Wunderman Thompson’s North American chief technology officer speaks with Addison Capper, in association with Adobe, about disassembling and reassembling video games as a kid, lessons learned in the banking industry in the midst of the Millennium bug, and the importance of the customer journey
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry.
In this conversation we talk with Cleve Gibbon, chief technology officer, North America for WPP’s Wunderman Thompson. Cleve lives in a rarefied atmosphere of computer science and marketing, so buckle up for an audacious multiverse conversation with the one and only Cleve Gibbon.
LBB> Tell me about your first encounters with technology. Where does that interest come from? And did it manifest at an early age?
Cleve> My best friend had a Spectrum. We were 11 years old, and after many hours biking through parks and getting up to mischief, we’d settle down to gaming on the Spectrum on the classics. My mum was smart and wanted me to spend more time at home, so that Christmas, she researched the latest and greatest computers and bought me a Commodore 64. Going forwards, gaming happened at my house.
LBB> Where did you learn your craft?
Cleve> I’m a very curious person. I wanted to know more about how to write games and less, so play them. So, I hacked the games (they were expensive to buy). I disassembled and reassembled, giving myself infinite lives and unlimited power-ups. I taught myself to code. I taught others to code. We created code teams, mailing software across Europe with like-minded coders building my gaming pile from 1 game to 1000s. From 12 to 21, I learnt over 20 different programming languages, picked up a degree in computer science, and lectured undergraduates and master’s students in technology at the University of Nottingham.
I love to teach. It’s an amazing exchange of knowledge. I figured out very early on that lecturers who listen learn so much more from their students than the other way round. As I was finishing up a lecture on software architecture, a student hung back after class and asked me: how do you know when a (software) design is good or not? My recently acquired first-class degree in computer science couldn’t answer that question, so I decided to go back to university to study for a Ph.D. in Software Design. Four years later, I rolled out a tool that guided university students as a part of the computer science curriculum to design better software by showing them the good, bad, and the ugly for software design.
LBB> You worked in banking prior to the ad industry, right? Tell us about that experience! What lessons did you learn in banking that have served you well in adland?
Cleve> I decided to leave academia to gain experience working in an industry. I will go back to academia however, I don’t think you are credible unless you have done the work for yourself. I left Nottingham and headed straight for London. I joined a dotcom startup, a joint partnership between Scoot (UK Yellow Pages) and EQUIFAX. It was a call centre application to match lenders—for example mortgage brokers and insurance providers—with consumers. We were leaking money before we made the switch to scale for the emerging web channel. Too late. Funding dried up. Our dotcom went bust. I fled to the safety of the banking industry.
I joined Morgan Stanley in the UK to lead and grow the Java development team in Straight Through Processing; an fully automated process for capturing and booking of trades through the front, middle, and back-office banking systems. It was a global project connecting to the US teams. In 2000, the panic of the Y2K bug was everywhere, and our banking systems were heavily dependent on mainframe computers, the home of the Millennium bug.
We worked around the clock migrating old systems onto modern technology platforms. We organised ourselves into agile teams, distributed our work globally, built roadmaps that articulated current and future states against timelines and paths to success. We continuously shipped software in weeks rather than years that held our customers accountable for rapid feedback and I learnt to shorten the distance between a customer request and team response. This loop enabled us to fail fast, increase the rate of learning and, most importantly, celebrate success as a team.
At the end of the day, technology is where all our decisions and designs execute. What we build is for the long term - platforms over applications. This is what I learnt from the banking industry and continued to work for Barclays, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and ABN Amro, before making the leap into advertising.
LBB> Why did you take the leap to advertising? And how did you make that move a reality?
Cleve> After five years building trading systems for investment banks, I had captured the software patterns and architectural blueprints for designing and deploying highly flexible and adaptable technology platforms. One day, an old colleague I pair programmed with at my dotcom startup called me. He introduced me to a CTO of a marketing agency with big clients serviced by a young, inexperienced, dotcom workforce. They lacked the ability to build sustainable software systems and teams. They created what I refer to now as ‘build and go applications’ (disposable) rather than ‘build and grow platforms’ (reusable). I joined Oyster Partners as a consultant to transform their approach to delivering software to be platform-first. It was a one-day-a-week engagement while the remaining four days I was still working in the banks.
