Digital Craft in association withAdobe Firefly

Meet the Technologists: Martin Verdult

San Jose, United States
MediaMonks London’s MD speaks to LBB’s Adam Bennett, in association with Adobe, about the industry’s point of no return, the future of events in a digital space, and the value of an East-meets-West mindset

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. 

In this conversation we talk with Martin Verdult, managing director of MediaMonks London. With twenty years of experience in digital marketing, as well as five working in Shanghai, there are few leaders better equipped to unpick our industry’s tangled web than Martin. In this interview, we dive into Martin’s unique career so far, why the industry is past a ‘point of no return’, and the beauty in finding the balance between East and West.

LBB > Back at university, you started out with a bachelor's degree in hotel, motel and restaurant management. Does that experience in hospitality colour your work today at all?

Martin > I think there’s clearly some links between the hospitality industry and what we do in agencies. Clients like to be treated like VIPs, and if you treat them well there’s a fair chance they’ll come back. Our Monasteries should feel like a warm bath for clients and our Monks, where people feel at home, can be who they are and are ready to connect with others. 

Even during this pandemic we need to make sure our teams stay connected and we have the best-in-class online tools to make sure clients and Monks have the ability to do so. One of the latest developments I see is the rapid acceleration of virtual solutions. State of the art tech and unprecedented user experience are essential elements to making moments enjoyable and effective. And those kinds of moments are critical to anyone’s business and brand at the moment.

LBB > And at what point in your career did you figure out that marketing, particularly the digital side, was a path you wanted to pursue?

Martin > That came about way back at university during the mid-90s (yes, I really am that old).  I remember our college being one of the first to adopt email and Yahoo Search, which felt like this enormous breakthrough at the time, and it absolutely was. Having said that, my first real dive into the digital industry was via a traditional print ad in the local Amsterdam newspaper.  At that time ‘The Internet’ was booming and everything was possible. Obviously the big crash followed early 2000 but the world was changed for good. I would define that as the point of no return.

LBB > One of the challenges currently facing the production side which many have identified is this idea of needing to do more with less. Do you think that the pandemic has challenged that culture in any way? Or is it exacerbating the problem?

Martin > The pandemic has accelerated the process of smart production. And admittedly, this has been a long time coming. Brands and agencies alike are continuously evaluating the production process. In terms of budget, a true smart production process will save money that can be reinvested elsewhere.

We can now see digital production flexing its muscles, utilising the latest technologies to provide the highest quality content. State of the art solutions, such as animation, VFX and CGI, are great ways of dealing with the hurdles thrown at us by the pandemic. I think the intensive use of these technologies is here to stay. It creates great content while also being very efficient, not to mention its capacity for global collaboration across offices, including for clients. 

An example of this new process which springs to mind immediately is a project we have done for Nike. Across the team at W+K, and a number of our global offices in LATAM, Europe and the US we have helped to set up a professional live streaming studio for Nike's trainer. And all in 48 hours!

Above: During the Covid-19 lockdowns, MediaMonks collaborated with W+K to produce live workout sessions, streamed on YouTube, and delivered by Nike Master Trainers.

LBB > On a more positive note, what about the industry is exciting you right now?

Martin > Virtualisation is taking flight in a big way. Just like smart production, this is something that has accelerated in the last few months. With sports matches, concerts, festivals and conferences postponed or cancelled, it’s a challenge to think how brands can still connect with their audiences - and vice versa. We’re all pretty fatigued when it comes to more Zoom meetings, so a virtual event needs to be nothing like that.

Our focus shouldn’t be on replacing physical events, but rather reinventing them. Many brands seek to translate their existing experiences to a digital format, when what they should be doing is rebuilding them from the ground up to take advantage of the features that make live streaming a unique medium - and build a sense of presence and placemaking in the process. A video conference platform isn’t a virtualisation strategy.

