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“Like Being a Kid in a Candy Store”: Life as the Global CCO of IBM iX



Billy Seabrook is the global chief creative office of IBM iX, the design agency within IBM; he chats to LBB’s Addison Capper, in association with Adobe

“Like Being a Kid in a Candy Store”: Life as the Global CCO of IBM iX
Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry. 

Today we’re chatting with Billy Seabrook, the global chief creative officer of IBM ix, a 17,000 strong global design network that sits within the wider IBM business. He reveals why five best practices for b2b marketers to overcome business distancing, the experience of working within a business that touches everyone’s lives in numerous ways, and why doing so is like being a kid in a candy store. 

LBB> IBM is a huge entity that touches so many parts of people's lives (even if they don't realise it). Define how IBM iX sits within that?

Billy> For over 100 years, IBM has been creating technology that changes how the world works. Many of the people reading this, including myself, may have used IBM consumer products growing up like the Selectric typewriter, PS2 Personal Computer or a ThinkPad. While IBM doesn’t offer consumer-facing products anymore, it still impacts everyone’s lives in a very personal way such as running ~90% of the world’s credit card transactions, powering 83% of the world’s largest telcos, tracking more than 60% of the world’s ocean container cargo, and delivering real-time weather forecasts via In each of these examples, IBM is ultimately solving human problems – which means you need human-centred design involved in the development process. This is where IBM iX comes in.  

IBM iX is a specialised group of business designers within IBM Services that applies a design mindset and principles to solve business problems. We have over 17,000 associates across  over 60  studios that blend strategy, design and technology to imagine the ideal customer and employee experiences of the future and help our clients make them real. Therefore, if an IBM technology solution impacts the human experience in any way, IBM iX is engaged to find the right balance of usability, creativity and business value to make it an even greater success. 

LBB> You were a traditional art director by trade. How did you end up working so directly with technology? And how do your more traditional foundations inform the work that you do now?

Billy> It’s a combination of my upbringing, education, interests and timing.  I grew up in a family of professional illustrators, art directors and musicians so my interest in communication design and the creative industry was somewhat baked in. I was also fascinated by technology and still have a passion for anything that combines beautiful design with purposeful functionality such as cars, musical instruments, sports equipment, video games and more. This led me to pursue a Fine Arts degree in college with a focus on digital media which coincided perfectly with the exponential growth of the digital marketing and experience design industry. As technology has evolved over the years and new capabilities have emerged, I’ve been able to apply my core skills as a graphic artist, storyteller and technologist to create brand experiences that are engaging, user-friendly and functional. 

LBB> Define your role as CCO of IBM iX.

Billy> As the global creative leader, I’m responsible for enabling the IBM iX design community, personally supporting select clients in their digital transformations, and growing the IBM business.  For some context, the iX design community includes over 3,000 people across 60+ global studios. So, in order to unlock the collective power of such a large, dispersed group of talent, I focus much of my efforts on providing everyone with best-in-class tools, educational content, and connections to people who can support them in their projects and career growth. Working directly with clients on their business challenges is an equally important aspect of my role and also a welcomed creative outlet for me to keep my own craft skills fresh, stay abreast of industry trends, and learn from a diverse set of business leaders. Similarly, partnering with the other IBM iX global leaders on growth strategy, offerings, and thought leadership is an exciting opportunity to influence the direction of the company while addressing the needs of the design community and clients in a meaningful way.  

LBB> You manage 17,000 people around the world. How do you find that challenge? And how has IBM gone about building up that network around the world?

Billy> IBM iX originated in 1996 in conjunction with the Atlanta Olympics and organically grew in size and capability over the years. In 2016, IBM acquired a handful of agencies and service providers including Aperto, Bluewolf, ECX.IO, Resource Ammirati and others to dramatically increase our resources in customer experience strategy & design and CX/CRM platform implementation. 

Steering the IBM iX ship with the rest of the global leadership team on this journey naturally has its ups and downs. In order to keep everyone rowing in the same direction, it’s imperative to establish a clear vision and empower teams to execute it with a personalised balance of autonomy and oversight. 

