With over 24 years in digital, John Cunningham bridges the gap between theory and pragmatic innovation for clients, working across technology, CX/UX, design and data disciplines. He has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands globally including HSBC, Credit Suisse, Audi, GSK, P&G, Unilever, McDonalds and US Army to name a few.
Before joining UNLIMITED in 2020 he was group chief technology officer at Wunderman Thompson working with IBM Watson, Salesforce, Sitecore and Adobe for clients such as Centrica, Shell, Volkswagen and BT. Prior to Wunderman Thompson he was global CTO for POSSIBLE and international CTO at Razorfish & Rosetta, overseeing all technology capabilities for clients. He is also a contributor to ArtsThread and has supported them in engaging industry and helping creative grads find work and has advised on platform technology fit and market opportunities for their products.
LBB’s Alex Reeves couldn’t pass up the chance to meet this technologist and find out what’s important to someone like him.
LBB> Was the creative technology world one you knew you’d enter at an early age? Were there any clues you might end up doing something like that?
John> I remember seeing an ad for a Sinclair ZX81 in a Sunday paper and thinking this is the future. So I begged all my family to put my Christmas present money together to get me one… and eventually, I was the proud owner of a Sinclair ZX81 and bulky tape recorder and the envy of all my friends, 1982 was a good year. In my head, the ZX81 sat alongside my fixation with being a prolific artist drawing many variations of a starship and asteroid belt/planet, much to the chagrin of my teachers who kept finding my illustrations in my desk, sometimes in mid-lesson.
LBB> What was your first advertising-based role?
John> My first advertising based role was in the early ‘90s at a fledgling European ISP, called Europe Online. It was a walled garden, with brands paying to sponsor sections of the platform, which was very basic HTML and advertising units were not a thing yet, so we basically invented what worked with our content. We were like a newspaper, with lots of ex-journalists, a newsroom, food critics and reviews, games and films etc. I was then poached to join Compuserve with the senior management, and then followed some of my old Europe Online colleagues to Yahoo! UK & Ireland where I was designing the Yahoo! Masthead and nav as well as ads, landing pages and interstitials for brands like EasyJet, eBay and others.
LBB> The role of chief technology officer means different things in different agencies. For you at UNLIMITED, how would you define it?
John> I’d say I am and always have been a client facing chief technology officer, focused on client challenges and opportunities. At UNLIMITED, my role across the whole group is to support the different teams and capabilities in delivering technology that can support and facilitate advantage for our clients, no matter the vertical or brand challenge. Also, with my background as both a creative director and a CTO, I can mediate and translate between different groups at the client and at UNLIMITED, and across a number of different technologies and platform vendors, having worked with many of them across my career. And it’s all about people, not really the technology. Always start with the human, not the technology which is one of the reasons why I joined UNLIMITED.
LBB> And what sorts of client briefs do you get most excited about and why?
John> That is a tricky question. I get excited about some because of the technology, and some because they move people in a positive way or change their outcomes and are equitable for all parties. One of the most exciting and scary briefs I ever worked on was the launch of the iPhone with O2, that was a true moonshot moment with talent that you only get to work with once, maybe twice in your career if you are lucky. Launch the most eagerly awaited consumer product of the decade, and do not fail, because if you do… three other UK mobile networks are working in parallel. Launch the iPhone, connect with iTunes (oh but we haven’t built that bit yet), accept handsets and accommodate the backend being down for four hours… and if you say yes, you can build it in whatever technology you need to deliver. You never, ever hear that from clients.
LBB> What have been the most successful deployments of creative technology that made you proud recently?
John> Developing a CMS driven Three.js 3D UI that allowed users to discover multiple Apps in a marketplace and switch between a 3D and conventional views. How much weight and complexity do you have to balance in making sure the experience has impact and subtlety of interactions, whilst allowing utility and being usable as well as stunning. Then you start to think about how that works in a Metaverse context, what stays, what goes and how you rethink design patterns.
LBB> When you joined UNLIMITED you spoke about how excited you were to work with The Human Understanding Lab. How does that work intersect with your own expertise and priorities?
John> If your lens is ‘start with the human and not technology’, then The Human Understanding Lab is the perfect mix of agency, martech, neuroscience and behavioural science talent to deliver experiences and content that really changes people’s behaviour. What I and the broader technology team bring to the table is how to scale that insight in a repeatable and robust way through innovative combinations of existing and new technology, mapping process and understanding where we can leverage automation to free up our human talent in The Human Understanding Lab. I also find it incredibly interesting and challenging to apply these tools and approaches to combine data science to analyse personality at scale, as well as analyse what those cohorts are interested in, both now and in the future. How much content do they consume and when, and what length and tone of voice? By understanding this, we can quickly get to a hypothesis which is evidence based, as opposed to gut feel pseudo expertise, which if people were honest, is what most agencies feed clients.
LBB> What do you find is the most useful resource or area of knowledge to draw upon in your work?
John> People. Some people say I don’t say a lot, usually because I am listening to clients, their customers, and our own teams. When I do speak, I like it to be considered and not just me feeling I have to say something, it must be useful and in context. And once I have absorbed what people are saying, I apply my own experience, successes and failures and try to help people benefit from that. I also try to apply approaches and looking at problems from different industries, again drawing on my creative background and its approach to problem solving, design thinking and whole system design.
LBB> Tell us about the work you’ve been doing with ArtsThread. What do you do with them and why do you think it’s important?
John> I met the founders of ArtsThread over a decade ago, whilst attending a London PSFK event. At the time my wife, Lizzie, was setting up an artists collective to try and negotiate in favour of the artists she was seeing being taken advantage of by industry. Her model was to negotiate a royalty on volume of product, as opposed to a one-off fee, usually £250 per design. Designers didn’t understand that once sold, that design was used to mass produce homewares, greetings cards, wallpaper. She made her money on project managing those jobs, artists got their royalties at time of delivery of product to the brand. No returns, everyone was happy. I have collaborated with them in several capacities, originally as technical advisor for their online platform, then product owner trying to form products to match the market and have also introduced them to UNLIMITED’s Digital Division to discuss bringing in talent to our Splendid Creative Academy. Chris Marsh, Splendid UNLIMITED’s CCO, was also a judge on their global end of year show. It’s important because it showcases talent, no matter where it’s from or its socioeconomic background, some of the best grads with the best work have come from very humble backgrounds.
LBB> What do you nerd out on when you’re not thinking about work? And what makes it so interesting to you?
John> Easy question, classic cars and vintage watches. I appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of both, even if they are not as accurate, fast or reliable as I’d like and have spent many a long wait on the roadside for the AA to take me home.
My pet project at the moment is classic car to EV conversion, bridging both my passions for creativity and technology. Once I get into a subject, I tend to fixate on it and learn as much as I can on the topic. I’ve completed a classic car EV conversion course in California and am looking at a couple of projects to convert a Land Rover Defender and a Mercedes SLC. It’s about solving the problem, or the challenge I set myself, whether that be creatively or technically.
Watches are a different challenge and suspect that my eyes might not be up to the task, so dabble with them and maintenance. I am in the middle of building a watch from parts. And there is a small watch graveyard in my desk.