Press Releases - Critical Mass - Critical Mass Press Releases at en-us Copyright 2018 Critical Mass Hometown: Heart of The New West, Calgary - Interviews 2018-11-19 16:52:14 Critical Mass CEO, Di Wilkins Thoughts on Ethical Purpose - Interviews 2018-11-19 16:52:00 Remember to Breathe: Critical Mass for Travel Alberta - Interviews 2018-11-19 16:51:28 Sara Anhorn of Critical Mass Talks Women's Equality - Interviews 2018-11-19 16:50:41 Giving Back: How To Successfully Navigate A Cause-Related Project

For agencies interested in charity and pro bono work, there is a world of opportunity out there. The problem-solving capabilities and empathetic mindset that make you successful in your client work will also make you effective in humanitarian work, but it can be hard to know how or where to begin.

The most important element to consider is fit. Before you embark on a cause-related project, begin by focusing on four questions to make sure that the work will be as successful as possible:

1. Inspiration: Is this a cause you believe in or something that inspires you?

2. Motivation: Are your people motivated to take on the project?

3. Purpose: Will you be proud of the work, and will it truly help the charity realize its mission?

4. Practicality: Do you have the right skills and resources?

If you can answer yes to all four questions, then the work will inevitably align with your values, capabilities and overall purpose as an agency. Beyond examining these characteristics, here’s some additional advice to ensure you’re finding the best fit for your agency:

Prioritize Experience Over Impressions

Most cause marketers can tell you that donor audiences – especially young people – want to understand how their dollars and support are driving tangible results. That’s an important insight, but it's only the beginning.

Experience has shown us that to create a truly impactful program for a charitable organization, we have to fundamentally shift the way an audience perceives a cause. And to create that shift, we use the following philosophy: Experiences are more powerful than impressions. Driving awareness of an urgent problem is important, but designing a way for someone to experience a sense of urgency is far more effective. 

Identify Donor Problems, Like 'Cause Fatigue'

When the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) needed a way to convey the horror and human toll of living in a region plagued by landmines, we knew we couldn’t rely on banner ads and email lists. UNMAS was facing a problem called “cause fatigue,” a saturation of causes in both the minds of donor audiences and the charity market (exacerbated by the fact that the root of this particular cause, landmines, existed far away).

To drive awareness for this, we created a physical exhibit at the New Museum in NYC and augmented it by designing an iBeacon-enabled app called Sweeper. With iBeacons – small sensors that use proximity to trigger interactions in iPhones – we could digitally put a landmine in the museum and bring home a problem that existed out of sight and far away.

As visitors made their way through the exhibit, iBeacons triggered simulations via the app (experienced on headphones and the mobile screen). Visitors weren’t just subject to an impression; they were made viscerally aware of this humanitarian calamity. An emotional experience – whether fearsome or joyful – can get the message out and turn audiences into advocates.

Help The Heroes Connect

The world is full of truly inspiring humanitarian heroes. Sometimes the best way to help them has less to do with creating a story and more to do with helping these heroes and their stories reach new audiences. Then, you can help empower those audiences to get involved.

In Nepal, when a mother is incarcerated with no one to provide guardianship for her children, her children are often incarcerated with her. A Nepalese woman, Pushpa Basnet, has spent a lifetime building an alternative for these children: an orphanage and school called Butterfly Home, which supports the education and growth of children in and out of prison.

To garner support for Butterfly Home, we designed a responsive site that serves as a call to action and digital context for Waiting for Mamu (Waiting for Mother), a documentary that chronicles Pushpa’s heroic story. Visitors to the site can learn how to host a screening while finding out more about Butterfly Home, the lives of rescued children and how to donate. Butterfly Home has garnered international coverage and has helped care for over 500 children. 

Connect With Your Values

Agency leaders, like brand marketers, seem increasingly vexed by the question: Should we take a stand on a social issue? But try to ask the question differently: Does the opportunity resonate with our core values and beliefs? If you answer yes, then you can feel confident that not only will you be passionate about the work, but you will find yourself on the right side of history as well.

This is the strategy we took for our work with the Famous Five Foundation, a Canadian nonprofit that advances the struggle for gender equality. As a Canadian-born agency with strong female leadership, we knew our unflinching support for gender equality aligned perfectly with its mission.

Across our agency, men and women alike were eager to step up and contribute their time and talents to the foundation. Most recently, we created a campaign called “Women Belong.” The campaign used headlines such as “Women belong in the kitchen” and “Women belong with the children” and were juxtaposed with portraits and stories of women who do belong in the kitchen, as executive chefs, or do belong with children, as pediatricians. In addition to subverting misogynist rhetoric, the work spread through social feeds and across news media. As it traveled, so did the message that “women belong.”

Our work for these organizations didn’t earn us a dime, but that’s obviously far from the point. In fact, many of us feel we owe these groups a debt for sharing their purpose and passion with us. It’s a good debt to have, since giving is often a gift to the giver as well. And by prioritizing experience over impressions, identifying and understanding the problems potential donors may face, facilitating the connection of humanitarian heroes with the public, and staying true to your values, it's a gift you can give, too.  

Read more here: 

2018-06-11 00:00:00
In a world of deep fakes and Google Duplex, how far should brands take AI?

 Have you noticed that AI has finally passed into everyday reality? No one needs to reference science fiction apologetically to talk about it. It’s plainly here. It’s plainly real. And now that it’s real, our questions about it need to get real in response.

No, I don’t mean, “Will the robots rise up and take over?” Rather, now that AI is growing up and gaining power, our questions have to grow up with it.

The effect on brand experiences
Here’s one question to start: Do we, as an industry, have an obligation to think about how using AI will impact not only the brands we work for, but our brands’ audiences and the talent we sometimes use to engage them? For example, when Google debuted its Duplex platform and made an actual phone call with it, the voice (complete with “ums” and “mmm-hmms”) sounded utterly human. Since then, Google has begun to talk about how, when placing calls, Duplex will have to disclose that it is not, in fact, human. That’s important. Not to do so would be ethically questionable (and in some US states, likely illegal).

