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Nihar Das: ‘Tech Changing Our Biology & Psychology is What’s Really Driving a Demand for Craft’


WPP’s ‘Black Ops’ founder Nihar Das explains how a rising demand for quality craft in advertising comes down to a mind-blowing combination of biology and psychology - content's biggest competitor.

Nihar Das: ‘Tech Changing Our Biology & Psychology is What’s Really Driving a Demand for Craft’

The growth of film and episodic content over recent years has resulted in a rise of cinematic quality across advertising. As craft in filmmaking continues to push the boundaries of commercial content, Dublin-based post production powerhouse Screen Scene partners with LBB on the Meet Your Makers channel for a new series exploring the ever blurring line between entertainment and commercial film.

Speaking with heads of production, agency producers, production company owners and executive producers, ‘Craft Where Worlds Collide’ will discuss how entertainment and commercial trends are reshaping the quality of content that consumers expect from advertising, and what this means for production.

Nihar Das is the founder of WPP’s ‘Black Ops’ - a start-up dedicated to solving business problems, responsible for the monumental SK-II ‘VS’ Olympic anthology. Unique in its approach, the team - picked anew based on the problem at hand - is assembled and disassembled on an as-needed basis. As well as his founding role at Black Ops, Nihar has over 20 years experience in the industry and is currently the Global IMX Lead at WPP OpenX, the newly formed entity that won the global Coca-Cola business,  alongside running Black Ops. Always thinking outside the box and beyond any one discipline, Nihar is a creative at the very edge of innovation, always looking at problems and solutions with a fresh perspective. 


He tells LBB why craft is a solution supplied simply,  how he changed where and what people were eating in the nordics with instagram photography and how technology is shaping our biological and psychological make up and as a result is driving a demand for quality craft in both the entertainment and advertising worlds...

LBB> What does craft mean to you and how important is craft to the effectiveness of advertising?

Nihar> I have a simple view of craft: craft in my mind is ‘solution supplied simply’. Whenever we've stuck to this line, we have delivered work that is both beautiful and effective, because it’s striving for a solution. 

LBB> So, for you, craft necessarily has a utilitarian dimension?

Nihar> 100%. We have to account for the fact that we are an agency for clients. When they have a problem to solve, or a business to look after, we need to think of the intersection between beauty and utility.  

LBB> With the explosion of premium TV, audiences now expect quality content pretty much all the time. Have you noticed a change in the quality of craft consumers demand from ads? Or have ads/brands been leading the change in quality?

Nihar> It's both. To give you a simple example, if you compare the markets in India and China, today, India is the largest data consumer, despite having only one third of the smartphone penetration of China. The underlying reason is that data was essentially made free. There's one large company - Jio - whose entire endeavour is to get a competitive advantage because its late entrant to the industry, so they just made data free. The result is that people consume content en masse, breaking down geographical boundaries. Before that, people in India had access to around 100 million domains outside of India - suddenly, that has shot up to a billion. 

So, once the barrier was taken away, consumers started looking for content that existed elsewhere. Their realm of excellence was now the best in the world, not just what was best in their corner. Advertisers now had to match up to those global standards people were expecting, otherwise their viewership and click-throughs would drop. If you look at the quality of craft in India in those periods - and you can track it against the Jio launch - it’s improved phenomenally. Jio had put pressure on advertisers, through consumers expecting a standard of excellence that they hadn't seen before.

Similarly, when Oculus brought in a new dimension of VR, suddenly, everyone supplied VR. For example, YouTube VR. You just need one disruption point, and everybody will try to match up to that. It's quite a virtuous cycle, and various disruption points are paving the way for superior, engaging, technology-driven content that we haven’t seen earlier. So, in my view, it’s not just consumers, it's not just content, but it is essentially technology that is causing the disruptions that drive consumers to demand more from suppliers. 

LBB> What entertainment and commercial trends do you feel are converging? 

Nihar> In my view, the ones converging are the ones that are driven by technology that affects either biology or psychology. They are the ones affecting long term changes driving conversions.

