Charles Duncan Jr. has been lending his technological expertise to advertising agencies for over 20 years. A graphic design graduate with a focus on communications, Charles doesn’t have what he calls “a classic computer science background”. More so, coming out of university he was “a hodgepodge of communications, creativity and tech”, which has always instilled in him an interest in the industry that he has made his own. Starting out at R/GA in 1999, Charles’ career since then has involved tech-focused stints at the likes of Leo Burnett, Wieden+Kennedy, AKQA and VML. These days he plies his trade as VP technology & product management at IPG agency Elephant, a business that was originally founded on building a FinTech solution for Goldman Sachs, far from the norms of a ‘traditional’ agency.
LBB’s Addison Capper picked Charles’ brains for a fascinating chat on the evolution of the technologist’s role within advertising, the virtues of tinkering, and why the ad industry absolutely isn’t leveraging the capabilities of technology to its max.
LBB> Tell me about your first encounters with technology. Where does that interest come from? And did it manifest at an early age?
Charles> I've always been a bit of a tinkerer and wanted to know how things work. I was a bit of a nerd as a kid growing up, fascinated with things you can build, like Legos. I didn't start coding until college but I knew what coding was. The interesting thing with me is that I graduated university in ‘99, which was the time that the dotcom thing was just starting to happen, so just the idea of being able to build a website, and have a website represent a brand, represent someone's ideologies or story was a pretty powerful thing.
I was building websites in college and was fascinated with being able to create within a technical medium. It was also about being creative, because what I built had to be visually pleasing. This was the foundation of my career. Then I moved to New York in the middle of ‘99. At that time a lot of the jobs were at startups, but my first career opportunity was working at R/GA. I was fortunate starting my career at an agency that maintained a high level of work for phenomenal clients throughout its history. My time with R/GA established a great foundation for a long career in the industry.
LBB> What did you study when you were at university?
Charles> I studied graphic design and the intersection between graphic design and mass communications. Graphic design was my first real exposure to leveraging computers to create.
The internet was phenomenal as a new communication medium. There was print, then there was radio, then TV and now the internet. I was really fascinated in that, and the power of this medium for getting your voice out. The nerd side of me was taking graphic design classes and computer classes. But I didn't come from a classic computer science background with hardcore fundamentals on building applications. I was a hodgepodge of communications, creativity and tech, and I think that is why I've always enjoyed advertising. Advertising is creativity plus technology and the practical element of how to tell a story.
LBB> You say that you didn't go through a strict computer science route - do you feel that those days, around 20 years ago, are the beginning of the concept of creative technology?
Charles> First of all I think there was an expectation that you had to wear multiple hats back then. Even if you were a designer you would also have to animate. Or if you were an engineer, particularly a Flash engineer, you had to be able to animate, you had to be able to cut your own assets. The whole one man or one woman show was more prevalent then. If you had the skills to build a website, you were a big asset for a company. If you think about a lot of agencies, their creative teams were copywriters and art directors working on campaigns. And then there's someone who can build a website so they had them own it! Starting off at that time, it was about doing anything that you have to do to create and launch a website. Then things became more specialised, teams became bigger, obviously more technologies came into play. But yeah, in the early days, what we call creative technologists now would have just been a web developer or a digital designer!
LBB> Your first role was in an agency and you've been in agencies through your whole career - how has that role in general evolved over that time from being what was essentially a web developer to what it is now?
Charles> There are definitely ebbs and flows. When I started at R/GA, there was a CTO at the time. However, R/GA was not originally an agency, they were actually doing game design, so they had this idea that programmers had to work with creatives to make something great. The foundation and career path was already in place for technologists. You could become a senior, you could become a leader, you could become a manager, you could focus on the craft of it. But I think it's very much dependent on the agency.
I've worked in agencies where 80 or 90% of the work is focusing on TV campaigns so they have less of a need for a senior level of technologist, they value heads down worker bees more. Places like that can also have a greater need for creative technologists, somebody that can help with the ideation process of what can be created across digital and physical mediums. I've also worked in places where there was a focus on the implementation of big, enterprise, CMS work. It's quite complicated with big engineering teams having to sort out projects that are going to take a year-and-a-half to execute with large cross-functional teams. Those agencies may value less of the creative technologist role. They need senior level engineers and leaders that can sit in a room with a client's IT department to talk through technical architectural decisions and help create plans that can mitigate risk. But both of these approaches can come from agencies that have the ability to do great work. I’ve worked at both types.
LBB> That's why I find the agency CTO role so interesting - two people with the same title within an 'agency' can have wildly different jobs.
