AOL’s digital prophet David Shing on ‘that’ job title and how brands can be the ‘calm in the chaos’

AOL’s David Shing talks to Marketing Week about the success of Huffington Post, the difference between “always on” and “always relevant” brands and predicting the future of the marketing industry.

Shing should need little introduction. He has been at AOL since 2007 in various top marketing roles but in 2011 became the brand’s “digital prophet”.

What does that mean, you might ask. His official job description is to “identify new opportunities for AOL, actively change brand perception and assist in building the external profile of the company across the globe”.

He speaks at conferences, presents to agencies and clients and develops creative solutions for them.

He admits it is a title he made up himself because it sounded “more fun and interesting”. Here he offers his thoughts on the AOL brand, where the marketing industry is going and why brands should be “always relevant rather than “always on”

What do you do in your role as digital prophet?

It became clear that we needed a body or something to help change the perception of not just AOL but the marketplace. I made up a title that was more fun and interesting than calling myself an executive creative director or some shit like that.

My job is really to distill down trends and put them in a context or story for brands, agencies or clients, family and friends or whoever the hell will listen to me really. A lot of my work is obviously speaking to large audiences but tiny audiences as well who are doing specific things for brands.

A lot of it is broad and wide and some of it is very intimate and deep, which is a reflection of the industry I think. People want to know what’s going on big scale but then they say how does it apply to me?

I also do an interview series called Shingaviews and get to interview amazing creatives from across the planet.

So where do you think the marketing industry is going?

What’s happened is you’ve got media agencies acting more like creative agencies and creative agencies acting like media agencies. Everybody is trying to come up with how to understand what this new fragmented market of communications looks like.

I used to say that technology fragments, but I actually now think it fuses. Back in the day there were five channels – now there’s gotta be 50 channels people have to be on.

It’s not about advertising any more, it’s about marketing. The best brands are those that understand that it’s no longer just about awareness based advertising, which is what we’ve done in the past. It’s about brands having conversations with consumers, which is really new.

“The best brands are those that understand that it’s no longer just about awareness based advertising, which is what we’ve done in the past. It’s about brands having conversations with consumers.”

David Shing, AOL’s digital prophet

What gives me hope is when marketing reflects back changes in society in a very smart way and what we’ve got is something that was a moment turning into a movement. I think P&G was celebrated beautifully this year with ‘Like a Girl’, which really voices the gender bias that we’ve had.

Under Armour was another one – they’re a masculine sports brand turning more into a feminine brand.

Brands understand they’re not always going to get it right. If they’re arrogant they’re just setting themselves up for slam.

We’re seeing a lot of brands adopt a “reactive” or “always on” marketing strategy. Do you think that’s the way forward?

No. Always on versus always relevant is a different discussion. Brands don’t always generate breaking news, but they need to be part of the culture and vocabulary. We’re over-consumed with too much information, so it’s about how do you be the calm on the chaos?


Is there still space for traditional media in marketing?

Absolutely. It all matters. I’m not here to argue against it.

People still talk about television as being the first screen, but it’s whatever screen you face and you’re engaged with. Television is having a hot moment – we’re not here to fight against it we’re here to complement it. People just want to consume content in any form they want.

In some countries some of the traditional markets are still growing. The newspaper is still growing in Asia. There are opportunities there as well.

But mobile penetration across the world is high. Here in the UK I think 80% of people have mobile phones. It’s all about captivating people on mobile first and making sure the experience is engaging and has usefulness.

What’s the role of content and creativity in this channel-focused world?

At the moment we have programmatic which gives us the width to which we want to engage people and gives you a big audience, but real engagement comes with native advertising.

If brands can’t do content I think they need to be associated to it. The powered by, sponsored by, brought to you by content hasn’t run its course yet. Consumers are super smart. We don’t have to treat them like idiots.

Where is AOL as a business now?

In six years we went from having a reputational of being a brand that was an access company to being a brand that’s one of the largest media companies on the planet. Verizon purchased us, then just last week we announced we were partnering with the Microsoft team to be able to sell their inventory as well.

Two things there are right: one of them is our ad tech, which is really something that we’ve invested in heavily as an organisation.

Then stealthily we’ve made some super smart acquisitions along the way like Huffington Post – when you look at that acquisition it was pretty cheap when you compare what other people are buying organisations for and it was way ahead of the curve. What that gave us was a consumer brand and social fuel to understand the mechanics of what makes things contagious.

The strategy for AOL to go international from a consumer-facing brand was Huff Post – it has the energy, power, right type of scope and audience type that make it very attractive for us to launch in other countries.

So while our ad tech scales us, we’ve got these amazing consumer brands above surface. We also have Engadget, TechCrunch and we have these other brands that are all sites that are really top in their current category.

A lot of people don’t know they’re owned by AOL and we don’t care. In the B2B space they know who AOL is. To the general populus, if they have an affinity for the AOL brand they already probably use us and if they don’t have an affinity for the brand they probably use us in different ways.

What opportunity do you see for your brands such as Huffington Post to be even better in the digital space?

For me it’s not about page views, it’s about dwell time and engagement and who scrolls and how much they read and click on the play button. It’s about sight sound and motion, it’s not just about the written word. We’re doing a lot of that – we’re overindexing in video. A lot of things you see in traditional media are now happening on digital platforms.

I will also argue that the way that we engage with brands is how we pay rent. Our job is to bring audiences to brands and brands to audiences. It’s about how do you take a brand and say instead of being an advertising brand, how do we help you market your brand better in the context of the audiences we have.

Success is really defined by adoption and if more and more people adopt us as a habit. We want the first thing people reach for in the morning to be owned by AOL.



Samsung backs AOL video ad unit launch

Ronan Shields

Nike, Samsung and Italian football team AS Roma are among the first brands to initially back the launch of AOL’s new content marketing service Be On, as the online advertising company eyes an increased share of TV ad budgets.