As a former advertising creative director (as you may read in my prior entries), I've been giving a lot of thought to the advertising industry, wondering why it hasn't embraced experience design in the same way that the avant-garde design community has -- or at all. But change is in the air.
Experience design, actually promoted as such, is practiced mainly by individuals and boutique consultancies. As a result, most experience design projects that have been undertaken so far, except for those sponsored by governments or an enlightened corporation, are usually one-offs, invisible to the business world.
Of course, if you know how to look for it, experience design is taking place all of the time, in virtually every profession. This blog, for example, has featured articles about designed experiences in architecture, product development, exhibitions, customer services, traditional and online communications, landscape architecture and urban design, interior design, and many other fields. But when an experience design project is conducted by industrial designers, it becomes industrial design. When conducted by architects, it becomes architecture. Experience design is cloaked in its practitioners' disciplinary costumes. This has prevented the formation of a formal experience design community large enough to command potential clients' attention or scale practices that can win and execute large projects consistently.
Because we who style ourselves “experience designers” consider ourselves pioneers, we're prone to look for new developments on the edge of business, not in its mainstream. Though some experience design firms are relatively large -- LRA Worldwide, a customer experience company in Pennsylvania; IDEO, headquartered in the SF Bay Area; and the Design Council's RED, in London, are known to readers of this blog -- but although their projects are emcompassing, even these organizations feel unique, particular, and narrowly focused in terms of their clientele or practice.
Now the advertising industry is getting into experience design -- baby steps, to be sure, but it's making progress nonetheless, possibly moving experience design into the mainstream.
Advertising agencies are definitely in the mainstream. They've been designing experiences for large audiences since the birth of the modern advertising profession, 150 years ago. Their media and methods have been limited, however, grown stale over the years. Except for the fact that market research, media, and messages today are more often digital than analog, the business of advertising has remained almost the same since its inception. The modern parade of Edgy, Ironic, and Cute advertising is more impressive for its quantity than for its quality. And people are turning off. Media consumption is at a record high, but attention to commercial messages is low. Advertisers must resort to crude devices like product placements in films and TV shows, information planted on Internet blogs and forums (“buzz”), and guys waving arrows at intersections to compete for the small proportion of their attention that consumers are still willing to share.
Responding equally to this crisis and to the opportunities brought on by technological and social change, the advertising profession has opened to the possibility of a more systematic approach to experience design. Three new initiatives illustrate the variety of these approaches: Interpublic Group's (IPG) Consumer Experience Practice, Publicis Groupe's Denuo, and the independent Brand Experience Lab. (IPG and Publicis are two of the world's largest advertising combines.)
You'd think it almost stealth, so unremarked upon is IPG's Customer Experience Practice (CEP) by IPG itself. CEP, founded in February 2006, is led by IPG senior executive Stacey Lynn Koerner, now president of CEP. It's staffed with a handful of “consumer-centric” experts drawn from within IPG but mainly outside hires including vice president Lydia Loizides, whose Techie and the Media blog provides insights to the unit's interests. Currently, the CEP, among other things, gathers “buzz” about forthcoming media happenings (like new TV shows) and shares that information with its clients (who may include other IPG units, it's not clear) regarding new trends. Located in IPG's Media group, CEP is complemented (I think) by the also new Emerging Media Lab (EML), with a broad mandate to explore the future of media -- but which seems at least temporarily stuck in the online world. Studying popular and online media by no means constitutes a fleshed-out experience-design practice, but it's a start. I think Lydia Loizides' recent blog entry, “Extension Versus Creation: What Does Technology Actually Do?”), sets a direction. Now if only all the oars will pull in the same direction....
At about the same time that CEP was formed, Publicis was rolling out Denuo, a “futures practice.” Denuo is led by Rishad Tobaccowalla, Denuo's CEO and Publicis Groupe Media's chief innovation officer; and president Nick Pahade, who directs the unit. It has about 15 staff members, approximately equal to the size of IPG's CEP and EML, recruited from the wireless, Web, and videogaming industries. Despite an exuberant (though overly “ad-ish”) mission statement on its homepage (“Denuo gets to the future first, making tomorrow tangible today”), Denuo displays the same fixation on “new media” that characterizes many large communications firms now getting into the futures game. Digital developments rightfully command everyone's attention, as a new phenomenon of unknown dimensions. But it's a strangely asymmetrical fascination for advertisers, because (as experience designers constantly, but obviously so far ineffectually, point out), most people's experience is not digitally mediated, not even as consumers. Nevertheless, dealing with social issues raised by the digital onslaught inevitably will drag Denuo and the others into the larger realm of experience. Expect its team to grow and mutate in an experience design shop when it encounters this irresistible force.
