I work for a brand experience agency, Imagination, as the Global Head of Strategy for our Ford work. I am responsible for delivering strategy and constructing narratives for/with brands. And making them happen in an experiential environment - online or offline. I also work with our other clients such as UWSEM and Gypsy Vodka.
This is the second of two posts about SXSW. The previous one looked at the experiential trends, you can read it here. This post is focused on the key tech trends. And there are 3 topics that kept coming up time and again:-
the implications of cars that can store and process information within the IoT,
the possibilities and the possible horrors of robot takeover
and VR’s move from fad to function.
Trend 1 – Smart cities, autonomous cars
Imagine driving to work and catching up on your latest book, or if you have kids catching up on sleep! And the ride is smooth, because there’s no stop/start, no congestion, instead you arrive on time, because the city you are driving through is smart and is managing the traffic.
Beyond that, you might have been slowed down at any point to avoid skidding on wet roads because other cars have been sending micro-weather reports to the Federal Government or to the Met Office.
Great, right? But cities and cars and governments are directly in relationship. And that relationship is raising questions.
For instance, if your car can send micro-reports about weather, it can send reports about how your car is driving. Or is that about how you are driving? And what does that mean for your privacy?
And how do you manage relationships between cars that are driving together on the same road? Do you trust them to give you the right information?
And what if a criminal decides to hack the stop signs that talk to your car and regulate city traffic stopping you from getting to vote?
What’s driving all this? IoT is established and becoming embedded in our environments way beyond tools like Nest. Manufacturers are pushing ahead, investing in AI and testing and selling autonomous vehicles. Cities see all kinds of benefits in cost reduction via things like lighting management and congestion or pollution management and government is playing catch up on policy and regulation.
No one had all the answers but the interest was intense.
Trend 2 – AI/Robot takeover
When you consider that Ford has just announced a $1bn investment in AI over the next 5 years and hotel chains like Crowne Plaza are testing a delivery robot you can see the AI and robotic services are a mainstream proposition.
There were 2 different strands to the discussion. The first was largely positive:
Amazon delivery drones on the street
Bill Ford talking about drones being released from F150s for search and delivery
Discussion of how to create sound for robots
A plea for school kids to be taught how to develop AI so that they will be able to come and study it and improve at a later date (Carnegie Mellon)
Conversations with robots in the Japan House
The second was way more cautious, almost fearful:
There are 2 other things we do not currently teach those developing AI systems – Ethics and Problem Solving. Yet they are essential to developing AI responsibly.
Implications of robotics and AI for the workforce are that ‘47% of total US employment is in the high-risk category, meaning that associated occupations are potentially automatable over…the [next] decade or two’ Fray and Osborne 2017
Likely to hit service and white collar workers – how do we conceive of what it means to be employed, have a job, to have self-respect and self-value etc?
The scenario that arises when an autonomous car has to choose between the safety of a crowd and the safety of its passengers
There were some great installations to explore the possibilities. IBM was there in force demonstrating the abilities of its Watson AI. I got a very wearable t-shirt based on a ‘conversation’ with Watson. There was also a system for monitoring the homes of the elderly so that they can live more independently. There was also an application that used AI to create new music based on your choice of mood or mix of styles.
There were also some ‘realistic’ robots you could have a conversation with, sort of and some creative projects exploring the use of AI in product design.
Undoubtedly the rise of robots is going to change our world. The creative classes and white collar workers have been safely insulated from the drive to automation that has decimated the blue collar workforce. The drive at SXSW was around both how that is managed and how we push towards a positive future.
Trend 3 – VR/AR/MR
It’s the cool new kid on the block and last year it was a strong emerging strand. But this year there was a whole room dedicated to VR experiences.Someone described it to me as VR finding it’s level, beginning to move from fad to function.
Many different players were there from NASA to Creative Industries Funding NL showcasing pro-social, creative and art projects in VR. There were also art installations in conjunction with for example the New Museum in New York using VR to immerse you in a different cultural experience.
And there was a lot of discussion about how it can work best. For instance, VR can be an isolating medium and we are innately social animals, so how can we best create social experiences with VR? Sony’s WoW Factory had a game played alongside/against 3 other players including motion, wind and digital interaction in the space. It was great fun and engaging to watch as well as play.
The key driver this year was the way that we may start to integrate technology into our lives far beyond looking at a screen. It is moving into a space where our life and our technology are almost inseparable. There are ethical and emotional consequences for that, but the SXSW crowd will certainly be there to explore and expose those way before the rest of us. That’s a comforting thought.
How much do you notice your environment? As a strategist at an experiential agency visiting a conference like SXSW is a busman’s holiday for me. Alongside all the talks and tech trends I am constantly observing experiential trends. This post is part 1 of a two part post on my experiences at SXSW 2017. Part 2 will focus on Top 3 Tech Trends at the conference.
