Trends and Insight in association withSynapse Virtual Production
The Future is Brand Commerce – and You Need to Get Your Head Round It
Advertising Agency
London, UK
Isobar’s Jean Lin and Nick Bailey on why the convergence of digital and physical worlds means the High Street might not be dead after all

The depiction of humanity in the film Wall-E can fill the nerdiest tech enthusiast with an unavoidable feeling of deep unease – our descendants sit, obese, barely mobile and plugged into a virtual paradise, digital lotus-eaters locked off from their physical surroundings. Discomfiting though it may be, it’s a vision of the future that is far from guaranteed. Technological disruptions are breaking down barriers between the digital and physical worlds. Convergence, not isolation, is the spirit of the day.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the world of brand commerce, where digital platforms, real world environments, creative storytelling, behavioural changes are moving ever closer to point of sale conversion. It’s increasingly difficult to separate the physical economy from the virtual one (how many times have you tried on clothes in store before returning home and ordering it on your mobile or tablet? Was that a physical sale or a digital one?). 

At Advertising Week Europe, Isobar’s Global CEO Jean Lin and UK CEO and ECD Nick Bailey took to the stage to probe the phenomenon and share inspiring examples. From Chinese shoppers who beat department store queues by scanning QR codes on products and paying for them on WeChat, to Isobar Brasil’s ‘Fiat Store Live’ that saw 67 per cent of visitors to an online showroom book real-world test drives, to Google, the archetypal ‘online business’ opening its first physical store. It’s not just about novel technologies – it’s about creating coherent brand experiences and creative business solutions that transcend platform or channel. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Jean and Nick to find out more about their ideas and learn why agencies need to put brand commerce at the heart of their thinking.

LBB> Why is now the right time to be talking about and thinking about brand commerce?

JL> It’s really the right time. I think we don’t always realise how consistent the world can be in terms of people’s behaviour, we always look for the differences. But during the last 12 months that I’ve spent travelling around I think this convergence of the physical and digital worlds is consistent across all categories. It’s just happening in so many different ways. 

That’s something that agencies need to embrace more in delivering results. Right now clients have a brand agency solution that they can go after, they have tech and digital agency solutions they can go after but in this convergent world actually what the client needs is brand storytelling combined with commerce and technology. That’s one area that could empower clients and their business so much more. As an agency we see an opportunity to jump through these hurdles right now because we can because of the background of how the agency evolved. It’s the perfect combination of brand storytelling and technology advancement. 

LBB> That idea of a ‘consistent’ pattern is interesting because it seems to be a behaviour that is also different in different parts of the world, although perhaps in superficial ways. Things like QR codes are huge in Asia thanks to WeChat and WhatsApp and their prevalence in those markets. Is it the case that as it happens in one market, other markets eventually follow suit or is it arising more spontaneously?

JL> I think it is happening in different ways in different markets right now. But you raise QR codes – QR codes didn’t take off in Asia until WeChat embedded QR codes as a major function so that changed immediately. Everyone thought that QR codes were going to die until WeChat bundled it. I think you will see that platforms and technologies happening without knowing how they will converge because it’s not a case of one single technology evolution it’s how it’s integrated in the ecosystem.

LBB> It’s interesting to think of the latent technologies that have been lurking about for years with no obvious purpose and then have really started to break through in unexpected ways. An example of that is augmented reality – when I first saw it many years ago it existed on [unconnected, non-smart] digital cameras and had no immediate purpose, but now we’re seeing how it can have a real influence on the brand and retail environment. 

NB> I think there’s a critical mass of technologies and behaviours. What we’ve really started to see over the last five or six years is less talk about physical and digital and which one is going to win over consumers and more talk about convergence and complexity. New and really novel business models are coming in and changing categories, almost overnight. Everyone talks about Uber and Airbnb completely disrupting a category in a very, very short time. What that has done has created a sense of urgency in the minds of our clients and an openness to trying new ways of approaching their commercial challenges. 

There’s a recognition that they can do some of this stuff themselves and they need to work with agencies differently. The one consistent truth about the relationship between clients and agencies is that agencies exist because they do the things that clients can’t do themselves. It’s as simple as that. The reason that we’re continually debating this relationship is that the things that clients can do themselves is changing. You’ve got clients that are becoming content producers; you’ve got clients that are becoming advertisers themselves. So where does that leave the agency? Well actually agencies are very, very good at bringing together parts of a client’s business that might not naturally talk to each other. They’re good at taking a helicopter view and imagining different ways to solve their problems and executing those. That will vary from client to client, from category to category, from geography to geography, so it’s complicated but there’s also a lot of opportunity out there.

LBB> I suppose this has a massive impact on the structure of agencies. Do we need to rethink what creativity is, what a ‘creative’ is and where they sit within an agency, for example? That’s just one side of it, but I’d imagine it’s quite a challenge for agencies to change their whole shape to fit this brand commerce-led environment?

