Wunderman Thompson Australia’s Martin Beecroft has seen a lot happen in the technology sector since he began his career two decades ago in the UK. He began with a knack for technology and was driven to pursue this by creating his own cars – a hobby he still dives into to this day. Then, a little something called the internet began when he was starting out and from there his career grew to working on the first ever website for Barclaycard in the UK to projects with The British Army, Virgin Money and IKEA.
Now, Martin heads up the technology and innovation team at Wunderman Thompson Australia where he is responsible for leading the creative and technology teams to deliver inventive solutions, inspired by creativity, data and technology. Having been there through so many incredible technological advances, LBB’s Natasha Patel spoke to him about his biggest lessons, the real power of AI and why creative technology has no limits.
LBB> Let's go back to your early days in the UK’s Midlands, what were those years like and was there ever an inkling you’d end up in this position?
Martin> On reflection I guess I’ve always enjoyed creating new things and not following the rules or how to’s. I used to play chess with my grandad and I’d always win, even though I had no idea what I was actually doing. He used to laugh out loud as I made up random moves, taking all his pieces. I was constantly building, making or creating new things with Meccano or Lego. I’ve never been one for being told what or how to do something - I’m much happier finding my own solutions.
I was part of the lucky generation that had the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 [computers], so I was heavily influenced by the creativity of computers and gaming. I once pitched a game idea with a mate to some local guys that eventually went on to be part of Codemasters. It was my first real attempt at creating something and sharing my ideas with a ‘client’, clearly it wasn’t Sonic or anything, but I remember being pumped about it. They let us down gently and said “come back with more ideas.”
LBB> From there you studied engineering and mechanics, how much does any of that play a part in what you do today?
Martin> My brother was a massive influence in my passion and love for cars, motorbikes and music. Being a few years older than me he was always bringing home weird and wonderful cars that he’d customise and make his own. I used to go to hot rod and custom car shows and marvel at the creativity and craftsmanship, the personality and uniqueness of what they’d created. Therefore, I naturally wanted to know all I could to make my own unique cars, which I’m still doing today on most weekends.
What I learned is that there’s always a way to create, make or fix something. Nothing is impossible with the right mindset, analysis, ideas, tools and time. I also learned that to create something unique you really do need to fail and keep trying, seeing every failure as a new discovery. To do that you need a mix of things, the right people around you in support and the freedom to explore, test and learn. This heavily influences the way I work today, co-designing and creating with colleagues and clients, always testing and learning and dedicating the time required to do so.
LBB> When you were at art college you worked on one of the first Apple Macs. Looking back to how much computing has changed today, what have been the biggest differences?
Martin> Once I saw my first Mac I knew I was hooked, using the Mac GUI was like a painter being given a paintbrush and canvas for the very first time, it opened up a whole new world of possibility. At the time I was learning how to use marker pens and how to develop film - the Mac was like being in a completely different world. Programs like Freehand, QuarkXpress and others were a revelation in a world still using layout pads, pens and Letraset.
Besides the obvious advancements in technology, I feel the biggest difference is in the programs and platforms we now use. We’re able to do so much more on a single machine with cheaper and more user-friendly tools. It’s opened up a new world of creative opportunity to more people, making us all more technically creative than ever before.
LBB> You mentioned that in your first agency role your creative director disliked you... tell us more!
Martin> In retrospect I can understand why, I represented something that was very different at that time. Computing was seen almost as the enemy to creativity. I’d hear things like “you’ll never see me using one of them.” They were seen as tools that would curb creativity rather than unleash it. Some creatives adopted them quickly whilst others stayed true to their traditional craft. Needless to say their skills became quickly outdated. I learned a lot about the evolution of industries and the importance of always staying close to technologies as they evolve.
LBB> From there you built the first ever website for Barclaycard in the UK, what was this experience like and what technologies did you use?
Martin> This time in my career was incredibly rewarding. I’d been designing and coding CD-ROMs and I was working with some well-known UK brands as the .com boom took hold. One of our clients, Barclays Bank approached us to see what all the hype was and to discuss the possibility of building a site for Barclaycard. I still remember the conversation we had about building it and if I felt like I could pull it off. We really had no idea what we were doing, nor did the team at Barclaycard - that’s what made it so much fun. Everything was unknown territory and I benefited hugely from being part of that. The site itself was very basic, simple HTML that at the time felt cutting edge.
