Summit/2020 make|SHIFT Panel: How Brands & Agencies Are Using Creative Technology to Adapt to a New Reality and Protect the Brand Experience

Over the last year, WP Engine created a feature-length documentary, make|SHIFT, including some of the top marketing and tech minds in the industry. This film is about adaptability in the face of a constantly changing digital landscape, daring to say “yes” before something is completely ready, and stretching ideas to new experimental applications. Today, this film is more relevant than ever. During WP Engine’s 2020 Summit, Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO at WP Engine, moderates a panel discussion with select cast members of the film.

You can watch the full film for free here.

Video recording of session


  • Moderator: Mary Ellen Dugan, CMO at WP Engine 
  • Wesley ter Haar, Co-founder at MediaMonks 
  • Isabel Kantor, Senior VP of Technology at Organic
  • Charles Duncan Jr., VP of Technology at Elephant
  • John Eckman, CEO at 10up

Panel discusses:

  • What was the first time you saw something digital on the web that made you say “Wow, that is really innovative?”
  • How do we make a personal digital experience now? How do we combine art and science in the right way for our audience? 
  • What are some of the technologies that we need to be on the lookout for? 
  • How do WordPress and open source really help you break through digitally for some of the things you’re creating for your clients?  
  • What are some of the skill sets we’re going to need going into the future?

So this idea of one message for everyone, I think, has never been less timely.

—Wesley Haar, MediaMonks

Full text transcript



Welcome to this session of the WP Engine Summit/2020. I’m Mary Ellen Dugan. I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at WP Engine. And I’m really excited to be moderating this panel.


We’re going to be discussing the insights and the themes that came out of a documentary that we created this past year called make|SHIFT.


If you haven’t seen make|SHIFT after the summit, go to I promise you it will be an hour well worth your time.


It’s really insightful. And selfishly, I would say it’s a little entertaining as well for marketers, advertisers and even family members.


So one of the questions I always get is, why’d you do a documentary?


At WP Engine, we work with 4500 agencies. And we were really, really interested in exploring how have agencies navigated and adapted to this constantly changing digital landscape.


How do agencies use creative technology and what they produce both strategically and creatively for their clients?


Does it change the skill set you need at the agency, the business model? 


So in order for us to actually get some of these insights, we partnered with a company

called September Club, great documentary team, and our own agency, HeyLetsGo in Boston.


And we said, let’s go talk to some thought leaders. We convened 40 thought leaders across the globe to explore this whole conversation around what’s the impact of creative technology over the years on advertising and really, frankly, marketing.


And I’m really excited. I’ve got four thought leaders here today with me.


So on the panel today, I have Wesley ter Haar, who’s the co-founder of MediaMonks. I have Isabel Kantor, Senior Vice President of Technology at Organic. Charles Duncan, Jr., Vice President of Technology at Elephant. And John Eckman CEO of 10up.


So before we get started, for those who maybe haven’t seen the film, let’s run a really quick 60 second clip of the trailer and then we’ll get started.



My son told me, “Dad, you

need to get out of advertising.”


“Okay, why?”


“Because it sucks.”


– The late 80s, early 90s the industry, it was a 30-second ad, it was a full page ad, it was an outdoor billboard..


– And the internet changed everything.


– You guys make websites.


– Yeah, sure. Yeah, we make websites.


– Everything just rushed into the web.


– Brands pretty much just had to get online.


– Companies started to build barely brochure style sites.


– Banner ads. They just didn’t know other ways to use the internet.


– They talked about interactivity.


I remember thinking, but why is no one being interactive? Let’s only do that.


– The subservient chicken looks like a low quality porn film.


– What’s an experience we can deliver through this technology that’s meaningful.


– Apple is going to reinvent the phone.


– You need a lot of work to be very good at a thing and then it can be completely unimportant a month later.


– These tools began to put content in people’s hands.


– Think of all the things we could do if they have access at all times.


– Meanwhile, collect all this data. I didn’t wanna know that.


– The power shifted.


– How did we ever think that for 50 years, people were gonna sit quietly and be just a passive observer. That was never going to be sustainable.


– People don’t want to feel marketed to. They’re craving the truth.


– Maybe it’s only that now we’re thinking about the person on the other side.