As brand marketers follow suit and present equally lifelike experiences for consumers, what obligations will they have to remove the human mask and reveal the machine at work? It’s a question we need hard, honest answers to. Because while academics, scientists, and PhDs are ushering in advances in AI itself, we’re the ones putting it in people’s hands, devices, homes, and newsfeeds.

When AI crosses the line, and the political aisle
Case in point: In a recent YouTube video, former US President Barack Obama called current US President Donald Trump an, “unqualified dipshit.” How about that? You may agree, you may disagree. But we can all agree on one thing: The video was fake. We know that because the people who made it told us it was. But our eyes and ears — they didn’t quite know the difference.

The video was produced using an AI-driven technology called “deep fake,” which allows amateurs to use open-source software to create convincingly real audio and video with very little time and effort. The “President Obama” video was actually voiced by actor Jordan Peele, as revealed at the end of the clip.

A new kind of identity theft
Deep fakes first came to prominence on Reddit. There, users were doing something more pernicious than political mudslinging; they were superimposing actors’ faces onto pornographic video clips. With much fanfare, Reddit banned the posting of such videos because of the deep and self-evident ethical boundaries they violate. Even pornographic sites followed suit and banned deep fakes, drawing a hard line in the sand in an industry that most people wouldn’t quickly associate with ethical or moral standards.

Using a different, but related, technology for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Disney resurrected the characters of Grand Moff Tarkin and a young Princess Leia. The latter (Carrie Fisher), had been able to consent to the resurrection; the former (Peter Cushing) had been deceased for many years.

So far, here’s the running tally on AI-driven artifice: 1) a multi-industry rejection of deep fakes as soon as they became pervasive 2) complex, theatrical manipulations that, so far, are not quite perfect and have been the sole preserve of powerful entertainment companies with nearly limitless financial and technical resources.

So what happens when the technology further improves (which it will) and becomes accessible to marketers and brands (which it always does)? Imagine a casting call where a dozen actors are digitally and convincingly superimposed on a stand-in model prior to engaging the actors in real life. Or imagine trying out ad copy with perfectly synthesized voiceover by actors whose voices are being digital reproduced and don’t even know they’re saying what they seem to be saying. Imagine promoting a product you’d never use or a cause you abhor.

Without consent, are these practices ethical?

(Note: I’ve only been talking about one small category of AI and ethics. There are other, bigger topics I can’t cover properly in the space of a short article, such as AI’s ability to propagate insidious societal biases.)

Such questions and debates are urgent. There are now companies who claim to use AI to impact how we think, exploiting the human mind’s weakness for instant gratification. With large data sets, these companies want to exploit how we mediate motivation and desire. While some companies claim to be acting on the side of good, selling their wares as fitness and education tools only, the question remains: Should we use AI to optimize and exploit physiological responses in order to impact a consumer’s behavior?

Because that power will increasingly come into our grasp. We’ve already seen fallout from this in rudimentary AI, like fake news bots. We’ll soon be able to multiply their impact by many orders of magnitude. As companies acquire more data (abiding by platform terms of service or not), our ethical purpose in using that technology is far less certain. As Reddit and even pornographic sites have shown, bad ethical behavior can be combated.

As an industry, are we really okay exploiting people — their likenesses, their digital environments, their mental sovereignty — in order to squeeze out every last ounce of profit, regardless of the ethics? Perhaps these questions and conversations, though made urgent by AI, have been with us for longer than we’d like to think.

Ricky Bacon is Group Technology Director for digital experience design agency Critical Mass in NYC. 

Read more here: 


2018-06-09 00:00:00
6 Things Brands Should Think About Before Taking a Political Stance

I don’t think Tim Mapes, chief marketing officer at Delta Air Lines, woke up on Jan. 1 this year with the idea that the new personification of the Delta brand in 2018 would be an unabashedly left-wing progressive.

I also don’t think he had a standing meeting each week in 2017 scrutinizing each of the dozens of brand partnerships his airline established in order to repeatedly track their political leanings. He likely has a couple folks within his team that do a quick gut check for overall brand commensuration, and if the numbers work on a deal, they strike it. 

But circumstances for CMOs have changed. I’d bet that on or around Feb. 23 this year, Mapes conducted a thorough audit of both of those topics (i.e., Delta’s political persona and its various associations). He wasn’t given a choice.

Delta and many other brands were unexpectedly dragged into the gun control debate. The survivors of the Stoneman Douglas massacre were making sure their voices reached large public podiums across the country and globe, and they very smartly recognized that some of the largest podiums on which to be heard were brands—major consumer brands that speak to millions of potential voters every single day.

On gun control and many other issues, marketing leaders are faced with making seemingly political decisions—something that until recently only a few brands made part of their mission, intentionally. Today, it isn’t just Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s making statements on divisive issues; it’s any brand with a connected and vocal consumer base.

So, what can apolitical marketing leaders do to protect their businesses and their customers in this era of “you’re either with us or against us” politics? Here are six things to consider. 

Focus on your enduring values
All brands honor a legacy and, whether or not they refer to them overtly, they likely live by a set of unwritten values. Some are timeless. Others appear and disappear based on leadership changes, company initiatives or societal progress. Values may be traced back to the origin of the company founders, or they may be the result of a yearly planning conversation. And if you’re not already doing so, you need to bring your team together to discuss the present day relevance of your values and reaffirm those which are immutable. 

Be consequence driven
Bring your leadership together and discuss the consequences of your words and actions, not just on quarterly profits, but on the health and well-being of your employees and customers. Workshop it out. Talk through outcomes. Talk to your customers about your planned actions. Project the results not just as you see them unfolding in the press the next morning, but in a way that is future focused. How will your decisions affect the business and the community in the next year, in the next 10 years and well past your own tenure in the organization?