LBB> Speaking of the .com boom, you’ve been there through the evolution of the internet, what have been your biggest lessons?
Martin> The boom really was a crazy time to be working with technology. Everything was new and advancing so quickly that your default position to creating something had to be ‘yes’. It was incredibly exciting and money was no object for a while. A couple of key things happened in the ‘boom to bust’ period and these have remained with me ever since.
In the ‘boom’ period we did anything and everything, nothing was beyond possible. You said yes then figured it all out from there. From servers to email campaigns to banners and accessibility - it’s easy to look past the fact that at some point these were new things. Today this is as important as ever. Technology is evolving at an incredible pace and it’s easy to stick to what you know or be overly cautious about committing to doing something unknown. The best opportunities often lie at the intersection of the known and the unknown.
Secondly, when the ‘bust’ eventually hit, justification became the measure for everything. Strategy became central to every project, insights, analysis and validation became the norm as businesses looked to justify their spending like never before. Technology for technology's sake became a thing of the past. That is until the next boom of social and mobile apps - the number of times we heard ‘I want an app’ without any valid reason why! I learned that most of the time strategy does trump everything, until someone just needs that ‘new thing’ fast.
LBB> What does 'creative technology' mean to you?
Martin> When I hear that question, I go straight to how we put technology to work for us - to unleash the power that technology has in making our lives more meaningful. Unfortunately, all too often technology is used to solve a series of current problems - ‘we need to do X therefore we need Y’. Rather than starting with technology you need to go deeper into the organisation to discover its real reason for being. By understanding its purpose and defining why it exists, you can start to understand what technology can do to serve it. I often come across organisations that are limited to what a certain technology can do, not what as humans we need it to do. Creative Technology is where we solve this.
LBB> Where do you see creative technology going in the future? Are there any limits?
Martin> You probably know by now that I’m not one for believing in limits. As technology and specifically programming evolves it will become easier to create and deploy. I’ve seen live demos of voice-based design tools where you talk the computer through what you want and it designs it with you. Humans and technology in sync to create something new will become the everyday as the technology becomes able to write our code for us and become more self-aware. I believe this will empower our creativity more as we’ll spend more time imagining what we want to create while technology figures out how to help us make it.
LBB> When you went to Australia after being in the UK, how did the two countries compare with their use of technology and what did you bring with you to your new home?
Martin> At that time there was a definite delay in the transfer of technologies and thinking from across the globe. On arriving in Perth there were only a handful of niche technology and digital companies. The main difference was in specialist areas such as Accessibility, where human value wasn’t quite a commercial driver for most organisations. Unexpectedly, Perth was a hotbed of talented people and it didn’t take long before it spawned some incredible technical powerhouses. I look at the work being created by my colleagues at Wunderman Thompson and know that we’re leading the field with many organisations around the globe, which is hugely rewarding especially as I get to do that from Perth.
LBB> Tell me about the 'innovation' side of your role...what does this mean to you?
Martin> In some ways I love that innovation is in my Wunderman Thompson title, my passion is to create new things and rethink how something works or operates and innovation encapsulates that simply. For me innovation is to completely transform something that delivers a practical reality. To think of the impossible and to make it possible - for me that’s innovation that counts. At Wunderman Thompson I work with an amazing team of product and service designers and we’re solving some gnarly human problems in our work. The opportunity to drive innovation that has a significant impact on humans, is highly motivational.
LBB> What is 'human centred design and human centred technology' to you and how has this evolved thanks to brands like Apple?
Martin> Human centred design is unfortunately not that human, mainly because the most important part of it, the insight from users, is often the least valued. HCD is being used as a validation method, a way of proving what you think as opposed to fuelling what you do. In the early ‘90s companies were focussed on how to improve manufacturing machines for the humans that were using them, so HCD is nothing new at all. There’s a great paper on Human Centred Technology and Design written in 1988 from Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London that discusses this very topic. It highlights Henry Ford who expressed his vision for a human-less factory, as humans were “mean and lazy, unreliable and unpredictable”. The devaluation of the human in this example is all wrong. What Apple realised in the design of its GUI revolutionised the computer making it accessible to everyone, the perfect interplay of human and machine. To me HCD/T is just that - the perfect symbiosis that allows both elements to work in harmony.
