"The trick is to build media assets that people like and align with"

AOL’s digital prophet on content, creativity and embracing the new order.

In your job as digital prophet, where do you look for new trends and how do you choose which ones to champion?

Great question, and the answer is the opposite of what most people expect. My role is to distil digital trends so that brands, agencies and the industry can take advantage of them. I look for innovative trends, emerging ideas and themes, and lastly I look at mainstream trends. The hierarchy on how I find these starts with my tribe. People I respect who are inventors, disruptors and thinkers in their fields, who I regularly meet with face to face. Artists, fashion designers, musicians and scientists. I also speak a lot with early teens to understand their habits and behaviours. I still speak to people on my cell phone (no landline anymore). I text and email a lot and lastly I refer to tech industry experts via my favourite sites like TechCrunch, Engadget and HuffPost Tech. Translating these ideas and themes is the hard part!

Could you describe how your role fits into the AOL organisation – what does AOL want and expect from a digital prophet?

Understandably my role is unique. But so is AOL. We blend culture and code by delivering both brands to people (advertising) and people to brands (destinations). Most of my work leans into the people-to-brands side of the business. Although I am known for delivering keynote speeches across various territories where AOL is present, I also work very closely with agencies and brands directly on behalf of AOL to deliver innovative ideas and creative solutions from ideation through to delivery. I also work with many of AOL’s internal brands and marketing to provide them an independent point of view.

AOL owns The Huffington Post, Engadget and TechCrunch. Is this an indication that content is the bottom line for the post-Time Warner AOL?

As stated, AOL blends both culture and code. Specifically high quality editorially focused content at the cultural cusp of their category. That is The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, Makers, Stylist etc. But equally as important is the code that drives the reinvention of brand engagement through unique advertising opportunities – at scale and efficiently made possible by technology. That is where AOL One delivers efficiently across the advertising cycle by adding technology to make people and workflow more effective.

You’ve said that brands have between five and nine opportunities to get consumers to fall in love with them. Could you expand on this?

I read a statistic recently that said people would only refer five to nine brands per year to one another. Surprisingly this number seems low with all the digital amplifiers today.

David Shing speaking at this year's European Communication Summit in Brussels (Photo: Julia Nimke)

What is the Age of Context?

The Age of Context refers to a couple of things. Building brands aligned to people’s passions provides them the information they crave, delivered in the way they want to receive it through over-the-top-content, desktop, mobile, tablet and wearables. This is only going to become even more contextual as mobile, data, sensors and location-based technology – all combined with social – continue to develop.

People are their own curators and creators. Where does this leave the corporate content creator – is their any chance of influencing how your content is received and contextualised?

It is indeed an exciting time. For a corporate content creator it really does mean the quality bar is being raised because of this consumer empowerment. It also means we will see stronger point-of-view in terms of how all content (sight, sound, motion) is developed. It also means better storytelling (more story, less tell) and much better creativity. From a brand’s perspective, they can embrace the fact that we have the new renegade – those hungry to create their own content, to curate their own content, to critique content they wish to consume. By allowing these people to experiment with their brand, brands give up ownership to these consumers. These people have their own audiences so could be an important channel to amplify their brand.

On your website, shingy.com, there is a link to Shinger, your new content-curated magazine. Is this a model for how you believe brands should present content?

Yes. I am a firm believer in curation. Shinger magazine is just one example of this, although it could be delivered as video or an audio book. It is a pet project where I find my favourite stories across all the AOL brands I love and distil them into a form that works for my tone of voice. These stories may have started out as digital, but I think they deserve a life in print!

You’ve spoken about a “fast fail culture” and the need for brands to fail frequently and fast in order to arrive at success. Are large, historic brands with multiple stakeholders in a position to afford this approach?

I believe brands need to rethink the way they embrace this new order. With all the places a brand can now be expressed in, clearly some places are easier to produce “fast” content, social being the most obvious. But if you embrace an “always on” culture and give people purpose to live the brand in real-time, you stand a greater chance of producing content that is culturally relevant, timely and contagious. And digital is the only place where you can do this. Television, radio, newspaper, magazine and outdoor all require an enormous amount of time in planning, and there are many gatekeepers. Digital allows you to have a direct dialogue and gives you direct access.

You’ve also spoken about how important it is for brands to own stories, and not necessarily to originate them. To what extent is participating without buying media a part of the future of storytelling?

There are opportunities for brands to supplement their paid media with non-paid media. Native has proven that brands want to be associated with themes that align with their brand. This is more of a modern sponsorship than a traditional advertising strategy. An example of this is the work we have done with Chipotle and Huffington Post, where Chipotle wanted to align their brand with the topics and stories Huffington Post originated. The truth is, ads make magazines, television, radio and online possible. So the trick is to build media assets that people like and align with. For example, if you bring people content (video, story etc.) and it says made possible by Brand X, people get it, they’re savvy. However, is there room for the model to evolve from sponsored content to branded content to transparent content that Brand X believes in and allows editorial to own? The obvious answer is yes. Also, placing your brand where there are large audiences but you cannot buy media is an opportunity for brands to think about their creative messaging differently. Writers, editors, video producers and photographers can do great work that is different.

In an age of sophisticated measurement and evaluation tools, is creativity in danger of being hindered by data?

The simple answer is no. In a recent survey by Adobe, interestingly 88 per cent of respondents believe the best days are yet to come, 75 per cent that technology gives them control and 70 per cent feel empowered by analytics. Which tells us they like to lead with their gut and have the data validate it. We also know we are in the world of programmatic. In principle, this gives the marketer the ability to target the right person at the right place at the right time with the right message. In practice, we have a long way to go before more human, personalised intent-based messaging is delivered – but it is where the future of programmatic will explode.

It’s a startling fact that we use most of our time on our mobiles in our home. Are brands doing enough to take advantage of this?

I would argue that marketers that still lean on television to reach audiences should consider adding digital to the mix especially around day-parted programming. As soon as an advertisement comes on television we reach for another device and heavily cross shop. Supplementing a television buy with digital companion advertising or experience will help achieve mindshare with consumers.

Finally, judging from you interviews and conference appearances, you seem to be immersed in digital. Do you ever plug out of this digital media overload and go on a digital detox?

Indeed I do practice digital detox. I ensure the hours and hours I spend immersed in digital daily make me a far more engaged person when I am not online. It is far too easy to allow the digital distractions to take over our focus, so being physically present is something I consciously practice. But truthfully it does take practice because at any one time I have access to the usual four devices including a laptop, tablet, mobile and wearable. Throughout the years I have developed a few practices that make my time online more efficient, but even so I am still online more than I should. But it’s part of my work ethic. However, my downtime is really analogue, I am an acoustic singer-songwriter, regularly practice yoga and refuse to sleep with devices near the bed. It is way too tempting for an addict!

Main photo: Gino DePinto

David Shing

AOL’s digital prophet since 2011, David Shing has been with the American multinational mass media corporation since 2007, working in various roles. Currently, he works internationally to identify new opportunities for the business, actively change brand perception and assist in building the external profile of the company across the globe. Prior to joining AOL, he was vice president of creative and strategy at global technology and service company Decentrix Inc. (Photo: Julia Nimke)