CHE Proximity’s head of technology programmes on swerving from chemical engineering to advertising and why understanding what creativity can do for companies to stand out is key to his role
David Cooper’s love affair with the creative industry began after an almost attempt at being a chemical engineer, pursuing a marketing degree and then reverse engineering a career path for himself after looking at how much those at the top of their game can earn as a salary. This may sound totally absurd, but the fact that it worked so well for him is what led him to be named as CHE Proximity’s head of tech programmes in June of this year.
Though life could have had a different plan for him had he not been there at the birth of the dotcom boom working for his uncle as he tried and failed to launch an online fruit and veg market – something that wouldn’t be thought twice about today. As David’s career has progressed so has the creativity technology market, both globally and in Australia. Today he views it as predominantly a way of hacking existing channels to deliver new experiences for customers, something he and his team implemented with a LEGO Christmas campaign in 2019 that saw that year’s favourite gifts reimagined as LEGO items.
LBB’s Natasha Patel caught up with David to hear his views on the intersection between creativity and technology and why solving business problems is the favourite part of his role.
LBB> Firstly, where did you grow up and was creativity something that interested you from a young age?
David> I grew up in Country Victoria in Australia. I grew up in a pretty homogenous environment, sort of suburban Australia, lower middle class area. But I had this really amazing school with some really amazing teachers, because we were on the periphery of basically a hippie kind of establishment, outside of Bendigo. My school was 50% hippies, 50% lower income working class families, so it was such an interesting environment and I had amazing music teachers, amazing art teachers and that type of thing. From a pretty early age I was really heavily exposed to creativity in those circles.
Australia in the ‘90s was just such an interesting, fun place to be. My uncle started a company off the back of the dotcom boom, and his business model was a website that you can go to and order fruit and veg and have it delivered to your house. It was so wild, and so unsuccessful, that I was exposed to this idea of ecommerce and technology and innovative consumer solutions through my uncle when I was quite young. He had a business and at the back of that was a small web design agency where I spent a lot of time whenever I would come visit the city. I got exposed to this coding culture and computer culture passively through that. So, I had a pretty early interest in computers.
LBB> How from there did you get into the industry?
David> In high school, my life changed a bit. I was a lot more into sport and music and left my underlying computer geekiness behind me! I was really into STEM classes and was convinced that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. So, when I graduated from high school I went to uni and did a double degree in chemical engineering and biotechnology, because I was really fascinated by this concept of rational drug design, which was an emerging field at the time.
Then I realised in Australia the job prospects were heavily towards working for the mining sectors and the fossil fuel sector or in large petrochemical companies, which wasn't really where I wanted to put my time and focus. I became really disillusioned by what science can bring to that point in time.
After this realisation, my dad convinced me to do a business degree which I did, majoring in marketing and film studies. I just loved marketing, I thought it was such a really interesting application of social sciences, and it was just something that was so obvious to me in my mind about the interlinkages of the commercial aspect of human behaviour.
LBB> Where did you get your first break?
David> I graduated and once again I didn't know what to do. So I started Googling the highest paid marketing jobs at the time. At the time, there was this role called digital strategist, which doesn't really exist anymore. It was so ubiquitous, but the idea of a digital strategist was, they would help with media optimisation and things like that around digital campaigns, and also linking together social media and website experience into brand storytelling.
Then I went on LinkedIn and tried to reverse engineer the careers of people that worked in digital strategy. A lot of them came from a project management background or a development background, and I realised all the things I did when I was a kid with computers and technology are somehow, super relevant now. So, my first job off the back of that was at a really small development company and we made websites and web apps for small businesses.
Then I was talking to a branding company that hired me as a digital account manager to work with their clients on delivering the digital side of the campaign. I became head of digital, which was a really fun, really interesting role with very high stress. I think I was like 25 or something. I learned a lot and I had some really amazing mentors in that business, and I made a lot of really horrible mistakes and learnt what it's like to be a manager. But I also really learned the power of creativity in the world and what creative can do as an edge for companies to stand out on the market.
LBB> How from there did you wind up at CHE Proximity as head of tech programmes?
David> I had a friend who worked at CHE Proximity and he was like, “Look, you've got to come and work here, it's such a great company, I think you'd be amazing.” At that time, the idea of working in a giant marketing company really scared me. But I started and realised really quickly that it was the same problems I've been solving for the early part of my career but the budgets were just a lot bigger.
The tech department to me is the biggest department, we are a business for creatives and for account managers, data, media and everything but technology is actually the biggest. That really changed the dynamic of our team and the scale at which we operate and the type of work we're known for.
LBB> What does creativity technology mean to you and how do you apply this to Australian consumer communications?
David> Given the size of the market in Australia we don't have the scale that a lot of the other markets have, where we can make massive upfront investments in creative technology for a campaign. A lot of what we do in the creative technology space is definitely more business outcomes lead than PR lead. So, we're not going to be able to get sign off on a million dollar budget to create an app for a campaign.
For us, a lot of the work that we do is hacking existing technology or hacking existing channels to deliver a new experience for consumers in a way that delights or entertains. We're not going to be able to rebuild something from scratch to launch this new album or business. A lot of what we do is tied to pre-existing phrases and social media platforms or apps that might already be tied to a parent brand. We're trying to kind of find a unique culture that we can tap into to create a better experience.
LBB> What does being the head of technology programmes involve?
David> The role is quite diverse, but in essence I work with clients to define and deliver projects that are powered by technology to create better customer outcomes. To do this successfully, I also coach and manage a brilliant team of project managers that make the magic happen.
The type of work I am involved with is really diverse. I have a team of nine who manage data engineering, marketing automation, ad tech, cloud architecture, web platform and advertising media assets. There is a lot of jargon to take in there if you haven't been exposed to these types of projects, but basically anything that interfaces with a customer in an online channel is where my team plays.