Think of Netflix’s strategy. They say that their competitor is actually human sleep. They use data and technology to address this. They’re the ones who first came up with the ticker that starts the next episode in eight seconds, because they figured out that, on average, human willpower gives in after eight seconds. So the eight-second ticker is not random, it's not serendipity - it’s empirically proven that if you want to compete against humans’ speed and willpower, just test them out for eight seconds because they can’t resist beyond that. 

Data from wearable devices shows that binge-watching has pushed back the sleep cycle by at least one and a half hours, on average. That means the melatonin cycle is pushed back, biology has changed, and the circadian rhythm has changed - this has a whole host of implications. 

First of all, there are new hungers. You start feeling hungry at times you never felt hungry earlier. Your sugar cravings have gone up. You’re desiring different kinds of food and drink. Second, in such a cloud of psychology, you end up making different shopping choices. If you tracked Amazon data with viewership behaviour, you can see that people who binge-watch make very different decisions to those who don’t. 

Another example is that people who consume sad content are more likely to make impulsive purchase decisions compared to those consuming uplifting content.  Technological trends that are beginning to affect biology and psychology almost permanently - they’re the ones creating long-lasting implications for us that aren’t fads.

LBB> Thinking about what you said about how tech innovation is affecting our biology and psychology -  are you seeing it impact the briefs you're receiving from clients?

Nihar> I think most clients are largely unaware of this. Those of us who are aware should take responsibility to bring it to more people's attention, and look for more ethical targets. 

For example, a project in the Nordics in which we saw application of the concept of visual hunger - that’s where you begin to desire food just from looking at photos of it. Now, when people look for a restaurant, one of the most important things they’ll do is look at pictures of the food. As you can imagine, bigger restaurants with more resources have better and more photos, and so get more traction. 

In the Nordics, small, individual businesses had once been dominant, but over the last few years, more and more people were searching for restaurants and choosing them based on the visual results - so the once thriving small businesses shrank in favour of bigger businesses. So, we worked with a camera company to bring attention to this, and illustrate why people were losing business. We created a campaign in which we targeted photo enthusiasts and said, “Look, if you’re fascinated with a neighbourhood coffee shop, or the pizza shop on your corner that you grew up with, you run the risk of it closing - so we challenge you to bring your best photography skills to your favourite dish.”

We crowdsourced these photos, and in about three months time, the whole dynamic had changed. More and more people got involved, especially since everyone has a phone camera, and they posted really nice pictures. Suddenly, without the small businesses even knowing, we got a community involved and activated to leverage the visual hunger. It's not that the trend had changed, but the implication had shifted - just by being aware of it, allowing us to switch to what we collectively thought was healthier. 

In general, briefs won’t look like this. But if people are aware of trends and underlying dynamics, they can intersect with the brief, and we can look for where there’s opportunity to do something unique for the community. 

LBB> You founded WPP ‘Black Ops’, a new way of leveraging talent across the WPP network. How do projects going through Black Ops work differently to traditional projects? What was this a response to?

Nihar> I've been with WPP for close to two decades. I realised that modern day problems do not fit nicely into any one bucket, which was the way we had created the industry of the past: creative, media, PR, research, data, shopper. 

Today, briefs are mostly labelled ‘shopper brief’, or ‘creative brief’, or ‘media brief.’ We are currently working for a brand that has got supply chain perishability issues with a yoghurt manufacturer, and we are exploring how to solve it using communication variables. If we forget about the standardised silos of our industry, then we can see the problem for what it is, rather than seeing it as a creative problem, or a media problem, or a research problem. In the developed nations, any yoghurt on the shelf beyond 24 hours doesn't get sold - it has a high degree of perishability. But today, if you look how the shelf gets managed, it is purely based on supply chain variables. We saw that as a problem, but not an advertising problem, or a supply chain problem - just a problem. 

