Aden is a multi-award-winning Digital Creative Director by trade, with a burning passion for driving creative innovation through the use of emerging technologies. He has won awards at Cannes Lions, One Show, D&AD, CLIO’s and ANDY’s, to name but a few.
He also founded the blog Digital Buzz, which made it into the Ad Age Power 150 top marketing blogs (currently sitting at about #10 globally), and is also respected as the world’s best digital creative and innovation resource by a host of the industry’s leading, influential, and most respected figures. In the interview that follows, Aden chats to Michael Weinzettl about his career and the current state of digital creativity.
Thank you very much for selecting the digital work for this issue of Archive. What were some of the criteria you used when picking the work?
My pleasure. Some of the core criteria I used was a combination of inventive digital storytelling fused with new or trending technology, followed by rethinking how brands might also invent on existing platforms from the big vendors like YouTube, Snapchat, etc. to deliver ideas at scale.
Can you tell us something about VML Australia, the agency of which you are Managing Director & DCD?
VML Australia just turned four years old. We launched with about 10 people back in 2012, and are now almost 100 people strong. It’s a scary thing to think about, actually: how fast we’ve grown, the fantastic client partners we’ve been able to bring on board, the work we’ve created, and the awards we’ve won - it’s been such an amazing experience. I don’t think I’d ever imagined partnering with a bunch of supertalented people to launch and then make VML Australia into what it is today!
We are a full-service creative agency, but we started out as a pure-play digital agency and have really used that heritage and capability to transform our business into something special. Whilst we are the lead creative AOR for some clients, for others we are the Social & Content AOR, while on the other side we are the experience, design, technology and platform partners for others. So that gives us a really unique blend of creative, strategy, and technology talent to create amazing work across a diverse client partner roster.
How did you get started in the industry? What is your background?
I kind of fell into the industry really …
I’ll have to go all the way back to my high-school days. It must have been year ten, if my memory serves me correctly, that I started applying my hopefully budding computer skills to creativity.
By year ten, I’d downloaded all sorts of programs, including the Macromedia suite of tools (Flash!), along with Photoshop, and even 3D studio Max and Maya (3D modelling/animation tools). Playing with them for a few years prior to that was fun, but that year a friend and I tried to make it pay off. We started designing Flash websites for local businesses, then animations, etc. I think we made $1,000 a site for animation, and it would take us an entire school term. I did a few by myself, too, for which I could get $500 – $1,000. Amazing, I thought. I just didn’t have a way to find more people to make them for …
By the end of high school, the internet was booming. Live chat was connecting everyone … ICQ, MSN Messenger, and we’d just been experiencing the dotcom boom and bust. It was at that point I knew I wanted to do something with the internet. I just never knew exactly what.
My fist real job was at a company called Mesh Online. A little five-man digital agency in Sydney. When they called to say I got the job, they promised me $45k, which I thought was fantastic. But when I turned up to start the job and sign the contract, it was $22k + super and they said I would get $45k once I proved myself. Well, I was there, and it was now the dotcom bust part of the internet boom, and there were almost no digital jobs for juniors with no experience, so I just signed and started work that day! Only two people from my entire class got a job.
And, while they totally ripped me off financially, that place made me. With just 5 people, I did pretty much everything. I was the creative, the designer, the UX guy, the HTML guy, the project manager, the testing guy, the presentation guy … you name it, I did it. The only thing I didn’t do was the backend code. I was rubbish at that part.
For the next few years I moved agencies and, finally, stumbled into a integrated creative agency. From that moment, I was hooked: I read everything on advertising that I could find. I trawled to the end of the internet looking for inspiration and knowledge to shape my career as a creative.
Fast-track a few years and I’m now lucky enough to judge global award shows, to be a trusted partner to some of the best brands and smartest marketers in the region that allow us to make amazing work, while also playing a bigger creative-innovation role in the wider VML & WPP networks.
Are you originally from Sydney? Where did you grow up and go to school?
I’m Sydney born and raised. I grew up in the suburbs, went to a public primary school and then to a private high school, all within 10 minutes of my house, which was awesome. It meant I could hang out with mates and play sport. After high school, I headed to the city to do a diploma in website design and technology. That was probably the closest thing I could find that would get me into the digital space, which I’m pretty sure was called “interactive” at the time!
What is Digital Buzz? Is that for projects outside your work for VML? How would you describe these?
Digital Buzz is actually my blog, a creative archive of the best and most innovative digitally led campaigns from around the world. I started it because there wasn’t anyone specifically aggregating digital-focused work back in 2008/09, and it soon had almost 300,000 people a month logging on to check out the latest digital campaigns, and over 50,000 subscribers! It’s seriously hard to dedicate the same amount of time to it now, but it’s still going strong! If any of your readers want to contribute, just email me, that would be awesome! Ha.
Who were some of the people you admired when you first started out in the business? Can you name any particular influence on your work?
I think I’m a little patriotic in that David Droga and Nick Law have been beacons of extraordinary Aussie creativity who also lead businesses at scale. I’m not sure that my work is influenced by anything in particular, but they both deliver a very cool mix of big creative ideas, experience design/technology and product invention, a combination which really excites me.