It was transformative. Applying the rigour and discipline to the marketing landscape produced amazing results within our teams and growth with our clients. Oyster Partners went through a series of acquisitions to become DigitasLBi, which is now part of the Publicis network.
LBB> Part of that move involved you learning marketing language - how did you find that process and the shift into this industry?
Cleve> I made several friends at Oyster and two of them were the founders of a company called Cognifide. I joined Cognifide as their CTO back in 2006 as employee number 13. Back then, Cognifide was a content management platform company building corporate websites for small to medium-sized businesses. The engineering hub was based in Poland, with sales led out of London. I spent a lot of time in Poland, every two weeks for five years, building the technology delivery engine. Today, Cognifide has over 500 employees and is a leading force in experience technology, delivering marketing technology platforms for major brands such as Unilever, HSBC, Colgate, EY, Boden, GSK, and Dell.
As the CTO, talking to a marketing audience, I had to learn the language of marketers. I went back to school and got a diploma in digital marketing from the London School of Marketing. I quickly adapted and learnt how to translate marketing requests into technology responses. This was another milestone shift that brought our technology team closer to the brands to truly understand their needs. Success shifted from technology readiness to business readiness. Success means enabling the organisation and its people to adopt and embrace new ways of working with modern technology. Real success is modern marketing with modern teams atop of modern technology.
LBB> Tell us about your role at Wunderman Thompson. How do you define the CTO role within the company? What keeps you busy?
Cleve> At Cognifide, I was CTO of Experience Technology within EMEA. I also managed our US client portfolio that consisted of leading companies such as Dell, Colgate, Herman Miller, Ford, and Microsoft. Last year I moved to the US to become Wunderman Thompson’s CTO for North America. Why? Because our clients want to buy a regionalised, fully integrated, technology stack. Experience technology is just a layer within that technology stack. As the CTO, I’m looking to layer in commerce, customer acquisition, enterprise services such as programme management, architecture and transformation consulting, and underpin it with integration capabilities to host, interface, and scale our solutions within the cloud.
So, what keeps me busy? The technology stack needs to connect with other practice disciplines such as data, creative, media, and production. Our people need to understand where we are today, where we are planning to go, and the clear set of steps to get there that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely (SMART). The only constant here is change. So being clear on why we pivot or persevere on the path to a successful future is where a lot of my time goes internally.
However, my definition of a CTO is someone that focuses externally to deliver the right solution to help their clients grow with technology. My internal partner, the CIO, has a focus on enabling our employees to best leverage technology to get their work done. We meet in the middle.
LBB> 'Technology' is such a broad word that can confuse and intimidate people. How important is it for you to ensure that your clients (and maybe creatives too) are clued up enough to make the most of what's at hand?
Cleve> This is always a chicken-and-egg problem. How do you educate technology consumers in the art of the possible, so that they can do their best work with technology? How do technology producers know what to showcase, so that the right solution resonates with their target audience? The short answer is that producers and consumers need to self-educate. Technologists can’t throw their hands up and say “I can’t do anything until I get the requirements from the client.” Likewise, clients can’t refrain from engaging, citing that they don’t know what they don’t know.
Always ‘think big, start small, celebrate success and failure’. The goal is to learn and grow together. They say that during your working life, you’ll find yourself working in high-performance teams where the rate of learning is off the charts. However, you have to stop and pause and realise when you’re there. It wasn’t until much later that I realised what I’d learnt in the banking industry was deeply foundational and shaped my approach to software development, engineering, and growing my own high-performance teams.
LBB> So much of advertising now 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?
Cleve> In my work, we always talk about consumers in the abstract. However, you have to stop and remember that you are one, too. It’s like saying that you hate being in traffic, but by you being there, it means that you are traffic.
