Arduinos, MakerBots and physical computing now in the creative department

Christian Madden contemplates a recent prototype

I remember the days when you walked through the creative department and the tools of the trade consisted of drafting tables, layout pads and Prismacolor markers. Yeah, I know, I’m giving away my age. Then came laptops and Adobe’s Creative Suite. But now things are getting really weird, or interesting, or cool. Depending on your perspective.

A walk through Mullen’s creative department still reveals the aforementioned technologies, but you’re now as likely to encounter MakerBots and the prototypes they’re printing as well as Arduino circuit boards on a table covered with sensors, wires, RFID chips and other pieces of hardware that are unidentifiable to the typical art director or copywriter. Then again, art directors and copywriters, while still prominent, aren’t the only “creatives” populating ad agencies anymore.

Now sitting among the Bernbachian creative teams are developers, UX designers and code-writing inventors. These are true techies, far more interested in building things first and communicating them second. Sometimes they get to make stuff for clients, but as often as not they’re simply determined to make anything. Key cards that play music when you enter the agency. Ping pong tables that move and flash lights at your opponent. Cameras that tell you whether there’s a long line at the coffee bar. Artificial limbs that can high-five you if you had a good meeting.

What does any of this have to do with advertising? Supporting clients? Generating revenue? Frankly a lot. I sat through a presentation earlier this week on physical computing from some of our resident innovators. They shared a simple perspective on how the use of technologies evolves. The progression has five stages: nerdy, weird, witty, understandable, creative.

Think back to the early days of computers, the web, YouTube, Twitter or crowdsourcing.  Whether you look at them from the perspective of users or uses, they all followed a similar progression.

The presenters, Christian Madden and Hoon Oh, shared some of their weirdness. But in many ways it wasn’t all that weird. For it accomplishes a few really important things.

It demonstrates a culture of innovation by using rather than simply talking about new technologies.

It teaches people who aren’t technological to conceive things that can be built and prototyped, tested and iterated, expanding their creative repertoire and frame of reference.

And perhaps most importantly it shows clients that their agency is inventing, not just making ads.

All of which has a lot to do with advertising. At least the future of it.


An advertising agency or ad agency or advert agency is a service based business dedicated to creating, planning, and handling advertising (and sometimes other forms of promotion) for its clients. An ad agency is generally independent from the client (it may be an internal department or even an internal agency) and provides an outside point of view to the effort of selling the client's products or services. An agency can also handle overall marketing and branding strategies and sales promotions for its clients.

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@KevinRothermel Thanks for that, Kevin. Hope all is well there.


@jayroh @cmadden Thanks Joel. Did not know you were at Thoughtbot now. That is great.