The Economist

"We'll be one of the first brands to jump in": Airbnb on VR

Adland's big brains discuss the latest developments in technology, from virtual reality to big data

"We'll be one of the first brands to jump in": Airbnb on VR

Technology is changing the face of advertising and marketing, with new developments shaking up the landscape daily. From virtual reality to programmatic advertising to big data, these new ways of connecting with consumers demand new approaches and big ideas. 

Wake Up With The Economist saw the leading figures of adland gathering to discuss the issues of the day – and unsurprisingly, technology figured heavily.

Virtual insanity?

While virtual reality is seen as the next big hope by many advertisers, it’s still in its infancy. Keith Weed, chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, was one of many who urged caution, saying that technology needs to mature before it can be used to its full potential. "We’re seeing some good experimentation," he said, "but right now it's a technology which is landing. You can see some fantastic things, but as far as a marketing tool it’s very much in the foothills."

Nina Bibby, consumer and marketing director at O2, agreed, pointing out that virtual reality is still very much the preserve of early adopters: "The technology has to be cheap enough and widely accessible enough for consumers to get hold of it to thereby enjoy the benefits that it can provide."

For some marketers, the question is what virtual reality offers that other channels don’t. "Today we show how to give a baby a first bath on YouTube," said Alison Lewis, chief marketing officer at Johnson & Johnson. "How different would it be to have a more immersive virtual reality experience? I'm not sure, and at this point, cost-value isn't going to pay out."

But once the technology matures, leading brands are keen to get on board with VR. "I'm a big, big fan," said Jonathan Mildenhall, CMO, Airbnb. "We'll be one of the first brands to jump in – when I can get scale and I believe that the production costs reflect decent productivity."

The Data Day

Over the last few years, big data has become increasingly central to advertising and marketing strategies. Joined up databases, increased smartphone use and programmatic advertising offer a set of tools that enable advertisers to reach consumers with precisely-targeted messages.

For Unilever’s Keith Weed, the most important development of recent years is the joining up of data sets – enabling marketers to profile customers more effectively. "People know that you are sitting here right now because your mobile is sitting here right now," he said.

"Throughout people data centres we are joining up the experience – to be able to know that if you have already tweeted about something and then you phone us up that you are the same person." But, he sounded a note of caution: "Just because you can, doesn't mean that you should."

Ann Mukherjee, CMO at SC Johnson felt that the conversation has become skewed towards data at the expense of the creative. "We cannot forget the art side of the science," she said. "I think there's too many conversations around the science and the data. All of that I think is an enabler and an underpinning – it's becoming the conversation."

In a world where consumers have seen it all, she noted, they want to be "dazzled" – and marketers have to create "unpredictable marketing that delivers predictable results".

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