WPP’s VP emerging technologies on routes into creative technologist roles, experimenting with arcane programming languages and playing with WPP’s “toy box of epic proportions”
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 Andy Hood, VP emerging technologies at WPP. His experience of technological creativity goes back to the ‘90s and includes 20 years working at AKQA before taking up the holding company-wide leadership role in 2020. There are few leaders better equipped to consider the convergence of innovative technology and creativity than Andy. In this interview, we dive into his unique career path, the most exciting recent development, and how roles like his have altered the fundamental nature of marketing.
LBB> As someone who’s made a career in it, how do you define a creative technologist?
Andy> It is a strange one, creative technology. If you're a software engineer, then there's a reasonably good understanding of what you do and probably what your background is. The same if you're an art director or something like that. Creative technologist is almost a catch-all term that most people see as a branch of technologist. I'm not quite so sure.
I'm in the CTO team at WPP, which is where the senior technologists live. But I spent most of my time at AKQA, for 20 years, in the creative team. And the people I hired at AKQA came from a creative background and learned the tech. Do you remember the days of multimedia arts? Some of them came from that, as a background, one or two of them had absolutely no qualifications for anything whatsoever but just had a passion for making things, from an artsy kind of viewpoint.
When you look at creative technologists, for the most part they're people who have turned their hobby into a living, rather than people who have got a Creative Technology degree from Cambridge. I suspect there probably are such courses now, but I don't really know. Creative technologists with computer science degrees are pretty thin on the ground. It's people from creative who've moved towards the technology rather than the other way around.
LBB> What sort of personality or attitude does it take to be good in this area?
Andy> To build things which are going to be sustainable, maintainable and able to upgrade, particularly with how complex technology is today - rigour and thoroughness have to be key. Creative designers need much more of a leap-around, inspired kind of brain. I find that creative technologists have to have a little bit of both.
Certainly the creative technologist is dealing with things that are in a much broader but thinner layer. Not really a specialist in any particular language, framework or structure. It's more about the mindset, applying things that you've learned, being able to quickly put things together. You've got to be able to speak to both parties, understand both, and have them understand you. So it's a weird hybrid.
LBB> How did you end up finding your route into a creative technology career?
Andy> All the people I've met who do it have very different routes in. It can be it has been a waifs and strays kind of discipline. For me, it was fairly straightforward. My brother is a couple years older than me. He's a graphic designer and artist. We both have very vivid imaginations, but these hands have absolutely no craft skills whatsoever. I can't draw, I can't paint, I can't create anything, which is quite frustrating.
When I went to college, all the stuff we were presented with, BBC Micros and things, which was very exciting. We all thought this is the future we're all going to change the world. And then we all got jobs as COBOL programmers, which is so far from the cutting edge - it's the horizon you can faintly see through the fog.
But my brother was working in advertising in London. And in the early '90s, he saw this digital thing coming. He would phone me up at work and I would give him tips on how to write the code. For about two years he badgered me to do that, instead. There was no job, there was no industry, there was nothing. And I had an incredibly tedious but steady job. It felt very much like just jumping on the dole.
Then Macromedia Director [later Adobe Director] came around and he threw it my way. And that was the portal-opening moment to another world. Director was a bit like Flash. You had a timeline, and you had your graphic things. It was a design tool. All the designers were using Director, but they were using it on the timeline to do animation. But sat behind Director was a language called Lingo. And it was arcane, it was the weirdest language, but it was unbelievably powerful. You could extend the whole software package by using it. You could write extensions that could control your lighting, things like that. You could put all your creative assets on one frame anywhere you wanted and then do all the work in code.
Suddenly, I had a tool that made me creative. I could make all this stuff happen on the screen.
LBB> How did you put that into practice?
Andy> I joined the company called Automatic Television and worked with Jonny Bradley, who was a bit of a genius - a brilliant designer, studio director and a great programmer. Before the days of neural headsets, he was doing digital art projects with EEG machines salvaged from a hospital. So he was way ahead.
We were making CD ROMs. I sat next to him for two or three years and just absorbed all of this, had the time of my life.
It was largely just doing cool things on the screen, moving graphics around and interaction. But doing it to a much more sensitive level than anybody had seen, being able to add touches to it.
LBB> Are there any specific projects you remember enjoying from that period?
