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- Agency Post POV: Interview with Dianne Wilkins, CEO of Critical Mass
Agency Post, POV Interview with Dianne Wilkins, CEO of Critical Mass
By James Oetting
June 11, 2013
Tell us about Critical Mass and what differentiates it from other agencies.
Critical Mass is one of the premium digital agencies in the industry today. At Critical Mass, we tend to approach things a little differently than most digital agencies and have cultivated a style that is quite unique.
Our key points of difference all stem from our early days as a digital-only agency in the mid and late ’90s. Our belief was that everything we did was to serve the end user of the experience. If it didn’t work for the end user, it wasn’t going to deliver results for our client. So we are universally obsessed with putting the client’s customer first.
That belief led us to create a research and analytics discipline that we now call marketing science. It is one of the fastest-growing disciplines in our agency, and it is tightly integrated with our strategic planning and optimization work for the vast majority of our clients. Proving the value we bring to our clients in everything we do is absolutely fundamental.
And in some ways, the greatest difference between Critical Mass and other top global digital agencies is that we come from Calgary, Canada. Right from the beginning, we had to work a little harder and be a little better than our peers to compensate for being so far away. During the past 17 years, we’ve grown far beyond Calgary, but we’ve retained that scrappy underdog feel and find that our substantive style resonates very well with lots of clients. Working with us simply feels a little different, in a good way.
Critical Mass has grown to more than 700 employees during the past 17 years and you are working on expanding globally. What advantages does having an international presence provide your agency, staff and clients?
Up to now, we’ve had eight offices in North America, EMEA and a production hub in Costa Rica, and last week, we opened our Latin America hub to service current global clients such as HP and new ones. We also have plans underway to open an APAC hub by the end of the year.
Most of our largest clients are global businesses, and our scope of work is increasingly global. Our growth and geographic expansion stems from a desire to serve our clients from key markets and expand our talent pool. As we’ve started to organically expand our global presence, we’ve seen three major benefits for our agency, staff and clients.
- Talent retention and development: We tend to seed new offices with some existing staff and some new local staff, ensuring we export our core culture while immediately taking on a local feel. We’re now moving more and more staff around the organization for new experiences and career development.
- Recruiting different skills and mindsets: We’re also seeing the influx of new talent driving new ideas and bringing new experiences to augment existing methodologies across the organization.
- A broader view: We’re seeing the trends across a variety of markets start to inform our work and lead to innovative ideas for both global and local clients.
What have been some of your favorite projects produced by Critical Mass. Tell us about the thought and strategy behind these campaigns.
Nissan Pathfinder Kinect
One of my favorite recent projects is the Nissan Pathfinder experience we created with Microsoft’s Kinect. The work itself was brand new and very cool, but in typical Critical Mass fashion, it also solved a significant business problem and delivered real results.
A few months before last year’s Chicago Auto Show, Nissan USA was in a bind because the new Pathfinder was one of the hero products for that year’s model line-up, but there was no actual vehicle. Literally, it hadn’t been made yet. So the issue became, “How do we unveil a new car without a new car?” Our solution was to work with Nissan, Microsoft and a technical partner called Identity Mine to build a virtual car to unveil. In a few short months, we created a large gesture-based interactive virtual Pathfinder using the Kinect platform to unveil at the Chicago show.
We built on the success of the Chicago launch with a more enhanced version at the New York Auto Show a month later. From there, we transformed the experience into a kiosk-based version that was installed at the 16 largest Nissan dealerships across the U.S. So we were able to solve a major business need, turn a one-off experience into a multi-purpose program that lasted until the actual vehicle become available and even managed to sell a few cars with nothing but a virtual kick of the tires.
Clorox Green Works
For Clorox’s Green Works brand of environmentally friendly cleaning products, we’ve been the lead agency for the brand’s digitally led re-launch. Starting with a new brand identity and website in January, Critical Mass is creating ongoing digital campaigns around the campaign line “You don’t have to _______ to be green.”
So far, we’ve seen great engagement — earning more than 1 million views for our parody video series “The Green Housewives,” creating a trending topic on Twitter for our Earth Day campaign #GigglingDaisies and even garnering a half-page article about the brand re-launch in the Business Day section of The New York Times on Earth Day.
