R/GA’s SVP ECD tells LBB’s Adam Bennett how brands can think big and use the metaverse to take their brand beyond reality
As virtual production continues to evolve, so too does the industry-wide conversation regarding the metaverse. Given the potential for crafting immersive and intricate digital worlds, what does this mean for how brands should approach their Metaverse strategies? And why is it essential to have a strategy for the Metaverse in the first place? In collaboration with LBB, Unreal Engine is sponsoring the ‘Virtual Production’ channel, where we will be speaking with some of the industry’s most forward-thinking and innovative minds to explore some of the biggest questions surrounding this new way of working.
Today, we speak to R/GA’s SVP ECD Nick Pringle. Nick’s work has often put him at the forefront of innovation in the digital and immersive spaces, with campaigns such as Verizon Fortnite Stadium hinting at the sheer scale of the metaverse’s creative potential. Here, Nick reflects on how the metaverse - or rather web3 more broadly - will redefine our concept of ‘ownership’, why Unreal Engine is proving such a popular way to create immersive experiences and, most importantly, how creatives can think outside the box and create true innovation within the metaverse.
LBB> Nick - when you think of the potential of the metaverse, what is it that you’re thinking about exactly?
Nick> Ha, well that’s a nice ambitious way to start. The metaverse is a subset of web3 - the next iteration of the internet - which is my main area of interest. It’s easy to think about that jump, from web2 to web3, in terms of technological leaps. But, for me, it’s more about changing expectations with regards to how we interact with the internet. And that’s what’s truly exciting.
It started with, at the most basic level, us understanding that we can read stuff on the internet. So people put stuff on there to be read. Then it evolved into the expectation that the internet was something you were part of, that you could write, create, and express yourself in quite a profound way. So then we all started doing exactly that, and that’s broadly where we are now. And today, we’ve hit the peak of that phase and we’re starting to see the kernels of a new expectation. It’s an expectation that says the internet is immersive, three dimensional, and will allow you some sense of ownership. We see that through the likes of Roblox and Fortnite, and the rise of NFTs. And that is web3. We are, in all likelihood, a decade or so away from hitting the ‘peak’ of web3 as was the case with web1 and web2. But it’s happening, and when the pace does build up it will do so quickly.
LBB> So what do you see as driving that evolution from web2 to web3?
Nick> It’s organic, there’s no one single factor. 5G is part of it. Blockchain is part of it. And there’s a paradigm shift in expectation which is driven by the cutting edge experiences of today. For a generation of young people, for example, the immersive and ever-changing worlds of Minecraft and Fortnite simply are the internet. There’s a sense that anything which delivers a lesser experience to that is in some way inferior, certainly for that demographic. Those experiences have created the mass adoption of this idea that the internet is a three dimensional space where we socialise and spend quality time.
So there’s been a paradigm shift in expectation, coupled with significant technological advances. The result, inevitably, will be change.
LBB> Let’s talk more about that ‘ownership’ aspect you mentioned. How can that be used to create truly big or out-of-the-box ideas in the metaverse? The kind of thing which wouldn’t be possible elsewhere?
Nick> There are two ways of looking at ownership. There’s ownership in the sense of digital assets which you can take from one platform to another platform and that, fundamentally, is part of the promise of the metaverse. It’s the idea that, if I’ve spent ten years playing Roblox and amassed a huge collection of resources in that game, those resources then have value elsewhere. It’s an unprecedented level of interoperability which, with the right creative vision, could spark some incredibly open-minded applications.
And then there’s also ownership in terms of ownership over your data. Let’s call that ‘self-sovereignty’. The give-and-take of web2 has been the exchange of data in order to have a good internet experience. The promise of the future and web3 is that you will no longer need to give that data over in order to interact with the internet in a meaningful way. So it’s ownership both over your digital assets, and your privacy.
LBB> Hang on, why will we not need to give up our data anymore?
Nick> Because if everything lives on the blockchain, and you can have an anonymous wallet, then you’re not giving any personal data over to any platform. Right now if I want to create an account on any given social media platform I’ll invariably have to give up my age, my location, and information like that which can be sold to advertisers. But if I can have an anonymous relationship with the internet, I won’t be scraped for my data.
We’re seeing the early tremors of these changes in the way you now need to give consent when you log into everything, and legal developments like GDPR. That’s the first step of people taking power back, if you like, over their digital lives. The blockchain will take that one step further. On the blockchain, you own your data. On web2, platforms own it.
LBB> On a previous occasion where you spoke with LBB, you referred to a great Quincy Jones quote with regards to creativity: “In music, there are really only 12 notes, but check out what they did with those 12 notes over the last hundred years”. Do you think that quote rings equally true in the context of web3? Why?
Nick> It applies hugely when we’re talking about taking brands into these spaces. The fundamental tools of storytelling and creating great experiences haven’t changed, and web3 isn’t going to change them. We’ll still use juxtaposition to create intrigue and surprise, it’s just that immersive experiences can allow for deeper and richer applications of those age-old formulas.