Livestreams and virtual events should go further than being treated as just a one-way broadcast. This doesn’t benefit the audience alone; an event’s performer - whether they’re a musician, a conference speaker or athlete - thrives on seeing the energy of the audience at physical events. This has prompted us to flip the focus not just on what’s happening on a digital stage, but what’s happening in the audience, too. We want to virtualise a sense of presence.

Virtualisation will completely redefine what people, their interactions and their relationships mean to them. The next decade will be defined by it. 

LBB > You’ve worked in Shanghai, of course London, and you come from the Netherlands. Do you feel that you’re bringing an international mindset to your work? And how does that affect what you do?

Martin > Yes, the international mindset is very obvious in the way I work, and affects all aspects of my life. The world is not single-minded anymore. I’ve been privileged to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds and that makes it easier to recognise, read, and adapt to signals. Across S4 Capital we have super introverted tech and data people, but also the flamboyant super-extravert creatives, everyone with different values and in different timezones. While building a team at MediaMonks I am carefully looking at every aspect of culture, backgrounds, experiences, sexuality, ethnicity, etc. to create diverse teams that tackle the biggest challenges with each of their unique perspectives. 

LBB > In terms of your own philosophy, did spending five years in China change that? If so, how?

Martin > Oh, definitely. There is so much I have learned in those five years. It starts with the different values where personal trust and a strong relationship with someone is key to doing business. Guanxi (关系) comes from the Confucius philosophy where it  plays a fundamental role which sees the individual as part of a community and a set of family, hierarchical and friendly relationships.

This may sound a bit weird but, in my experience, British society is also full of british Guanxi and I do see a lot of similarities. 

LBB > And do you think it’s possible to find a ‘best of both worlds’ middle ground between Western and Eastern outlooks in the workplace?

Martin > Yes, I think so. In fact, I’d say that finding that middle ground is pretty much essential for any modern company. Business takes place on multiple fronts at multiple speeds. This also means that our workplace needs to be designed to cater to multiple models and set-ups - that’s clear when you think about recent events such as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Adaptation to change is key.

My point is that you don’t know what you’re going to need three to five years from now, but if you have your skills sharpened in multiple work models, you can turn the volume up in one and down in another, minimizing the latency time to get what you need. And that’s going to be the difference between success and failure.

LBB > Tell us about your role at MediaMonks. What keeps you busy day-to-day?

Martin > Ha, well that's an interesting question at the moment! Besides building and growing the team through the pandemic, recent events have added an interesting dimension to my role. I’m always looking to bring together our teams across all companies that fall under the S4 Capital umbrella, combining our expertise and knowledge effectively. 

At the start of the pandemic, we switched quite swiftly into the WFH mode and supported our teams with equipment, new ways of working and frequent updates from the leadership on what is going on in the company. Our weekly State of the Nation from Sir Martin Sorrel and the AMMA (Ask MediaMonks Anything) with our co-founder Wesley and CEO Victor  are very well received. Moreover, we are working to focus on mental health, with some long lasting initiatives where we: 

- Start exploring the effects and complexities the Covid-19 working environment has had on our lives,

- Look into the way how our work can become more authentic, appropriate and effective in a diverse world,

- And help everyone how to cope with working from home and balancing that off with their personal lives. 

LBB > Finally, you have twenty years of experience in digital advertising, working with digitally-native agencies. Do you ever feel a weight of responsibility for driving what your company, and the industry, might look like post-Covid?

Martin > First of all, we work in an industry that will find a new balance very soon, I’m not so worried about that. I can already see agencies adapting to the change and moving into the new realm. We probably need to live with Covid, to a certain extent, so I would say there is no clearly visible ‘post-Covid’, there is only the new way of working in an accelerated digital world. Not just at the agency side but even more at client sides. Changes are now happening very rapidly.

My belief is that by keeping all the communications open, keeping our Monks continuously aware of what is going on in the world, and by listening carefully to people and what is driving them we will ensure that we are ready in any shape or form - with a  diverse multicultural group of people that is fully immersed in how all kinds of generations connect with tribes, brands, cultures. 

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