Andy> This will sound prehistoric. But I built a car configurator in Lingo. All the designer had was a wheel to select colours and you had a car that went from one colour to the next. Because I knew what I was doing with the language, I could do some nice crossfades. The designer hadn't actually realised that you could do that. That sounds ridiculous by the standards of today, but back in the day it was amazing.
I remember doing a prototype for a pitch for controlling a flight entertainment system. I bought an actual game controller that had a Director extension which enabled me to control the screen from the controller. We're talking about 2000 or 2001 - that wasn't easy.
I did end up buying a neural headset called IBVA - Interactive Brain Visual Analyser (I haven't said that for probably about 15 years). That had a Director extension so that you could write Shockwave files and control them with your brain. The sensor reads brainwave patterns in the high beta region, which is basically focus and concentration. If you try and go into a Zen state and really clear your mind, the peaks go down. And with the Lingo extension, you could detect that happening. So you could have a video of someone lifting a barbell and the lower the peaks were, the more he would lift the barbell. But as soon as you concentrated on lifting the barbell, he dropped it - the video would play backwards. You could make little things like that just to show people that this is possible. Most people thought it was science fiction, but in the early ‘00s, you could do it.
LBB> How did you end up at AKQA from there?
Andy> I had this skill of being able to do weird and wonderful things in Lingo. If you bought Computer Weekly, there were no jobs for Lingo coders. It was kind of sneered at by people who could do Java or C++ or whatever. I didn't really care because it was the best fun. You got to sit in a room with creative people and show them things that they hadn't seen before. It was really exciting.
I had a call with AKQA. Somebody had told me that they were up and coming but were definitely going places. It wasn't an industry that I knew, coming from my background.
As a freelance job, I went in there to finish off a set of three games that they were making in Shockwave for a campaign. Suddenly, I'd gone from COBOL programming to making games. And quite cool ones. And working with designers. It was that era when you did 36 hours straight to hit a deadline. I found that whole culture electric. I loved it.
You could sense that there was a culture at AKQA of people who were really good at what they did. There was a whole world there that I was new to. But I had this one thing that I could do - this weird hybrid thing that didn't fit anywhere, which is why there wasn't anybody really doing it.
LBB> How did the creative technology team form from that?
Andy> Largely what I was doing was taking the visions of designers, making it happen and adding to it. That's what I got hired into the creative team for - as a weird technology arm. After about a year there was just too much to do. So we hired somebody to create a team. And in fact, Emile Swain is still there. Great guy. We worked together for many, many years.
Creative technology wasn't a phrase I'd heard before, so we called it creative research and development, which stuck. We would get some freelancers every now and again, but we had a team structure. When it became apparent there was too much for the two of us and it wasn't just overspill, we would bring in more people.
Flash happened. More of the industry centred on Flash for six or seven years. Then the team got quite big. But it was always the team that things came into if they didn't logically belong anywhere else.
LBB> What sort of projects did you get involved in beyond working in Flash?
Andy> Somebody wanted to do something with an early touchscreen - a mesh that fitted over the screen. There wasn't a team that did that. So we did it.
You ended up with all these really weird hybrid skill sets in the team. Some people could solder a little bit, but everyone could do the core bit, which at that point had become Flash.
I had a 3D specialist in the team who was doing things with Maya. He lived in the team because he didn't live anywhere else. It was just: "Let's see what happens here". And I think that was people like Ajaz and James Hilton having a bit of faith in what we were doing and seeing what would come of it.
Having a year or two in advance of these things becoming more mainstream is a bit of an AKQA thing, I think. A couple years ago they brought in Universal Design Studio and Map Project Office. For a digital agency to have interior design, architects and a physical product design company within it is quite farsighted. It enables things to happen serendipitously because you clash these things together. I'm a fan of that.
LBB> Taking all of that into account, you can see why you stayed at AKQA for 20 years!
Andy> You're never going to be in a 20-year relationship of any kind without moments when you're wondering what you should do next. The path is never one of sheer unadulterated bliss. But the key thing was that every time I thought of something else that I could do that sounded exciting, the opportunity to do it was within AKQA. That probably happened three or four times. Flash went away, the focus of the team became more on all of the other things that had been attached to it but not core. It's not a team or a role that has a linear career path that anybody recognises. So you're constantly pivoting around. AKQA was always really open to that. It just kept being the place where I could do my stuff.
LBB> After all this time in emerging technology. What do you find most interesting?
Andy> There are two aspects to it which I find the most interesting.