The third model, and the one I find most appealing for its holism, is the Brand Experience Lab (BEL) founded by virtual-worlds pioneer David Polinchock, BEL's founder, chairman, and chief experience officer; and CEO Barry Grieff, an entertainment marketing entrepreneur. It's an unabashedly experience-design firm with some seriously exciting projects underway, like this one described in AdWeek (quoted on the BEL blog, Experience Manifesto (aka The Experience Economist):
In shopping centers, Mindshare sibling The Wow Factory, a nontraditional ad specialist, teamed with high-tech brand firm Brand Experience Lab to create displays for malls that transmit “sonic blankets” of broadcast-quality audio. Wow president Connie Garrido said that laser-activated motion-detector technology triggers the audio when shoppers pass by the display, but the sound is contained to just within that “blanket” of space, so it doesn't echo throughout the mall.
It's the first time the technology has been used for advertising, and Sunsilk has an option to retain the technique exclusively through 2007, she said. Some mall operators were concerned it would be disruptive to shoppers, but the feedback so far has been positive, said Garrido. The transmitted voiceovers address hair issues (e.g., “My hair is poofier than my bridesmaid dress”) that reflect the visual message.
Sex and the City co-star Mario Cantone, who played the sassy, raspy-voiced “gay friend” Anthony, is the voice of the effort. “The audio and the tone of the campaign is very distinctive, and we looked for a way to incorporate that audio into the media in ways that had never been done before,” Noble said.
Calling BEL a “high-tech brand firm” confuses metaphors and misses BEL's point, which is to deeply understand culture and think creatively about how people use technology in this context. David is a regular contributor to Paula Thornton's Experience Design newsgroup, and based on his posts there and a history in the design of virtual worlds (which he and I share), BEL is squarely among the ranks of experience designers.
Alas, BEL is yet only a boutique, but it's crossing a chasm to educate and inspire the larger advertising community. This move is not without risk, given the insularity of the advertising profession. In today's posting to Experience Manifesto, Polinchock quotes an editorial that appeared in today's Advertising Age (not available without a subscription). The editors had just attended Advertising Week 2006, a major industry blow-out in Philadelphia:
Talk about a squandered opportunity: Titans of the media industry turned out to speak at Advertising Week - and had nothing to say.
There was an all-star lineup for many sessions that offered many worthwhile lessons and tidbits; Tom Schumacher even got the famously private John Wren to open up. But when push came to shove, about the most provocative comment made during the industry's recent confab was Martha Stewart's remark that her lawyer wanted her to waffle.
It's a regrettable commentary on an industry supposedly on the bleeding edge of popular culture, one that gives a lot of lip service to calls for action and motivating the consumer. And it is by no means limited to Advertising Week; far too many of the usual conferences have served up smart speakers who stick to safe topics and warmed-over case studies.
Whatever happened to the industry's paradigm-shifters? The advertising world is in the throes of the biggest upheaval since the advent of TV, and the revolutionaries are nowhere to be found. Instead, there are predictable arguments from predictable sources: The old-media mavens espouse the importance of integrated solutions with new media, and new-media moguls chatter politely about spreading the wealth with network TV. Just once we'd like to hear a broadcast-booster bash the whole concept of broadband marketing or the other way around. At least it would get a decent debate going.
Of course, it takes courage to be an agitator. And that's exactly what's needed to stimulate an industry on the brink of an entirely new, if you'll forgive us, advertising age.
At this writing, the Association of National Advertisers' meeting hasn't convened yet in Orlando. (It will be wrapped up by the time you're reading this.) Without benefit of hindsight, we are hoping that the reinvention and innovation theme -- and a roster including keynoter A.G. Lafley and big-thinking creative minds such as Russ Klein and James McDowell -- will generate a much-needed provocative spark.
The industry most certainly needs one.
Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or do they? One of my favorite Taoist sayings is, “You never step into the same river twice.” Here's to advertising's rediscovery of experience design -- this time around, “consumer-centric” experience design -- with, one hopes, attention paid to the full range of human potential and experience.