#CSinterviews Keith Ciampa, Partner and Chief Creative Officer, Cibo



How would you describe your job to an alien?

It’s always better to demonstrate rather than talk about what you do, so first I would ask the alien to describe their job, mission, goals, and who their customers are. All aliens have business goals. They’re not exploring intergalactic space and time for fun.

Then we would need to agree to a strategy, budget and some kind of medium of exchange, from what I understand aliens prefer an open source payment system like Bitcoin.

Finally I would share 2-3 creative concepts with the alien to help them reach their alien goals. Of course we would present at least one concept that would be outside of the alien’s comfort zone so we could gauge their appetites for doing innovative work.


How did it all start, and how have you got to where you are today?

After dropping out of Art School at University of Denver to pursue a life of partying and snowboarding, I honed my desktop publishing skills on band flyers, CD covers and fake IDs. Then I continued my journey West and landed in San Francisco where I took a legit job working on Southern Pacific Railroad creating print ads for industry publications like Tank Containerization World and Logistics Management.

After a few years at the railroad and having gained some new skills I moved back to my hometown of Boston in 1994 where I got my first ad agency gig at Houston Herstek Favat. At HHF I worked my way up from designer in the studio building mechanicals to art director by taking advantage of every opportunity to throw my concepts into the ring. Before the web I started designing kiosks and CD-ROMs, which evolved to first generation websites for brands like Converse and The Truth Campaign.

When HHF was acquired by Arnold I moved to NY to start Deutsch’s digital department and to become one of the youngest CDs at a big NY agency. After that I bounced from traditional to digital agency and back, chasing opportunities to work on the best brands and learn from the most talented people in the industry. That’s basically how I ended up at Cibo.


Which projects that you’ve been involved with, are you most proud of?

While at Deutsch I supervised the design, UX and technology for IKEA.com. We did some pretty innovative things even by today’s standards.

At Goodby Silverstein & Partners I oversaw a city wide interactive social game we called The Yahoo! Bus Stop Derby, where San Francisco neighborhoods competed for the city’s best block party with OK Go.


What are the biggest challenges you’re faced with in your work at the moment and how do you overcome them?

Everyone wants a responsive website these days. The challenge is that when you design for so many different breakpoints and devices, it’s as if you are essentially designing five different websites. Add a bit of complexity to the design and you have just quadrupled the difficulty. This is why if you look at sites that use all kinds of cool features like full bleed video, complex animations, parallaxing and scroll jacking, they are probably not responsive.

At Cibo we have a lot of experience building responsive sites and we overcome these challenges by educating clients on how going responsive impacts resources, timelines and budgets. We also learned that it helps to build proof of concepts to identify UX and technology issues early on. And we are always trying to find better processes, tools, etc. that help us work more efficiently.


What’s been your biggest learning throughout your career so far?

I’m still learning every day. The more I learn the less I realize I know. That’s what makes what we do interesting.

The digital landscape changes so fast that anyone who claims to be an expert is lying. If you think you have it all figured out you have boxed yourself in and you are no longer relevant. You have to continually experiment, keep an open mind, and surround yourself with people and clients who are innovators and who are willing to take risks and learn together.


What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen recently?

I’m obsessed with stories of people who are using technology for good. You probably remember the viral video of the father who used a 3D printer to print a $100 prosthetic hand for his son. This inspired me to try and sell a concept to a client where we would build a mobile prosthetics lab with a Sprinter Van, a couple cheap 3d printers and some laptops. The mobile lab would travel through emerging markets responding to tweets from people who were in need of prosthetics. Unfortunately to most clients these kinds of ideas sound like a lot of work and red tape. It’s a lot easier to piggyback onto something that has already been done and attach a brand’s name to its success than to create something authentic.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

When your name is on the work you have to take full responsibility for the end product.

If you are going to put a concept in front of a client you better be ready to stand behind it fully, because they may chose the weakest concept.

Nobody can force you to produce bad work. If you put something out into the world that sucks you can’t blame the client, the account person, the budget, timeline, etc.

Never hand something off to tech or a production partner and hope for the best. You have to guide the work through every stage of the process. Allowing others to plus it, while protecting the original idea from those who may comprise it.


Where do you do your best thinking?

I do my best thinking when I’m outside of the office. Sometimes I do my best work when I’m sleeping. I will often wake up in the middle of the night and write down an idea.

There is a saying that goes something like, “When the cows are out to graze don’t hook up the milkers.”

Due to shrinking budgets and timelines creatives often have less time to graze, to chew on a brief, to digest, to think, to find inspiration. The results of this are the creative product suffers.

At Cibo we try hard to balance work and life. To encourage employees to go out into the real world and have real experiences that feed their passion and help them find their inspiration.


If you could travel in time, where would you go and what would you do?

1969, the year I was born. I would go to the Woodstock Music Festival.


If you could work with anyone on a project, who would it be and what would you do?

Elon Musk. To launch Tesla’s Model X by being the first fully electric car to compete and finish the most difficult nonstop off-road race in the world – The Baja 1000. I would let Elon pilot the race car, since he owns the team and I would ride shotgun.


Tell us something about yourself that not many people know?

I solo raced the Baja 1000 on a motorcycle and almost died in the desert from severe dehydration before being rescued by my mechanic and chase crew.


If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?

The easy answers to this question would be; I would have designed a smart thermostat that you can control with your phone and sell it for 3.2 billion dollars. The truth is I don’t really believe in dwelling in the past or future. I’d rather focus on enjoying the here and now.


Who or what have had the biggest influences on your work?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with and learn from some of the best creatives in the industry. But the people I have learned the most from are junior creatives and technologists who aren’t jaded by what is or isn’t possible. They also keep me up to date on emerging technology, design and they have killer pirated music collections.


What’s next?

Well, this may sound a little weird, but… I’ve been dating my OS.

Seriously though, I do think AI is going to play a large role in our future, especially in marketing. In ten years it wouldn’t surprise me if every ad agency had a Chief Algorithm Officer. Unlike the film “Her” hopefully we’ll integrate AI and technology into our lives in more invisible ways.

In San Francisco we are already seeing a backlash against Glassholes. Try going to a bar in the Mission wearing a pair of Google Glasses and you won’t make it through your first artisanal cocktail before being bum rushed out the door.

Eventually Google, or a smaller more innovative company who Google will buy, will find more natural ways to integrate hands free display and AI into our lives when and where it’s appropriate.

At Cibo we are experimenting with ways to use AI with ecommerce.


Keith Ciampa (@KeithCiampa)