Avoid talk of ‘public relations’
The political challenges and moments of truth you may face aren’t simply PR opportunities. They’re substantive decisions that should affect more than what you say and can shape many of the actions your company takes from that day forward. The next generation of consumer will call bullshit on efforts done only in the name of PR. You can’t feign a lot of effort where there is little. 

Don’t pick every battle
There will be times when a decision needs to be made, but other times that, although it feels like a fork in the road, it really isn’t. You don’t always have to pick a side. There are topics that are polarizing to some, but not always of a magnitude that will bring undue harm to the company, its employees or its customers. Prioritize the perceived forks in the road appropriately, and to do so, keep talking to your constituents. If a two-sided topic comes at you, discuss how it could impact your business and whether or not it’s material to your values. To use a sports metaphor, don’t make unforced errors. 

Don’t debate the obvious
Then there are the things that unquestionably cross society’s lines—no-brainers so to speak. Sexual harassment. Abuse. Minority oppression. Don’t debate these topics. No one is looking for you to tip the scales on whether they are right or wrong or aligned to your company values. On these topics, and with all-company leadership, talk about what actions you could take to improve the outcomes of these indisputable and emotionally charged issues. What is your organization uniquely qualified or capable of doing that could help create the change needed? Where can you lend a hand for the greater good?

Do right by everyone
Over time your brand is going to make a series of commitments and promises—some of which won’t align with every single individual’s deep-held beliefs and values. Your brand will no doubt be rejected by some segment of potential customers. And while you may never be able to gain everyone’s adoration, you can earn their respect. Do so by putting in the effort to listen and observe. Once you’ve done your homework, take clear action and explain why and how you made those decisions.

And if you change your mind on a topic, fine, just explain that, too. 

This week’s illustration was created in partnership with students from the Baltimore Academy of Illustration. 

Read more here: 

2018-05-06 00:00:00
Creative Director's Choice: Simona Ternblom of Critical Mass discusses Ikea's ‘Where life happens’

Where home décor is concerned, most ads, blogs, and social posts present us with an edited, art-directed vision of domestic life – not life itself. So, there’s a bit of friction between reality and the manufactured lifestyle that most brands are trying to sell. That’s why it was so refreshing to see Ikea’s 'Where life happens' campaign by Åkestam Holst.

Full disclosure: I’m Swedish, and I’ve always had a love for Ikea. They’ve carved out a strong niche with their down-to-earth products and accessible style. But the Åkestam Holst work develops the realness at the core of the Ikea brand into something deeper. Their video spots feature things that are almost guaranteed to be absent from other brand campaigns: divorce, adoption, single motherhood, angst-ridden teens. Home is the center of all those things. Home is where life happens, and life is messy.

As a human being (not just as a Swede), I love the moving idea at the core of the campaign. And as a designer, I’m impressed by how well Åkestam Holst executed a compelling, authentic story through an unpretentious campaign. To do that, and to do it successfully, meant swimming directly against the prevailing currents of the marketing landscape, which takes courage.

In a world of loud, manicured, aspirational content, Ikea gave us something quiet, compassionate, and real. They’ve proven that a brand can stand out by winning their customer’s heart, rather than their customer’s eyes. Humanism over consumerism.

Simona Ternblom is group creative director at Critical Mass, working out of the agency's New York office.



2018-04-05 00:00:00
Unilever's commitments are advertising hygiene. Transformation comes next

Not unlike the promises made by Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard last year, Unilever’s Keith Weed recently revealed the company’s plans to ensure its advertising content and partners make a positive impact on 


The effort is important and immensely robust coming from someone that controls Unilever’s level of spending power. The commitment by such a major marketer will quickly stymie the revenue of platforms that don’t live up to its standards.

What Unilever, Procter & Gamble and others have started to put in place is the blocking and tackling of marketing ethics - the logistics - cutting ties with overtly divisive advertising models. It’s admirable and certainly a smart fiscal move that’s helped them to cut budgets from unflattering and underperforming advertising spaces.

And while I stand behind Weed’s three commitments, they just scratch the surface of marketers’ responsibilities in helping to improve behaviour within our communities. The role marketing plays in our global collective conscience goes much deeper. It is, fundamentally, a study and ongoing experiment of human psychology and behavioral economics that has been shaped by marketers for decades. And sometimes with unintended consequences.

It’s just the beginning of a self-reflective phase the industry must undertake. What will emerge are new strategic and enduring principles among major marketers.

Ditching the ‘Us vs Them’ mentality
A big topic for reflection is tenor and dialogue - how brands speak, not just where they speak. Even if a brand doesn’t intend to take a particular political stance, marketers have to determine if the dialogue is divisive or unifying.

While the industry loves to portray tribalism (think "I’m a Mac, I’m a PC"), and most consumers can enjoy the debate at an entertaining and superficial level, the lessons learned in the marketing world have been weaponised in the political arena to a very damaging degree.

We’ve become a society that forces people to make a choices on every topic, every new event, every two-sided idea. We’ve driven a wedge between mostly like-minded people and forced them to define their life’s intentions on the smallest of issues.

For a number of years I taught integrated marketing at NYU. Each semester, I told the class that it’s better to be a polarising brand than it is to engender popular product indifference - a brand everyone knows well, but couldn’t care less about.

In theory, full brand polarisation would mean tremendous market success. For example, if you sold a vehicle that half the world hated, and therefore would never even consider it, but the other half of the world loved it so much that it’s the only car they would purchase, you’d have the best selling vehicle in the history of the industry. This is, in a nutshell, the strategy used by nearly all modern political campaigns.

Even if you don’t take the theory to that extreme conclusion, my years of experience taught me that making provocative statements is a highly effective strategy for brands, just as it is for politicians, news tickers and clickbait headlines.

And while I’ve never worked on a major political campaign, my brand marketing missives make me feel partly responsible for the tricks used in the 2016 US election. I unwittingly helped create the current divisive public dialogue - and I have a responsibility to fix it.