I don’t like advertising. I don’t like being interrupted. I don’t like being fed brand campaigns. The majority of the purchases I’ve made over the last couple of years have been non-campaign based, through word of mouth. The path to purchase is a journey. So, when I work with brands that are campaign focused (read as short term returns), I try to shift their focus to journey management (read as long term customers) by improving the customer experience at every interaction, everywhere. Technology makes customer experiences executable. Technology scales experiences broadly (across every channel) and deeply (personalised to you) in a way that is predictable and repeatable for both producers and consumers.
You never start with technology. I’ve adopted a simple framework to keep me honest here called ACT: Audience. Content. Technology. In that order. Start with the audience to set up the context for the interaction. Next, deliver the content to best communicate at the right moment. And finally, use technology to deploy and capture their experience, optimising as we go.
The challenge with ACT is an organisational one. You have to know your audience. It’s a data problem, and it’s hard. Content is communication that needs to be right-sized for the specific channel in real-time. Again, managing that content supply chain is difficult. Both of these require people and processes to move lockstep, in harmony, to orchestrate the experience at every interaction with the customer. This requires a digital maturity that most leaders have, and laggards don’t. To accelerate to success, many choose to start with technology in the hope of shortcutting the hard work. This seldom happens.
The T in CTO stands for Technology, but often it is used for Therapy. The challenges above are commonplace, and there are multiple paths to resolution. The other key part of my role is partnering with CIOs, CTOs, and CMOs to build, enable and adopt new technologies within their organisation that are resistant to change and don’t have the skills today to operationalise modern marketing.
LBB> How early on do you get involved in new projects with clients? Is it a case of earlier the better?
Cleve> Always. It’s never too early. If we’re brought in the late stages of a project, at best we’ll need to tweak the work. That’s okay. However, worst case scenarios see us completely scratching the old and starting afresh. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking to hear post facto some of the upstream assumptions that have been made and the costs incurred.
LBB> How do you feed into the data capabilities at Wunderman Thompson too?
Cleve> Data is critical to understanding your audiences and building the context that represents the single view of the customer. Ideas without execution are useless. Execution is a multiplier of an idea. If technology is execution, then data is the idea from which we glean insights that drive business impact.
At Wunderman Thompson, I’m lucky to have access to the best data capability in the US. We can understand, track, predict consumer behaviour. I’ve got access to the consumer and can activate that context across every channel where they live. Technology and data are truly connected, where one informs and is informed by the other.
LBB> In your opinion, are marketers and their agencies harnessing the potential of technology to its fullest? Why?
Cleve> This is an ‘it depends’ answer. There is always room for improvement. I like the approach some clients are taking by splitting the focus for the team. For example, have 80% of your business preserving the now—for example, deal with COVID issues—and pivot the remaining 20% on the next—for example, where you should be in two years. If your business is focusing only on the now, you are table stakes. Leaders with this focus will quickly become laggards, and laggards will get lost. Focusing on the next means making the future your present. I would recommend placing as many small to medium future bets now, rather than one or two big bets. Those that are managing that future portfolio are setting themselves up for success.
But back to your question, use technology to improve processes and automate your customer journeys. Start here first as this provides a beginning, middle, and end to your technology initiatives. Without that, or starting with technology, you are in an exposed open position. Get smart. Bound it. Ship it. Shout about it. Also, if you think about it, you design backwards, execute forwards. During design, that means get the story right first, share it, tell everyone how you’re going to ship it, and then bound it. Then execute on that promise.
LBB> Is there one piece of technology that's exciting you most right now? From a marketing standpoint, but also a personal one!
Cleve> I don’t really have one. For me, it’s the orchestration of technology that’s the most exciting. Any technology like IFTTT (If This Then That) or Apple’s Shortcuts, or Google Assistants Routines that enables consumers to assemble pre-defined modules to do something new is the best solution.
There are two core ways to make new technology: integrate or inter-operate. We over-indexed on integrate where two systems are connected to work as one—this is dubbed ‘baking’. Once the systems are integrated the old systems are gone. However, inter-operate keeps the two systems independent and loosely connects them—‘stir fry’. Inter-operating system keeps the old yet enables the new. We need to approach platforms and systems like this both for marketing and in our personal use of technology.