The role of global chief creative technologist for a firm that describes itself as a “creative commerce company” would have been total nonsense to Darren Richardson’s younger self. In 2021 however, a lot of the principles he learnt when he was designing a platform game in the ‘80s still apply to his life today at VMLY&R COMMERCE.
The basic principles of UX and an understanding of what excites and delights people underpin so much of what Darren and his team try and do for clients in the pursuit of “entertainment commerce”. Everything else has changed since then though. ‘80s Darren certainly wouldn’t recognise the world of commerce as it exists today, whether it be on post-Covid high streets or in the digital spaces we increasingly inhabit, or all of the dazzling possibilities that present to creatively minded techie people like him.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Darren to hear about his journey up until this point and what’s most exciting to him as we look to the future.
LBB> Tell me about your first encounters with technology. Where does that interest come from? And did it manifest at an early age?
Darren> My first real experience with technology was when my parents saved up money and got me a Sinclair personal computer. Like any teenager in the ‘80s, I was into gaming. The thrill of waiting for the cassette to load the latest release was so exciting – we always made it into a big event with friends over and drinks and snacks.
After a while my friend and I decided we could make a better platform game and set to designing the characters, the levels and rewards. We had our designs on many scrap pieces of paper. That was great, but then we had to bring it to life and learn how to code. It started off well enough, but sadly, the next best-selling game was never completed.
From an early age I was always fascinated with creating games and entertainment. I still am today. Like all teenagers though, I wanted to experience different things. After school I drifted into many different careers and it was only when I turned 20 that I decided to go back to what I was passionate about as a teen – computing. I was accepted at university where I focused on the programming subjects to hone my skills for what would eventually become the start of my professional career.
LBB> You studied Technology and New Media at university and then began a career as a programmer before you wound up working as a creative director. What was that shift like at the time?
Darren> Like you said, I started my career as a programmer working in the financial industry on the big broker software. Whilst working in that sector though, I always found myself playing and tinkering on my lunch break – always creating little Windows desktop games. That passion I’d had as a teen just stayed with me even in finance. One day my manager threw Macromedia Flash 2 on my desk and said: “Darren, take a look at this, please. We want you to lead on the new intranet, but we want it to be engaging and interactive.”
As you can imagine, I was in heaven! I installed the software almost immediately and began playing with the functions and timeline coding. I wanted to learn more though, so I set up a forum which was purely based on Flash and the coding language, Actionscript. That forum ended up becoming the biggest forum in Europe and competed with others across the USA.
Throughout the entire experience, I had learnt so much from others and also shared my experiences as well. Web Designer magazine, a global publication, approached me to write magazine articles on design, UX and coding. It was a great way to pass on all the knowledge I had learnt from others. Eventually, I was even approached by book publishers to do the same and I ended up co-writing three books on the subject matter.
As you can probably imagine, by this time I was hooked on creating entertaining experiences! A small independent agency working for the BBC approached me to become their interactive creative director and lead the way in creating digital experiences on and offline.
Eventually, I went on to R/GA and isobar – still in the digital realm – but it wasn’t until I left the UK in 2010 to work on the Adidas World Cup campaign that I learnt the dark arts of traditional creative. I found it to be just as fascinating as the digital realm that I had left. Eventually, I moved on to Canada to work as a creative director at CP+B and then back again to Europe as the chief creative officer of BBDO and Proximity in Germany and then CCO of Havas. In 2019 I finally headed back home to the UK and joined what was then Geometry, now VMLY&R COMMERCE.
That’s probably the really long way to answer your question! The short way would be: the shift was easier than I thought. I am one of those lucky people that are able to use the left and right sides of the brain at the same time, so I found it a natural fit and have enjoyed the ride so far.
LBB> A lot of creative technologists or more digitally-focused creatives come from the tech side like you did. Do you see a difference between those that came up that way and those who started as creatives?
