From the first dopamine rush of Street Fighter to the insightful CX of pioneering social commerce projects, the interplay of psychology, behaviour and innovative tech has, in some way or another, followed Roy Armale throughout his whole career. After starting out working in brands like Unilever and Johnson & Johnson in the Middle East, Roy soon found his way to the agency world as a strategist. From there, he discovered a world of potential. Processes and platforms, both internally and with clients, were in great need of an update. At Cheil he became Global Rx Officer and in 2018 he moved to WPP and Geometry as Chief Experience Officer EMEA. But it was his own experience launching a startup that really thrust him deep into the nitty-gritty of innovation.
Now as global chief innovation officer at VMLY&R Commerce, he’s able to combine his Master's degree in psychology with life at the pointy end of marketing innovation. He’s a huge believer that innovation should follow behaviour and that, rather than focusing on short-term transactions, commerce is better served by putting humanity at the heart of it.
We caught up with Roy to find out more.
LBB> Firstly, where did you grow up and was technology something that interested you from a young age?
Roy> I grew up in a lot of places that had mixed access to tech. I spent my formative years in Montreal, where tech was a core part of the school curriculum, then went back to Lebanon, where dial-up internet reigned for way too long and getting cut off mid-download due to a random phone call made it really hard to get a solid music playlist. However, gaming was a constant link to tech that keeps amazing me to this day. Seeing the progress from 2D platformers like Mario to the fully immersive games we have now has been a great ride. I’m not saying games have necessarily gotten better (Street Fighter 2 = ton of happiness. Anthem = a lot of disappointment), but the graphics sure have and the tech connecting players around the world is becoming seamless.
LBB> How from there did you get into the industry?
Roy> It was an evolution of work towards passion. My formal education is in the field of economics and then behavioural psychology, so I started my career out in brand management at Unilever and J&J. I eventually gravitated towards agency strategic planning because the brand strategy was the part of the job I enjoyed most, so I preferred doing the best part for many brands rather than deal with supply chain, retail sales negotiations, etc. That opened the door for me to tech because I noticed that a lot of our work was stuck in the stone age, from the way we collect data to the way we connect them to insight generation. There was so much potential that something as small as automating a dashboard made a huge difference. Seeing the marketing world running on excel while so many great solutions were out there told me that the issue wasn’t about tech availability, it was about change management and ensuring that the tech was positioned for easier adoption by solving specific problems.
LBB> Your route throughout your career is quite unusual in that you started brand side and moved agency side - how did that foundation with brands like Dove and Johnson & Johnson help you in your later career?
Roy> My experience taught me that the larger the organisation, the harder it is to overcome the familiarity bias. I’ve mentioned the issue with running marketing organisations on Excel. The more pertinent issue is the resistance to upgrades and evolutions because people are used to a particular way of working. The other side of that coin is the insane impact of an upgrade once accepted. It’s a very high barrier to entry with a proportionally high reward.
LBB> You also started your career working for the Middle East market - it’s a region that currently seems to be pushing forward with science, innovation, digital, especially UAE and KSA, and I know the VMLY&R COMMERCE office in Dubai is very strong. What, if anything, can the rest of the world learn from the Middle East when it comes to innovation?
Roy> My initial take on the Middle East relates more to the infrastructure around innovation than innovating.
For now, the Middle East tech approach that I have experienced is to follow and adapt, not to create. It’s a great region with big brands and good potential, but taking advantage of that potential requires some change from a mindset of quick and safe adoption of ideas that have worked in other markets to a mindset of developing regional IP. I’d love to see that change and I’ve tried to be part of that change, but it’s a very heavy load to move and it’s going to need a lot of momentum.
In contrast, the VMLY&R COMMERCE office here is very progressive because it is full of actively inquisitive minds and has strong leadership. Our MENA CEO Nick Walsh and I have been partners since my first move into advertising and he understands the value of innovation to his business and that of his clients. Within our advertising peers I see a lot of innovative ideas across the creative technology spectrum which is a great start.
LBB> How did you move into the innovation field/role?
Roy> I took a big risk with my own startup. That risk is by far the most difficult professional challenge I have ever attempted. The challenges had many layers, from dealing with the predatory banking systems to finding investors that believe in the idea and product, from pivoting the product based on market needs to making a huge transition during the pandemic, and from creating an intellectual property in a market that was not ready, to finding a higher acceptance in other regions. The experience didn’t only teach me innovation, but also how to better understand client needs and innovating in that direction.
LBB> Your role has evolved tremendously over the years with WPP – from Ogilvy Action to Geometry and now VMLY&R COMMERCE in a global capacity. I can imagine the demand for innovation, especially in the commerce space, is enormous as new ways of working and new behaviours has accelerated the adoption of technology. How has this affected you personally and the work you are doing?
