Omar Oakes
Feb 18, 2020

John Maeda: a dataful mind

Not one to shy away from controversy, Publicis Sapient's chief experience officer wants the ad industry to move toward a 'dataful' open-source approach, based on computational principles.

John Maeda
John Maeda

John Maeda is one of those rare creatures who entered advertising later in life, having become more famous outside the industry than within it.

The CV of Publicis Sapient’s chief experience officer would perhaps begin with a quote from Wired magazine, which once stated: "Maeda is to design what Warren Buffett is to finance." He is a world-renowned designer, a former president of one of the top design schools in the world and professor of MIT Media Lab. He is well known in Silicon Valley, too, having been a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and, before joining Publicis Sapient last August, a leading figure at Automattic, owner of website hosting behemoth Wordpress.

But the thing about Maeda is that he courts controversy. He left the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013 after six years, having clashed with the school’s traditional culture. Maeda had adapted the commonly used term STEM in order to highlight the importance of art and design in the 21st century, using the acronym STEAM instead: science, technology, engineering, art and design and mathematics. This led to an ugly no-confidence vote in Maeda by the school’s faculty in 2011, which, although he survived it, was passed by an overwhelming margin of 147 to 32. The reason? He went too far in trying to strengthen the design curriculum; his enthusiasm for technological design ran counter to RISD’s fine arts tradition.

Then, last March, Maeda provoked outrage again among the design community after an article in Fast Company quoted him as saying: "In reality, design is not that important." It’s easy to see why he would have been looking for a new challenge  before deciding to join Publicis Sapient last summer. 

Apart from a seat on the board at Wieden & Kennedy, Publicis Sapient is Maeda’s first role in "adland". The agency’s chief executive, Nigel Vaz, has handed Maeda the task of helping creatives and technologists collaborate. Having interviewed both of them at Cannes Lions last July, Campaign teased the pair by asking whether Vaz had hired Maeda to be the agency’s "tech whisperer". However, the duo seemed to embrace the term. Now, Maeda is speaking to Campaign again, this time about his new book, How to Speak Machine, which explains why creatives need to learn the principles that underpin computation to survive in a digital world.

Embracing open-sourcing

At the heart of Maeda’s philosophy, he is essentially advocating more "open-sourcing" in the ad industry. This is predicated on not hoarding ideas to be unveiled only in pitch presentations and at the launch of new ad campaigns, and driving more open discussions outside the agency confines about the messy stuff of idea-generation and strategic thinking. Indeed, Maeda has been practising what he preaches by posting ideas on the Publicis Sapient website and, a site where he pushes out "raw things, like a test kitchen of content". Open-sourcing is important, Maeda argues, because "it cleans the idea faster".

'The machine language is the language of an invisible world that connects all of us, that never gets tired and never needs a bathroom break'

"I believe in ‘dataful’," Maeda beams, his lilting voice shooting up by an octave in enthusiasm.  He defines the word "dataful" as the use of quantitative data together with qualitative data to challenge gut intuition for its most "arrogant biases". 

"It’s like beautiful, you know—‘that’s so dataful’. I believe that being dataful is the key to doing great work. I think in the old days, the idea of an artist was: ‘It’s my idea. I’ll show you when I’ve done.’ That is not tenable. It’s not practical. So when you’re open source, you’re like: ‘Hey, world, this is what I’m thinking.’ And then immediately you get the people who [will say]: ‘That’s a dumb idea.’ And I can ask: ‘Well, why is it a dumb idea?’ Or [say]: ‘That’s a great idea. But tell me why it’s a good idea.’ So, open source is a way for everyone to contribute to the knowledge and improve it."

Open-source technologies helped establish much of the internet; even everyday programs such as Google’s Android or Apple’s OS X are built on open-source tech. Maeda does, however, recognise that in the creative industries, where ideas are jealously guarded, a level of curation is needed for an open source network.

'Incomplete' is the new perfection

The idea for Maeda’s book was sparked by a BBC interview with David Bowie, conducted in December 1999, in which the late musician, actor and artist described the internet as "an alien life form" that is going to "crush our ideas of what mediums are all about". 

It may seem obvious in hindsight, given how disruptive the internet has proved to be, but this was not a commonly held view 20 years go (Bowie’s interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, incredulously retorted: "It’s just a tool, though, isn’t it?"). 

Maeda believes that not only was Bowie right about the internet being a disruptive and strange force that acts like a living organism, it is also more powerful than we ever thought, because it is invisible and indefatigable.

"The machine language is the language of an invisible world that connects all of us together, that never gets tired and never needs a bathroom break," Maeda says. "It can span infinite space, and it can focus on infinitesimally fine details like your keystroke and how fast you’re typing. And it can cover everyone’s keystroke in the world at the same time. And it’s also alive, in the sense that it can behave like a living thing: it can respond to you, it can run away from you, it can run after you."  

These "Bowie properties" have changed how products are made today, Maeda argues, so that they no longer need to be finished before being released into the world. "I don’t have to finish the product—I can just ship a little sample of it. So, incomplete is the new perfection." 

This "incomplete" paradigm applies to creative ideas, too. Maeda argues that in a similar way to products, the internet and rise of technology are tearing down the very notion that ideas need to be "complete" before going out into the world.

