‘If you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun’ – AOL Digital Prophet David Shing


His hair is styled in a gravity-defying flair. He wears black nail paint and walks in wearing zebra-striped pants & a black t-shirt with several holes in it. But this appearance, whilst striking, is not defining of David Shing, AOL’s self-styled, ‘Digital Prophet.’

A brief appearance on MSNBC in the US last year brought him not only a lot of attention, but also a lot of flak for his appearance, and also his title. But when I met Shing, who is in Mumbai for the ProMaxBDAMasterClass conference, I found him largely unassuming, friendly, and very informed.

As we sat down for a conversation about all things digital, I realized how easy it was to focus on his insights rather than his looks.

YS: ‘Digital Prophet’ at AOL. That has to be made up! What do you do?

DS: I was handling media and marketing for AOL in Europe, when I was offered a position to move back as an evangelist for the company in New York. Now, there are people 10 times smarter than I who can talk about AOL, but what I found was that the industry needed a different type of voice, it needed to talk about the industry by itself.

You know, Google has evangelists, Apple has them, Microsoft has had product evangelists for years; so I just thought I’ll call myself something different, why not a digital prophet, just to have fun with it. The creative industry is ripe for fun, and I can tell you now it’s better than being called a Creative Director for sure. But it’s quite bizarre that I’ve had the title for about four years now, and it’s just starting to pick up. The reaction from people is fascinating.

Quite simply, I like to define my role in the context of “before now next.” What I really do is contextualize and storytell.

YS: So, what is a typical day like for you? (Still trying to find out what he does)

DS: Everyday is a typical day. It’s always varied. Sometimes I’ll be meeting with the Press, other days I’m speaking to small groups, doing workshops, like today where I’m speaking to the TV industry for ProMax India. I’ll be doing creative workshops with them, mind mapping, and presentation techniques among other things. It sounds basic but no matter what somebody is in, they still have to present back to someone else, and I want to teach them the tools to do that. Also, teach them some rules about social (media) because I know that's what they’re really interested in.

Most days, I’m not sure what to expect. It could be meeting brands, agencies, or clients in some country in the world, or working inside the business, talking about what we should be doing next.

YS: What have you heard about digital media in India, and what are you hoping to learn/discover while here?

DS: I went for a walk on the streets (he walked for four hours – saying that's all he could handle in the heat.) and I’m struck by the contrast here – high highs, and low lows. It’s quite something to see workers resting by the side of a road with no shelter or even proper clothes, but they all have smartphones, and they’re consuming content.

And that’s the thing about India that’s fascinating. Five hundred million people here still don’t have access to safe water, but there are about 300 million mobile internet connections. And that’s just 43% in terms of population penetration. It blows my mind to think of the possibilities in the mobile internet space here.

What is surprising at the other end though is that television in India seems kind of stuck in the nineties in terms of graphics. I see that in Singapore, Japan and other Asian countries as well – the colors, the overlay, it’s like a visual mind bender. A cornucopia of content that I don’t expect to see anymore. TV has to be a lot more calming experience than that. In a way it’s quite in tune with the environment – beautifully chaotic in its tonality, design, topography, colors, presentation. It feels very ‘local.’

YS: Speaking of local, do you see a lot of differences in digital trends across geographies?

DS: Not entirely. Although we communicate differently, we still consume media in similar ways, especially mobile content. That’s a universal language. In Asian countries, social and peer-to-peer applications seem really aggressive.

YS: Digital is always changing. The minute you feel that you have a handle on one thing, the landscape changes entirely. How does an average marketer keep up?

DS: That's where the education part of it is really important. I speak at conferences to teach people how to distill big ideas to make them feel more like insights.

(When it comes to digital) Marketers need to think about brand utility. How are they being useful to someone in their day? For example, 88% of what people do on a mobile is now application-based. It’s not mobile web. Also, although the average number of apps a person now has on their phone is 41, the average number they actually use is five. It’s called ‘app fatigue.’ Consumers want utility. So as a marketer you have to think about how you deliver it.

(Here he has a ‘brain fart’) What we need is awareness at the university level. Are we actually teaching/training people on industries that don't exist? What are we doing in marketing to make sure that people understand that we are evolving as an industry. It’s pertinent to say that habits are changing but its not changing so fast to say that you can’t keep up with it. You just need to determine where you want to swim. At the end of the day, a brand which tries to experiment with all of these things (which I believe they should), at some point they have to land in places that are most unique.

When I see brands publish the same information through different social channels, that's not right. Because each social channel has a different psychology as to why people use it. A lot of brands haven’t determined what the value of those channels are.

YS: In one of your talks, you said, ‘attention is the new currency.’

With millennials being the primary consumers of digital content, it’s getting extremely difficult to keep their attention. What is your advice to brands to cross this barrier?