If we lose the adjectives (of the problem), we become more aware of how unique and crafty the solution could look. So, we started experimenting with our clients to give us a problem, without giving it a proper adjective. That way, we could try to see the problem exactly as it is, and get straight to exploring what the solution could be. So the existence of Black Ops starts with a unique, big problem. We exist only when there is a problem, and when the problem vanishes, we also dismantle ourselves - we are not a retained service. That’s because we don't know what the next problem will look like, and therefore what the next team will look like. It’s an impermanent model, and we are not living in the cosy comfort of retained services or annual contracts, because we've done that for a long time. 

If you don't have such big bold problems, then you have your retained teams which work absolutely fine day-to-day to keep your campaigns rolling out; but, if you have a big, nagging problem, for which all our collective thoughts can collide, then hopefully we can create a crafty, magical solution. Once it’s solved, we’ll close it nicely and move on to the next thing. So that’s the foundation and that’s how we operate.

LBB> Has Black Ops changed where you look for makers and content creators as a network?

Nihar> Absolutely. Starting out, there was a keen sense of realisation that if we don’t just belong to this company, but we really are practitioners of the industry, then the future realm of excellence isn't limited to the bounds of the entities we belong to. We combine the best of WPP with the best of the world. 

We just pay attention to the belief that the best isn't limited to the best of WPP. It could be outside. So that's why, whether it's music production, or animation, we always look outside to compare with what the best is there that we could take advantage of. 

When we find people from outside, we don’t use them as a way to outsource work. They become partners and they have direct client interactions, eliminating transmission losses, so that they feel empowered and embedded into the core team.

LBB> You recently spoke to us about your work on the monumental SK-II VS series, calling the project a ‘rich tapestry of craft’. Do you think that a project like that is likely to be repeated anytime soon?

Nihar> They didn't come to us saying, “Create a series of seven films.” They came to us with a problem that we were intent on solving, and we worked with them to create a solution which evolved into something we really enjoyed making and watching. It just goes back to my definition of craft: solution supplied simply. 

Think about why we used mixed reality for these athletes. Rather than giving the athletes a storyboard that we created to act out, we worked with them for weeks to discover a personal challenge or anxiety that they had - for example, bullying or trolling in the case of Simone Biles. We needed it to be about their life so that when they came on screen, they weren't trying to act out somebody else's script - they’re world-class athletes, not actors. Drawing from their own lives granted the project authenticity, but expecting athletes to deliver their stories as emotively as a trained actor would be unfair. That’s what triggered us to delve into mixed animation.

If you watch the series, when there’s a moment of emotion to be delivered, that’s when we switch from real footage to animation. So, we reach that idea by having a clear purpose: solving a problem. My belief is that if we look at a problem as a problem, break it down to see each element as it is, and then discover a solution, we’ll see better stuff. 

A client that we can not yet disclose came to us with the problem of plastic. The initial idea was to solve it by making an ad for it. But we wanted to create a solution which was sustainable and scalable - something to be proud of which could be artful, crafty, and beautiful. There’s a collective vision that it needn't just be an ad or an anecdotal act, but rather a sustainable, systemic, beautiful solution. So I'm hoping that we'll be able to create with the same mindset of trying to supply a solution simply in order to create bigger, better stuff. 

LBB> Now that you've had some time away from it, what was the best part of working on the SK-II project?

Nihar> There were three key highlights. The client came to us saying it’s the Olympics, it’s in Japan, and we want to make it our biggest ever – but trying to make it the biggest ever isn’t a problem, it’s a desire. So there was a lot of soul-searching at our end, working and listening to them to figure it out. 

In the end, we broke it down into three elements: the audience, the brand, and the occasion. SK-II wanted to drive brand affinity amongst young women - it’s popular, but not amongst young women – and they were trying to use the Olympics as an occasion to solve it. Now, the Olympics have nothing to do with SK-II. In the history of the Olympics, there has not been a single instance where a beauty brand has sponsored such an athletic event, so there’s a mismatch here. Then, if you look at overall trends, young women also had the least amount of affinity towards the Olympics. That’s when the problem dawned on us: the brand was trying to build affinity amongst young women by using the Olympics, which it has nothing to do with, and which also has the least amount of affinity amongst the target audience. We were trying to bring three immiscible elements together - the audience, the brand, and the occasion - and needed to create a larger container that could hold them all together. So, when we solved it, it was a moment of fulfilment.