– But the best experiences are the experiences that just make you feel.


– We’re moving, literally at the speed of culture now, hopefully, in some cases faster than that.


– The number one question I find racing through my mind is what should we do, what should we make?


And then the answer is like, well, anything.


(dramatic music)


– The challenge really is how can we hack whatever’s next.




– So hopefully, if you’ve watched that, that’s intriguing you to watch the full film. There is a lot of history in there. There’s a lot of great stories, a lot of great examples.


And so I want us kick off this conversation as a rapid fire question.


For each of our panelists, what was the first time you saw something on the web, something digital, that you really said, “Wow, that is really innovative?” From a technology standpoint and really said, “Whoa, maybe even that’s the business I want to be in.”


John, why don’t you kick us off? What was the first thing you saw that really intrigued you?



– Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, it makes me feel old, but for me, it was really when the IMG Tag first got introduced into NCSA Mosaic when Marc Andreesen was just an undergrad college programmer, helping build the first web browser.


I had spent many years as a bulletin board system user and an IRC user and MUDs and MOOs and all these very text based things.


And all the sudden here was imagery, right, which just sounds rather antiquated now, but was really radical and new to see images and later animated gifs.


And of course, later we got movies and everything else, but just that first sense of images.


And for me, it wasn’t so much “Oh, here’s now a thing that brands can use.”


It was really adding that to all this community interaction and other kinds of interaction I’d already seen made me realize this is really gonna transform our lives, right and how brands fit into that came a lot later for me.



– I’m gonna tell my 15 year old that these things were different. Isabel, what was the first thing that really jumped out at you?



– Yeah, so it was a project that was a physical installation and it was in the digital realm.


So it was called the interactive “Wooden Mirror” by Daniel Rozin. And it seems even as I think about it now, it was a wooden mirror with small little pieces of wood that would act as pixels.


And you would have a camera that would take a photo of a person and then each pixel would shift its position to basically mirror your image.


And it was back in 1999 when Daniel Rozin first created it, and it’s hard to believe, because it seems like a pretty modern project, but he came up with it back then.


And I remember seeing it for the first time at NYU and thinking to myself, wow, this is an amazing project that really shows how creative you can be with technology.


And I think it was the first time that I realized, I’m really passionate about this. And I want to do more and find out more, how you can be creative by using technology.



– Oh, this is great. I think I’m learning more about our panelists from these stories. This is fantastic. Charles, what was your first aha moment?



– So, my first aha moment would have been those early 90s search engines. Those Link forms, Excite, Lycos, Yahoo.


And for me it was the fascination with the internet was it was this gateway to information.


And even though a lot of those pages were glorified link forms, some search algorithms, I was just fascinated with what you can get access to.


And the first website that I built myself was in ’94, which essentially was that same thing, a link from, relevant information, and it was just in for fascinating that you could share and create all that one place.



– That’s fantastic. Last but not least, Wesley, what’s your moment that really stood out?



– I just got really into chat rooms in I think 1998. And I was going to college at that time and we would have lessons to learn how to make SQL databases and the likes.


But I would just spend all the time in random chat rooms. Which made it a lot easier to drop out because my grades definitely were not what they should have been.


But that’s where the initial excitement just came from, just the joy of wasting time to a new medium.


And because of that you start getting into some of the more creative parts of the industry as well. But it really started just with chat rooms.



– I love that. We’ve done a lot of research, now Gen Z feels like they can learn anything on the internet, even more than a college degree.


So I think you were way ahead of your time, Wesley. Although I don’t know, like I said, I’ve got this 15 year old. I don’t know, I’ll have to have him watch this.


Well, thank you, that’s really exciting. Thank you for giving, I think the audience a sense of each of you, how you got into this, how you were thinking and you obviously were child prodigies, ’cause that was in the 90s. And now we’re a few years later. So, all good.


I think we’re in this challenging time right now, but also an exciting one. At WP Engine, we’re hearing a lot of people in the last couple of months have really this conversation of how do I accelerate my digital footprint, my landscape?


For some people, the front doors change, right. They’ve got to change their digital, how they approach customers, everything’s virtual or online.


So I’d love to kick us off of what are you guys hearing at your different agencies? Have projects changed? What does digital transformation really look like?