JL> I think it’s difficult for clients and for agencies because it requires clients embracing this world in a different way so that agencies have a role to sit in that seamlessly. But I think it’s much more difficult for traditional agencies to do that compared to digital agencies. Digital agencies have been constantly changing their shapes in the past five years. New things are always coming in and we have to re-shape ourselves to fit our clients’ demands, so for us it’s not as painful. It’s not that it doesn’t require effort – it does!

Increasingly we have storytellers and software developers working together as creative teams. That’s not something that happened in the past – they were seen as two separate functions. But I think now we’re embracing the process of inventing the ideas.

NB> In my view a change to the process can’t come soon enough. You look at the way that the advertising industry in particular has approached creative talent in the past and you think, well, ‘creative’ is not a noun in any other world. But advertising privileges this process and no one else is allowed to have a view or to penetrate the ivory tower where all this goes on. 

I think it’s a great thing that brands themselves, businesses themselves and agencies are recognising that creativity is not a discipline. It is a quality that everybody has. Now, some people are better at it than others but everybody has it and everybody is entitled to a point of view. Equally, creative capability, when it bleeds through the rest of an agency, becomes the red thread that ties together the other disciplines. So, brilliant account handlers, brilliant project managers, brilliant technologists, brilliant developers all of whom, because they’re born with that creative capability that’s natural to all of us, are able to communicate and work together collaboratively if the agency is open to that.

LBB> I know they’re not your client but I have to ask you about Argos, which you mentioned in your Advertising Week talk as a sort of precursor to this ‘brand commerce’ environment. [Argos is a UK retailer founded in 1972 that combined physical stores and catalogues in an unusual business model. Its catalogues and ‘little blue pens’ inspire nostalgia in Britons of a certain age bracket but the rise of e-commerce and mobile has given the brand a new lease of life.] You mentioned that the Argos catalogue was one of your favourite reading materials as a child – and that struck a chord as my brother was very much the same! I thought it was a nice way to reach an audience who might think that the phrase ‘brand commerce’ is just jargon – it put it in a context that people could relate to. At what point in the process did Argos come up?

NB> I think we were talking about Amazon, and the growing challenge of juggling the shipping costs. For Amazon, it becomes a zero-sum game for it and in the end it could break the business model. More and more traditional retailers are discovering that what felt like a huge cost and a disadvantage for them – their physical premises – are going to become a real asset for them if they use them in interesting ways

I thought, well, Argos is interesting. They exist because they came up with a really novel model 40 years ago. They figured out that if people don’t need to browse the product physically, you can fit more stock in a smaller space and sell things in city centre locations. They invented the catalogue shop. 

Fast forward 30 years and combine that with e-commerce and you’ve got this really interesting model. If you’re right in the middle of a city it can be hard for drivers to deliver but now – I’m going to sound so middle class! – you can buy something in John Lewis and get it delivered to Waitrose. Or you can Click and Collect in the little Tesco Metro stores. That didn’t exist three or four years ago and it’s a really efficient way for those organisations to use the assets and infrastructures they already have.

LBB> It’s quite heartening because in the UK and the States we’ve been hearing so much about the ‘death of the High Street’ (or Main Street in the US), with many people predicting that online shopping will destroy communities and towns. But the examples you’ve mentioned in the past (for example Google opening its first ever physical shop in London, Click and Collect-type stores and projects) perhaps mean that we shouldn’t sign the death warrant quite yet. It just goes to show that you can follow a trend and feel quite confident about how it’s going to evolve and then suddenly it takes a totally unexpected turn.

NB> Maybe so, perhaps this will reinvigorate the High Street, or Main Street, because people like to congregate and see things and touch things. The High Street stores serviced a world which was a function of technology at the time and that will change, but human beings won’t change. 

JL> I think that reminds me of the ‘is TV dead?’ debate. TV is dead and not dead, it’s really fine but people put it in different contexts. I think that’s the interesting part – all these solutions that you’re so familiar with, you need to disrupt them and repackage them and then you have a new perspective on them.

NB> TV’s actually a great example of technology disrupting something and changing what looks like an inevitable path. I remember in the ‘90s all anyone was talking about was that there was no shared viewing experience in the home because kids all had a 14-inch TV set in their bedroom and they played their games consoles on it. The TV in the living room was dead, it was a pointless device. As soon as flat screens came along, big, low cost, high quality screens, the kids all came out of their bedrooms, like molluscs crawling out from under rocks. And suddenly everyone’s watching TV again. 

It doesn’t just change behaviour, it changes the way content is created. When you have a big screen it becomes much more worthwhile for content creators to invest in high quality, high production value content. Something like Game of Thrones couldn’t have existed if people didn’t have 52-inch HD screens because you see the money on the screen. That’s an example of technology disrupting something that seems like it’s on a certain path, changing behaviours domestically but also changing business models. 

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