VMLY&R’s new ECD of experience design on pioneering patents, pushing boundaries in digital media and advice for aspiring creatives
Walter Geer’s CV is, to put it mildly, impressive. Early on in his career he was responsible for shaking things up at the New York Times, was part of the team that sold MySpace, and has a total of six patents to his name. He’s also worked at Google and Viacom, developing creative strategies and pioneering digital platforms and formats. Most recently he’s found himself in the healthcare and pharma space, an area where he can see creativity and innovation making a substantial difference in people’s lives. All that led Savoy Magazine to include him in its list of 2020 Most Influential Black Executives in Corporate America. This summer he joined VMLY&R as ECD of experience design. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Walter to find out what drives him.
LBB> How did you get into your career in the first place?
Walter> I lied! I was an athlete in high school, getting scholarship opportunities from like, 10th grade. I was one of the kids that thought, 'man, I'm going to get a ride, I don't need to do my schoolwork. I'm not doing anything'.
My grades dropped in my senior year, and a couple of schools that I wanted to go to said, ‘why don't you go somewhere else then transfer to us. So I went to a two-year school, lost my mind at 18, having the greatest time of my life. My first semester was in nursing. I thought, ‘you can find a job anywhere!’ But with 6am clinicals and bed baths on a Wednesday morning I thought ‘I can't do this’. So I jumped over to business. After my year, I decided to stay another year because I loved it so much. My parents thought I was crazy. Then I actually transferred, got a partial scholarship to another school. A couple of days before going into my senior year. I had to come up with a substantial amount of money for school. I couldn't afford it.
LBB> Wow, and from that, so much has happened. Were your next steps quite planned or did your career evolve more organically?
Walter> The latter half of my career was very intentional. The first half was just being inquisitive, and trying to do new things.
After I was at JPMorgan doing a tonne of design stuff, I went to the New York Times as their very first 'rich media hire'. At the time they didn't even know what Flash was. I was the guy who came in there and did takeovers, expandable banners. I was running all that. I was actually part of the team there that invented what they called ‘Surround Sessions’, which today is called sequential messaging. That's where you go to a site, you see a product and you go someplace else, and it follows you everywhere you go.
Afterwards I shifted from ideation and building to later, when I was at Viacom, leading a team of developers and my role there was bigger - how to drive incremental revenue. Incremental revenue, for me, was about creating really cool formats that no one else was doing. I wanted to guarantee effectiveness. So I thought, ‘what if we opened up the usability lab? And what if we actually use biometric research to understand the emotional state that we use when they engage?’ So we partnered with MIT Labs and opened up the first biometric usability lab in advertising. We pulled things like heart rate, pupil dilation, arousal, eye tracking, facial expressions. And through this, we could tell what worked based on colour, call to action, speed of animation, position on page, and we were able to essentially create a perfect format. This resulted in six different US patent apps, one of which is the skippable pre roll.
LBB> You’ve got six patents to your name – that’s pretty impressive!
Walter> I was fortunate enough to be in places that cared about making a statement. And let's be honest patents, especially creative ones, are very difficult to maintain and control. Which is why you see companies like YouTube and everyone and their mother running that ad format today. But, you know, it was nice because at the time we were patenting this stuff, it was about going to a brand and saying, 'hey, we've done all this research and all this testing, we can guarantee effectiveness... And guess what we own this, and no one else can run it’. We were doing $3-7m deals to run campaigns on these formats for a few days.
LBB> And you were working at a time when there was so much possibility – now, as things in the digital space are more pinned down and mainstream, is there the same potential for innovation?
Walter> Agencies don't spend enough time focusing on innovation. That's because everyone gets caught up in trying to get 40 plus hours a week that's billed. And when you're trying to focus on being reactive to a client's needs, you're not able to understand new technologies and new ways to use them, and then you become stagnant. As they grow, it's so important.
In the last six or seven years, I used to actually have my team spend 30% of their time on innovation. And that essentially was I'm going to give you that one day a week were I don't want you to sign into your email or anything; I want you to think about building solutions, whether it be creative-focused, or technology-focused or data driven, that can be used across a slew of our clients and are scalable. And then once a quarter, we would do a pitch-off. The top three would get an award and then that creates an entire backlog of products we can pull from. And then once every half year, we would actually show them to clients. And as soon as one bites, then all the rest of them follow. It's important that we find time to be forward thinking and thinking about the next thing.
