Words with David Shing, AOL’s Digital Prophet

This conversation with AOL’s David Shing took place in a room behind the stage of the Ellinikos Kosmos auditoreum one day before the 2012 TEDxAthens conference. David, fresh off his brief rehearsal, spoke to me about technology, culture, and the future. 


You’re a digital prophet. What is that about?

My background is creative. I started out as a designer in Australia and then sort of fell ass backwards into being a marketeer. Later on in life I moved into the digital spectrum, still basically being a marketeer and a creative maven. I’ve co-authored six internet patents that are all based in technology and authoring and design.

Have they been used anywhere I might know?

No, they haven’t been licensed, they’re proprietary to a company I’m a still a founder of. My main job at AOL two years ago was to be head of media and head of marketing in Europe. So I ran the publishing teams and I ran the marketing teams. My part time job, however, was to go into the marketplace and talk about what’s going on in the industry. I found out that agencies and clients really needed that education. As much as I thought they were savvy, they weren’t. So it kind of became the third part of my job. My boss in New York saw that and asked me to move back to New York and become a full time evangelist. I’d rather not be called an evangelist, though. I prefer the term prophet.

You don’t like the word? 

Yeah, most evangelists I know are product evangelists. I’m not. I am agnostic to AOL. I tend to spend 80% of my time looking at what’s going on in the marketplace and only 20% of my time is dedicated to AOL.

And then you get feedback back to AOL. 

I consult back to the business of AOL, depending on which business needs my consulting, and I mentor the creative team as well.

Are you the kind of guy who goes to the teams as an outsider and tells them what to do differently? 

I give them suggestions. Whether they choose to implement them is up to them. A lot of times they don’t.

How do they treat you?

They’re really receptive, because I’m agnostic, and seen as a thought leader for the business, so I have the ear to some of the teams and they tend to respect it. But AOL is a big company, there’s 5500 people and it’s sometimes hard to communicate with them. I do that depending on which team needs the most work, which in the case of New York is primarily the sales team and media teams. The mobile team is out in Palo Alto, I don’t get to visit them specifically very often -I do get to Palo Alto, but I don’t get to see them enough.

What about content? 

I’m not involved with that.

Give me an example of a project that came out of your contribution. Something that you saw out there and brought into AOL and was turned into a new product or changed an existing product somehow. 

I saw an opportunity for us in the UK to go off to women. There was a market need there, so I qualified that against the sales team: If we were to build something around women there, could they go out and sell it? Then I worked with the creative team to make sure that it would be a proposition that would appeal to women. Then we looked at influencers and commissioned a couple of celebrities to specifically write content unique to that. It was part of the distribution plan, to feed off their social network. We ultimately launched into the marketplace and it became the top women’s site in the UK in twelve months. It’s called My Daily.

You travel around the world and encounter different types of marketplaces. Our marketplace has some unique attributes you probably won’t find anywhere else. Where should we look for inspiration? 

I think there are three cities that you should look at, that are getting it right in technology. They’re sort of obvious, but not really. There is Detroit, that has a beautiful underbelly of arts, music, video and content that people aren’t really recognizing, they’re just starting to. So I think Detroit is going to be a force to reckon with. There’s Denver Colorado, because of its location -it’s easy to get anywhere else. But also because companies that understand that the balance between life and work is important move there. The other place is Austin, Texas, which is hard to get to, but they have this environment in which they encourage young people to explore ideas. They have incentives for artists and also big companies based there. The thing that’s interesting is that it all comes down to this: If you’ve got a great incubative culture, then you start to attract the people who are curious. And those who are curious, the creative class, tend to come into a place and make it culturally relevant. The creative culture is the start, and then everything else follows. You have a run-down neighborhood, the creative culture moves in, it becomes commercialized, with that comes great property, it becomes too expensive, and the creatives go somewhere else.

So the creative culture is the start, then the incubative culture sets in, and it all goes on from there. 

I believe so.

Why? What are the tangible reasons behind this? 

I don’t know, it’s just a gut feeling. It’s things that I see, given that I’m married to an artist as well. I see it everywhere. New York is now too expensive for artists to live in, so the creatives are moving to Brunswick. Which is a hole in the wall. But it’s going to become very cool very quickly. We can see examples of that everywhere, even back in the day, with Andy Warhol’s studio in Soho, the careers and the movements that happened there.

The reason I’m asking is, we ‘re looking for solutions right here. How we can build something out of nothing. Sparking a creative mini-renaissance within Athens could be a way for things to blossom. 