Ripping off the label
Our industry is well-known for its ability to put labels on things, both literally and metaphorically. Yet being labelled is a dangerous ceremony that people, places and things can struggle to shed, even if the context and substance change. The balance lies in establishing a durable brand label, yet encouraging consumers to approach every situation with an open mind.

Unilever’s efforts around the Unstereotype Alliance - a global consortium trying to remove stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and brand content - is a huge step in the right direction. The most respected brands in the next era will be those that use their label to encourage a dialogue, present the facts, and act magnanimously toward the competition. It’s the end of stereotypes as we know them.

Demanding radical transparency
What’s a lie? What’s a white lie? What’s a false claim? What’s an unsubstantiated claim? Marketers have played in the margins of these questions for the entirety of the discipline.

We’ve arguably mastered the game. Not until recently did the consumer take control. In this data-at-your-fingertips era, consumers are deeply informed, and any old models of of marketing shell games and confusion are over.

The best companies will fundamentally evolve their businesses with access to information at the centre. The onus is on marketers to structure information in ways that benefit the consumer while keeping the business viable. Brands that profit from disinformation won’t survive.

A race to the bottom
As we mature, we learn a hard lesson: you can’t please everyone. And the same is true for brands. That life lesson is irrefutable, but you can do right by everyone. That’s what this era of marketing transformation will entail?. Brands must stand for something. But Weed’s commitments are just a start.

Brands and marketers are opinion and behaviour leaders, whether they set out to be or not. So go do right by others and genuinely please the customers you can. Everyone will respect you, even if they don’t passionately love you.

Positive discourse and social responsibility will be the next big trend for brands. And with the latest moves from giants like Unilever, other brands are sure to follow. Only the most unimaginative will continue in their divisive race to the bottom.

2018-03-09 00:00:00
Fearless - Ep. 44: "The Team Builder" - Dianne Wilkins

Dianne Wilkins is the CEO of Critical Mass - a global digital experience design agency. She is also a talent magnet, drawing people to her with her openness and her commitment to their success. She is also a survivor. We talked about her willingness to jump in, the tragedy that changed her life, and the role that ice cream played in shaping her remarkable career. 


Three Takeaways

  • A relentless curiosity about the future. What will it look like and how should we prepare for it?
  • Resilience to overcome set-backs and obstacles - large and small - and still have the courage and the desire to encourage people forward.
  • The ability to be open and human, to show up without apology or excuse. 
Episode 44: "The Team Builder" Dianne Wilkins
Welcome to Fearless, where we explore the “art and science” of leading creativity - the world’s most valuable business resource.

Each week… we talk to leaders who are turning the impossible … into the profitable!!! And in the process, are discovering what they’re capable of themselves.

Before I get into this episode, I want to thank the growing number of you who each week are reaching out with suggestions, questions and support for this podcast. It started as an exploration. It’s now been downloaded in 68 countries so clearly it’s becoming much more than that and I’m grateful for the feedback and the encouragement.

I have a favor to ask. Some potential guests make decisions about whether to appear on a podcast based on the show’s public facing signs of popularity. The most visible of those is the number of 5 star ratings and reviews the show has on iTunes. So, if you can, take 30 seconds and rate the show on iTunes. It seems like a small thing, I know. And hopefully you’ll see that it’s not an ego driven request. It’s simply the currency of the medium. So thank you in advance for doing that. And to those of you that have done so. Thank you again.

Today’s show features my conversation with Dianne Wilkins of Critical Mass and is called,

The Team Builder

“How do we create a mecca for amazing talent but enable them to
live their lives they want to live their lives and where they want to live their lives, Upstate New York for example, and not have to commute every day.”
For most of the last two centuries, companies have relied on four tangible offerings to attract and retain talent. Predictable income. Physical space in which to work. Appropriate tools for that work. And a reliable stream of that work.

And if you look at the P&L of too many companies today, the wiring of this increasingly old-fashioned model is still far too evident.

Creative talent, difference making creative talent, want to make one thing more than anything else. A difference. And they will go where they think they can do just that.And increasingly, they’re willing to do that alone if they can’t find a company that can give them a life equation that works for them.

Fearless leaders are willing to strip away the sticking plaster of paychecks and office space, and look at their companies through more open eyes.

How do we solve the physical, technical and emotional problems of virtual workforces. Of flexible schedules. Of people revealing skills we didn’t know they had and didn’t hire them for?

If your leadership depends on the physical ties you have with your best people, they won’t be your best people for long.

Inspire them, know them, connect them and celebrate them. Those are the foundations of companies that attract talent magnetically. And the characteristics of fearless leaders.

Dianne Wilkins is the CEO of Critical Mass. digital design and experience company. She is also a talent magnet, drawing people to her with her openness and her commitment to their success.

She is also a survivor.

We talked about her willingness to jump in, the tragedy that changed her life, and the role that ice cream played in shaping her remarkable career.

Let me know what you think.


Dianne, welcome to Fearless, thank you so much for being here, thanks for being on the show.

Dianne Wilkins:

Thank you Charles, pleasure to be here.


When did creativity first show up in your life? What's your first memory of something being creative?

Dianne Wilkins:

I thought I might get that question.


You thought you might.

Dianne Wilkins:

I've been thinking about that question. The first memory that I have that I would truly attribute to creativity and me exhibiting creativity and realizing what it was, was first grade. Got to first grade. I had a very young first year first grade teacher who had quite a large class, and there were a couple of us that already knew how to read, and knew how to read quite well, and write. Yet her whole plan for the first grade was to teach these kids how to read, and most of the other ones didn't. Within a week she had no ides what to do with the four of us. She ended up sending us to the library to do independent study, which to us meant race through the readers against each other to see who could go fastest.