Darren> Before I answer the question, I probably need to give my view about creative technologists in general.
I believe a creative technologist can come from tech, creative, production or consulting. So many people think of creative technology as a niche, but personally, I think it’s a massive discipline with many different facets offering many different viewpoints.
For example, let’s compare a designer and the many facets of a designer. You can have an industrial designer, a product designer, a communication designer, a packaging designer – you get the point. Well the same applies to a creative technologist – the tech vs. creative vs. production vs. consulting skills are dialled up or down depending on the individual.
Now to answer your question. ☺ I do see a difference in creative techs that have come from a non-tech background. They aren’t always familiar with all the technology and tend to come at solutions from a creative first point of view. Whereas a creative tech that has come from the tech end will come at solutions from a tech-first point of view. You can see where I’m going with this.
There is a sweet spot though where a creative technologist has had time in both camps and can look at ideas first from a brand point of view, and then look at how the technology can enhance concepts so that the tech and ideas seem to work together seamlessly, as if they had belonged together all along.
LBB> How has the role of creative technologist / digital creative shifted most since you started? And specifically, how does it come to life through the context of commerce?
Darren> As I just mentioned, I feel as if the role has become broader, enabling people to venture into the discipline and add value from their own experience and point of view.
When I started, creative techs were makers only. They were hacking stuff together to find solutions, so a coding background was a must. Now though, you can come from creative and just think tech first – which is a good thing. Looking towards the future, it means that on projects, you wouldn’t need to double up on both a creative and tech person – you would have one person that can cover both. Honestly, that’s where I fit in with my role.
Creative technology with commerce is similar to creative technology in any other sector, except you have the challenge of making sure the solution can connect to transactions. In theory it sounds simple, but most campaigns and projects mainly do brand awareness. With commerce we are able to do both because we look at the complete consumer journey and map the moments that matter to connect and see where we are able to convert to a transaction.
Again, sounds simple, but most agencies forget the key reason they are being employed – to make sales!
LBB> What are the trends you are seeing in commerce? What should clients be thinking about more?
Darren> Commerce is a vast subject. I think it should be linked to every part of communication.
Recently VMLY&R COMMERCE launched a practice connecting entertainment and commerce. This isn’t necessarily a trend, but instead a massive opportunity for brands to connect with consumers in a space they are already in.
We call this Entertainment Commerce. It’s where entertainment – be it film, gaming, sports, music, fashion or experience – fuse with the transactional world of commerce. In the future, commerce experiences will transform from transactional and derivative to engaging, entertaining and shareable and of course, products that are easy to buy. With this new offering, clients shouldn’t just be thinking about brand awareness. With technology we have the ability to embed transactions and commerce into the awareness and if done smartly, you won’t be able to see where one ends and the other begins.
This film should help to explain Entertainment Commerce a bit more.
LBB> You moved into your global role at VMLY&R COMMERCE (Geometry as it was then) in 2019. What attracted you to the position after spending a number of years in Germany?
Darren> The move back to the UK was mainly a personal choice. My children were at senior school age and we felt it was the right time to head back home after 10 years as an expat.
The thing that attracted me to VMLY&R COMMERCE was the opportunity to do something that I believe other commerce agencies are still lacking – bringing creative and commerce closer together. The Entertainment Commerce practice that I spoke about is just one of the many avenues we have open to us working in this sector. That, coupled with the large and diverse client portfolio that VMLY&R COMMERCE has, solidified the decision for me. I knew the agency was on an exciting journey and I wanted to be part of that.
The agency’s culture was another really important reason that I decided to join. I am a strong believer in the idea that having fun while working together as a team produces far better work. It also helps with client relationships – the agency becomes a partner to the client instead of just a means of delivery.
LBB> There are no longer agencies who don’t do digital of course. Every campaign has some technological aspect to it. So where do you find it most fruitful to direct your expertise?