Yeah, you could do it two ways: You could either do it as a one big space where you bring people in and they’re able to share knowledge, ideas, training, culture, teaching, which would be the General Assembly model, a true incubator. Sharing ideas could work really well because you seem to have all that space you could use. Or you could do it the other way, collect all those startups in one area, which is what London does.  If you’ve got the space, all you need is some support. You can attract a big technologist, like an Intel, or a Dell or an Apple. That’s where it starts in my mind.

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Where are you headed next, back to New York? 


What’s your schedule like over the next couple of months? 

Tedious. I’m traveling a lot, I’ll be speaking in a couple more conferences, I’ve got client meetings, AOL direct meetings, two internal conferences I’ll have to MC.

Sound exhausting. 

It is.

What do you draw from it. What drives you? 

What really does drive me is the awe in people. If I’m inspiring people, if people are inspired by what I say and I see it in their eyes afterwards, that’s why I do it. That’s why I’m prepared to spend half my life on planes, to go out there and experience this energy.

Even though, by doing what you do, you don’t really come into contact with the product that you are indirectly helping develop. 

I don’t need that to be excited about what I do. My job really is inspiring people to be better than they could be. Let me just explain that very quickly: I’d rather be the king-maker than the king.

There are several types of kings in the world. Could you work like this in other fields, like politics? 

I don’t think so. Technology is in my blood. But if I was to go back into something more organic it would be architecture. The arts, definitely.

The fusion of art and technology seems to be at its early stages.


Where do you think this is headed?

I think we will see more of that. Technology has to advance before the layer cake of art can lay on top of it. Previously a lot of us who tried to invent stuff before the technology was available failed, and I think that is going to continue. But that’s it: Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t work. You need the form. That’s why I think Apple has it right.

There are sectors of technology where we seem to be reaching a stalemate, from batteries to jet engines and beyond. In others, progress seems to have slowed down. I find this terrifying. Are you at all preoccupied with that? 

I don’t subscribe to that wholeheartedly. I think there is evidence that we’re slowing down, but I think that has to do with the importance of technology. I don’t think we ‘re at capacity -I think we are diverting our skills, all our knowledge set, and reforming it into other areas, like efficiency. If you look at some of the projects at Kickstarter, there are new ways to develop energy efficient lightbulbs that don’t require mercury, like the energy efficient light bulbs we use today do. So we ‘re seeing people redirecting their energies into things like that and I think that’s really positive. I think it’s progress.

The main incentive for technological progress has been monetary profit. This seems to have led to problems and stalemates in sectors like the pharmaceutical industry. Are there other ways to spur technological innovation? 

I think that’s a great idea, it’s all about social currency, but we haven’t been able to lock down what that really means. There needs to be a humanity put into it as opposed to just market and profit. As economies continue to tank, new values have to be put into place. One thing we have forgotten about is empathy, and I think it comes full circle now especially when we see conditions that aren’t just market conditions, situations we can control but don’t. You see humans at their best during natural disasters, as sad as that is. That’s when we perform at our best. When I’m talking about social currency I’m talking about things like Taskrabbit.

Taskrabbit has been around for years, hasn’t it? In what way has it been successful? 

In the sense that people who couldn’t find a job have become full-time rabitteers and generate reasonable income, enjoying the work sometimes even more than their primary vocation. That’s also interesting, and you have it here at TEDx as well. You have these amazing volunteers who have taken some time off work to do this because they like the movement.

That’s all about social capital. However, according to research social capital has actually declined during the past few decades. Can technology help to make citizens participate more? 

I don’t know. That’s not a subject I’ve thought about.

What’s your favorite place in the world? 

Wherever my wife is.

What a sweet answer. 

My favorite city is New York city. I also like Hong Kong. It has the same energy, but more people. So many people.

What are your first impressions of Athens? 

You guys never keep time. Ever. That’s from my experience from doing five things today. Actually I don’t mind. I think it’s quite unique and loving. The contrast of optimism is interesting. Almost polarizing. A lot of depressed people, but also optimistic. Most people I’ve been exposed to are half-glass-full people. The other thing is, obviously, the city suffers from broken windows syndrome. There are some very ugly parts of the city and there are some absolutely gorgeous parts and the contrast is quite astounding. But the people generally are fabulous. You guys are open, you approach relationships with an open hand. You seem to be very excited and very effervescent.

You do realize that the people you’ve met here are hardly representative of Greeks today. 

Oh no, I get it. I’ve only met the people who want to make a difference. I know I’m in a bubble.

Tomorrow you’ll experience the full extent of it. It’ll be one of the few days of the year which they get to spend in their bubble together. Everyone will be smiling. 

I’m sure they will. Can’t wait.