Then we started writing stories, we were done. We were done with the first grade in about a week, we were done with the second grade in about a month. We just started composing stories, and we were actually writing them. Independently writing stories, sharing them with each other and then ending up sharing them with the class. We didn't really realize we were inventing and creating and those kinds of things, until it became a big deal in the class, that, "Look at what these creative kids are doing together."

It was fueled largely by competition and boredom, but all of a sudden we were making something and being called creative, and I don't recall hearing that before.


So the notion or the idea of creating stories from what you were reading was just instinctive to you?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah. I think so. We were reading. We were on a mission to read, and when we were done reading we had to write something else and share them with each other. It was very instinctive. It wasn't assignment, it wasn't whatever. It was filling time. We'd already read everything there was to read.


You grew up where?

Dianne Wilkins:

Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, of course.


How big is the population in Medicine Hat?

Dianne Wilkins:

50,000 people.


Oh it's quite large.

Dianne Wilkins:

Quite large, yeah.


What got you out of Medicine Hat?

Dianne Wilkins:




Dianne Wilkins:

Golf. Yeah. We can take a meandering route to where I am now clearly. I was a kid and I wanted to be a writer forever until I realized that my sports craziness was overtaking my reading/writing craziness. I was about 13 or 14, and I found golf. I played everything, but golf became the one, the sport. I gradually through high school whittled down all the other sports until it became just golf and decided I'm going to go on a golf scholarship somewhere in the States, and I did. I did one year at Washington State, realized, okay, this is not really better weather than Canada, and transferred down to Mobile, Alabama. Played NCAA golf on a golf scholarship down in Alabama.


Was golf instinctive to you? Do you find that you had a natural aptitude for it?

Dianne Wilkins:

No, not at all. Actually my dad was a big golfer. He's as much as he can, a big golfer. Of course, I fought it the whole time because he loved it so much, so there was no way that was going to be my thing, and then I got hooked. I'm not at all natural in sports. Quite natural at the reading, writing, quick study academic with the brain and absolutely a spazz. Uncoordinated, horrible as an athlete but oh man I wanted to be an athlete. I just practiced more than everyone else, worked harder. The strategic part of the game made sense to me and willed my way into being I think a decent golfer.


Did you find creativity playing a role? I've played a lot of golf myself and I've always loved playing links golf because the imagination just comes into play, like where is this thing going to bounce and which way is this going to go and the wind's a factor. I relish that where I'm not worrying as much about my technique as I am about the results on the all and what's the ball going to do.

Dianne Wilkins:

Absolutely. I love that. When you get good enough to do shot making and that sort of thing.


I never got to that point.

Dianne Wilkins:

My favorite thing is to be in a horrible spot, when it doesn't matter by the way, but behind some tree having to make it low and curve around, whatever. I'm not sure if it's my favorite because I get to try super creative stuff or because the expectations are so low, but yeah, there is the, "Oh yeah, watch this. No one's ever taken this flight path before. I'm going to cut across this thing," or whatever.


Would you bring that out at competition as well or just when it didn't matter?

Dianne Wilkins:

No, I would chicken out.



Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah. I was far too mechanical and just not natural enough, so when the nerves hit me and stuff, I would struggle. I wasn't a complete choker but I wouldn't usually play my very best when it was the most meaningful. I was pretty average when it counted.


How did your golf career go?

Dianne Wilkins:

I finished NCAA division one sort of thing. I did very well in my junior year. Not so well, a little choke-y in my senior year. I developed chronic tendonitis in both my wrists. It got to where every swing hurt. I was just in constant pain and cortisone shots.


Was that the result of playing?

Dianne Wilkins:

No, it was a result of a summer job, injury when I was actually quite young, 14, 15 years old and I was scooping hard ice cream. I worked at an ice cream shop in the summer. I've always had about six jobs at a time, and one of them was scooping hard ice cream. The freezer was set too low. I ratched one of them, and so I started scooping with the other, I ratched the other one too. Then just being a golfer, they never really got to rest. I played volleyball and everything else in the off season. It was just repetitive injury that wouldn't go away.



Dianne Wilkins:

I got to where if I played enough to play, I was in too much pain to play, but if I rested enough, I couldn't golf worth a crap.


How ice cream wrecked my golf career, the title of your biography.

Dianne Wilkins:

It's a sad story, exactly.


How did you get into the creative industries?

Dianne Wilkins:

You'll find there's very little that's actually planned in my path to Critical Mass and the creative world. I stayed in Alabama. I got an academic scholarship when I finished my undergrad, which was in English lit and creative writing. I had no idea, I was just taking something I liked while I was played golf because I was going to be on tour. I did get an offer to do an academic scholarship, an MBA and thought well why not? I have no idea what I'm going to do. I did that and then actually went back home to Calgary, near home. Met the guy who's now my husband, typical story there, and just didn't know what I was going to do.

Did some strange jobs, and then we decided we were going to get married and move to Europe. He had a German passport. I go, "Okay, let's go do this." He's a Canadian kid but dad was born in Germany. Right around that time, we went out for beers to watch the Olympics actually with a friend of mine who I'd grown up golfing with and her husband. He was the founder of Critical Mass. We're sitting there over beers, and he's talking about how if he wins this big pitch thing, he's going to open a new agency in Sweden. I didn't know it was Stockholm at the time. In Sweden, and that'll be really cool. That was it. I went back to my other job and went on with our wedding plans and all this other stuff.

I get a phone call, and she had said to him, "You know, if you win that thing, you should hire Di. She's really organized." I get phone call going, "We won, do you want to go to Sweden? Do you want a job?" I firmly believe if he'd have offered me a job in Calgary, because we were just going to explore. If it would have been an industry where I wasn't able to wear jeans most of the time, I would have said no. As a result, I said it was Sweden and I could wear whatever I wanted most of the time, and kind of a casual creative whatever industry, and I said sure. I went as a project manager. I ended up going to Stockholm.