Charles> There are people that have the role of something like CTO, technical director or head of technology, yet they're still coding day to day. They have to be in the details of how things are being built. Then there are other places where that role is very much business focused - you're managing a department, you're helping to grow business for your agency. You understand all the technical workings but you can't be tied to the delivery of a project because you need to be thinking about the growth of your team and the agency. One piece of advice that I give to engineers or managers looking to grow is to acknowledge what that agency really needs from a technology leader and how you support those needs. Do they just need someone that's going to make sure that website gets launched on time? Or do they need someone that can build relationships and help chart a path forward for the company?
LBB> With all that in mind, tell me about your role now at Elephant. You've been there for just over two years, right?
Charles> Yeah, exactly. I was hired to lead engineering across the Elephant network. Due to the fact that our organisation was created on a foundation of creating complex work spanning product development, brand and advertising, there was a pretty good team and process structure in place. I didn't have to come on board and create something new, it was more about charting a long term vision and senior level representation of the department. We have multiple offices with an engineering footprint, supporting a diversity of clients so I spent significant time working on bringing them all together within a more unified technology offering.
LBB> Elephant is part of IPG. How can you tap into that network in your role? Do you work with the wider network at all?
Charles> There's an element of working with IPG at a network level, but there's also the fact that I've spent 20 years in the industry, I've worked extensively in the industry, so I'm able to build connections with my peers and sibling agencies to find ways to work together. Maybe it’s partner referral, talent acquisition or leveraging thought leadership from a specific type of technology. Different holding companies operate a bit differently in terms of how each collaborates. I joined from the Publicis network where there was very much an element of getting agencies working together even if your individual agency brand becomes secondary. It was all for the goal of driving revenue and business growth. IPG is different and I think the right model; highly collaborative while also enabling agency brand differentiation.
LBB> When I think of technology within agencies, something I've understood is that there are two forms of it - there's one which is internal and much more focused on making sure that people within the agency can utilise technology to do their work better. And then a more outward looking form, which is more client focused and about using technology for the purpose of selling products. Is that something that you agree with?
Charles> I feel that the internal portion is more of the IT function. It's about making sure employees have the tools and connectivity to collaborate across offices and time zones, It’s about making sure people have the tools to execute at a high level. My role is much more centred on client deliverables and business growth. What are we building that's going to add value to a client and achieve their business goals? Are they trying to sell something or are we trying to provide an information service? But it's very much a customer consumable thing. The way I look at it is, if you worked for a pure enterprise technology implementer, a lot of what an engineer would create may never have been seen by the end consumer. It may purely live in the back office. The engineers I’ve led during my career have focused on building customer-facing applications like websites, mobile apps, and out of home experience. The end consumer will experience it. AdAge, Adweek, Little Black Book might write about it. It's something that's sort of in your face versus being hidden in the back background.
LBB> The word technology is extremely broad, and I think that it can maybe be a bit intimidating to some people. So, how important is it for you and how much of your role is actually ensuring that your clients are clued up enough to make the most of what is at hand to them and making sure that they're educated as to what they can do?
Charles> That's a very good question. It's a very important part of my role because most of the time our clients are within marketing divisions. They're not technologists, and they may have a vision or business goal they want to achieve, but they very much rely on the agency to lay out a roadmap. You might say, what you want to do is take two or three years but here are the technology decisions that we should be focusing on for year one, versus year two. And some of that is a little bit tied into how they should spend their money, some of it may tie into technology dependencies, particularly if clients are not fully ready for transformative technical change. And some clients, particularly the larger brands, have bigger IT functions and they're able to do some of these things, but frequently what happens is that the agency is able to move a in a more nimble way in terms of the implementation - what we can get achieved in six months might take them a year-and-a-half, so we may help with getting something off the ground, knowing that the client's internal engineering team or a production creative team will take ownership moving forward.
LBB> This is almost the same question as before but how do you ensure that creatives are up to speed on what they can do and when that can be doing it from a technology standpoint?
Charles> That's another interesting question. Speaking broadly, when you're in my role, it's very important that you can build a team with engineers that can both collaborate heavily with creatives, but also build complicated things. So that collaboration between an engineer on my team or a technical lead on my team to work with creatives - in terms of here's what's possible, here's what technology can do, or here's a new technology that really hasn't been used but maybe we can find a way to hack it together - can really help push creative ideas, but you have to have engineers with a certain mindset to do that. They want to be comfortable sitting in a room with an art director and copywriter for hours on end to flesh through an idea, and not be frustrated that they're not just cranking out code. So building a team supports that to make sure you have that collaboration so that the agency is always pushing and challenging what can be done, and putting out something new, and having engineers that aren't just purely focused on there being enough time to build something and if it'll break or not.
LBB> You've just said that you need the right kind of person - someone that can sit in a room for hours with a copywriter and an art director. Where do you find that kind of person?