LBB> Your new role at VMLY&R is in the pharma space, as was your previous role at TBWA\WORLDHEALTH. That seems like an area with lots of potential for innovation…
Walter> When I got into the health space at first I wasn’t entirely sure but then I realised, getting in, ‘oh my God, it’s actually incredible!’
This is the first time I feel as though I've been able to do work that actually affects people's lives. With the bulk of the work that we do, we're putting asses in seats, whether that'd be a movie theatre, or a car, we're putting feet in sneakers, and we're trying to get new people to spend money on games, and so on and so forth. But this is actually making a real impact, and getting people to be healthy.
The health space is interesting in that they look, they want innovation, but I think a lot of people are in a race to be second! As soon as one of the big guys does it, then they'll all jump in. I think that part of that is the legal stuff, but I think that is the reason why the health space is significantly behind the rest of the industry.
I've always taken that as a challenge, though, to figure out smarter ways to actually generate or create engaging opportunities that are memorable for folks.
LBB> But has Covid-19 accelerated innovation in the pharma space?
Walter> It certainly changed in some areas. We’ve seen this huge advancement in telecommunications, telemedicine, on apps and talking face to face with doctors, but it's still this disconnected experience. It still feels a little weird.
All these folks get together at conferences and that can't happen anymore. So what's a smarter way to allow for brands to communicate in different ways to reach the same audience? We've certainly seen some advancements in technologies in the use of things like augmented reality.
LBB> Why did you join VMLY&R?
Walter> We had been talking for quite some time, since November last year. And we were both, I think, careful about understanding what we both wanted. What always seemed to resonate with me is that VMLY&R was the experience and brand agency. And for so many years, what I do as creating experiences and coming up with this whole theory about experiences and why they matter. It was like a match made in heaven. It's just perfect; what they do as an agency and what I've been saying, for the bulk of my career couldn't be any more lined up.
But also I've spent about 20 years working at and running innovation teams, and creative teams and companies like the New York Times, and Viacom. I was part of the senior leadership team that sold MySpace. I've worked with so many areas, so many different categories that coming to VMLY&R was such a beautiful scenario, because I could still focus on doing meaningful work to help people's lives, while also working with some of the big brands that really want to innovate and push technology.
LBB> What are your ambitions for your role VMLY&R?
Walter> I think as an industry we get so caught up in this advertising world of winning awards and accolades. For me, the past few years have always been like, moving forward with purpose. And doing things that actually matter and can make a difference. So for me it will be working with our health management team, growing the health business, and really taking them to another level in terms of their digital capabilities and creating experiences for individuals.
My intent is to work with our brands and actually create some of the best advertising, period. I think that when you do that, you come from a place of trying to better the world and people, I think you get recognised for all the other stuff. The focus is really just doing incredible work across all of our clients.
LBB> And to finish up, you’ve found yourself at the cutting edge of advertising. For someone who is looking at the creative advertising industry as a career, what advice would you give them? How should they be educating themselves in order to be in the best position?
Walter> That's a good question. How we talked about a creative a year ago, compared with a creative now moving forward, I think they're different. Because a creative now moving forward is someone who understands data, someone who understands consumer research, someone who is strategic, someone who understands the digital landscape. And then someone who is a big thinker and understands how to innovate. But then lastly - and I put this last intentionally - is someone who gets UX and UI and all that. And I say that because the UI and the design aspect is I think on the lower [priority] side, because I think there are a lot of people that can understand that. But it's about thinking broader about how you pull all these pieces together.
My career has been going left and right, back and forth... I went in so many different directions, because I really wanted to figure out how I can be a jack of all trades. That actually hurt me. Because when you go into an interview and you tell someone, ‘I do all of these six things’. They’ll think, 'great, but I don't know how we should use you - we already have six departments for these six things, and we only really need you to do this one thing'. What I learned is that knowing all this stuff is great, but when you’re coming into an agency or company you need to be very specific around what you're going to do for them. I like to tell people this: understand as much of the landscape as you can. I think it's important.