Darren> I love this question, because your observation is so spot on. A lot of agencies don’t have the expertise to deliver on the promise of digital; a lot of them are missing some of the key elements.
The easy part is coming up with cool digital ideas. The hard part is bringing those ideas to life without a digital specialist by your side.
At VMLY&R COMMERCE we have the full brigade from concept and UX to production and programmers – all of them working together enabling us to deliver the full package. Some competitors are still outsourcing everything except the idea/concept.
My role globally is to help where I can – adding value to the idea and seeing how we can bring those ideas closer to consumers, along with adding value via technology. My tech background, combined with my history of building brands, helps me do just that.
And as you said, digital and technology are the norm now. It’s not just the norm for agencies and brands; it’s the norm for consumers too. We have to ensure we are where they are while adding value, otherwise, they’re not going to interact with our brands.
LBB> There’s a hype cycle for various technologies that go through the gimmicky stage before going out of vogue and then finding their really useful applications. Are there any technologies that are at interesting points in this cycle right now?
Darren> Interesting topic! For any readers out there that may not be aware of the Hype Cycle – every year Gartner releases a white paper to show emerging technology
and how far they believe it is to real adoption or tech that they believe will just be researched but never see the light of day.
I’ve been following the hype cycle for the past 17 years and seen some observations come true and others not. It’s a great guide though to peek into future innovations.
I think there are a few interesting technologies emerging. One on the hype cycle is digital humans, which they see coming to life in 10+ years. Personally, I see that happening way before. I actually wrote a short article on digital humans
– more of an intro into the space – where I discussed the metahuman creator. This tech allows you to create your own digital human. In the article, I talk about how a company brought Einstein back to life to answer children’s questions at school. The possibilities with production like this are endless. Remember the movie Gemini Man? Will Smith sees a clone of his younger self as a digital human – that’s using the same or similar technology. And while the technology won’t take away from the amazing performance of actors, it will embellish and add value to the story and project – it’s how all technology should be used.
There are so many more technologies and innovations appearing each and every day. In fact I started a group on LinkedIn
over a decade ago that focuses purely on creative technology and innovation. There are people posting new and intriguing content – myself included. There’s a whole world of innovation out there that is moving so fast it’s actually hard to keep up, but I honestly love learning and seeing innovation being used in smart ways and this resource is a great place to explore.
LBB> I saw you posting recently about innovative storefronts, which seems particularly relevant in light of retail’s largely lacklustre attempts to get people back to old-fashioned high streets. What do you think the correct direction to take is with that?
Darren> Honestly, I think we are all missing a simple trick. Our storefront is a big billboard with masses of footfall, but we’re still dressing up these storefronts in the same old way we have for decades. In my view, we are not using them the way we should. We need to look at it as the massive media space that it is. There are consumers walking past these storefronts, their heads down looking at their phones. We need to be pulling these consumers in with engaging, entertaining and valuable content.
The technology is there to add interaction and engagement, we just need to use it. In the entertainment commerce film I shared with you earlier, you can see how we transformed a Nike store to truly bring it alive The 3D billboards – with added sound – in Seoul are another brilliant example of this.
But we have to remember, it doesn’t just stop at the storefront. That same engagement has to continue inside the store – we need to entertain, add value and finally, add an experience that’s sharable.
With a proper commerce ecosystem, the story continues online with social and digital platforms. As I’ve said the tools are there, we just need to activate them.
LBB> What work are you most proud of recently and why?
Darren> The Halloween work our Tokyo office did for au by KDDI, one of the nation’s biggest telecom companies, was truly inspiring. Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s liveliest and most iconic neighbourhoods, has become home to Japan’s biggest Halloween celebrations in recent years. When the coronavirus hit in 2020 though, the team shifted and put technology front and centre. Their solution was to build a virtual city where anybody could login in, dress up as personal avatars, interact in real-time, attend live concerts and more. Needless to say, it was a massive success with 400,000+ visitors.