Charles> Looking at other agencies is a great start because many agencies have those people. But it is also an element of having the ability to invest in talent. You might see someone coming out of school and they can become part of your organisation and you have to help grow and evolve them into someone that can be more creative and very collaborative, but also help the deeper generic needs. But I think that's why you get to this incestuous element of agencies, by looking at other agencies for your talent. It has been more challenging because freelancing has become bigger and bigger. They call them unicorns, right? There are very talented engineers that can do phenomenal things across augmented reality, virtual reality, but then also come in and build complicated data driven experiences. They know that they can demand a top dollar, that there's constant work, and they tend to be less committed to being at your agency long-term. Then other people want to make sure that they have a solid long-term home. So you're always trying to balance those two, when you need to have your dedicated staff versus the hired gun that's going to come in for more of a specialised task.
LBB> Thinking back to 20 years ago when your career started, it was about creating a campaign for a client and the industry was quite simple - whereas now so much of advertising is about the customer journey, as opposed to just a piece of communication. Where do you sit within that journey and how does technology improve that journey for the consumer?
Charles> Particularly within digital channels, that customer journey is largely driven by technology. Think of a print ad or a TV commercial, the technology, a platform or a set of services is very much driving that experience. Leveraging data to help inform a person, collecting data, making informed decisions, putting relevant products in front of them. That's very much a technology thing. That's why you see lots of brands begin to call themselves technology companies, like Nike, one of the most prolific advertisers of all time, will look at themselves like that. Not as being just a technology company in terms of the products, they make apparel and footwear, but their commerce experience, focus experience and technology is such a key part to their growth. The role that an engineer will play within making sure that a mobile app is a phenomenal experience and helps drive conversion and revenue for the company is way more important than what it was before.
LBB> When you look at the advertising industry, do you feel that it is making the most of technology for its clients’ benefits?
LBB> Ha! Why?
Charles> Definitely not. I feel that in advertising we very much have this focus on doing phenomenal work and sometimes the agency's desire to do the work is more important than then driving business growth or serving the end consumer. Are we trying to create something that is beautiful? Or are we trying to really help drive conversion or consumer engagement for a brand? It's part of our DNA, we very much stay focused on that. Even as technologists, you need to ensure that you're building something that's going to provide value, you want to build something that's powered by data. Product companies have grasped the idea - Amazon, Google, Facebook are very much data driven in terms of the decisions they make. If they put something out there that doesn't work as planned, they'll improve it. In advertising we do that sometimes but it's not the driving factor. We're still driven by what's creatively beautiful. That was fine when it was a billboard or TV commercial or a print ad. But particularly when you're building digital things, typically, you're trying to drive conversion.
LBB> So do you find part of your role is fighting to make things not just for the agency's sake but for the client's sake?
Charles> Well, one of the reasons that I chose Elephant was because of our heavy involvement in building product solutions. Our New York office was founded on building a FinTech solution for Goldman Sachs (Marcus by Goldman Sachs) that was highly transactional, highly technology driven, but a seamless consumer experience leveraging our full offering across brand, product and advertising. This very much set the DNA of the work we do at Elephant. So that was the biggest thing that attracted me to Elephant versus other agencies where it's more of being needed to build a campaign website. Instead, we can go deep on product AND create brand campaigns and experiences that work together seamlessly. Our work is very much focused around smart, C-suite driven initiatives within clients.
So in this place, it's actually pretty cool. But I was talking to an associate of mine, outside of my company, who has been in the industry for a while. He was saying how he feels that around 40% of the senior technology leaders have left the agency world in the past 10 years to move on to tech companies. There is a progression of talent. That's a real thing that our industry needs to come to terms with in terms of how we maintain talent, foster talent, and just make sure that talent is matched to the work of the agency.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology that you find particularly exciting at the moment?
Charles> I'm a massive mobile first fan - the idea that I can do everything on mobile that I can do on a desktop computer. Whether it be location-aware services or the consumption of entertainment, it’s a powerful idea to live solely with just your mobile device and without a TV or desktop computer. A mobile device can empower someone via connectivity and information. This is important in less technically advanced parts of the world. Someone may not have the financial means to own a computer but ownership of the mobile phone is possible. This is not a new concept but there are still significant global opportunities in driving the access of information and services via a mobile device.
LBB> Outside of work, are you still a tinkerer?
Charles> I'm a tinkerer as the owner of a 120-year-old house that has loads and loads of things to do. So most of my tinkering is more around electrical, plumbing, drywall, architecture and engineering. Less of what fits inside a computer box and more about making sure that I still have a home. It's something I've been fascinated with and obviously when you live in it you have to really take care of it, understand it, and make smart decisions on its maintenance.