DS: Millennials don't like being called millennials. Let’s call them the connected generation or younger people.

With this connected generation and their attention, it’s about creating content that they want to absorb. Who would have thought that at some point, you could have told a brand story in just six seconds. But you can, successfully. This generation has a shorter attention span but they have a lot of their attention spanning a lot of content. If you’re able to tune that content to them, you’ve succeeded. If they’re not going to sit down and watch a 30-minute video, then build three 10-minute ones. Digital affords you this experimentation that television did not.

It’s almost like a revolution that’s going on – the short attention span. 58% of people now get their information from social feeds. They’re skimming across the top of this information. Yet they’re going to represent about a $2.5 trillion marketplace by 2025. So it is a heavy generation for us to care about.

Also, another point of interest is that with this generation, their fear-of-missing-out culture creates a curiosity. So I believe that even with the short attention span, we will go back into slow journalism, more long form content. They care to get to the depth of a subject. We just haven’t determined what that package should look like.

YS: Are there any brands in the digital space that you admire?

DS: The brands that I admire the most are the ones that understand that their digital experience and the physical product that people consume are no different. We might celebrate some incredible digital experience, but when I go into a store and their packaging hasn’t been updated since the 80s, it’s terrible.

Iconic brands such as Coca-Cola have done a great job of creating a similar digital and physical packaging.

As has Unilever, from Dove to Axe, each of their brands has an individual vocabulary, all from the same holding company.

Then there’s the tug of war between Adidas and Nike – both based on personalization, and speaking the language of aspiration. Both have an interesting language but they both speak differently. They understand that they’re global brands, not local ones.

Any brand that can react as fast as trends is a winning one. Personalization is key. People want to feel like they’re a part of the brand story. Burberry is another brand that does a great job of understanding what the digital and physical space should be.

YS: What's the single most important piece of advice you would give to startups/new entrepreneurs to stay relevant in the digital space?

DS: Focus. You can’t be all things to all people. Find a niche. Understand who your audience is and where they are. Also, what’re the new rules of marketing. When it comes to content marketing, be sure you’re able to write, and able to produce video. Because to sell something you need to be an authority and to be an authority you need to have a strong point of view. Saying you have no time for content now is no excuse. Even if it’s only 140 characters, if crafted well, could be a powerful statement for a brand.

The challenge with Twitter is that it’s only momentary. A marketer needs to understand what value a platform provides to them. If it’s community and paid advertising they’re looking for, Facebook is a great environment. If it’s long commentary, discussions around topics in which you’re a thought leader, then ‘Huffington Post’, Reddit, Digg are good places to go. If it’s promotion as a thought leader, Twitter is your place. If it’s visual language, hang out on Instagram, and if you want to target women visually, then you want to go to Pinterest. All of these provide deep engagement. A marketer has all of these products and more in his dashboard but needs to prioritize because resources are limited.

YS: What are some of your digital prophecies for 2015?

DS: Universally, culture changes but (digital) behavior is not that different. We’re in an industry of change. If you’re going to plot a strategy and sit with it for 12 months, it won’t work. You don’t have the ability to predict what will be successful. While some of your budget is going to go to ROI driven inititatives, some also need to go to experimentation. Brands that experiment stand out.

The attention economy is still going to be developed. We’re still going to determine how we want to draw out those metrics. Right now, we have no clue but we know that it’s important.

Also the ‘need state’ is going to gain relevance, ie. programing based on peoples needs. When we start to understand what the day in the life of somebody is and how we program for needs, that’ll revolutionize the marketplace.

Brands need to act like publishers. In print there are gatekeepers. In the digital realm there are no publishers. The barrier to entry hasn’t been flat-lined. So brands have to act like publishers and understand that there is a fine balance between frequency and commenting. When to react versus when not to react. There is an activation around brands now that's different than amplification. Try and put your brand in places where you can’t buy media. It’s what contextual or native advertising is. Act human, have a personality, be quirky, be different.

Most decisions humans make are made emotionally and then justified rationally. It doesn’t matter whether it's a $5 bottle of water or a $50000 car. Yet a lot of what we see digitally is still direct response related. A lot of it has to do with the format. But the environment for that is changing and will continue to change especially when it comes to mobile.

And most importantly, have fun. Remember that the digital industry is based on fun. It’s why it was created. There’s a quote by Katherine Hepburn that I love “ If you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun.”

As a parting note, I ask him what non-digital experiences is he looking forward to during his stay in Mumbai.

DS: I want to watch the clothes being washed (checked with me what it’s called, and I tell him it’s Dhobi Ghat.) India is beautifully chaotic. People are patient, and generous but I also think it’s because your accent is thick and so is mine. Also people here love to point, and love to laugh and to stare. I get a lot of that. There is no modesty they have in doing that which is sort of endearing, really.