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The digital prophet has left the building

David Shing, Digital Prophet

After 12 years with Verizon Media, Digital Prophet David Shing is moving onwards and upwards. We take a look back at one of the brightest minds in advertising, his predictions and insights, and how he plans to continue transforming the media landscape in the future.

It’s the end of an era, alright. As news broke last week that David Shing was leaving Verizon after over a decade as its designated ‘Digital Prophet’, reverberations were felt around the media landscape with many left wondering what’s next for the iconic futurist. Ever since he first burst into popular culture during his unforgettable MSNBC appearance, Shingy has established an untouchable personal brand through both his unique job title and as well as the predictions he made which justified it. Then there was the hair, the clothes and the mouth that seemed to cause controversy wherever he spoke.  And, of course, there was the Twitter storm that followed his legendary SXSW entrance on a wrecking ball–just one of the countless and hilarious stunts he pulled throughout his impressive career.
 
But big things often have humble beginnings. In an interview with The Drum last year, Shingy affectionately recalled his first job which led to an early encounter with a major brand. “Chief Washeruperer in my family restaurant,” he said of his title, “when I was old enough to stand on a Coca-Cola crate.” In the years that followed, he graduated to Digital Prophet for AOL, but prior to that he launched his marketing career at Click Things in 1999. Eight years later, he began his long-term relationship with AOL which saw the company’s transformation into Oath and Verizon, as well as Shingy’s reinvention into the Digital Prophet.

Extremely sharp, shockingly polarising and entertaining 

And yes, it was a job title he unabashedly invented for himself. In a 2014 interview with The New Yorker, he described his role at AOL as “Watching the future take shape across the vast online landscape. I fly all around the world and go to conferences.” As for how he chose his particular title, he told Business Insider, “Do I want to call myself an evangelist? No. Do I want to call myself an architect? No. I chose Digital Prophet because it was fun and funky. And it’s polarising.” Media baiting aside, Shingy actually took his role very seriously. At the end of the day, he was responsible for identifying new opportunities for AOL’s business while actively changing brand perception and building the external profile of the company across the world. It was no small feat and Shingy was very good at it–gifted, in fact.
 
During a short MSNBC segment on technology trends in 2014, his appearance as AOL’s representative sent shockwaves through the industry thanks to his bold title, but also due to his wild and eccentric image which helped cement his unique personal brand. With his exploding black spiky hair, thick-rimmed hipster glasses and his self-assured, rapid-fire predictions for tech trends to come, Shingy instantly polarised audiences into two camps–you either loved him or you hated him, a grey area did not exist. And unfortunately for the haters, there was a lot more of Shingy to come. Whether it was conferences at SXSW, keynote speeches at TEDx or discussion panels at Cannes Lions, the Digital Prophet quickly gained global fame and notoriety for his bizarre look, controversial opinions, extroverted nature and on-stage shenanigans.
 
Like that time at the Mashable party. Bursting wildly onto the stage while riding a wrecking ball at Mashable’s SXSW shindig in 2014, Shingy’s stunt went viral online when a photo of him was uploaded on AOL’s Twitter feed. It was also taken down soon after. And it wasn’t just the public that got punked–the company headquarters weren’t spared either, nor was CEO Tim Armstrong. When Shingy offered to get rid of the perfectly functional office desk in Armstrong’s office, replacing it with  a simple circle of armchairs, the CEO responded, “I have meetings here and people don’t know where to sit.” Shingy reassured him, “They’ll figure it out, man.” He once told AOL’s Chief Marketing Officer, Erika Nardini, “I want to show you a little brain-fart I had on the plane,” handing her an iPad doodle of a bear in zebra-print pants and a shirt covered in ones and zeros. “Love it, love it, love it. I’m thinking of the bear more as a metaphor,” said Nardini. “A thousands percent,” agreed Shingy.

The prophet has spoken

It seems that work hard and play hard has always been Shingy’s mantra. Fun and games aside, it turned out that the Digital Prophet did indeed live up to his name. When in 2014 he told MSNBC that ‘defriending’ and ‘unfollowing’ would be on the rise, he wasn’t wrong. Five years on, online users today are trigger-happy when it comes to unfollowing the time-wasters while also choosing their internet friends carefully. Speaking to LinkedIn's Sophisticated Marketers Podcast last year,  Shingy commented on this particular prediction, “Defriend and unfollow is [now a] backlash. I was talking about it as being a social order but it’s happened in a different way. The networks that you have intimacy with today are closed–you have private Instagram, closed Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat. Those things are private. So that’s really what’s happened with the defriend and unfollow statement."

He also blatantly told MSNBC that our social world “Doesn’t give a rat’s” if we’ve lost two kilos or done 1,000 steps for the day. In the future, it would be our doctors and personal trainers who would be interested in such information, receiving the data through biometrically programmed materials woven through our clothes. “You won’t seek info, info will seek you” through intelligent programming, Shingy insisted. Mobile phones would no longer be considered as merely ‘the third screen’ in our lives, he continued, prophesising ‘mobile intimacy’ and claiming that we’d all soon become regular ‘Home Mobile Users’. More recently, ShingyProcureCon Marketing conference, predicting that consumers would come to be more influenced by their friends and peers rather than celebrities. “It’s started to backfire,” he warned.

Announcing his departure from Verizon in a LinkedIn post last week, Shingy offered his opinion on the future of the media industry and emphasised the importance of retaining our creativity at this time. “In my next chapter, I’m excited [to work] autonomously with brands to help them achieve optimal presence in the marketplace. We inhabit a pivotal time at which much is at stake in how we practice media and marketing. I’ve had the rare privilege of speaking into the soul of our industry (as a futurist) for the past decade, and I believe it’s a critical time to preserve the tenants of human dignity, creativity and compassion as we engage in the thrilling opportunities at hand.”

The road ahead

It was a sentiment he shared with the next generation of industry leaders at Cannes Lions last June, advising young, ambitious up-starts that preserving their creativity and humanity was absolutely pivotal on a personal level as well as career-wise. Shingy told the audience that the creative side of the brain tends to be the first thing we usually drop when work takes over–but it’s creativity through music, art, theatre and sport that are the things that help us get through life. “Never lose these,” he said, “they’re important to our human DNA.” The quality of our lifestyle should be the deciding factor when planning our future, he claimed: “Don’t ever look at somebody who is the CEO of a company. Don’t look at their job–anybody can be a CEO. Look at their life and figure out if their lifestyle is what you want. Anybody could be the CEO of a business.”

As his farewell post indicates, Shingy’s decided to act on his own advice. Having become a father for the first time in 2017, he’s announced that the time has come “To travel less and laugh more. Becoming a father has been a transformational experience for me. It has highlighted the passion I have for helping things grow and seeing them thrive, as well as becoming more deeply human.” He added that during this transformation and the next chapter of his career, these would certainly “be the principles at the core of my practice” as he continues to explore “new territories within our industry.” In what’s clearly a case of one door closing and another opening, Shingy addressed the journey ahead on his Instagram by quoting Emily Dickinson: “I dwell in possibility.”

Jason Miller and David Shing