So, Charles, why don’t you kick us off? What are the client requests you’re seeing just in the last couple months? Have they changed because of COVID or not?



– So I think the one area where we’re seeing a little bit of a change, but I would fully predict will get larger are — at one point, it was fine to check the digital checkbox.


Hey, I’m selling products online, I have a website, right.


But now particularly when you look at the COVID situation, supply chain disruptions, companies that are relying upon other platforms for their services, wanting to take maybe a bit more ownership or wanting to understand how can we take more ownership?


What’s it gonna cost us, what’s it gonna mean?


Just so they have greater control over their digital ecosystem.


I think that’s one area where people need to look under the hood and maybe that’s involving cost saving moves, maybe just to make sure that they don’t have any disruptions in their business.


But it’s something that we’re starting to see a little bit of and definitely would see a little bit more in the future.



– That’s interesting, that whole ownership. Isabel, similar question. Are you seeing the same kind of projects? What are you seeing? Has your brief evolved? What’s happening at Organic?



– Yes, we’re definitely seeing a change. So there’s a couple things that we’ve seen from our clients. One, Commerce, right, has been very important, but all of a sudden, we have some e-commerce clients that are coming to us saying they need to implement curbside pickup. So just the requirements for social distancing, of course have become so important.


So we’re working with our clients to figure out what’s the best way to implement curbside pickup for them. And of course, this has to be done fast.


So we’re looking at lean tech stacks that we can use to do something in just a couple months, which is much faster than it would normally be done.


And then something else we’re seeing with our clients, we had a client request, but also internally with us at Organic as we are working remotely, is what does the office of the future look like?


So we are working with one client on that and looking at our office. What does that look like when people have to socially distance.


We’re looking at software for booking individual desks and allowing employees to reserve a desk for the day or for half a day as they might just come into the office for a particular meeting, but then go back and work remotely.


So these are very interesting challenges from a technology perspective that I’m interested in solving right now.



– Yeah, really, everybody’s thinking they’re a digital business, right. Not just digitally minded.


– John, thoughts that you’re seeing.



– Yeah, I mean, definitely, we’ve seen some of what I think Charles described as cost savings measures, people consolidating maybe who had multiple platforms, they’d accreted over time

onto WordPress as an example as a cost saving measure.


But we’re also seeing people using this technology to power more lightweight innovation.


So one of my favorite 10up clients, a nonprofit called StoryCorps that traditionally involved people getting together physically to record interviews, rolled out very quickly something

called StoryCorps Connect, which becomes the virtual equivalent, right, and allows you to still do the same personal storytelling collection and archiving that StoryCorps has always had as its mission, but in a socially distant way.


It’s been interesting as an agency that’s been 100% deliberately distributed since day one for the last 10 years now, to see what we’ve considered to be the office of the present becoming the office of the future for a lot of people.


But surprisingly, it’s actually been very impactful for us as well.


So it’s one thing when you’re choosing to be remote and you’re choosing to be distributed.


It’s another thing when it’s thrust upon you and all of the parts of your life that used to be the alternative to your working office are now also on Zoom.


So your kids school and your webinars and your concerts and all the things that you would otherwise go do in person now feel like work.


And I feel like it’s the Seinfeld worlds colliding moment. Everyone has invaded my office. But yeah, it’s been a challenging time.



– I’d love to just maybe do a little roundtable on that. I think this question of the of the art and science and that personalized experience, whether it’s predictive or emotional, how do the rest of you feel, Wesley, one, just, we’re trying to solve something for people. We’re not trying to sell them. How do we make that personal experience digitally now? Is it just the science? Do we have the art part? Love to hear your all’s perspective on that.



– So from my perspective and COVID is putting that under a lot of pressure, because we’re all going through a version of the same thing. But we’re all experiencing it in a very different way.


Where there are people that are homeschooling four kids versus people that are home alone and can’t wait to get back out into the real world and interface with people.


So this idea of one message for everyone, I think, has never been less timely.


I think there’s a lot of technology and we often talk about the engineering, but there’s very little empathy built into the engineering.


I think, personalization, in many cases has just become an excuse to do relentless retargeting, which is very irritating and very pushy and also a horrible way to think about adspend, because you’re not just gonna bully somebody into clicking your banner, hopefully.