Trend 1 – Colour me happy
Last year there was a strong trend for natural textures combined with high tech elements that were very often silvery or metallic. This year the naturals are still there but there was more colour everywhere. From post-it notes to displays, from lampshades to billiard tables brands were activating spaces with more attention to diverse colour palettes.
A great example was the Sony experience. The whole space was an owned temporary structure, designed to showcase tech. The build was very functional – lots of chip board and exposed scaffold. However, via clever use of coloured decals across dividing walls they brought a more structured and warm feeling to the space.
Great British House is another interesting example, coming from a different place. The UKDTI took over a bar called the Speakeasy on Congress and so they had to work within an existing aesthetic. The overall feeling was dark and traditional with lots of natural wood. So it was individual elements which lifted the space such as bright neon lights and spray painted lampshades in red,white and blue. The billiard table took the flag theme, and the walls were lifted with colourful participatory post-it notes.
The effect is informal, warm and unpretentious. It’s a development of the appeal to Millennials who love authenticity and the idea of being involved with brands at a more fundamental level.
Trend 2 – Keep it simple
If I asked you to predict future trends for next year how long would it take to answer? How much space would you need? What if I asked you how a brand experience made you feel? Most people find it easier to share short form emotional responses than dig deep into information and opinion. Trend 2 centred around finding creative ways to engage users directly, using analogue mediums. Post-it notes, flower markers in sand pits, writing directly onto walls and so on appeared in spaces as diverse as IBM, Dell and Fast Company.
The sense of something being crafted by a group, something less digital being therefore more personal seems to be what is driving this. The question stimulus was always around memory and emotion. That’s partly because it is much easier to respond to this than to have to give an expert opinion. But it’s also because it creates an emotional connection that drives a memory and above all brands at SXSW need to create a memory of relevance and modernity.
As a whole there was a sense of simplicity and analogue engagement across brand spaces which emerged out of these types of installation.
Trend 3 – Personalize
What do you take home from every conference? Swag! SXSW is no different. I got some very nice CNN shades for instance. But the main problem with swag is that it ends usually ends up in the bin or at the gym – or maybe on your kids. It’s not valued or valuable. This year brands addressed that by looking at ways to make their swag work harder through personal relevance.
Let’s start with IBM. Watson is an AI product IBM are pushing hard. It is an artificial intelligence combining data analysis with intelligent outputs to help with almost anything you can image. The IBM house this year was packed with partnerships from music creation software to home safety monitoring for the elderly and weather pattern analysis. This year’s swag was, like last year’s a t-shirt. Unlike last year’s this year’s had personal relevance, a pattern that expressed your personality as determined by Watson. After answering some questions the engine buckets you into one of 5 types I was a Mentor (most people at the conference were Mavericks or Dynamos with Mentors coming a close 3rd). As a result of engaging with Watson and IBM I have a t-shirt that is both meaningful and attractive. I might actually wear it outside the gym!
Less attractive but no less personally meaningful is this digital give aways from Great British House. A dress-up booth and some props combined with some fools produced the masterpiece you see here. A digital memento that I treasure…
Similar things were happening at CNN which took pics of you on a swing and created a gif in much the same way. And at Fast Company Ford were offering a digital selfie that showed you what an autonomous car sees when it sees you.
These gizzits are personal, more relevant than a key ring or waterbottle and of course fittingly digital.
It’s International Women’s Day and I thought a positive story about great women I know would be a good way to mark that. Compiling my list I realized I know some amazing women. Writers, teachers and academics, mums, nurses, project managers, bankers, real-estate agents, HR professionals and the rest! This can’t be an exhaustive list and I can’t name all the fantastic women I know around the world – you know who you are! – so I will keep my focus on creative, comms and marketing and women who are #boldforchange.
Kristen Streten – Yes I am biased, spoiler alert, she is my sister. But she has created a really great creative agency, Design Culture, ‘Doing good things for good people’ together with her partner Steve Wilkins. Clients such as The Foundling Museum and Payroll Giving demonstrate her quality as a Creative Director and Managing Director. (And I’m very proud of her.)
Lara Groves – Content creative at Imagination in London. Super talented and full of ideas – that she can actually make happen. Plus she gives back. She is a mentor with She Says. What more do you want?
Rachel Wakefield – Comms Manager of @greenbelt festival. Music teacher extraordinaire. Lay Reader. Is there nothing this woman can’t do? Full of life and energy and faith.
Nicky Old – Deputy Director, Partnerships for Schools
Nicky has an impressive CV in comms for government and public service organizations. She works hard on behalf of all UK Universities and I’d know I was in safe and creative hands if I had her on my brand. Plus she always wears the best fashion. In envy…
For someone so skilled Nichi is lovely to be around. She was an Executive Director at Nomura before running her own consultancy (and family) and came up with a brilliant solution to make career and family work together by carefully targeting the company she now works for not simply waiting to be invited to apply. Big brains, big smile. Bold for Change!
We all know amazing women at all levels – we are lucky to be in a culture which – at its best – celebrates our achievements and doesn’t take us for granted.