Actually that was the one question I had to phone and ask. He said, "Call me if you have any questions." I phoned back, I'm like, "Stockholm or Gothenburg?" I didn't even know which side of the country I was committing to. Never been to Sweden before, whatever. That was the path, and I went over. There were 13 of us that went over from Canada. Formed a whole new agency. That was half the company by the way. Critical Mass was about 25 people. Half stayed, and they hired some new people and half went to Sweden and started a new thing. No one was in charge, so I was in charge, which is a little bit of a theme in my life. That became the whole thing. I was there for two and a half years, and then back to Critical Mass in Calgary for a long time and then here three years ago.


Other than being organized, what was it you think that they saw that you would bring to the table?

Dianne Wilkins:

My friend was just trying to help him fill a spot, but he told me many times he had no idea what he was hiring when he hired me. He really did think I was relatively intelligent because I had a master's degree, person and a friend of his wife and that I must be organized. I don't ever think he thought at that point that he wasn't trying to find anything more than a project manager. The fact that I was the CEO of a 65 person agency in Stockholm in six months, that was not a path that crossed his mind, certainly never crossed mine either. A void in leadership is almost like a beacon screaming to me boss people around, take charge.


You reached to fill that gap.

Dianne Wilkins:

Accidentally, innately. I do it all the time. I just am not good at ... I can follow someone. I'm not the best follower, but I can't not have someone in charge, it drives me bonkers, so I tend to seize control often.


Did this feel brave to you at the time? Would that feel like a brave move or just a let's go and see what happens?

Dianne Wilkins:

It was very much let's go and see what happens, and "Hey, we need you to take on more. Hey, you're going to be the head of client services. Oh no, hey, you're going to be the head of the agency. Oh no, you got to pitch new business," whatever. I don't even know if anyone told me that. It just happened just kind of organically. It was 1998, and we're a digital company. No one had a clue what was going on. Clients, agencies, we were making this stuff up as we went along. We were doing Saab Automobiles. Saab Automobile's global websites, 18 countries, 21 languages, and they wanted all the font on their websites to be in their corporate font, which is a custom font, so every piece of text on 21 websites was an image because it had to okay right.

This was the kind of idiotic mistake that people were making back then because we didn't know about it.


Now you can make that on your phone, right?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, exactly. That's right. It was hours that we put in, pulling files out of Quark and saving them as images.


Oh my god, quark, that's right.

Dianne Wilkins:

It was absolutely stunning now how crazy that was. I was teaching between my master's degree and leaving, and teaching college and teaching business and golf and all this stuff and trying to figure out what I was going to be. Waiting for my husband to finish his master's degree, and all of the sudden, I'm running a creative and technology company at the forefront of the whole internet revolution in Stockholm. It all just kind of happened. We moved our wedding to accommodate my start date at work, and that was that. That was just how we were rolling.


Do you find yourself suffering from imposter syndrome at any point or did you just feel like I'm just going to do what feels right to me?

Dianne Wilkins:

There were definitely moments. I had the benefit of being absolutely clueless. I had no idea what the industry was all about. I was from outside. I went to Sweden, which was its own beast and obviously started picking things up as we went along. It was in partnership with [Lowe] at the time, and so we were tightly associated with Lowe [inaudible] in Stockholm, which is a great agency. That was all I knew. What I did know was that everyone else was a 40 year old guy in a suit and I was a 28 year old girl with no clue. Yet, I had most of the answers when it was coming to our stuff. Definitely, the weird North American in Sweden and the youngest, which I keep forgetting I'm not anymore even close. Very much the only female at the time.

There were the moments, the introspective "Oh shit, do I really know," the self-doubt moments, but they weren't the prevailing feeling for sure.


Did you instinctively develop a leadership philosophy or guide post? What was your approach to leading since you hadn't had a lot of experience in that?

Dianne Wilkins:

I had certainly led everything I'd ever been a part of my life instinctively from captain of my every team I was on, student counsel to you name it. I definitely think it was instinctive, I think truly my style. Critical Mass, one of its great strengths to this day is a heavy, heavy emphasis on values and I know that sounds a little bit cliché in our industry but it's not. It's not for us, it's the kind of people we attract. It's the style of our relationships. It's our approach. It's not necessarily perfect for everybody. It's served us very well, and Critical Mass' values and my values tend to line up really, really well. Not exactly by fluke because I wrote Critical Mass's.

I think it's very much a best intentions kind of approach. Good people. Good intentions. Going to make lots of mistakes. We're going to make lots of mistakes together. We expect to make some mistakes, acknowledge them, admit them, apologize.


Do you want to make mistakes?

Dianne Wilkins:

It's never very fun, but I don't believe in most of what we're doing, there is an absolute right or an absolute wrong. It's just I hope I'm more right than wrong. I certainly do make mistakes a lot, I don't know about if I want to.


I'm curious, because I think there are some leaders I think who actively seek to make mistakes. I don't know if they would ever describe it that way, but they're so comfortable with the experimentation, with the need to take risk that I think what I've started to recognize is this sense, this underlying sense that if they and if their companies aren't making mistakes, they're not pushing the envelope hard enough.

Dianne Wilkins:

I definitely agree with that. We're sort of a constantly evolving company, and I'm incredibly proud of what we've been able to achieve at Critical Mass from 25 kids in Calgary to 950 people around the world and 21 years later in an industry that literally blew up, consolidated, blew up, consolidated twice and we weren't from here either. Calgary's a weird place to start, and that is the headquarters of the company. It's been a constant evolution and I think yeah, probably I have much more tolerance for screwing stuff up. Not on purpose, but screwing stuff up and dealing with it, than maybe some. I've been in this role as CEO for over 13 years now, so obviously I have done a lot of things and screwed a lot of them up and we're still here.

I think the hard part, what I've observed, one of the hardest things I've gone through on this CEO journey at Critical Mass is trying to change before we have to. That what's next or I see the trajectory is, how are you with swearing on this program? I've heard a bit. I've heard a few of my friends swearing a bit.