Roy> I’m enjoying every minute. The situation is like starting out on a surfboard and catching a small wave and then gradually upgrading to larger boats and ships as the wave grows and the momentum catches on. I’m part of that wave, but I also know how small I am in comparison.
The leadership at VMLY&R COMMERCE has gone beyond supporting innovation to becoming a driving force behind it. When our global CEO, Beth Ann Kaminkow, put me in this role, she made her expectations clear on wanting to see scaled innovation. She didn’t only set expectations, she also supported the infrastructure to make this happen. The VMLY&R merger accelerated that further through more support and room for scale. You see that even more prominently at the WPP level where our CTO, Stephan Pretorius, has set up a CTO council for idea cross-pollination, a product board and council for funding innovation, and a combined vision and environment of OPEN where innovation thrives and scales. I get to be part of all that and have access to so much that I feel like a kid in a candy store.
LBB> And can you share some examples of innovations that your teams devised for clients to help them navigate this disruption that you’re particularly proud of?
Roy> We generally have two types of deliverables. The first is innovation as a service while the second is innovation as an augmenter. We apply both of those on our Connected Commerce Platform.
Innovation as a service is when we use our platform to help our clients innovate. In that case, we use the collaboration tools on the platform that enable us to run both physical and virtual workshops, test ideas on the fly, and deliver prototypes quickly and iteratively in a digital environment that all of us can access. The pay-off is in moments where we can collaborate, iteratively, to see an innovation through execution. For example, how we had a five-day workshop followed by a three-month idea development and prototyping process with Jägermeister that led to a lot of ideas, a few prototypes, and a new type of in-shelf fridge that went to market.
‘Innovation as an augmenter’ is when we use our platform and tools to augment and optimise client work. An example is an AI-based evaluation system that includes our own IP as well as integrated data and tools from other WPP companies to create a holistic view of the consumer. This AI can evaluate and optimise creative executions, ranging from shelf strips in physical stores to product description pages, in order to test our concepts and ensure that our ideas are optimised to convert in-market. IP like this that sits within our Connected Commerce Platform is augmenting the work by harnessing insights, data and technology to enable a more personalised and immersive commerce experience. This type of integration is also a great example of how WPP’s OPEN creates an environment of sharing and co-innovation across the WPP network.
LBB> VMLY&R COMMERCE plays in a very particular focus area - what developments (tech or business) are you particularly excited about in the commerce space?
Roy> I’m really excited about the evolution of social commerce. Our Global CDO, Debbie Ellison, leads this practice and it has so much potential. Whether at Geometry or VMLY&R COMMERCE, we’ve been clear on our vision of commerce as being bigger than the transactions and the channels, but rather human at its core. The technology we have access to today is allowing us to really live that vision because the level of connections and the enablement of commercial interactions is so natural and ubiquitous, that all the entry barriers have been removed. Since the rise of D2C (direct to consumer) with enablers like Shopify, anyone can come up with an idea and anyone can sell it. Social commerce is putting all that on steroids.
LBB> In a role such as yours, how do you encourage innovation throughout the network and what’s the key to helping offices elevate their level of innovation?
Roy> I’m really lucky that I don’t have to do that alone, especially since the merger. VMLY&R as a whole understands the power of good CX. Jeff Geheb, our global CXO, has been the tip of that spear not only for VMLY&R but for the whole industry. Once we merged and I joined, he embraced the approach and is giving me room and direction on how to scale. We use a “behaviour first, tech second” approach where we look at the organisation’s workflow and see where value can be added through innovation, then we look for products, tech partners, etc. This has helped us ensure that we get to the lower hanging fruit first and then expand into more scale. It has also helped us turn investment into revenue quickly, which makes getting funded a lot easier.
LBB> What do you think are the misconceptions among clients and agencies around innovation?
Roy> The main misconception is that innovation is about expensive technology. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve already talked about “behaviour first, tech second”; the main barrier to that approach is that sometimes the solution is a simple execution or change. The problem was well-described by Rory Sutherland in his Ted Talk “Sweat the Small Stuff” and I will paraphrase, but I recommend you see the whole talk. He points out that people expect the size of the solution to be proportional to the problem and can even be disappointed if it’s a simple fix. Innovation is the opposite of that mindset, it’s all about solutions that can scale, but they start out as small fixes, usually to large problems.
LBB> And when it comes to innovation how does that experience help you identify the innovations that clients need and the challenges they might face implementing them?
Roy> I’m going to sound like a broken record bringing up the “behaviour first, tech second” thing, but that’s the closest I’ve come to an approach that works. We don’t identify innovations, we identify needs, challenges, and gaps. If we can find a solution, then we have come up with a creative solution. If that creative solution can scale and becomes more valuable through replication, then we have innovated.