I spend most of my day working with clients on the definition of the strategy of the solution and then the remaining time is working with my team to ensure that the delivery runs smoothly, meets deadlines and provides quality for our clients. It's really unique in the way that I feel like I am an employee for four plus major businesses in Australia, helping their tech teams, but I am also an employee of this amazing creative business. My role means that I have exposure to some amazingly complex multi-year digital transformation programs, but I can also log into a video call and see a team of really talented creative individuals presenting ground breaking work. There is a nice duality between right and left brain thinking that keeps me challenged and inspired.
LBB> You’ve been in the industry for a while now and seen the dotcom boom as well as the advancement of technology and data. How do you think the future of technology and creative technology will look?
David> When I started in this space, it wasn't obvious that every company needed a website and social media wasn't a thing. The purpose of the internet was more or less a place that people went to share thoughts, or gather information, which probably summarises those two things now.
Over time, brands have become a lot more mature in that space around their own channels, and as such they may want to carve out a little piece of the internet themselves. The real challenge is that now, people are just fighting for attention so much that creativity has to be elevated to gather attention.
I think the biggest challenge for marketers now is, what are you doing that's better than a TikTok video of cats? I'm not sitting on the couch now with just one channel to watch your brand, I can explore and create my own narrative wherever I want. The idea of branded creativity having to be better than just normal real creativity, it's really hard because you're not going to get those shareable moments in the world, unless they are genuinely better than the content that is being pumped out by 15 year olds.
LBB> What are trends that CHE Proximity is exploring right now and what is exciting you about the market?
David> Probably the biggest focus of our team at the moment is first party data handling. With the timely and necessary death of third party cookies becoming a reality for our industry, the rise of Customer Data Platforms (CDPs) is becoming a really critical piece for a lot of our clients. Capturing, storing and managing customer data should definitely be number one on any marketing teams list. Unfortunately it's challenging, costly and heavily driven by regulation so we are trying to find more efficient ways to manage this with software partners.
In terms of what is exciting to me right now, that's a little bit different to the first party data conversation. I really like the trend of software architecture being less centralised, more decoupled and lower code. If you look at software services that are being provided through headless architecture and microservices, there is a really amazing space for lower cost architecture solutions that have less overhead to maintain longer term.
I've always felt like developers have a super-power that the rest of the world isn't lucky enough to have. This barrier to entry causes a lot of missed creative opportunities. Low code or no code solutions are some buzzwords right now of an emerging trend that seeks to remove the need for developers to create tech experiences. This is kind of an over-evolving space and trend. In some ways MySpace was one of the first large-scale, low-code solutions to democratising a place for people to have a space on the internet. It was also the place where a generation of creatives learnt basic HTML and CSS. Low code means a bit of a different thing now, where we are seeking to find better integrations with software and better ways to generate web assets without an overhead of development. Kind of like what Canva has done for graphic design, but in the tech space.
LBB> How do you actually stay abreast of new technologies and innovation to keep yourself informed for your role?
David> I think there is this wider perception that technology trends are the kinds of things you see released at South by Southwest. The really cool, flashy parts of the tech world like VR, AR, neobanks, medtech etc. Without discrediting these amazing advancements in technology, as an industry we often get blindsided by the retrofitting technology for a problem that doesn't exist.
I get a lot of information direct from the large software companies (Adobe, AWS, Salesforce, Facebook) in terms of new feature releases. These are great places to start with the 'what', but if you want to better understand the 'why' then reading MIT Tech review, Mashable and TechCrunch are good sources. I also listen to a lot of Scott Galloway's podcasts to better understand how technology is influencing behaviour and world markets.
LBB> What sorts of client briefs do you get most excited about and why?
David> Any brief from an amazing client will always get me excited. I truly believe that the best work you can do in your career is with clients who clearly articulate the problems they are trying to solve and believe in you as a partner to help solve them. There is a hugely rewarding buzz when you've got a great team backed by motived and talented clients.
When you've got the client relationship locked down and the team is humming, then the types of briefs that I love are software agnostic and driven by the real customer or business problem. Some of the best work I have done in my career has started with an email as simple as 'We have a retention problem. Can you help fix it?'.
LBB> I know you and the team did some pretty amazing work for LEGO Christmas a couple of years ago. How did you blend creativity and technology for this campaign?
David> We took Christmas and we took the top presents for that year and assumed that there would be X amount of these presents and these are the things we're going to look at. We created dynamic remarketing that showed those presents being built in LEGO. The message was trying to get people to switch from the present they were looking to buy to the infinite possibilities of LEGO. From a technical perspective. It wasn't amazingly challenging but what we had to do was create these dynamic assets that were so small, tiny kilobit sizes of videos of people building LEGO models to create these really cool toys.
It was just three of us who spent a week just tinkering around some file formats and some different technologies.
LBB> Finally, what is life for you outside of work?
David> I’m trying to open a new restaurant right now! But that aside, I have a pretty simple life. I won't say I'm kind of your classic marathon running executive who does yoga and listens to 20 podcasts a day. I just love music, I love reading, I love being in nature, hiking and spending time with my family.
In my professional life I also help out a couple of smaller companies. In Australia we have this thing called the NDIS which is the National Disability Insurance Scheme. I think it's a really interesting space that gives back a lot of value to Australians, and the problems we're trying to solve for those customers are so different. If you have a disability under the NDIS you have certain services that you're allowed to claim that from the government but it's really unclear, so how do we make it easier for people to understand where the line is drawn from what the government views internal fund versus what is drawn from how you feel, personally?
That work is so different when it's rewarding. I just find it super interesting and actually it really feels like I'm making a difference.