I think this work is exciting because it shows how you can reimagine an entire category, using digital experiences to change a business. Plus, it’s for a good cause – the primary message is that each eco-friendly action counts.
Omni-channel marketing has become more and more important as devices and on and offline communications become more fragmented. What are the essential elements of creating an omni-channel campaign?
Omni-channel has certainly become the topic of the moment for senior marketers. There seems to be a belief that if a campaign or service looks, feels and does the same thing across multiple touchpoints, it’s omnichannel. Our beliefs take us quite a bit further than that. We’re focusing on the quest to help our clients create cumulative customer experiences. We believe that companies need to go beyond a channel-based approach to encompass all four dimensions of customer experience.
1. Channel – the myriad of ways brands communicate messages, stories and calls to action.
2. Device – the different “machines” customers use to interact with a brand.
3. Touchpoint – customer interactions with a human version of the brand: call center, retail outlet, online support, events, etc.
4. Time – the lifetime total of a customer’s interactions with a brand.
Certainly no brand can control every interaction across all of these dimensions. In some cases, the dimensions can be simplified. In all cases, brands can create guidelines for how the bevy of teams executing on that customer experience can act consistently and cumulatively. Establishing a single view of customer data that is shared across all internal brand constituents is also paramount. We’re actively working on creating the tools and practices that will help our clients align and improve upon their customers’ cumulative experiences.
How is responsive design and user experience helping to push omni-channel marketing forward?
There is tremendous work being done by many companies in using responsive design elegantly for both consistency and efficiency. It’s not that easy and gets even tougher when clients have diverging existing experiences already. I think we will continue to see responsive design evolve and improve in the future, and as a result, customer interactions with brands will become more consistent.
However, responsive design inherently doesn’t go far enough for me. We need to consider the purpose of each device or channel so we don’t waste our time creating things that customers simply aren’t going to use. For example, a customer today is not going to gather all their financial files and fill out a 45-minute mortgage application form on their mobile device today. The point is that there are many messages and functions that work across devices, but when we can be specific and design for purpose, we should be.
What skills does the CMO of the future need to have? How can agencies help CMOs understand and compete in digital?
This seems like another very prescient topic, and it’s a question that I’m asked frequently. I think the CMO of the future is going to bring much stronger digital and technology background than the average CMO of today.
The rise to the top of marketing organizations at major corporations takes longer than the mainstream adoption of new technologies. What I mean is that while marketing has evolved dramatically during the past 15 years due to technology and consumer behavior shifts, most CMO roles at major corporations require more than 15 years of experience That makes it very difficult to find CMOs that have backgrounds rooted in digital or consumer tech.
The CMOs that will thrive in the next few years are the great communicators who can take complex IT challenges or new technologies and make them digestible for everyone in the organization. The CMO of the future doesn’t need to write code, but she does need to have enough technology intelligence around her to strike the right balance between legacy and leading edge.
What trends in advertising do you find most interesting/exciting?
One area I find particularly exciting now is something Critical Mass has been calling ‘first-person’ — a philosophy that guides us to create more tactile experiences that increase customer engagement, product information and sales. We’ve been exploring this a lot with Nissan, even changing the way Nissan can launch vehicles before they’ve even made it into the market. With just a tilt of your iPad, a spin of your phone, a word spoken aloud or a virtual kick of a tire, we can bring the car to you for a first-person driving experience. That’s one of the trends that excites me: how to use digital technologies to create real-world experiences that surprise and delight people.
Favorite ad: My favorite ads tend to be brand experiences. It’s a bit shameless, but I really liked the Nissan GT Academy Season 2 second-screen experience that Critical Mass created. We put the user at the center of the experience, simulating an on-the-track and behind-the-scenes experience that brought the racing competition to life in new ways that embodied the brand’s “innovation that excites” platform. It was an interactive, multi-hour version of an ad perhaps, but one that really leaves a more lasting impression for participants.
Must-read book: I’m afraid I’m not a big reader of business books, though I’m reading and very interested in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In.” For many years, my favorite book has been “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham.
- Dianne Wilkins & Steve Savic