As the design practice leader, I’m also supported by the centralised IBM Design Program Office that provides shared assets and resources related to the Enterprise Design Thinking platform, the Carbon Design Language, career pathing, education and community-building events. 

LBB> So much of a brand's marketing strategy now extends further than advertising into the entire 'customer journey'. How does the work that IBM ix does feed into that strategy? 

Billy> We believe that brands today are defined and judged by the quality of the experiences they deliver for both the customer and employee. Advertising still plays an important role to communicate the brand promise but actions (and interactions) truly speak louder than words. This combined with the rapid rise in customer expectations for personalised digital experiences (especially in light of Covid-19) makes IBM iX an essential partner for marketers, CX leaders and digital product owners. 

Our approach is to help brands first establish their ‘North Star’ vision for the ideal brand experience through data-driven research and human-centred design and then activate that vision throughout all aspects of the enterprise. This allows us to create a consistent and integrated enterprise experience across every employee workflow and customer touch point – which ultimately leads to better business results. You can read more about our approach and the inherent business value of an integrated Enterprise Experience in the Institute of Business Value (IBV) report that I recently co-authored.

LBB> Can you name a project that best defines the work that IBM iX is capable of and why?

Billy> We aim to design smarter and enjoyable experiences for people that also drive measurable business impact. We have created highly-publicised, digital experiences for popular sports and entertainment events such as our work for the Cannes Lions, FIFA World Cup (Fox Sports), Grammy Awards, Masters golf tournament, and Wimbledon. Conversely, many of our projects focus on frictionless service design that is purposefully ‘invisible’ to the user like our remote learning platform for the NYC Department of Education and ecommerce experiences for Hertz and Albertsons. And, we’re very proud of digital transformation projects that improve the lives of our clients’ employees such as mobile applications that enable Japan Airlines maintenance crews to turn planes faster and digital tools for FritoLay employees that revolutionised customer service, labour management, and financial processing. You can see more examples of our work here.

LBB> How has Covid affected that customer journey? What have been some of the biggest shifts that you've witnessed? 

Billy> Covid-19 has impacted the customer journey in countless ways. Clearly, there has been a dramatic channel shift to digital and an increased demand for hyper personalisation. This includes the rapid adoption of next generation technologies like AR, video conferencing, IoT, and digital assistants. This has required brands to accelerate their digital transformation agenda and find intelligent ways to manage customer relationships and prioritise new features that will quickly drive business value. There has also been a noticeable shift in content strategy with a focus on showing empathy and building trust and brand favourability throughout the entire customer lifecycle – not just the moment of purchase. 

From a B2B standpoint, I recently co-authored an IBV study on the impact of Covid-19 for marketers and sellers who rely heavily on in-person events to build relationships. The need for ‘business distancing’ has exposed weak links in companies’ digital infrastructure that affect customer relationship management such as data integration and use of cloud-based marketing platforms. It also surfaced the need to be more empathetic and value-oriented when engaging prospective clients at every step of the process. 

We surfaced five best practices that B2B marketers should adopt to combat the effects of business distancing and achieve digital closeness:
  • Automate: Use automated software platforms (for example, for audience segmentation) and digital collaboration tools to streamline productivity and engage safely.
  • Anticipate: Use account-based marketing to discover what the client really needs and what their priorities are to personalise your outreach. 
  • Align: Tailor communication frequency, channel choice, and content mix that the client is comfortable with and get into a rhythm. 
  • Compel: Think like a publisher. Create and curate content to get the right message out to your audience.
  • Help: Focus on being perceived as the go-to source for support and establish yourself as a trusted business partner who fully appreciates a client’s circumstances. 