So I think ad agencies, and if we say let’s expand it into creative part of the industry, has left personalization to technology companies for about a decade now.


I think it’s gotten us to where we are now, which is a place where people, in many cases hate personalization online.


They love personal experiences in the real world. You go to bars and restaurants where people know your name, the cheers moment, the cheers effect.


But that’s not actually what we enjoy now online because it’s a feeling being stalked and harassed. So for me, technology is there.


It’s the empathy to actually be able to tell personal stories and take people down the next most helpful thing that you can potentially do for them.


And that needs creative and it’s been under service from that perspective, in my mind.



– Isabel, oh, Charles, please, Charles.



– No, I was just gonna say that to add on to Wesley’s point. For me, there’s like four ingredients.


There’s creativity,

there’s endless technology,

there’s business need.

And then there’s this what the users, consumers actually need.


And it’s like how do we shift those around to make sure that the work that we’re doing is really focusing on what people want and need in our lives at this time.


Sometimes you work in an agency and it’s about a creative idea. And then just trying to get all the other pieces to align to the creative idea, right.


Sometimes it’s purely just the business idea and get everything to align. But how can we really focus on what people need, people want and then make sure those other pieces support that, right, so people can actually use in their lives.


– Love it. Isabel, you’re gonna round this out. How do you all think about that digital experience, personalizing it and what do we need to be thinking about?



– Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about VR, right, and virtual reality and how that could potentially,, it has the potential to make us feel closer to one another, even though we’re not physically closer.


However, it’s not there yet, right. And I’ve been playing with just some VR options to see, okay, where are we? Is this something we could really use? Can we have a VR meeting for example? And no, not yet.


But I think it has the potential to get there and I think it’s something that is going to get more focus now because it’s so timely.


And maybe this technology will get to a point where it will make us feel closer together and it will be more personal. So I’m pretty excited about that.



– I love that. I love the optimism in this group. This is amazing.


The name of the film make|SHIFT is really in honor of what we learned from agencies of how you all have had to shift and reshift. Technologies have come in and out, emerged, declined.


There’s this wonderful scene — Isabel just talking to you, so we’re gonna stick with you — where Isabel talks about, I found Flash and as a programmer, I became creative.


And Wesley talks about it too. Like, oh my gosh, we learn Flash and then all of a sudden it was like, well, Flash goes away.


So I’d love to for this audience. These are people that work in Open Source, many of them WordPress. But I would love to kick off just you’re all technologists here. What are some of the technologies we need to be watchful of? And looking for? You mentioned VR. You may take us down an Open Source route, or what Isabel, are you thinking of, things that are on your mind as it relates to specific technologies or platforms that we gotta be on the watch out for?



– Yeah, no, that’s a great question. And so VR is one of them, as I just mentioned, but also AI and you mentioned Open Source. There are so many Open Source AI libraries out there that are very interesting that we could use to tinker with and my team has been doing that actually.


So that’s something, another thing that I’ve been watching as well, because I think, and AI is also a technology that tries to be personal, but it’s not a person.


And it’s something else that is in these times interesting to watch and to see how it’s going to evolve. And let’s see how chat bots are going to evolve in this time when everyone needs a human connection and doesn’t want to talk to a chat bot.


And so those are the two things that I’m excited about right now.



– I love it. I’m not sure, Wesley if it’s you or not, but somebody in the film says I hope they’re kind when they come. Intelligence. But anyway.



– That was me. I’m putting my flag down. So hopefully they will.



– When you think about technology, you also mentioned open source makes your teams creative. And it keeps them innovative even as a big team.


What are other technologies, how do you think about this for the future?


I would stick with you Wesley since I called you out about the kind person.



– Oh, technology, it’s interesting. I think over the last few years, we’re definitely seeing rapid innovation and technologies that could change user behavior.


But it’s not really doing that at scale yet. And that, to me is always a bit of a challenging moment.


And then we’re talking about VR and AR. AR to a larger extent than VR, we’re talking about voice. All these things are available. The technology is I think, ahead of the curve in many ways already.


But it’s not necessarily something that people feel comfortable using.


And then you get into a chicken and egg discussion, which is are you gonna do things that are amazing that make people excited by the technology and because of that you create more use cases?


