How 2020 transformed transformation
A view from Wesley ter Haar

How 2020 transformed transformation

The pandemic has provided the perfect time for the industry to make good on its intention of true digital transformation, which somehow got lost in the mix.

Digital transformation defined the previous decade of our industry. All brands were at it, even though most treated it as “important but not urgent”. It clearly needed to happen, but there was time – at least until the pandemic hit.

Time. It’s quite literally the business model of the consultancies. So, it’s no surprise that an industry that makes its money consulting, rather than creating, turned something as inherently urgent as transformation into a melée of meetings and multi-year plans.

After a decade, the results are in: a golden age for PowerPoint decks and massive technology investments, while the digital ecosystem of most brands is the best argument you can make against the idea that tech can be addictive.

So, over to the traditional agencies. Instead of taking the reins, and adding empathy to the endless engineering engine, they kept running one play: the Big Idea. And who can blame them, if clients will pay Big Money for the Big Process inherent to a Big Idea, to end up with the same 30 second spot. And yes, Big Ideas work, that’s not the conversation – but the logo on the creative deck doesn’t automatically make an idea Big, and neither does the medium or channel.

Brands need a new approach

For an industry that prides itself on creativity and innovation, we’ve managed to change what should be an inherently interactive medium into a place to run a bit of film. It might be shorter, and someone might have crushed it and shot it vertically, but to all intents and purposes it’s the Big Idea repackaged against an endless amount of easy-to-buy-and-sell ad formats.  

That leaves a massive gap, and it’s in that space where consumers can fall in love with your brand, business and product through their endless interactions on screens and machines.

And, yes, a video ad can be a part of that, sure, but it’s time to make good on the original intent of digital transformation. As a way to connect the dots and use data to help build a personal path for consumers across the totality of a brand’s ecosystem. And then, this is the important part, make the experiences across those touchpoints, in those environments and with those products and services really, really good.

Brands that hadn’t reached the digital maturity level needed to withstand the pandemic (mostly) unscathed found that they depended too much on traditional storytelling and narratives, rather than investing in experiences. All brands should take this lesson to heart as they prepare for the next phase of business transformation: virtualisation.

Understanding brand virtualisation

Based on commissioned global research conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of MediaMonks, and published in the new study The Next Phase of Digital Transformation is Brand Virtualization, brand virtualisation differs from transformation approaches that came before it: “True brand virtualisation requires complete digital environments where consumers can interact with brands how and when they prefer.”

Virtualisation has traditionally meant translating something to a virtual space. We witnessed this as brands scrambled to bring in-person events online once the pandemic hit. But this is just the first step in virtualisation, the low-hanging fruit – brands did it because they had to. What’s next is more challenging: finding and executing new opportunities in digital to enhance the consumer experience.

Life is now live. Data from Forrester’s report states that buyers are quickly adopting new technologies (38%), prefer digital experiences over in-person experiences (36%), and are ready to adopt virtual experiences (32%).

At the same time, my team has recognised that new traditions and needs emerge as consumers adopt new ways of engaging with technology: connecting socially through video games, online workout sessions at home, cooking as a family using ingredients already on-hand, and more.

To truly virtualise, brands must be ready to engage consumers in activities and experiences like these across the digital ecosystem –within the environments in which people already connect with each other today. The slow process led by consultancies is no longer fit for this age of hyperadoption.

Over the months, we’ve helped brands turn what would have been six months of meetings into six-week sprints to establish the ecosystems they need to engage with consumers – including a Nike workout series that went live just 48 hours after we got the brief to reach at-home audiences sooner, as they reeled from gym closures.

Prepare for new ways to engage

Preparing for virtualisation requires refocusing and reskilling your team to build indelible digital experiences. In the past, brands sought value through relentless retargeting and personalisation – a practice that has creeped-out consumers and resulted in political pressure. I firmly believe in viewing consumers as people, not targets, and this mindset should prompt brands to find opportunities in emerging formats and user behaviours that add value.

It’s popular for brands to communicate today through broadcasts that look like conference calls at work – what’s the difference between watching from home and working from home today? As an initial step in virtualisation, brands should develop experiences that stand out and are differentiated from the now-standard video call format.

When we worked as a broadcast partner to bring the NBA to VR through Oculus Venues (pictured above), a reviewer noted that watching the game with their brother who lived across the country was “the closest thing [they’ve] felt to going out and doing something normal in five months”, demonstrating how the digital environment made a unique impression.

Of course, true innovation isn’t about just going back to normal – and, as new formats, channels and user behaviours continue to emerge, brands must re-energise efforts to finally deliver on the promises of their digital transformation investments. 

Wesley ter Haar is co-founder of MediaMonks