The second highlight was the process of discovering the story behind each individual, trying to uncover a unique, authentic, human challenge. That process of discovery, and also creating a multi-dimensional solution to address that, was a really fulfilling point for us. 

The third highlight was seeing just what we could achieve, because this was the first project of its size and nature. We believed that we’d be opening out not only to the best of WPP, but the best of the world, but we didn’t know what that could look like. We had no idea it could include John Legend! The tapestry that can form just from opening yourself out to the world was really surprising. It’s a delightful surprise – if you have a pure heart, and a clear vision, magic is possible.

LBB> As the line between ads, art, and entertainment blurs, do you think creatives need to approach projects with a multidisciplinary perspective? 

Nihar> I think mostly in the industry, multidisciplinary is a very fuzzy thing. My view is we should approach problems with a zero-disciplinary mindset.

Take the example of cricket. A good batsman doesn’t pre-commit himself before the ball is bowled. He is supremely still and poised when the ball is delivered, so that he can potentially flex himself into any direction to play the ball. When you talk about multidisciplinary, it essentially means the disciplines that you know, so you’re already pre-committing yourself before even seeing a problem.

What we’re training ourselves to do is to see a problem as a problem without an adjective, as I mentioned with the yoghurt problem, and then approach with a zero-disciplinary mindset. Once we’ve seen the problem as it is, then we can flex into disciplines that it needs, rather than just the disciplines that we know of. That way, the creative mind should automatically flex itself into finding a solution, and discover disciplines I don't even know of.

In a recent example - a toothpaste brand was struggling to find a concept for six months. Nothing was succeeding in the marketplace. So when we saw it, it eventually felt like we were being limited by human linguistics - when people bring concepts it's constructed in language. So, we decided to try something we’d never tried before. We brought in NLP (Natural Language Processing) AI to write some concepts - and it was one of the AI-written copies that actually broke the consumer barrier. It’s now being put in the field and has been the most successful in the last six years.

It gave us a really weird sounding line – no human being would have come up with that! But the machine predicted a high affinity ranking, so we tried it and people loved it. That’s what I mean by zero-discipline: I didn’t know how we’d be able to solve it until I saw the problem. Once we saw the problem, then we could flex in any direction.

LBB> Will this affect the kind of skills (transferable, multidisciplinary, zero-disciplinary) that the industry will ask of creatives going forward? It sounds very conceptual - how do you train for it?

Nihar> It sounds conceptual because we’re in that nascent stage of breaking down the old silos and are as yet unsure about what the new disciplines will be. It seems ambiguous, but I don’t think it will in a few years.

Young people absolutely love it, because they’re not attached to any past. They don’t have clearly predefined identities attached to their titles. So, it's easiest to go solution hunting with them. I like to believe that the best test of the industry’s resilience is how appealing you are to the younger people entering. To me, young people are most excited by it because your experience isn’t the be all and end all - you can explore solutions wherever they come from. 

In terms of transferable skills, AI was not meant for copywriting. But somebody took it and said, ‘look, it gives me copies, can it not give me concepts?’ That's the simplicity and flexibility of thinking that we needed, that is not weighed down by experience. 

So yes, it is ambiguous, but I believe that before newly defined functions get formed, we need to travel through that messy middle period. And during this messy, ambiguous period, we need to make it attractive to young people, because they are going to be the backbone for what new disciplines could look like. 

LBB> When looking for makers - production, editing, VFX, music and sound etc - how important is it that these partners have transferable skills / experience in both longform and commercial work? 

Nihar> Expertise is critical, but the notion of experience and binding yourself narrowly to that as an objective would be limiting. For example, even in the SK-II project, we have taken music artists and integrated their views into the script, because the theme of the music has to be expressed in that, too. They tell us that they’ve never been given such independence. When you have deep expertise and an open mind, it has the power to permeate.

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Screen Scene, Mon, 15 Nov 2021 14:29:00 GMT