Who are some of the people in advertising you admire?
Argh! There are far too many, so here are the first three that jump to mind: Nir Refuah, he’s continually doing completely different, outstanding award-winning work in eastern Europe. Faris Yakob, a brilliant mind and all-round great bloke that’s influencing the creative and strategic future of brands around the world. Tom Eslinger, he’s always inspired me through his work, but also his leadership and drive to give back to the industry.
Can you describe a few of the favorite projects you’ve been involved in?
It’s almost impossible to think about what my favorites are, so I’ll opt for perhaps the most impactful on my career, or where I learned the most.
The first would have to be our Rip Curl Search GPS work a year or two ago. It was an amazing combination of product invention, creative, experience design and technology … creating a world-first surfing product that tracked every wave a rider would catch: speed, distance, how many waves, how far you paddled, who with, and where … That data powered an amazing ecosystem for surfers that not only helped them to re-live their surf but also showed them where to find the best waves, and exactly how to ride them. That work won awards at every show on the planet, which is something you can never really imagine happening in your career.
Another would be our ASICS Run With Me work. We created a connected experience for marathon runners at an international race in Australia. If you’ve ever run, or even seen a marathon, you’ll know there are, over the 42km distance, various points in the race at which runners typically break down. So we placed huge screens at each of those checkpoints after inviting each runner’s family and friends to leave video messages of support that would be synced and triggered to play on the screen as the runners passed it, giving them a much-appreciated personal message of support at the time they needed it most. We ran it three years in a row, and with over 30,000+ runners at each event, and crazy technology and logistics to pull it off, it really helped shape how I handled projects like this forever. Plus, you never forget watching people cry from the joy of seeing a loved one at 38km and 4 hours into a marathon … who were walking battered and bruised … then instantly find the energy to get up and run to the finish line.
Do you see digital as just another addition to a creative’s toolkit or is there much more to it?
I think there is a fundamental difference. If you’re just adding it as a skillset, that’s great and it’s an absolute necessity for any creative to be able to think in that space, but if you systematically understand technology and the internet from its core, and apply your creativity with that technical knowledge and understanding, then I really do feel you can create more powerful ideas that leverage amazing platforms and technology to give your idea not just that magic twist, but with that understanding baked into the core of the idea, creating so much added utility and scale for any sort of storytelling.
What is your take on the accusations – leveled in Cannes last year – by DDB Worldwide’s ECD Amir Kassaei that too many creatives nowadays are too much in love with the technological tools afforded to them by digital. That they come up with projects which have no real relevance for consumers (that then get awarded at ad festivals but are of little consequence anywhere else) – the claim, in other words, that they are out of touch with the real world.
It’s kinda controversial, but it’s also his job to be! I think, on the one hand, you could compare that comment to so much of the more traditional creative work, which often also lack actual consumer relevance, but are still great award-winning ideas at heart or great uses of a specific medium that nails a category, that judges will award. How many print ads or OOH pieces win awards that are just great ideas but wouldn’t be relevant to customers? Plenty … I think it’s just that digital is a trending medium, and with technology and access to various APIs, creatives now have new and interesting ways to tell stories that are probably trending with judges … because people want to be making a specific type of work … But, at the end of the day, judges won’t put their name to awarding crap ideas, or ideas that are just tech for tech’s sake.
What do you forecast for the future? Will print advertising as we know it disappear completely?
I don’t think it can completely die … nor do we want it to. There will always be printed material, at least in our lifetimes, and with that will come print advertising. But I think the way print advertising will evolve will be dramatic, and I don’t think we’d recognize it for what it is today in, say … 10 years’ time. Those ads will be laced with sensors and chips to frictionlessly activate other experiences on devices, integrate with your smart glasses or, perhaps, even your headphones or contact lenses. Perhaps it will come in animated ink, or a better version of e-ink making dynamic creative on paper. I think the future of print advertising will become much utilitarian by nature, too, a form of activated storytelling that creates real value for customers to interact with it.
And what do you think will be the next big thing in advertising?
The million dollar question …
I’d say it’s going to be “experimentation.” Brands can no longer afford to spend six months sinking a majority of their budget into one big campaign, one big ad, one big promotion. I think the industry will adopt an experimentation methodology where brands and agencies will create and test multiple ideas for the same campaign in market, looking to back whichever ones take off. An experimentation methodology reduces time-to-market, allows you to fail fast, test multiple potential hero ideas, and engage different audiences with different work.
That same model applied to product invention: experience design and technology projects are becoming more valuable to realize the opportunity to not just evolve but to disrupt or innovate at a rate far exceeding typical expectations inside organizations. It’s not attempting to be a moonshot, but it’s absolutely a 10x multiplier.
How do you get the inspiration for your projects?
I think that, every day, I absorb a lot of information and content that might not specially inspire a piece of work, but absolutely influences a creative direction or how I’m helping to solve a problem. Most of this probably comes from blogs I read each day, or content from Facebook pages I follow … I guess that’s the inspiration part, seeing thumb-stopping content you weren’t expecting, tapping a video and thinking, Wow, I’ve never seen that before. How could I use that technology? What could I do with something like that?