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Digital prophet David Shing: ‘The internet used to be a fun place to be. Now it’s full of anxiety’

In this one-on-one interview, Oath’s David Shing speaks to Mumbrella Asia editor Eleanor Dickinson about the role of a digital prophet, his latest predictions and why he doesn't always get it right.

Over the past few years, David Shing’s appearances on the speaker circuit have drawn more than their fair share of intrigue, perplexity and, on occasion, sheer hilarity.

With his wildly-backcombed hairdo and the lofty title of ‘digital prophet’, the Australian fondly known as ‘Shingy’ has the enviable job of travelling around the world on a six-figure salary to speak on behalf of internet giant Oath at various global conferences.

Although regarded as one media and marketing industry’s go-to speakers for digital trends – as well as one of its most memorable figures – many have called Shing’s credibility into question.

Sometimes referred to as the ‘tech-version of Zoolander‘, Shing was once mocked for speaking “pure gibberish” during one European conference.

Nevertheless, four years on – and one company merger later – Shing is doing the rounds on the conference circuit. Speaking to Mumbrella while on tour in India, Shing discusses why 2018 will be a year of anxiety, the changing role of the chief marketing officers and the pressure of having to get predictions right.

I have to ask: why are you known as a ‘digital prophet’? Did you come up with that job title?

“I used to be the head of media and marketing for AOL Europe, but my part-time job was evangelism. My boss saw me do it and said: ‘Can you come to New York and do that full-time? We’ll call you an evangelist.’ And I said no, Google has an evangelist, Microsoft has an evangelist – I’ll call myself something different. So I came up with ‘prophet’ and the internet will never forget it.”

As the name ‘prophet’ suggests being able to predict the future, do you feel a lot of pressure to make predictions that come true?

“Yes, but you don’t always have to be right. There’s a cartoon of me that has been circulating which says ‘Shingy got it right’. I think in 2012 I said ‘unfriend’ and ‘unfollow’ would be trends and that people are going to think about these groups and find them a bit superficial. And that people are going to be so bombarded with information that they would find it difficult to contextualise everything. I didn’t get it completely right: ‘unfriend’ hasn’t become a trend. But I believe the networks where people build trust are closed by default: What’s App, WeChat, LINE or private Instagram feeds. It’s interesting to see how people go from public to closed personas. But to answer your original question, yes there’s pressure.”

Has there ever been anything you got spectacularly wrong?

“Yes absolutely; Forbes once quoted me as saying ‘apps are crap’. And the reason I said that was because the desktop of a phone hasn’t been updated, so for the past 10 years we’ve been scrolling through icons and the only one to revolutionise that was Windows. But at the time, I said it was all going to be about the mobile web and I got that massively wrong. Now most people spend their time on apps, unless you’re in India where the opposite is true. But the interoperability of apps still isn’t there. So my app payment method is not yet linked to my Uber. All the apps try created their own ecosystem and that needs to change.”

So what are you going to be predicting for the future when you go on stage during this year?

“This year there are no really new categories that are standing out – it’s going to be iterations of things. It’s not ‘wearables are going to be huge this year’ but how do you apply wearables to certain niche areas or habits. Instead of fitness, say a wearable that can track how often you bite your nails and alerts you to stop the habit. It’s less about amazing new ideas, but more about the maturation of those ideas.

“In terms of behaviour, the internet used to be a really fun place to be. Even three years ago, it was very curated. I haven’t had a TV for three years, so the internet was the life I led. It’s a place I know my habits, the people I’m interacting with and then along came social platforms that made a lot of things underwhelming because there was just so much information. I used to think the internet was a trusted environment and TV wasn’t, and that has turned around. That’s a spectacular moment. So if the internet has moved from trust to anxiety, what does that mean moving forward? And how do brands play in that space?

“I was flabbergasted why so many brands outsourced their marketing to these social platforms. They have spent years and millions of dollars building these beautiful brands and are just outsourcing the interaction to Facebook. But you are now seeing FMCGs who are trying to bring the interaction back to the consumer.”

Is this going to be an anxious year for marketers given the moves made by leaders such as P&G and Unilever?

“Well what’s at stake is having a hyper-personalised message to many. That’s a simple statement with a very difficult premise. Now you have a one-to-many relationship that has never been done before. Brands are not used to it; they’re used to broadcast. They’re not used to conversation, or even feedback. So if they can’t do conversation, how can they glean things from the consumer that change their brand.

“But things have been anxious for a while. I see it sometimes in creative. You used to have brands bashing each other on social, but you see that less today. Politics and everything in the world is making people anxious enough without brands bashing each other. Now as well brands don’t even know if they can be safe in these social spaces.”

Many have argued though that the CMO role itself also is in need of an overhaul. Do you agree?

“I think the CMO role is still important, but if you can’t speak the language of digital then you are going to be less relevant moving forward. It has to be that as a hybrid. You can either learn that, which may make many nervous, or you have to bring it in. There’s a ‘chief digital officer’ people keep talking about, which is a mix of the CMO and CTO, which has a nuance and skill that follows in between. It’s challenging though because a lot of brands compare themselves to other brands and not to their own model. That’s my gut instinct.”

“When I speak to brands, so many default to linear TV for their media spend. I would love to see just a fraction of that cost move over to digital”

Last year was big for your company, with the merger of AOL and Yahoo! to form Oath. Many have said it’s one of the few platforms with enough inventory to take on the Google-Facebook duopoly? Do you agree?

“Well we have platforms and programming. We have a whole bunch of independent programming brands that you know, but on the other side, we have a whole bunch of different platforms – not just our own sites, but a lot of third parties. I’m very optimistic about that: we don’t just have a singular focus. That allows us to be unique. It’s very cool to take these pioneers of the internet and legacy brands and get them to see what we can do.

“I see us as being very different from Facebook and Google. I would say, search is taken care of and we know who is winning social. Content is up for grabs and that’s where we are trying to be unique. I see why people put them in our competitor sets, but we’re very different. I believe we really need to compete with linear television. When I speak to brands, so many default to linear TV for their media spend. I would love to see just a fraction of that cost move over to digital some more. The linear TV spend is still enormous.”

 

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