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Scholarship Winners

Meet Trevor O' Brien: Contagious Scholarship Winner

August 8, 2017

A new EMBA semester is nearly upon us, and with that, we are delighted to welcome fresh new faces and talent from around the world. Trevor O’Brien was chosen as this years’ Contagious Scholarship winner for our Global Executive MBA in Creative Leadership.

As an entrepreneur and AI guru, Trevor is deeply engrained in the digital start-up community. He is founder at the innovative design and prototyping studio,, and has been crucial in a number of ground-breaking start-up initiatives, including – ‘AI websites that design themselves’. Throughout his career, Trevor has lead sprawling multidisciplinary teams, created award-winning digital campaigns, and proven that technology paves endless paths for communicating and doing business, through the success of his clients. We caught up with our latest scholar to find out more about his thoughts on the role of AI in our future – from minimizing food-waste, to terrible self-creating music!


Contagious are global supporters of brave creative thinking and innovation, especially in the face of daunting new technologies. What do you think has prompted many people’s ‘fear’ of artificial intelligence?

It’s the unknown and probably a lot of the incessant media hype about how AI will replace people and take over their jobs. We are a long way from the rise of the robots replacing humans.

Most AI applications that are in use today are nothing more than sophisticated logic decision trees that developers and engineers have used since computing began. If we look at an obvious place where ‘AI’ is gaining traction today, Chatbots, these are still very rudimentary applications and not all that different from the existing telephone systems that ask callers to press a number to get a different response.

That’s not to say there aren’t some really smart developers and companies building true AI capabilities – but these systems are happening on the fringes, are still very experimental and a long way from being ready for everyday use.

Back to the fear question, I suspect it’s the unknown – we’ve all seen the movie where the robots and AI rule humans and the world in the future. My belief if AI systems and software initially will remove a lot of the repetitive and mundane tasks that humans have to do today – and that should free us up to apply more creative and fresh thinking to solving problems.

AI should be seen as a huge opportunity, one that will create new industrial revolutions and businesses, transform the world and usher in a new phase of industry globally.


Looking to the future, do you see AI technology playing a positive role in creative processes and doing business, and if so, how?

I do. Like I mentioned above, AI is still very experimental today but there are some interesting applications out there.

From a creative perspective, there are examples where AI implementations has been used in creative capacities to do new things. Take a look at the film trailer for Morgan. Watson went to film school, analyzed the film, and created what it felt would be the best possible trailer for the film.

Also, a start-up I worked with, The Grid, is trying to revolutionize how websites are created by using AI modules to design websites based on users’ content and of course The Beatles inspired song created entirely by AI. It’s amazing the speed at which AI can analyze data, learn combinations of things that work well together and create and refine its own rules. It set us up for a really exciting time where humans and AI systems will combine to create new combinations of creativity at speeds we’ve never seen before. Be warned though, while systems learn and get smarter there will be a lot of bad AI music out there!

From a business perspective, absolutely – it’s the next Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), where everything in machines and factories will be connected with sensors via IOT (Internet of Things) or WOT (Web of Things) platforms. Here AI will be used to analyzes situations in virtual worlds before they ever happen in the physical (mirroring) or can predict when machines across your global factories will need servicing.

Food waste is a huge issue in America, why not use AI to improve logistics and shipping, so stores will only receive the right amount of fresh food (minimizing waste) based on historical, current and future events. The AI system here is constantly adjusting shipping orders in real time to local stores.


With so many changes in technology, leaders are challenged to unlearn old ways of thinking and doing business. In what ways can creative leaders adapt to be open to these changes?

I’ve been working in creative businesses for almost 20 years now – yes, I’m that old.  I think one of the most important thing creative leaders need to do is embrace change and not be afraid of it. The world around us is changing at incredible speed and that means we have to change and evolve to stay relevant. We should constantly be curious and challenge status quo – there should be no sacred cows in a business that makes its living by being ahead and on-top of culture. Our business should be seen as an ongoing work in progress – we should hire people from diverse backgrounds with different skillets. We should change seating every month. We should create our own businesses and be ok if they fail.  We should always be trying to do work that is going to make a difference.

Take a look at advertising publications and awards shows for instance. They reward the most creative, most effective, and most innovative work in the industry. And then take look at the type of work that is winning the biggest awards at Cannes, The One Show, Contagious and other industry leaders, the work that is winning is work that is much more innovative and integrated. Often the best work is not even an ad anymore – it’s some utility or some entertaining content.

Storytelling is still super important but now so are other disciplines, Experience & Design, technology and even hardware engineering. And it’s only going to get more important to create things people want to engage with and share – so be open, listen, and most importantly show up every day ready and willing to learn new things.


What is the main achievement you’d like to unlock from your Berlin School journey?

Great question. I’m super excited to be attending this year – it’s been 20 years since I was last in a proper academic environment so that will be interesting!

I have been fortunate to work for and with some great people and companies and I have learned a lot by being hands on during my career. I often make decisions about business based on gut and instinct with the information I have at hand – if I can get 7 or 8 of those decisions right and not burn the house down with the others then I feel like that’s a good day.

Having a more solid framework by which to work within and having a bit more structure will be interesting for me. Also, I tend to gloss over the things that I’m not passionate about or can wait until another day so stopping and focusing to learn those things will be great. I’m also very excited to be on this journey with others who are coming from a bunch of different places.

I know where this journey begins, in Berlin on Sept 3rd 2017, but I have no idea where this journey will lead and that’s ok with me. As an entrepreneur, I have often leaped with the intention of figuring it out after – and this will be no different.