And five best practices for B2B sellers to achieve digital closeness:
  • Brand equity: Assess your own brand assets for consistency and effectiveness. 
  • Access: Use collaboration tools to interact with customers and consider teaming up with ecosystem partners to add value and attract/keep a prospect’s attention.
  • Engagement: Use virtual whiteboarding tools for brainstorming sessions, project kickoffs, and team meetings to make engagements more valuable and productive.
  • Relationship: Be empathetic to the challenges your clients and prospective clients are dealing with and also pay attention to their personal lives. 
  • Trust: Stay abreast of the digital experiences clients and prospects encounter, and take initiative to fix any design or functionality errors that could leave a bad impression.

To get the best results, it’s important that marketers and sellers align on the strategies above in order to create targeted and coordinated programs for clients and prospects. You can read the full study here.

LBB> Businesses are re-organising in response to the pandemic, with greater disruption on the horizon in the form of the climate crisis. How can tech and creativity guide businesses through these stormy waters?

Billy> Covid-19 has forced businesses to make bolder decisions about their products, workforce, customer engagement, security and operational costs with an eye towards near-term survival and long-term resiliency. Considering the workforce is still distributed in many organisations, this has put an even greater emphasis on effective communication skills, new ways of working virtually, and smarter use of data and technology. IBM iX is helping clients think through these business design challenges through virtual workshops that leverage Enterprise Design Thinking and IBM Garage techniques. This new way of working ensures that diverse creative thinking, human-centricity and value realisation is front and centre in the decisioning process. We have also helped clients harness their data and put it to work with AI in the Cloud to help automate tasks, remove cost and create capacity for employees to focus on innovation. In numerous cases, we’ve used digital accelerators like our Carbon design system and a headless front-end code architecture to provide end-users with ideal experiences while giving clients more flexibility with their backend technology. You can learn more about our approach to the virtual IBM Garage methodology here.

LBB> Speaking of Covid, IBM must be an interesting place to be a part of during the pandemic. The company works with 90% of banks, planes, governments, and I think you're even helping with track and trace technology. How has the experience been for you from a business standpoint?

Billy> When the pandemic reached global scale, IBM was able to move to a 95% remote workforce in a matter of days including 99% of our Global Delivery Centers, which is a huge testament to the preparedness of our CIO office. We also virtualised many of our in-person routines including design thinking workshops and created a social contract that provides guidance on how to be more empathetic to everyone’s unique situation and how to adjust workflow to maintain a healthy work/life balance. 

We have also helped clients make the transition by sharing assets like our Enterprise Design Thinking toolkit, teaching them new ways of working and, of course, ensuring their core IT and mission critical applications are stable and secure. We have also been supporting healthcare and public sector clients who are on the front line on the Covid-19 crisis. All of this work is highly complex and often stressful given the sense of urgency, but that’s why people turn to IBM. We have a long track record of solving very big problems which is a source of immense pride for IBMers.

LBB> Thinking more broadly, how does being part of the wider IBM family inform and enhance the work of IBM iX?

Billy> Being a Business Design services organisation within a technology company is like being a kid in a candy store. IBM iX associates have unfettered access to thought leaders around the world in the areas of AI, IoT, Blockchain, Cloud etc. and therefore have a unique ability to envision and execute innovative experiences with an inventor’s mindset. We also benefit from a very robust and sustainable design program that stretches across every business unit of IBM. This allows us to tap into designers with very diverse backgrounds and specialised skills to enhance our work and push our thinking. It also provides enormous career opportunities for our thousands of designers around the world to explore different avenues of marketing, service and product design.  

LBB> Finally, we’re at something of a bleak moment in the industry and around the world due to the events of the year so far. But what is currently exciting and inspiring you day-to-day? 

Billy> When you think about it, this pandemic has been a once-in-a-lifetime, shared experience for 7.5 billion people!  It would be a shame for the world not to treat this moment as a global catalyst for positive change – whether that’s our collective approach to climate change, healthcare, politics, technology, consumption, social equality and so many other important topics. I’m actually very optimistic that good things will come out of this challenging experience and I’m constantly inspired by every little sign of progress.

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Adobe, Thu, 17 Dec 2020 16:47:49 GMT