Drawing Creative Inspiration from Technology and Pop Culture

Written by: Nicole Hunt

Today in our “Teammate Spotlight,” we’re talking with Ken Buraker, Chief Creative Officer at Urban Emu. After 30 years in the agency world, Ken has learned a thing or two about bringing creative ideas to life. A pop culture enthusiast, he draws inspiration from his lifelong love of comics and video games to develop inventive and immersive creative solutions for his clients.

Q. You’re the Chief Creative Officer at Urban Emu. What does a typical day look like for you?

A. A typical day is a mix of personal and professional endeavors. I start my mornings by looking at emails and my calendar with my coffee. Here, I focus on the easy things I can knock out to have more bandwidth to focus on my team, clients, and new business work. Before work, I go to the gym. This passion keeps me grounded and energized and clears my head. Inevitably, I subconsciously think about ideas and work. I get some of my best solutions and strategies not looking at a screen! We advocate for health and wellness solutions in our client work, so I practice what we preach.

My first meeting of the day is usually with my team. We meet daily, which I love. It’s the small touchpoints that matter most. The remainder of the day is a mix of client meetings, writing, planning, strategy, implementation of client work, and individual check-ins with colleagues.

Q. You’ve worked on all kinds of creative projects – global and local, B2B and B2C, government and non-profit. What are some standout projects?

A. 2024 marks 30 years for me in the agency business. I’m fortunate to have worked with so many incredible clients and teams. My first government agency was NHLBI at Porter Novelli, working on PSAs, photo-novellas, and other creative projects. The first campaign I worked on, “Take One for High Blood Pressure,” contained a mix of sports and activity visuals to remind people to stay active and exercise. While the channels have expanded, much has remained the same regarding the approach. Create attention-grabbing campaigns that are bold and inviting and work to change behavior for the better.

I’ve worked with USDA and HHS since 2005 on the past four editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and love seeing how the science and messaging continue to evolve. I also enjoyed working with HHS from 2010-2013, helping create HealthIT.gov and an awareness campaign to provide reliable information on health IT and electronic health records (EHRs) to federal partners, vendors, and the public.

For the past 20 years with USDA, I’ve enjoyed blending my love of health and wellness with technology. Working with the USDA, I oversaw the design of the MyPlate icon — replacing the Food Pyramid — and helped develop strategy and messaging for the corresponding consumer campaign. With USDA, I also led the creation of the MyPlate SuperTracker online app. It was the first of its kind, predating apps like Fitbit, and it eventually had over 27,000,000 registered users and some great testimonials. I came to Urban Emu in 2020 to continue my love of MyPlate and other health and wellness initiatives.

Q. You often talk about using technology as a force for good – and it’s clear that this idea has followed you throughout your career. Can you tell me a bit more about your love of tech?

A. I love technology mixed with great creativity so that it delivers tailored messaging, content, and connections to communities. Communication technology improves accessibility, offers personalization, forms support networks, and creates targeted marketing opportunities. With great technology, we can measure and adjust messaging in real-time to make the best impact. Unfortunately, I recognize that technology can be used negatively, like spreading misinformation.

Q. How do you think AI will transform marketing and user experience in the future?

A. AI is quickly revolutionizing personalization in marketing communications across various platforms like advertising, social media, and websites. AI’s ability to swiftly sift through vast datasets enables it to detect trends, preferences, and individual or group behaviors. With these insights, AI empowers marketers to craft messages that resonate deeply with their audience’s interests and needs.

By evaluating a user’s online behavior, preferences, and previous interactions, AI has the potential to customize website content to align with their interests. This means a news site could prioritize articles from frequently visited categories, or a health site might spotlight content a user has previously shown interest in or based on their disclosed health interests or conditions. Moreover, AI’s ongoing analysis of website interaction helps identify user preferences related to the site’s layout, navigation, and overall design. AI could customize the site’s interface for individual users or communities, enhancing the user experience to boost engagement and satisfaction.

AI will enable real-time A/B testing on websites to determine the most effective elements for different user segments. Whether it’s testing different calls to action, images, or content layouts, AI will be able to identify what works best for each user, allowing for continuous improvement of the website experience. Thus, the customer journey will transform from a linear path to a dynamic, adaptable experience. We won’t necessarily see “one website fits all” but web content and experiences relative to an individual’s interests and needs.

Q. What inspires your creativity?

A. Technology inspires me, especially in the video game industry. I’m an avid video gamer and am constantly inspired by the creativity infused into games, ranging from their visual design, UX, sound, storylines, acting, and the overall immersive experience. In turn, I’ve channeled gamification into some of my projects.

For people who know me well, comic books and graphic novels are another source of inspiration. You have enduring brands like the X-Men and Avengers that are 60+ years old. Like other consumer brands, comics have experienced cross-media expansion, rebranding of storylines and characters, and addressed social responsibility through themes of diversity, inclusion, and environmental issues. I just love the fusion of words and visuals. As I approach creativity, I like to frame our narratives regarding who is the hero (e.g., our clients and/or their audiences) and who is the villain (e.g., a situation or problem we are trying to solve).

Q. You do a lot of collaborative work with the creative team. What’s your philosophy or approach to leadership?

A. My leadership style is a fusion of my mentors Dan Snyder and Michael Ramah, who I worked with at Porter Novelli and are lifelong friends. Thanks to Dan and Michael’s influence, I enjoy mentoring and coaching my team, colleagues, and clients. I recognize everyone’s potential and passions and understand what appeals to their heads and hearts. I also enjoy learning from my team and colleagues.

Michael taught me to always start with an intelligent strategy before jumping into tactics. And Dan taught me fearless creativity and not to be afraid of taking risks. And both taught me never to stop learning and never rest on my laurels. This is one reason I’m curious about technology and love AI’s potential. And, most of all, take time to recharge.

Q. I know you’re passionate about the UE mission. Can you tell me a bit about your advocacy work in the community?

A. In the past year, I’ve enjoyed being a thought leader and speaking about our great clients and work at Urban Emu. I lectured at the FNCE conference last October about best practices in building digital platforms in nutrition education. In November, I lectured at Georgetown University with Bill Novelli (my social marketing godfather!) about creating campaigns and creativity with the right blend of technology and media strategy. I’m gearing up for another one in April. I also recently joined the advisory board of Restless Urban with my longtime client and friend, Andrew Bowins. Restless Urban is a digital community focused on well-being and self-discovery.

Q. What is your favorite thing about working at Urban Emu?

A. It’s the personal growth I see in my team and myself. I love seeing everyone level up through our commitments to client work and supporting one another. It’s like gardening (a personal passion). Nurture the business and culture, understand the climate of opportunities, and watch everyone flourish.

We’re so grateful to have Ken on the Urban Emu team to lead our creative strategy and inspire daily growth. Stay tuned for more teammate spotlights.

Contact Us

Urban Emu is an experience agency with a fast growing team of experience designers, facilitators, strategists, researchers, UX/UI designers, and software engineers that create innovative experiences to improve and transform businesses.

We love to hear about ideas big or small. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us regarding your project.

Email: hello@urbanemu.com