First Mover: Brian Skahan

Publicis Modem's managing director on the lasting value of CES and the humble laptop

Given the changes in consumer technology, is CES still a must-attend event? Microsoft says this year is its last for exhibiting; Apple has never participated.

The important part of it is, you can very quickly identify next year’s big trend. Last year, within an hour of being there, you knew everyone would be pushing 3-D TV heavily. This year, I think the clear one is going to be ultrabooks.

What’s the emerging consumer technology at CES you’re most interested in this year?

The stuff I’m usually interested in is under the radar. The two things are the ultra-definition televisions and the next version of Google TV, which hasn’t been a success in the past. But we’re at a point now that’s comparable to right before the iPhone came out: Everyone knew mobile was about to take off, but it just needed one thing to succeed for smartphones to really blow up. That’s where we are with the connected living room.

Aside from an iPad or smartphone, what are the digital devices you can’t live without?

I couldn’t be without my laptop because it does everything I need. I have Skype on there, I can make voice calls. If I want to write code, I can write code. If I want to do Photoshop, I can do Photoshop. As much as I love using a tablet, the most complicated thing you make on a tablet is an email.

How is morale at Publicis Modem N.Y.? This is an agency that has gone through a lot of recent management and staff changes.

Morale is a huge priority. The best work comes from a happy group of people who are excited about what they’re working on. We went through a period where we were asking, “What do we want Modem to be three years down the road?” That led to a lot of change. Some people were happy about that change; some were unhappy about it. We’re starting to get to the point where the staff understands the vision of where we’re going and they’re getting excited about it.

You came to Publicis Modem from Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which was your first advertising job after working in technology. What was the transition like?

After I got to Crispin, I realized I had worked in advertising for years. Where I worked previously, Digital Pulp, is an interactive agency. We thought of ourselves as a technology shop because we focused more on technology than on communications, but we were building branded interfaces for companies, and that’s a huge part of what advertising is now.

At college you studied political science, economics and computer science. Were you ever interested in advertising?

After attending college, I spent time running my own data analysis business, working with political campaigns and nonprofit organizations—basically branding those candidates and groups. That experience helped me have a different perspective on what advertising should be because I come at it from a consumer perspective. That is really valuable as we go from a brand-centric view of advertising to one more driven by consumers.

What was it like to leave Boulder, Colo., where Crispin is, for New York?

I miss the weather, but we love New York. My favorite part of being here is walking to work in the morning. In other places, you see people walking, but it’s more like strolling. In New York, walking is a means to an end and it creates a certain energy when everyone is focused on a goal.