The problem, as Maeda sees it, is that creatives have not been given the opportunity to prosper in this new age of speaking machine. Not yet, anyway. "I don’t think that they’ve been given the opportunity to learn deeply about it," he says.

The ad industry is still one that is inspired by great ideas—craft, as well as the creative and strategic minds that produce this best-in-class work. 

Does Maeda really think this industry is able to adapt to this new model that he describes? He says he has found a "willingness and determination to do so". 

Maeda adds: "Nobody wants to learn computation or how it works. But everyone wants to solve big problems for the clients. So I frame it as: everyone who wants to do more impactful work for clients. And that requires going beyond how traditional creative used to be."

Maeda: retains a strong focus on technological design

Embracing omotenashi

Maeda does not cut a typical ad industry executive figure, but his history in the design and tech world shows he is used to challenging convention. The themes of exclusiveness and hierarchy run through his book—not to mention our conversation—like a steady drumbeat. 

Maeda’s narrative draws on numerous anecdotes from his childhood growing up in Seattle’s Chinatown as the son of Hawaiian and Japanese parents who worked from 2am to 6pm six days a week in a tofu shop. This imbued Maeda with an unrelenting work ethic and a preoccupation with creating something tangible that people love. His father often used the Japanese word omotenashi, which translates to "hospitality" but in reality means much more: anticipating customers’ needs and outdoing their expectations, while consistently showing deference and appreciation.

As with the ad industry, Maeda recognises the tech industry is being held back by a lack of diversity in which having too many pale males causes real damage. He compares the imbalance to the "perfect ecological paradise" of the Galapagos Islands, which has been endangered by humans. 

"It’s this moment in society where we’re acknowledging that, hey, a lot of pale males who are college educated are creating these systems: is this a good way to make technology that never gets tired? That scales infinitely? And can automate things? I think that moment of reckoning is occurring."

Maeda holds the venture capital "ecosystem" responsible and suggests there needs to be more such companies led by women and people of colour to lead investment decisions, as well as "building unconscious-bias muscles all over the place".

"You know why there are so few start-ups being led by women?" Maeda asks. "There’s a bias in the venture capital ecosystem that many people have pointed out in actual research numbers. In my book, I share how most of the computer science was invented by women. For instance, the technology that compiles code, was invented by a woman. The [phrase] ‘computer science’ was coined by a woman. Software was all run by women, while the men ran the hardware. These women were the software. And when you start peeling away, you’re like, wow, this is how the world was built."

There is also an education problem in the UK and US, Maeda argues, which focuses too heavily on programming to solve small, discrete problems instead of looking at how to improve systems. This means tech innovation homes in on incremental changes to make things faster or more efficient, rather than making big systematic transformations based on social values. He cites the recent example in the US, where the gender diversity of those who take the Advanced Placement computer science exam, which high school students can sit to earn a college credit for computer science courses, was boosted by changing its emphasis to be on the big problems the world faces rather than just using code to perform individual tasks.

"Just that reframing alone has changed the inclusion of the computer science field. It impacts how computer science gets done to actually address world-class problems versus ‘write more code’. And I think the system is highly indexed towards people who write more code and people who want to make money from that ability for people who write code."

Taking the lead

Since taking up the reins at Publicis Sapient in August, Maeda has set about rolling out a method called LEAD,  which stands for light, ethical, accessible and dataful, and is an adaptation of principles from Salt Fat Acid Heat, a best-selling cookbook by celebrity US chef Samin Nosrat. He developed this alongside two of his Silicon Valley recruits: Wendy Johansson, group vice-president, experience transformation lead, and Leah Buley, group vice-president, experience research lead.

Maeda, who took up his post at Publicis Sapient in 2019, claims that within his first three months, LEAD principles are being used by the agency all over the world. "Just this morning I was watching a recap in one of our offices in Germany for an entire gigantic pitch that used LEAD," he says. "Or in Singapore last week, it happened for a big restaurant chain. I’m just tickled by how fast the company works internally to roll all that out to our clients."

'Nobody wants to learn computation or how it works. but everyone wants to solve big problems for the clients. so I frame it as: everyone who wants to do more impactful work for clients'

But why make the jump to adland via Publicis Sapient in the first place? Maeda’s answer, perhaps surprisingly, morphs into an encomium about Vaz. "Nigel is that kind of Steve Jobs-style CEO—but not the darkness, only the innovation side. On the innovation side, he’s like: ‘Let’s figure it out. Let’s try it out. Is that possible? Go do it’," Maeda says.

The comparisons with Apple don’t end there: he says that Publicis Sapient "has Apple DNA in it, at its core". Maeda tells the story of how graphic designer and author Clement Mok, who was the original art director behind the unboxing experience of the original Apple Macintosh computers that began shipping in 1984, would go on to found Studio Archetype, a company that was acquired by Sapient in the 1990s. 

"The thing that you’ll hear a lot from Publicis Sapient is: the experience is the brand, the brand is the experience. That’s actually a Clement Mok quote. I think about that authentic Apple DNA and how Nigel’s essentially knighted me to reactivate that. 

"Mok never believed that design was about a ‘wow’, it was about business impact. So he was quite irregular. He foresaw a future where business impact and design would connect because he saw that at Apple. 

"So, my role is to show that understanding technology, speaking machine, understanding business constraints… [can make] what used to feel just technical, or just pure business-oriented, feel human."

Campaign UK

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