A series of interviews with creative and marketing innovators at the 2019 Cannes Lions Creativity Festival: Dan Gardner, Co-Founder, CEO, Code and Theory
Bruce Rogers: Tell us about Code and Theory?
Dan Gardner: We feel we're in a unique position that comes from a digital first perspective.
The company was born this way. We're not just adding on a digital capability mindset to a traditional approach. We understand consumer digital behaviors intrinsically. We understand how those behaviors connect to systems. A third of our company are engineers so we know how to execute from a scale where maybe traditional agencies don't have that in-house.
What we built from day one, with the philosophy that creativity and technology can solve problems is really the same ethos today, except now we have 500 specialists that are integrated in the process and culture together to execute that creativity in a more efficient way; which is really what clients want.
Rogers: When was Code and Theory founded?
Gardner: We started Code and Theory in September 2001. Earlier that year I took a job at Draft to be part of starting their digital department. Not soon after, they did massive layoffs and at the time struggled to understand the role of digital.
Me and my partner were feeling frustration at the ability to execute our digital first ideas within our environment. We had new ideas on ways we wanted to tackle business problems in a digital universe. We thought “well, why don't we just start a company?”
Rogers: How old were you when you started Code and Theory?
Gardner: 22. So I was extremely naïve, to say the least. We didn’t know anyone, but we did have strong ideas. And it started off very tactical. If you apply this technology to this, we can create a cool experience that could be meaningful. Back then it was basically glorified freelancing as a team until we started to add some scale.
Rogers: Tell me more about the beginning days?
Gardner: We were very experimental in the early days which led us to actually create things like the first Flash video player for Sony Music which at the time was recognized on the front page of Macromedia’s web site. They labeled us as groundbreaking for that work, which catapulted us into a new vertical of distributing content through digital channels.
That allowed us to start doing a lot of work in the Connected TV space. It was really immature from a from a digital perspective at the time because of rights and bandwidth restrictions, but through that, we were able to carve out huge differentiation that we weren't just like a traditional marketing company. We were something more and different.
And along the way, we added other business services that we could deliver around our digital first capabilities, because it wasn't too soon after that we started to realize that no matter how good we were at the creative execution part of digital, that if a business wasn't set up to actually support what we built, then the business couldn’t even take advantage of the digital execution. So we focused on building well rounded consultative and strategic service offerings.
Rogers: Did you personally learn how to code and create because you were frustrated that the creative process couldn't infuse technology with the creative processes or did you find somebody to help you with the tech side?
Gardner: In the early days we were coding and designing. That was an advantage back then and in many ways as a company, it still is. Plus, my college roommate was a computer science major that became our first CTO which was serendipitously an advantage.
Rogers: How do you go from a creative perspective to an engineering perspective?
Gardner: It's a good question that I think a lot of companies are challenged in doing. I think naturally, it's always been part of our DNA to balance the understanding of technology and creativity. That said, we have a process that infuses those talents together to solve business problems, so it is not be creative than deliver via technology, but more of using technological approaches as part of the creative process.
Rogers: How is the agency growing today and what does your competition look like?
Gardner: We continue to have double digit growth year over year. I'm going to oversimplify our competition into three categories. First would be the “digital first” positioned companies, but often times they become only at-scale digital production companies and lack the ability to create strategic approaches. Next are the traditional ad agencies that are trying to reinvent themselves and say that they do digital, which do digital tactics, but they still struggle to provide digital strategy which gets to the point of the last bucket. In the last couple years we have seen the consultants try and enter our space but have struggled on infusing creative and digital tactics together in a efficient and holistic way. This is why we feel we are uniquely positioned that we have built a company from the ground up to understand business challenges which often times need to connect the operations, technology systems and data in a consistent way that then delivers on products, services and communications.
Rogers: Where did you grow up?
Gardner: I grew up on Long Island as a middle child with super competitive brothers in a non-wealthy divorced household, I always had the independence to solve problems on my own which gave me this lower middle-class mentality of, if I want something, the only way I'd get it is by going for it. And with passion, creativity and curiosity I’ve tried my best. I went to Northport High School then went on to study at SUNY University of Buffalo where I received a BFA with a concentration in computer art.
I had a good experience at my University, but at the time, it's not like there were professors that had two decades' experience with Photoshop, Flash or “solving digital problems” because that just didn't exist yet. In the summer during school I got an internship at a New York City agency dotcom to gain some practical knowledge. After I graduated, I worked at Draft briefly, and then when I realized that wasn’t the place for me, I started Code and Theory.
Rogers: Thank you.