins, I was meeting and recruiting folks from places like ITP (at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University) or VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University). At the time we weren't really hunting around other digital agencies to bring that talent over. That was because we wanted to create something that could be a standalone software development company for some of our partners. A hardware space, a makerspace. After interacting with the candidates and interns, ITP became a big place for us. 

It was really interesting because at that time the grads were a bit perplexed about what the agency and the agency world had to offer. They were getting offers from the dotcom space, companies like Facebook, Google. It wasn't as if they were saying 'we're considering you guys and some other digital agencies in New York'. 

I think we were able to offer something quite unique. When you go to one of those huge e-com places you have very defined roles. You might be working on one project for 18 months until it hits market. We told them that here, they’d be working on something different all the time - it might be for BMW, it might be for another client, it could be big, it could be small. Some people love that and embrace that. I think we were able to lay out what our proposition was. We started attracting and drawing these other people. Without a doubt we were looking for people who considered themselves creative entrepreneurs.

LBB> It's funny because some agencies say they're having a bit of a talent crisis because they're struggling to compete with the big tech brands...

EB> We have a group that travels to different locations, we get speakers who are creating startups or new products or services. It started about a year ago. When we’ve been to recruit at schools recently, you should have seen the difference in the turn out versus just a year ago. It's spreading. Folks at schools now say, 'oh we've heard about you guys'. 

We didn't get there overnight. It started years ago with our work for Puma and the in-store retail experiences we created and the things we were doing for BMW. They started seeing our work in the market place and it flicked a switch and they realised 'oh an agency isn't just about producing microsites or banner ads and the traditional digital that these people aren't interested in’. We had to create a proposition that could rival some of those dotcoms and tech companies and perhaps, in some respects, be even more appealing for potential recruits. We had to clarify the unknown.

We've had to work to get to this point but we're very excited now. We've got students who know about us and our agency. These aren't classic advertising students, these aren't the folks coming out of ad school necessarily. 

LBB> When you bring someone into the fold who hasn't had that traditional advertising education, is the kind of mentoring they require quite different?

EB> In many ways it is and in many other ways it's like any other up-and-coming individual in an organisation who has a desire for growth. But you're right; we've had to build a framework of the right support networks and structures to support the different kinds of talent coming in. It's one thing to recruit them, it's another to retain them, grow them, have them move up and make a true impact at all levels of the organisation.

LBB> How did you yourself get into the 'creative technology' space in the first place?

EB> At my last agency, many, many years ago I found myself being excited by digital. I had a personal interest in it. Looking back it sounds basic and everyone does it now, but I was reading the tech blogs and I was so interested in smartphones before even the iPhone came out. I educated myself. When I was at my agency – and many agencies were like this back then – they weren't really advancing digital and I felt I had something to contribute. I had an idea to launch a startup agency and I did that within a holding company. I pitched the organisation, secured funding and started a small creative technology firm and the purpose was to let me help build those websites and apps. This was before the App Store had even launched in the market place. It was in its infancy – it’s great when you get into something in its early stages because you quickly understand the landscape and as it grows you're actively helping it evolve. 

When I first came here I started out at MDC, our parent company, to create another creative technology startup, Spies & Assassins. I came forward with a plan for that group, how to scale it, the kind of work we wanted to produce. I wanted to focus on creating IP, direct-to-consumer or products and services for our brands and clients. How can we create assets for them to add value? I always had a career interest in doing it and I was fortunate in being able to build and scale up these companies and put out some good work. Spies came into the KBS+ fold and started scaling and now consists of over 100 people within the agency. 

LBB> Do you still have quite a bit of involvement in Spies & Assassins?

EB> I do. My partner Matt Powell who co-founded it with me is the CIO in the agency. And, without a doubt, both of us are always talking about the next product we can bring to our clients. 

We just created this really, really cool thing at Coachella for one of our clients. It was a camera rig that lets you plug in your smartphone; it's on a gear set and rotates 360 degrees automatically and it creates cool slo-mo videos. We were recording people doing Dance Dance Revolution. It was originally made in our tech lab here. The guys were just experimenting one night and they made this funny little spoof video and they sent it around and it starting spreading. We thought 'this is so cool, it's great, compelling, fun content'. So we started bringing it to our clients and coming up with ideas about how to use it. That's what we love. We had a bit of an idea, we prototyped it, we made it, we brought it in front of clients and it led to something else. Is my involvement the same as it used to be years ago? Of course not, I wish it was! But that's the beauty of growing something, is having the folks that can grow it and scale it in ways that I no longer can.

