The director of technology at Barbarian speaks to LBB’s Addison Capper about a customer-centric approach to technology, hopes for technology post-Covid and getting to grips with the internet 20 years ago
Sunny Nan is an award-winning technology leader with almost 20 years of experience at digital, consumer and pharmaceutical creative ad agencies. He has also been the founder of several startups. In that time, he has partnered with brands like Nike, ESPN, Pfizer, Verizon and others to launch hundreds of sites, apps, products, blogs, social media campaigns, CMS builds, e-commerce sites and more.
In June of this year, he was appointed director of technology at Barbarian in New York. According to the agency’s website, Sunny “approaches all projects with a passion for technology, an eye for creative solutions and a discipline for the software development process”. LBB’s Addison Capper picked his brains on that and a whole bunch more.
LBB> You've worked in the technology department of agencies since the year 2000. Tell me about life as a technologist in those days! What kept you busy? What differs from now and is there anything you miss about those times?
Sunny> Certainly the internet was very different back then compared to where things are now. It was very much an unknown frontier with many of today’s well established standards yet to even be discovered. However, one similarity for technologists back then was we still had to stay on top of trends and continually learn as technologies evolve and paradigms shift. If there’s anything I miss about that era, it’s really the optimism the internet created for us. Compare that to today when reading about tech news (or any news for that matter) can evoke the opposite.
LBB> How did you end up doing that in the first place? Was it a planned thing or more a happy accident?
Sunny> Both. I had always planned to work in technology and with the internet so I explored any suitable opportunity early in my career. It just so happened the opportunity was a position at a creative advertising agency. Happy accident is very appropriate here, given how things turned out with the work I’ve done, the amazing colleagues I’ve had the good fortune to learn from and amazing clients who gave us the opportunity to accomplish so much.
LBB> Tell me about your first encounters with technology. Where does that interest come from? And did it manifest at an early age?
Sunny> Even before the advent of the internet, I was always into gadgets and electronics, and I had a natural knack for programming and math. In this regard, I consider myself fortunate to have a successful career in an area of where there is so much natural affinity and joy.
LBB> I find the CTO / director of technology role interesting because it can mean really different things within different companies. What does it mean for you and Barbarian?
Sunny> Titles don't mean much to me, though they do set different perceptions and expectations for clients, coworkers, acquaintances and others. What matters more than title is accomplishments, which includes ensuring your team is learning and thriving, your colleagues are set up for success and our clients achieve their goals. Ultimately, Barbarian is very well positioned, and I am proud to be part of what we are doing now and excited about the possibilities ahead.
LBB> You're fairly new to the role - what are your main aims and ambitions for it and the agency?
Sunny> Barbarian has a long and storied history as a digital creative agency. The tech team will build upon that DNA and work with the other disciplines to identify what our niche is compared to our contemporaries in this world that’s coming out of Covid. What kind of work and messaging are our clients looking to us for help creating and refining? And do those match our mutual values?
LBB> You're passionate about a customer-centric approach to technology versus the need to play with innovative new technologies - can you expand on that thought? Do you think adland has an issue with using technologies for the sake of it? How can you ensure you're utilising them with the customer in mind?
Sunny> It is always best to put clients' needs first, though we are always eager when the opportunity for innovation presents itself. One possible way to get the most of these opportunities is to push the envelope, but at the same time put the proper strategy and metrics in place to understand goals, results and ultimately ROIs. Properly analysing these engagements is the key to help visualise to the client the outcomes and can even help us learn from our initiatives.
LBB> The pandemic has really accelerated digital transformation for many brands and industries. Do you agree with that? How can brands and their agencies stay abreast of those evolutions?
Sunny> Absolutely agree. Agencies can help clients' digital transformation by truly understanding needs and pain points, leveraging knowledge and experience to create a one-of-a-kind solution and applying the right knowhow and discipline to execute properly. Additionally, Barbarian's technical approach is having a broad range of technical experience and approaching with a flexible mindset is also very important because no one solution will ever fit all clients.
LBB> The word technology is extremely broad, and I think that it can maybe be a bit intimidating to some people. So, how important is it for you and how much of your role is actually ensuring that your clients are clued up enough to make the most of what is at hand to them and making sure that they're educated as to what they can do?
Sunny> Being the most technical leader in any given room (or Zoom room) requires a bit of subtlety from time to time. Shall we do a deep dive with a lot of technical jargon? Is this a moment where some education would be helpful? Or is it better to just ‘translate’ instead? Making the wrong choice can create confusion or can even be disastrous. Regardless, having trust will make any of these conversations much easier, so it’s really important to earn it and maintain it.
LBB> This is almost the same question as before but how do you ensure that creatives are up to speed on what they can do and when that can be done from a technology standpoint?
Sunny> Under the leadership of our amazing ECD Resh Sidhu, the creative team at Barbarian is very much aligned with the technology team in exploring new technology when we can while still producing impeccable creative digital deliverables when we cannot. We respect each other, keep each other honest and always have our clients' best interests in mind.
LBB> Thinking back to 20 years ago when your career started, it was about creating a campaign for a client and the industry was quite simple - whereas now so much of advertising is about the customer journey, as opposed to just a piece of communication. Where do you sit within that journey and how does technology improve that journey for the consumer?
Sunny> As I mentioned our strong collaboration between technology and creative at Barbarian, another key partnership is between the technology team and the strategy team led by our chief strategy officer, Eliza Yvette Esquivel. At kickoff, we synergise with the analytics team to ask all the right questions, offer solutions if it makes sense and implement a strong strategy to track and understand the user journey. The answers to these last two questions really highlight reasons Barbarian is doing so well.
LBB> Is there a piece of technology that you find particularly exciting at the moment? Think outside of work here!
Sunny> I suppose I could give a stock answer such as mixed reality, AI, blockchain, etc., but I won’t. What is truly exciting to me is the potential of seeing what the creative community will do to try to address the many problems exposed in the modern world due to the pandemic. It would be amazing if we enter an age of innovation and progress as has sometimes occurred in the aftermath of previous major crises.