One is what you can do now. Somebody can be talking about a goal they have, creatively or strategically, and you can bring to the table some things that can move in that direction, at least, if not achieve them wholesale.
But in what's available now you can see where those things are going to develop in the future.
Voice is an obvious one. When Siri and Alexa first happened, the response from a lot of people was, "is not actually that good is it?" But what they've done is amazing. What this means is a particular science-fiction future is now a certainty because this has happened. When you look at what AI can do in terms of personality profiling and emotion recognition, you can immediately say, at some point - your assistant will talk to you personally as the unique individual that you are, respond to your mood and build a relationship with you. The thing that JARVIS represents in the Marvel movies - kind of that.
Somebody makes a breakthrough in particle physics and immediately you go, "OK. Warp drive." You miss out all the intervening steps, and go, "because of this, this".
A lot of that happens because of different breakthroughs that are made at the same time. For example, digital humans, things like Soul Machines - human avatars that you speak to. You've got the quality of the rendering and animation of the realistic face, the real-time animation and emotional response in the lip synching, the natural language processing that's going on behind it. You've got about three or four different technologies that are all maturing at the same time. Mash them together and you get this.
LBB> Bearing that in mind, why is your role across WPP so exciting for you?
Andy>Just the sheer scale of it is really exciting. It's taking what you do onto this epic canvas. And realising more about what WPP has. The different agencies have amazing people doing incredible things that I hadn't been massively aware of before. I couldn't have given you a good look at the things that Ogilvy or Wunderman Thompson can do. But it's amazing when you get out and about, meet brilliant people and see the brilliant things that they can do. It's eye opening.
WPP is much more of an entity in its own right as opposed to just a group of completely isolated companies. There's a lot of collaboration. It's like jumping into a toy box of epic proportions.
Also, the huge partnerships that WPP have with people like Adobe. Talking directly to the people who are creating the technologies that we want to use. It's a difference in scale and scale of opportunities. So it's really exciting from that point of view.
LBB> The more technologically advanced end of stuff that agencies do tends to straddle the marketing / product offering quite often. Has that shifted? Or has it always been the case that a lot of the more techie stuff is creating products rather than just marketing?
Andy> Early on in my career in marketing you could only really put stuff on the web. Because building software meant that you were doing heavy C++ work or Java work. You couldn't put a programme on someone's desktop. So to a large degree it was an advertising-oriented industry.
New technologies enabled you to do things rather than just show things, and create services for people. Then as that evolved you did get access to the desktop. I remember working with Adobe AIR. You could build software that had the same aesthetic qualities of Flash websites. Everything that you had on your desktop didn't have to look like dry, corporate software.
These leaps forward meant we started to create branded services. They enabled us to add value and play a sustained role in people's lives. And the advertising element was the branding on those things.
Now, so many of the apps and services people use have been built by what are, for all intents and purposes, marketing companies. When we were at college, thinking we were all going to change the world, it was actually 15, 20 years away.
LBB> Why is the marketing space so rich for playing with emerging technologies?
Andy> I think that quite often the marketing industry is when you get to try things first. Mostly, you're doing things in quite a controlled space - some kind of an event installation, or something that has a limited lifespan, so it can be held together with digital Sellotape. It doesn't have to last very long; it just has to do its thing. If you're building actual products you're going to have to sell and maintain and keep up, the technology has to be more robust and proven. So quite often if you really want to do something with technology that's fresh out of the oven, marketing is a great place to do it. It's a great sandpit for emerging tech.
LBB> Is there any kind of tech that you’re currently really excited about?
Andy> If you look at the way that technology is moving forward, there's 'The Metaverse' - all the virtual worlds that at the moment are independent, the idea of being able to move between them. You've got currencies that might enable you to do that (notwithstanding the debates about their impact on the environment), but from a technology point of view, these things can happen. Then advances in things like headsets. Whether it's next year or 10 years down the line, you can see it happening. That's exciting. You can see things going in the direction of digital humans with people like Soul Machines. We can do things there. And I know that there are people within WPP who are working along those lines. Things that are coming are really exciting.
There's great things out there that I think have been really exciting that I haven't personally been involved in. AKQA in Australia did something using spatial audio to involve people who had vision issues, in broadcasts of tennis. That's great stuff.
Ogilvy built an escape room in Snapchat
. I like that, taking something that seems to be very narrow and self-contained and really blowing it out into something else. Those kinds of things are exciting, and those kinds of people are exciting, which is why I love working with them. You get that energy.