I'm fine. I don't claim that it's clean. I think I put not rated, so if you're listening, be prepared. I think Dianne's about to swear.

Dianne Wilkins:

You know what, I won't.


No, no, it's fine.

Dianne Wilkins:

In trying to rally the team to realize that I think we're going in a direction on a pace, on a path, that is going to not be good soon. It was okay then. We were fine. We were fine. I just have seen this a couple of times get caught in fine. This is a fast paced dog eat dog innovation driven creative meets technology, which are both creative when done right, and I think fine gets you run over pretty quickly. Figuring out the right way, and probably one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made was trying to engineer a very big re-imagining of the agency about five or six years ago.

I thought I had everyone with me, and let's go do this. I raced off because I was going to do these other things, and after a couple months I looked back and I'm completely alone. No one. It's not because they didn't want to. I have this incredible super tight leadership team that half of us have been together for decades, and the other half was part of this turnaround, came on in the last three or four years. I've never had a better team or group of people to work with. The group that was there, still here, was there at the time was just like, "What do you want? We get what you're saying, but we only half believe it's urgent." They didn't say this at the time, but looking back. "We only half believe it's urgent and we don't know what you want us to do about it."

That was probably a gigantic screw up.


As you look back to that, where did you think the gap was, as you look back and thought what should I have done differently? What did you conclude?

Dianne Wilkins:

The often painstaking job of communication, communication, communication can't be skipped. It's easy. We are busy people, and devices everywhere and priorities pulling us apart. At Critical Mass, we're also a geographically distributed leadership team. We're in six or eight different cities, countries in some cases. I think I just bring everyone together, now you've got 48 hours in Vegas and you've got the mission and let's go do this. Send me emails. Let's talk. Let's get on the phone once a month, whatever. I frustrated the hell out of my best people because they just couldn't quite get from viscerally grasping it and practically doing it, and I thought they had.


It's a real challenge, isn't it? It's a real leadership challenge I think particularly as you've described it in a creative business, because to drive great businesses, I think part of the responsibility of the leader is to live in the future and really occupy that space and really imagine yourself and be surrounded by the company as it's going to be. Then you have to pull back into the present and connect people, because now you're bored by the present because you could already see in the future, right?

Dianne Wilkins:



You have to keep coming back and they're like, "Oh for god’s sake, we have to go through this again? I'm already here." [inaudible]. No, they can't. I was reading an article this morning actually I think in the Harvard Business Review that talked about exactly this, which is you have to be unbelievably prescriptive and repetitive in your messaging. You have to bore yourself silly with the repetitiveness of the messaging. I think it's such an important point of how do you keep innovating businesses?

Dianne Wilkins:

It's true. It's kind of counterintuitive. I need to be repetitive and boring to drive innovation. What? I've got really, really smart people around me, so most of the time it's grabbing onto somebody else's great idea. I'm the one that gets to be repetitive and boring about trying to drive it through and implement and get everybody else bought into the great idea and get people excited about something that I'm already like, "Seriously, I got to talk about this shit again?"


That's true. Yes, you do.

Dianne Wilkins:

I'm not good enough at that. That is absolutely I would say glaring weakness as much as I talk constantly. I'm not as organized and disciplined a communicator as I could be. There are some that are and I think they're magicians.


Did you want the CEO job? You've talked about the fact you like leading. Is that something you wanted?

Dianne Wilkins:

There was a funny time right before I got the job where there was a bit of a generational regime change thing happening, and three of us were talking with the founder about changing the structure of the agency and that sort of thing, and one of the three of us obviously was going to take over and be the new CEO. He said, "Well who's it going to be?" I look at both the guys and they both go, "Well Di, of course." I'm like, "Really?" We hadn't talked about it. We talked about us as a team wanting to lead the next phase, but they were just like, "Of course. Are you nuts?"


It's a testament to your [crosstalk].

Dianne Wilkins:

I don't know that I wanted the CEO job. I don't know that I wanted to lead in all those other times I led. I'm probably just not a great follower. I've been called the accidental CEO a number of times because I wasn't ever seeking, I don't know, yeah.


Would you give yourself that title?

Dianne Wilkins:

I've heard the argument made persuasively enough that I've accepted it at the moment. I don't know because I really enjoy it. I'm lucky as help to have sort of accidentally become this and in this role and particularly at this company. I don't know that I have ridiculous ambition to go be CEO of 10 other companies. This is the company for me. It's scarily already a life's work kind of thing with a 21 year old company. I would have trouble not being a CEO of Critical Mass now because it's just what I do.


I know that you had a tragedy in your life. You lost a son.

Dianne Wilkins:



How old was he?

Dianne Wilkins:

He was three when he was diagnosed with cancer and seven when he died, which was about five years ago.


Five years ago?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, and a tough journey. Obliviously an awful situation, but that was a tough four year journey too when he was sick and he had a cancer called neuroblastoma, which is not a good one, let me tell you. Very rare. 65 kids a year in Canada. 650 kids a year in the U.S. It is very rare.


How unfair.

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah. No cause, no nothing. A lot of the treatment is very experimental and based on what worked best for leukemia last trial and that sort of thing. Harsh, harsh treatment schedule and everything that he went through. It clearly has had lots of impact on me personally, but I think it's had a lot on Critical Mass too and certainly all those same guys that I left behind me when I took on this great mission, which was not long after my son died and I'd come back too, by the way. A couple of times, I took time off. One he was eight months in the hospital when he was first diagnosed, and then when he passed away.

The company just rallied around, waited. No one even considered making some power play to take the job. It's just now how we roll. I think we've been there, the company still puts on this unbelievable walk for, his name was Thomas, so there's a walk for Thomas every year, and Critical Mass basically throws it and hosts it, and 500 people in the neighborhood come out in Calgary every fall and walk around. It's an amazing agency. It's good intentions, good people. It shows this amazing heart. Certainly I've experienced it personally the way your colleagues, the way your company can have your back, but I've also heard it from hundreds of staff over 20 years when we've been there for them from loss to illness to divorce to challenges with kids and life and you name it.