LBB> With that in mind, do you think technology solves any problems for us - or do we as humans create them?
Martin> For sure. I believe the most successful technologies are adopted primarily because they make life easy for us. Look at the most successful mobile applications or online tools in areas such as banking or real estate and more. The success of these is determined by how easy we can accomplish our task. I often hear people complaining about call waiting services or chat bots that just make our task harder. I experienced this recently whilst trying to use a chat service with the streaming provider for the Euros 2020. Their chat bot had a function where once you hit enter it responded with your typed input. The issue was you could only hit enter once then wait for a reply. So if you treated It like a chat function and began with ‘hi’ >return, then you were basically left hanging. Simple things like this we create, we think we’re solving a problem whereas we’re just creating more frustration. It’s not the technology's fault, it’s ours for not truly understanding how humans behave through the right research.
LBB> Speaking of chat bots, with a rise in AI and technology, what impact will this have on brands?
Martin> We’re still only in the infancy of this technology but as it evolves there’s no doubt that AI will change how we interact with technology. Machine Learning is already making our lives simpler and as AI becomes more powerful and sentient it will take on a new role in our daily lives. A few years ago I saw a demonstration of a digital personal assistant that was so smart you could give it a simple command and it would execute it. The example used was “buy my mum some flowers for her birthday” the DPA (think Siri or Google or Cortana) immediately knew through the data, what flowers mum liked, when her Birthday was, where she lived and the bank details to arrange the transaction. All it asked for was for the user to choose one of three price points it offered and the request was completed. Imagine the impact this will have on brands, there was no browsing, no brand or product choice and no opportunity to cross or upsell. The same process was carried out to buy an airline ticket.
The simplicity and ease ensure that we’ll adopt this technology. Brands need to figure out how they can play a part in influencing choice, for me this is where brands will need to be directly connected to a customer, to understand who they are and what their preferences are. Ultimately data will be the key to this future and the brands who have built those personalised customer communities will succeed.
LBB. What have been your favourite examples of the way data, tech and creativity can work together?
Martin> Wow, that’s a tough one as I have so many favourites. I feel like I should probably share examples that have had a significant impact on me and how I think about creativity and technology.
One of my recent favourites is the Westworld: The Maze game for Alexa, for its ability to break new ground in interaction and gameplay on voice platforms. The Easter eggs for media was inspired, and the quality of the experience was incredible.
If you’ve never heard of Johnathan Harris, I suggest you look him up. His approach to completely reimagining the way humans and technology interact and the interface that drives that interaction has constantly excited me about what we could create. His work on ‘we feel fine’ and the ‘whale hunt’ made anyone who saw them rethink what was possible.
One of my favourite pieces of technology and creativity in recent years was the Nike Chalkbot. It was an incredibly simple but beautiful connection of social commentary, integrated technology and an innovative way of printing messages on the Tour De France roads. The beauty was that the media coverage of the tour meant that the messages were streamed all over the world for free which encouraged more people to send their messages in, after all we all like to see our own name on TV still. It was pure genius.
LBB> What new programs do you love using in your day-to-day role?
Martin> Collaboration has become crucial to our ways of working especially in a world where we’re in and out of lockdowns and working from kitchens, spare rooms, and wardrobes (true story). The indispensable tools recently have been programs like Miro, Figma, Slack, anything that makes connection simpler. Miro has helped facilitate a new world of co-creation and co-design enabling the delivery of products and services through collaborations with customers and partners. Covid has accelerated acceptance of these tools and processes and it’s enabled us to rapidly test ideas and products quickly and validate them in a completely new and exciting way.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Martin> Only that the future of Human Centred Technology is looking incredibly exciting. As we move away from the interaction on devices towards more voice, haptic and gesture-based experiences, the link between humans and technology will become even more powerful. AI will support us in our day-to-day work and life experiences and become adept at driving more meaningful human-to-human and human-to technology-experiences. I for one, can’t wait.