LBB> Working with this kind of set up, do you feel like the definition of agency creativity is changing? It seems that our concept of what a creative is has become broader and is more inline with psychological definitions of creativity as a process rather than being limited to artists and filmmakers…?

EB> Anyone who has the ability to manifest their ideas into some form of creation is a creative, in my opinion. I think we're now at a place where we have the tools that just didn’t exist years ago, to help people manifest and make these ideas tangible. Of course we still make dozens and dozens of TV commercials and everything a great integrated agency should, but there's something special and unique that's happening with us. We love it and it's true to our DNA and we want to keep expanding it. We consider ourselves creators here. It's great to have an idea, but executing it and making it and bringing it to life are equally important. 

LBB>When it comes to new technologies and platforms, how do you personally keep up with what's happening and filter out what's worth investing time in and what's less urgent?

EB> I think it's part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you have the right folks in an agency and you recruit the right talent and grow the right culture it creates a feedback loop. Now we have Arduino coding classes in the agency and they’re packed. It's not just for developers, we have accounts people doing it. This is like Coding 101 – it's not going to help our engineers or our true developers but it feeds into that culture and continues that cycle. Without a doubt that's had a huge impact.

How do we know what's worth investigating? Ultimately we're here to help grow and service our clients, so that's a big filter. For us these are all tools that may potentially help us to help our clients differentiate themselves from the competition to achieve their goals. That's one set of filters. It's also a case of surrounding ourselves with the right experts. For people like Matt and myself who are becoming more and more senior, we rely on those people to say 'this technology is going to have a lot of implications for our industry'.

LBB> Which projects have particularly sparked you off recently?

EB> Automobiles have always been a personal passion point for me and we have BMW here as a client. Something that I think is so powerful for us has been the opportunity to contribute to the launch of their electric vehicle, BMWi. I really believe in creating products that have such a positive benefit for the world. It's critical. It just makes me so excited and happy and makes me feel like I'm contributing in the way that I want to be contributing to the world. I do believe that sustainability is the blueprint. I do believe that products, services and platforms, such as BMWi and many other things, represent what we should be doing, representing what consumers desire. The impact that it could have on the world is transformational so it's hard for me not to get excited.

We set a standard for ourselves a few years ago for BMWi, that the marketing had to be as inventive as the product. That was our approach to everything. If it was a TV commercial, we asked how can we reinvent that and do it in the most compelling way possible. We worked with the owners of some of the initial cars, took the data from the cars and fed it back to the engineers so that they could improve the overall product. We were doing content programmes with the owners, finding out what they loved, what they wanted to see improve, how they were using these vehicles. Everything we are doing under BMWi is so motivating for me. It is satisfying.

LBB> Talking about sustainability and the industry using its collective creativity for a positive end that goes beyond simply selling product, over the past few years there has been a huge growth in awards that recognise that. Creative people want to make something that they're proud of... but how do you think this is filtering down into clients and the wider business world? 

EB> Yes and the reason is that it is permeating culture outside of this industry. It's permeating the world. We're seeing this collective movement for positive change, for an advancement of our society. Our BMWi Window was our most awarded piece last year and we won dozens and dozens of awards for it. That makes me very proud. We were not marketing a product, we were marketing a movement, a movement towards betterment. We don't need to put gas in our cars to get to where we're going. We don't need these big heavy vehicles, we can use something that's light, beautiful, sustainable. That for me is exciting. I think it is permeating our clients because it's permeating society. Everyone has collectively decided that this is where we should be headed and we were fortunate to be able to play a small part in that. 

LBB> It does go hand-in-hand with technology because it makes it easier to start a business, a movement, bring people together and make stuff happen. It's not something that I think I could have imagined 15 years ago...

EB> You're absolutely right. When you look at the accessibility of technology, in so many different ways it's democratising. It lets us get past some of these fundamentals to see what we are actually trying to do. 

LBB> In terms of this year - you said the agency looks so different from a year ago. What are you hoping to achieve or bring to the agency in the coming year?

EB> We're really continuing to embrace our positioning around invention marketing. We just kicked off a contest for folks in the agency to bring forward any ideas they have around the next marketing product or service, whatever they think it may be. The winner will get $5000 from the agency and we're going to help them bring that product or service or idea to life. We're doing that with students as well. We partnered with an industry trade in the US to create the Isaac Awards, where students are able to pitch ideas for the next start up. 

So what I'm excited about is that we are taking steps within the agency to execute ideas, to bring them to life tangibly. We're really leaning into that in the next year, supporting our staff and helping them realise their ideas. It's one thing to have the concept and go 'that's brilliant, someone should do that'. Well, we think we should 'do that'. 

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