People go through stuff all the time. I'm awfully proud to work at a place that certainly doesn't judge you for what you're going through and frankly wraps them self around you and holds you up.


How did your view of yourself and the world around you change when he was diagnosed and when he died?

Dianne Wilkins:

Diagnosed was, I don't even remember me or the world. It was all about him and his sister was almost two years older, so she's 15 now. Obviously my husband too, and we were shellshocked. We had never heard of this cancer before. It was just I think stunned. Pretty stunned through that whole first eight months. We got to where he was more outpatient than in, and for a while he was in remission for a year and a half or so. When he relapsed, we knew it was a matter of how long could we keep it away and that sort of thing. That's when I started thinking about things. We knew for certain what the outcome was going to be. We didn't know when the outcome was going to happen. It was our worst fear.

I'm like, "Now what do I do? Do I go back to work?" I was still at work until shortly before he died, but I wasn't quite sure. After he died, I took about three months off, and really tried to figure out does what I did before matter at all anymore? It was tough, but, again, maybe a little bit when I first went back was I don't know what else to do, but I was so glad I was back and I think vowed that I would keep the perspective and not take the angry client call or the whatever, bad news, whatever or the problem at work so seriously and I absolutely do just like I do, but before this happened, so it gradually has lost that perspective.

I think when it comes to the big things and the emphasis within Critical Mass on I think values and the way to conduct yourself, being as important in a lot of ways as some of the other things. Clearly I think we get better work and we have better client relationships. We have an incredibly successful 21 year track record. I think there's some empirical evidence here, but this is not fighting cancer. This is not life threatening. This is no time to be a dick or a cheater. I think that that's just not what we are. It's a great place, and I'm quite sure I came back fired up to elevate that even more. I probably felt it so personally and viscerally too going this is an asset. It's also a pleasure. How do we make that just absolutely intrinsic to what we are, and I think we really have.

We have people that want to leave great jobs and careers because of it because they meet people, hear people and feel it talking to us.


Who are you doing this for now?

Dianne Wilkins:

Probably the other 949 employees at Critical Mass. I think primarily, I'm not exactly ready to retire tomorrow, but I'm not that far away. I've been doing the same job for 13 years. Not all days are fantastic days like everybody else in the world, but I love this place. I'm just so proud of what we've been able to build. I think I'm doing it for the people around me as much as for myself. Certainly I derive a lot of value and I'm learning constantly. That and the jeans thing was I must continue to learn every day or I'm done kind of thing, and soon as you make me wear nylons everyday I'm done.

The digital part of the industry is such a great opportunity to surround yourself with so many different kinds of thinkers that are all massive subject area experts in something that I can barely understand, that it is I'm constantly learning things and seeing the perspective in them. I think the neatest, fastest moving, most challenging and bullshit ridden part of the industry, and so to be this real, plainspoken, honest, passionate, driven, multidisciplinary, collaborative culture, I'd be obsolete if I didn't work here. It keeps me, even my daughter and her friends think I'm not a complete moron when it comes to things because of work and being 20 years older than the average age at Critical Mass. I think it helps me, well I'm not cool, but it helps make me a little bit cool.


Just going to finish the thought, I'm struck that interesting and not surprising perhaps that coming back from that tragedy and putting yourself back in the workplace, that that period thereafter was when you tried to reengineer the company and rebirth it almost.

Dianne Wilkins:

I'm pretty sure that one of the reasons I looked behind me and no one was with me was the doubt in their minds too going, "Is this for us or is this for her?" Trust me, I still wonder. I absolutely believe that I was correct in my assessment, and part of why we were fine was they were waiting for me. We weren't innovating as fast, we weren't changing as much, and we have this wonderful curse of senior people staying forever at Critical Mass, which also means it's hard to get fresh perspectives and we can get caught a little bit stale sometimes, and that was kind of the grant that we end up doing it. Just, I thought we could make this big transformation in six to nine months and it too 18 to 24/we're still working on it.

Certainly, there was a little bit was I don't know why we're putting all this pressure on ourselves when we're doing just fine. A little bit was I don't actually understand what she wants us to do, and I'm certain a little bit was maybe she overreacting.


Responding to.

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, exactly, the opposite and equal reaction kind of thing.


How have you now engineered disruptive thinking into the organization? Have you consciously gone about instilling that? I remember reading that Howard Schultz had created I think a weekly Friday morning committee where he had four of his closest advisors and he'd introduce two or three other rotating people. They had what I think he euphemistically calls the disruption group and the agenda for the hour every week was to talk about all the things that might be happening that would make everything that they believed about the future of Starbucks wrong. A very, very powerful provocation, right?

Dianne Wilkins:



Because we all know we can fill ourselves with our narrative. People in this industry, people who lead in this industry are very smart and they tend to be very natural salespeople, and the people that they can sell the fastest is themselves.

Dianne Wilkins:



I think having the ability to have something cause us to challenge our own belief system in a real way I think is powerful. Have you incorporated that more actively?

Dianne Wilkins:

Not in any kind of disciplined way, like Howard I'm afraid. It kind of goes with the communication thing. I'm not quite as disciplined as I should be. What I think what helps us is I think there's an openness, we can certainly sell ourselves and sell each other quite a bit. Within the leadership team and frankly ideas that can come from anywhere, and I do think I've got a group of people that I work with every day that aren't at all afraid to say, "Hey, this is kind of broken, or those guys were doing that and I think they got it half right. What if we tried this kind of thing?" I think there is a bit of an ability to just throw shit out there and see what sticks and how people react to it.

I think one of the things some of the team and everyone's getting there, but some of the team is incredibly good at, is anybody with a good idea is welcome to throw it out there. In some cases, like, "Hey, take a couple of weeks and go build that for me. