October 18, 2023
8 mins

Code and Theory’s global CTO on creating synergy between creative and technology teams

Technical prowess in the age of digital transformation has become table stakes for agencies. Here’s how to cultivate a tech-forward creative culture.

I recently had a conversation with Stagwell Marketing Cloud’s CTO in which he envisioned a world where all website home pages become chat interfaces.  

Instead of browsing Etsy for hours looking for that 6x10 vintage tapestry for your foyer, you will correspond with an AI that will get you close to that outcome within seconds.   

It got me wondering how a shift towards bot-centered interfaces would impact the need for creative input in website building. Would the overall design effort become reduced? Would agencies need to rely on increasingly large technical teams? Is this an opportunity—or a death toll—for creatives? 

I caught up with Pradeep Chelpati, Global CTO of Code and Theory, to see how he views the collaboration between tech and creative in building these experiences. 

Spoiler alert: The creative teams aren’t going anywhere, and neither are technologists. But effective communication and collaboration between engineers, creatives, and product managers—which used to be value add—is now table stakes.  

Let’s see what Chelpati had to say.  

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

Sarah Dotson: What do you think of the idea that AI chat interfaces will replace existing user experience on general purpose web?  

Pradeep Chelpati: Of course it’s too early to know if chat-based user experience will become mainstream. However, there are a lot of user needs which are not currently being addressed with our existing popular interfaces; things like simplistic recommendations, popular or new items, and search. We can double down on AI capabilities and advancements to make sure that they are a part of the full value chain that we are trying to serve our customers with.

Conversational interfaces are how we live our lives…talking with friends, family, colleagues, retail workers, even your local bartender. It seems reasonable that if you ask for a product in a hardware store, that you may want to be able to do the same in an online shopping experience.

We can double down on AI capabilities and advancements to make sure that they are a part of the full value chain that we are trying to serve our customers with

This is an opportunity for us to look at and embed these kinds of conversational or behavioral aspects into the user journey. However, we’re mainly seeing these experiences as additive, not seeing them fundamentally replacing web experience.

SD: How are you thinking about the impact of a shift towards more technical digital experience on creative agencies? Does this reduce the need of creatives and designers, or is it an opportunity for agencies to double down on their tech teams and bring in AI experts?  

PC: Yeah, it’s the latter. Code and Theory has always been a bit of an outlier in the agency ecosystem. There are many very design-focused agencies which do not have technical capabilities to fully consider the possibilities that technology presents to them, or the executional ability to accomplish the work they design. In this case, they have to trust that an external shop will be capable of accomplishing the work they have planned without consultation of technology experts.

There are also dev shops, some of which produce high quality applications, but often are weaker at design and strategy. Most of the organizations that try to comingle creativity with technology have not been very successful. And at this point with the rate of change that AI capabilities are bringing us, that just doesn’t work any longer.

Look at Code and Theory: We are 50% engineers and 50% creative, and there’s an appreciation for both sides of the party. Our creative teams understand the technological aspects; they don’t all have a technology background, but they are curious and always learning and upskilling. 

And from a technology standpoint, our teams have also embraced the creative ethos throughout the process and our engineers have an architecture mindset—so they are always thinking of how to make solutions that are scalable and production-ready. This is for the benefit of our clients like Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, MSNBC, NFL, Pfizer, Zappos, and many others.  

SD: What has created successful collaboration at Code between tech and creative? 

PC: There are a few things that make this work. One is that the teams who work for us understand both sides (creative and technical)…that’s foundational. Then from there, we have a great product management organization. The product management team kind of fits in as the glue and helps both the teams make sure that we are working towards a coherent vision for everything.  

For agencies who don’t have this, they use technology more as an executor than as a partner. At Code and Theory, we have forged a strong partnership between technology and creativity. They’re truly equal partners, and so the stakes are pretty much equal for both teams when they work together on projects and when they are problem solving for clients.

The product management team kind of fits in as the glue and helps both the teams make sure that we are working towards a coherent vision for everything

We also go to great lengths to find external partners, like Oracle, which is allows us leverage powerful new AI tools for our client work at scale.

SD: How does data and research factor into this partnership between tech and creative? 

PC: We pride ourselves on starting all of our work from a well-researched thesis which we prove out during the full term of our work. While we have dedicated strategy and research staff, the whole team is expected to participate in the work, and it's really interesting the things that a technologist and a strategist will be able to contribute. This exercise gives us objective ground truth that anchors our work and collaboration.

There’s one thing that I keep thinking about in this area. So if you look at your projects, some are really successful. And some—even with the best team—don’t perform as well. As agencies, we build a lot of things over any given period of time. We capture a lot of information, from internal research we publish, a tribal knowledge perspective, and otherwise.

And of course we’re able to leverage much of this as we start to work on new projects, but a lot of that information capture is time consuming between interviews and write ups from internal subject matter experts. And we do feel that we are still leaving some of our knowledge on the table because it’s not assimilated in a way that it can be used.

We are starting to harvest and harmonize our insights in more accessible ways. We need to say, “Hey, listen. This is a project that I am doing for Client X. What did we do last time? What was the combination of teams that worked, and what were some of the challenges that we saw along the way?”

The agency world moves rapidly. We have clients with incredibly tight and critical deadlines, and there are always new people coming in because there are advancements in technology and new skills and technologies we want to leverage. 

So as you add new people to the workforce, the historical knowledge only stays with a few. It’s not evenly distributed. It forces the agency to be blocked by and move at the speed of people instead of fully embracing asynchronous, data-centric organizational patterns.

We’re working to become more data-centric…in how we record and organize our research and even through experiments with chat-based methods that help us harvest our own data to better serve our clients. The way I look at it is, if we become more focused on harvesting our data, that’s a stronger play. We are using this to sharpen our creative thinking.  

SD: There’s so much tribal knowledge in marketing. Decisions are often made off a person mentioning something that worked well on a campaign they worked on a decade ago where the color red really moved the needle or something. As a technologist, how do you capture this kind of knowledge?  

PC: Yes, it’s about looking at what worked, and building on that. We try to capture the key themes after every successful execution of a project to document what key takeaways we have. I would look at the creative person, product person, and technology person and say: “What do you think are the five key things that worked well?” 

The CTO’s role across the organization has changed from being a service leader to a business partner.

From there, you can use those themes to measure against the outcomes to see if they are actually tangible or not. I think that’s something we need to be doing. If you’re not, you’re losing the intellectual capital that you built over time. How can you take advantage of that intellectual capital that you build organically at your organization and is your own?  

One way to do this is through case studies. Start building a case study for the project during the project. It needs to come from each different stakeholder group, from product, creative, technology, and program management teams. When you combine these forces, you’re building a case study that will provide a clear narrative of what the winning strategies were.  

SD: I’ll leave you with one more question: How do you feel like the role of a CTO in the agency landscape has changed over the last decade or so?  

PC: The CTO’s role across the organization has changed from being a service leader to a business partner. We have an incredible view into how world-class organizations work that business schools would dream to have. For example, on the application side, we’re seeing incredible interest right now in building out MACH-based solutions which tend to provide much more speed to market and ongoing flexibility than previous generation architectures.

Most agencies use creative forces to go sell, and technology is more of an afterthought. But in the case of Code and Theory, we’ve always used technology to be a forethought.

Moving forward, I think it’s about direction setting. A lot of the technology-driven transformation is happening right now. CTOs or other technology leaders will be at the front of client conversations: It’s an amazing strength to be able to demonstrate as an agency that you’re exceptional at creative and equally good with technology.

Sarah Dotson

Sarah Dotson is the Editorial Content Manager for Stagwell Marketing Cloud.

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