Not-so-Mad Men

An online advertising firm’s totally sane journey into the digital frontier

Ladder3-4Who: Stephen Beck
What: Digital marketer, creative director, technologist and co-founder of Engine Digital
Where: Vancouver

The topography of the digital landscape shifts constantly as the tectonic plates of technology form and reform, seemingly overnight. Five or six years ago, for instance, venture capitalists weren’t sinking hundreds of millions into the development of iPhone apps. Digital advertising, meanwhile, has gone from the peripheral vision of most web users to a key part of the online experience.

Stephen Beck of Engine Digital in Vancouver
Stephen Beck of Engine Digital in Vancouver. Photo by Amy Pelletier

Stephen Beck has watched this shift, first as an interactive art director at a Vancouver-based ad agency – though nobody really calls them ad agencies anymore, they’ve become one-stop-media shops – and then as the co-founder of Engine Digital. Over the past seven years, Engine has shifted its focus from web development to online advertising that’s like nothing you’d find at Sterling Cooper. “We decided early on that, for the most part, we would need to look outside our sandbox for the kinds of clients who think big, and expect big things from their creative partners,” Beck says. Those partners include Blue Man Group, Nintendo and Telus (along with creating Telus’ digital campaigns they worked on its corporate social responsibility report).

Beck’s own career represents a kind of morphology not unlike what’s happening in technology. When he was laid off as an interactive art director at a local agency, he gathered a colleague, Richard Gallagher, and they launched their own studio. They soon brought in Kele Nakamura as a partner and technical director. “Our start-up was very grassroots,” Beck says. “We used our network to generate our first client projects.” Eventually those networks expanded; even the economic downturn didn’t have as great an impact on them as it did for other digital agencies.

Engine Digital and Beck’s place in the slipstream of online commerce has become a paragon for a new kind of work, one where the person and the professional drive each other. (“There is no such thing as a part-time innovator,” he says.) Beck’s online presence – on Twitter and LinkedIn – supports the brand of his company. His Twitter feed reflects this intermingling with reverent (and irreverent) commentary on his industry, sometimes linking to innovative projects or ideas. Mixed in is that loosely curated, quirky stream of thought inherent in the medium. Sample tweet: a link to someone who’s re-tweeting the entire script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

He’s looking for this same fluidity when he’s recruiting staff. “When we interview,” he says, “we’re looking at the relationship that this person has with the Internet, and whether they know the rules and have a desire to break them.” AsThomas Edison put it, “Hell, there are no rules here – we are trying to accomplish something.”

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