Then, on Monday, I will be speaking with some colleagues about Detroit as a hot bed for tech start ups. We use interesting start-ups from all over for the ideas and creativity they bring to our strategy and concepting. The guys we have asked to join us are really great and have lots to share about how they connect to start up culture, being start ups themselves and what a fertile environment Detroit is for start-up culture in general. They are Kurt Steckling of Vectorform who are very well established and also promote start-up culture and Ian Sigmon of Gunner, an animation studio who have been running for just under 2 years in Detroit.
It should be fun and hopefully my updates will be useful and interesting for you.
There is a real snobbery around experiences. It plays out both client and agency side in key discussions about budget allocations and in where creatives and planners desire to work. And yet experiences have power like no other media to create real engagement via a powerful combination of emotion and dwell time. And they provide an exciting challenge – because the best experiences deliver concepts and approaches that cohere whilst allowing for multiple brand engagements in one space.
But is there anything that distinguishes strategy for experiences from creative strategy for say a print ad, or a radio placement? I have had planners tell me that if you can deliver strategy for either one of these you can easily do strategy for experiences.
Of course you can. But can you do it well?
There are 2 key factors that are additive to traditional approaches which are essential to making experience strategies work
1) understanding multi-layered communications in physical space and
2) a deep knowledge of human behavior in a physical space.
Let me give you an example – you would think that you could take a tv ad and show it on screen inside a physical experience. However, a busy physical space does not allow for the same levels of attention which means key messages are lost. There is too much noise, no one is going to sit and follow your train of thought, they have very different priorities in the space, which may well include seeing other brands.
Almost all experiences now include physical, digital, media and social elements. Understanding how each one communicates and engages, what people will actually do and how creatives can push at boundaries is essential for briefing and target setting.
Or as another example, take wear and tear. You might think your behavioral economics course has given you everything you need to devise effective experiences. But even as an experienced strategist you may misjudge human interactions with physical objects in a marketing space. For instance, if you direct creatives towards delicate public engagements you need to be 100% clear that your audience is the kind that won’t destroy them by picking at them, knocking against them or deliberately trying to break them. Or steal bits of them. Which is basically no audience I have ever encountered. So you then have to be clear with creatives on protection that is brand appropriate.
So there are disciplines here that don’t cross over when devising strategies for other platforms, but are essential in devising experience strategies that are of any use to creatives. If brand planners are “voice of the consumer” in the creative process working out what communications need to message on to reach the right consumers and comms planner give the strategic rigor to the implementation of the idea within media, experiential strategists do both. But they also need a deep understanding of what that means in a digital context and a physical context from creative to UX.
Approaching experience strategy without understanding these nuances results in ineffective, sloppy experiences that frustrate, or worse, bore the consumer. And no one wants that.
New Year, New You etc ad nauseam. I don’t know about you but I think we ought to adopt resolutions we have some hope of following. Clearly all that fitness and diet stuff is not something I feel able to commit to. However, it’s not hard for me to resolve to read some good brain food type books, I’d read a toilet roll if there was something written on it, and committing to feeding my mind will be ‘improving’. So here are my recommended reads for the next few months or so, including ones I have read, am reading and have on my list…
Non-Obvious 2017 – Do you tire of ridiculous trend predictions you can’t apply to your job? Wake yourself up with these highly applicable, just-round-the-corner developments. Rohit Bargava breaks down the trends into consumable chunks with concrete recommendations on how to apply them to your business or client. There are useful examples for case studies to follow up on and statistics and facts that back up his statements. What’s even better is that he is prepared to stand by his methods to the extent that he lists all his previous trends from the last 4 years with an assessment of how accurate they were. That’s confidence.
The Time Paradox – Ever wondered why your mate spends everything he has on amazing holidays and sound systems while you can’t bring yourself to buy a new pair of socks? Wonder no longer. While it may not be the only reason for the difference between you The Time Paradox certainly explains a lot. Author Phillip Zimbardo is a psychologist and applies his learning and experience to the question of how perceptions of time affect human behavior. From the impact of salaries vs wages to the reasons why some work their lives away for a future they can only enjoy when they are too decrepit to experience it our perceptions of time impact on everything from relationships to money to careers to hobbies. Get it to understand yourself and others.
On the steel breeze – I’m a big advocate of SF to provide a glimpse into imminent trends and reflect on undercurrents going on in society right now. The latest from Alastair Reynolds is beautifully written (like all his others), scientifically intriguing and reflects on questions of ecology, identity and conspiracy. What’s not to like? Give yourself the gift of escape.
Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery – Did you know that personality tests are a far more accurate way of assessing whether someone is right for your organization? And yet as managers we prefer to rely on our shakey and easily influenced instincts. The Enneagram is one of many personality tests out there, but I have found it personally very helpful in understanding myself and others in work and at home, particularly since it understands that people express themselves differently when under stress than they do when feeling good about life. Expand your self-understanding.