A lot of the great adverts of our time have leaned into exaggeration and hyperbole, especially in the context of humour. In the metaverse there are no laws of physics - that means you can take the promise or the essence of a brand and heighten it massively. You’re not trapped by the physics of the real world. In the metaverse, what’s possible takes on a whole new meaning.
LBB> Do you think there are any creative themes which are coming up when you look at work which is being done in the metaverse today?
Nick> Something we’ve seen a lot of so far is digital twinning. It’s the idea that, because you have a shop in the real world, you should have a shop in the metaverse as well. If you’re a soft drink in the real world, you can get a can of that soft drink in the metaverse.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing - but I do fear it’s not making the most of the potential in front of us. To take a totally random example, Red Bull is a brand who could do something quite obvious and interesting in this space. Their tagline is ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, so perhaps in the metaverse their brand will manifest as a rocket pack which launches you into the sky. Obviously that couldn’t happen in the real world, but in the metaverse it can. It’s a way of informing a lot of positive attitudes about a brand.
And then this comes back to my point about interoperability. We’re a way off this yet, but the ultimate goal will be that you can use this Red Bull jetpack in, let’s say, Fortnite - but because its an NFT you can then leave Fortnite and it will also have an application when you next log into Roblox, or whatever other online world exists in the future. And then perhaps you can even use or exchange that NFT in the real world for a can of Red Bull.
LBB> That would be amazing. But do you think there are certain brands for whom that kind of marketing will work, and others for which it simply won’t?
Nick> I think the only limit is imagination. That will come down to strategic fundamentals, asking whether you have an audience which engages in this space, and whether your brand can offer value to them. But, you know, even a laundry detergent brand could have an NFT-linked item which gives your avatar a dazzling glow in a certain game world, or something like that. There will always be a creative avenue to explore.
LBB> So on a practical note, how should creatives be looking to take their ideas into reality in the metaverse? Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is widely acknowledged as a great tool for doing so - what makes that software so viable in this space, in your view?
Nick> Well Epic is leading the pack in terms of stuff like dynamic lighting and movement, and there’s a huge toolkit which comes with their product. It means that, if you’re a game designer, you’re putting your effort into designing the quality of the game and the moment-to-moment experience rather than building assets. You combine that with their freemium model and suddenly you have a state-of-the-art piece of software which essentially anyone can use. I expect that’s why it’s become so popular and it’s setting the pace for creators looking to dip into these kinds of experiences.
LBB> And are there any examples of campaigns out there that have already ignited your imagination in terms of whats possible with web3?
Nick> Two examples come to mind - one big, and one small. I think what the team at R/GA built for Verizon at the Super Bowl, where we made the Fortnite stadium in 2021, is a demonstration of the scale you can achieve. It was an elite gamified experience where we managed to appeal to people beyond the traditional Fortnite base, and beyond the traditional Super Bowl base as well. We then were able to build a kind of omnichannel experience around it, one which included Twitch, NFL players, social influencers and a more ‘traditional’ digital campaign as well. That’s a huge example but it shows the impact you can drive by incorporating these immersive experiences into your campaigns.
Above: Verizon 5G Stadium brought an immersive aspect to Super Bowl LV at a time when fans were kept away from the real stadium due to the pandemic.
On the other end of that scale spectrum is something like our work with Vollebak, the future-facing clothing brand based out of the UK. They’d developed something of a reputation for stocking their clothes in hard-to-reach locations (including the Tjukayirla Roadhouse in Western Australia) and they had a product called the Mars Jacket. So, back to my point about brands going beyond the physically possible, we created an event in Decentraland and hid the jacket away on an in-game version of Mars.
We had kind of crossed our fingers, hoping that users might find it within a week, a month tops. In fact, they found it in fewer than 24 hours. Entire subreddits had been set up dedicated to the search - it was amazing to see. It was the most successful activation they’d ever done as a brand.
So that’s an example of where digital commerce and virtual commerce came together.
LBB> Finally, a poll published by the Institute for Public Relations in April this year found that 36% of all US adults were ‘interested’ in the Metaverse. Does that surprise you in any way, and what does it tell us about the Metaverse’s potential?
Nick> No, that doesn’t surprise me. Adoption happens on a curve over different audiences, so it would be interesting to see that broken down by age range. My suspicion would be that gen Z will be the most enthusiastic and accepting simply because these kinds of digital experiences are the expectation rather than an aspiration. For millennials and those in my generation it will be slower because we’re hard-wired to experience the internet in 2D. When you talk about going to a virtual gig a lot people my age might scratch their heads and wonder why you’d want to do that. But it’s exactly the same dynamic as with our parents looking at us and wondering why we’re scrolling through our phones all the time.
In some respects 36% is a high number - gen Z don’t make up a third of the population - but there has been something of a publicity boom in recent times. I think if you asked whether respondents had had a metaverse experience that number would drop. Once again, however, it’s more evidence that this shift is happening, and those numbers are only going to be heading upwards from this point.