VML: The distraction of shiny objects

Our focus on the future makes us look like dogs chasing squirrels.

The BlackBerry PlayBook 3.8 will launch in February 2012 with a 3D display that uses four cameras to respond to users' facial expressions as well as the existing gestural hand movements. It will cache behavioural, social, geographic and temporal data through the browser that will mean that it can iteratively learn about a user's behaviour, purchase patterns and service demands in the context of time and space, such that it will predict needs and supply layers of data about the real world relevant to that user's context.

On the inhale, I wondered how far through my fictitious first paragraph about the next iteration of technology I would get before I lost everyone, including myself (hopefully you got beyond BlackBerry PlayBook). And on the exhale, I began to realise that this conjecture is entirely plausible, and, worse still, that a competitor agency may have had four, five or even six developers working directly with BlackBerry on this for the past six months ... press the Agency Panic Button and deploy the front-end developers.

(On listening to my own mental invention, I decided to follow a BlackBerry technologist on Twitter ... I Tweeted him a question about the PlayBook ... he has confirmed that my earlier statement was bullshit ... I have un-followed him. He is now following me, filled with a new sense of competitive paranoia.)

The dilemma of our digital age of communication is how much time and energy to spend focusing on the new shiny object, and how much time to spend repolishing last year's (now slightly tarnished) object, so that the agency can actually deliver that object brilliantly and profitably, and the client actually benefits from its effectiveness, not just its internal PR value.

Everything in the hypothetical example above is part of the future of digital communications. We will, in time, need to design interfaces in physical spaces that are responsive to gestures, movements and voice controls. Technology such as the motion sensors in the Xbox Kinect, facial recognition technology in standard digital cameras, multi-touch screens in mobile devices and 3D televisions show us that this technology has reached the mainstream consumer. But, of the 6.91 billion people in the world (US Census Bureau), and the estimated two billion who are accessing the internet (Forrester's Global Online Population Forecast, 2009-2014), the majority will do so through standard desktop PCs, a mouse and a keyboard, and we will need to spend vastly more time making their digital experiences better.

Behavioural, geographic and temporal data is available to make better contextual communication. While we forge ahead, struggling with how to integrate the data streams and analyse what they are telling us about individuals, we run the risk of forgetting that simply addressing consumers by name, giving them a great customer experience and asking them what they want might be a better use of time. (Notably, the closer we get to understanding people's behaviours and attitudes through gathering data about them, the more resistant they become to allowing us to use that data - Google and Facebook have faced data use and privacy issues, and Apple may be next following its statement about the iPhone "secretly" recording users' geography.)

The point is that simple, powerful digital experiences are still a rarity, but can be achieved by agencies concentrating on what's now, not what's next. We are, as an industry, culpable of constantly chasing the latest, coolest and shiniest of objects. I'm reminded of how, in the Pixar film Up, intelligent (talking) dogs are so easily distracted from their task by the promise of chasing a squirrel. By chasing squirrels, we fail to apply our collective intelligence to the things that we have identified, in years gone by, as the future of digital. Agencies are still not great at creating content, despite the fact that we've been requoting Bill Gates' "Content is King" since 1996. We're not that great at segmented communication either, despite the richness of the data available to us. And perhaps most importantly, we're not that great at measuring effectiveness, despite working in perhaps the most accountable media.

What's next in digital is important, but getting distracted by the next glossy squirrel may be stopping us becoming really good at anything fundamentally important to communication. Perhaps now, as digital matures from being something of an afterthought at the end of the media plan to something with a proven sense of importance in the communications mix, agencies need to ensure they are consistently delivering digital efficiently and effectively.

Adland had 80 years of perfecting print advertising before it moved on to radio, then another 25 before the advent of television. Craft skills have been the foundation of success in this business, not innovation; and while we must adapt to the speed of change, we must not lose sight of what we're good at or how we're structured to deliver it. (The agency business model is built around efficiencies of "repetitive" process, even if the output may be continuously, creatively fresh; and despite years of posturing, there are few agencies with a new business model.)

We need a structured way of approaching what is next beyond a randomised set of distractions that our technologists, strategists and creatives are naturally interested in. We should dedicate a percentage of their time to thinking about what's next, but we need to evolve our processes so there is far more focus on applying that thinking to our services and to our clients' businesses. We should also focus less on being first and more on making the right digital marketing and technology choices. In doing so, we're in a better place to deliver on what's now in digital - which, if we revert back to where we started with the BlackBerry PlayBook, is already pretty amazing.


We are overwhelmed with digital opportunities, but simple, powerful, digital ideas are still a rarity.

We should spend more time delivering consistently on digital activity using technology that has mass adoption and less time on PR-able shiny objects.

We need to stop talking about new business models and have a structured approach to innovation within our processes.

Chris Wood is a joint managing director at VML

(From Campaign's "What Next in Digital" supplement, July 1 2011)