Or are you gonna wait until the user behaviors are at scale to lean into it as a brand and as a company?


So for me, the last few years have been exciting because of some of the changes but also slightly frustrating because I can’t, with good intent, go to my clients and go, we should be all in this technology, even though, especially AR I love.


It’s exciting, I think AR to a large extent has a lot of the originally intended digital. It’s interactive, it’s their story and narrative and technology and it’s tactile.


But it’s frustrating to be able to go to a client and go, let’s put your budget there because I can promise reach and I can promise results.  So we’re in a bit of a holding pattern in my mind. 


I think the technology is ahead of user behavior and ahead of distribution, which is not a great place to be. So it’s a bit of a wait and see. The excitement is there. 



– Leading the way. John, I wanted to, you guys work in open source in WordPress, so predominantly.


And so there’s so much pressure on the marketing team. How do you think about those two things, are WordPress and open source really helping you digitally break through on some of the things you’re creating for your clients? 



– Yeah, I mean, I think you look at the history of the web and the internet itself as fundamentally an open source practice going back to Tim Berners Lee choosing to make the specs for HTTP and HTML public domain and a lot of what has driven that infrastructure has been this spirit of open community collaboration.


It’s what for me was exciting about the days of the early web was not so much the technology itself as the community of people around it.


And when it comes to a platform like WordPress, that’s very much the distinction I often make is that, the software itself is just software, that’s great.


It’s fine, it’s a wonderful platformI love it, but it’s the community around it that really makes the fundamental difference.


What open source as a whole has allowed us to do is essentially commoditize a lot of the plumbing and infrastructure and necessity that undergirds a lot of the things that we do.


And what that means for our clients and for clients of other folks on the call and WP Engine is that we can focus our time and therefore there budget on the things that are most custom to what they’re trying to accomplish, right.


So collaborate with the entire community on the plumbing of the infrastructure and then compete on the actual creative and on the implementation and on the experience that you’re able to create and the products that you bring to market.


It’s created not just a lower licensing fee option, but it really creates a lower barrier of entry that’s enabled a whole community to grow, right.


When I first started building web pages, you didn’t have to get a certificate. In fact, there wasn’t anything to get. You didn’t have to buy any software, it was all fully available.


And the barrier to entry was so low and is so low today that an individual who is willing to devote even a relatively small amount of time to self study has access to the exactly the same platforms that the major media companies and major corporations are using as well.


Not to say they’ll get the same distribution, right. It’s still a bit hard to get heard in this noisy world, but they have the capability to really democratize publishing, which is what’s at the heart of WordPress as a community.



Excellent. We are almost out of time. I’m gonna throw the last question to Charles, because there’s a place in and I think it’d be intriguing for the audience.


Charles, you talked about one of the best things for me was working in a pure digital shop starting off early, ’cause you never looked at one discipline versus another.


And so really having this mindset of the art and science, and how do you think that’s

gonna take us into the future? What are the skill sets that whether you’re small, medium, or large agency, you’re gonna need?



You know, it’s interesting, historically, a lot of our budgets were driven by the CMO suite in terms of the work and obviously the last few years, we’ve seen an increase of the IT, or the CTO suite, particularly as technology plays a much larger role in the work that we do.


So I think that’s gonna continue to increase. How are we gonna continue to use technology in smart ways, how we wanna internally adapt to that, like ideas from a creative mindset aren’t just around pixels or words. They could also be with codes and bring platforms together.


Enterprise platforms, open source platforms, but how are we being creative to bring all that together, right.


So we can serve both IT the CMO suites in the work that we do as an industry.



– That’s fantastic. I feel like actually, you all can’t see my papers below me. But I have so many more questions for this panel and the other 36 people that are in the film, but I really encourage all of you who have watched this panel to go to


There’s just some incredible insightful thoughts about not only the past but how that’s gonna take us into the future.


And so I just as a close want to thank John and Isabel and Wesley and Charles for taking the time to join us today.


Really excited to see what they as we come out of COVID and go on, what all these people strategically and creatively make on behalf of their clients.


So thank you for leading the way with us. And I’m gonna go for a bad pun.


But let’s go make|SHIFT happen. So I love it. Thank you all for being here with us today. Thank you.


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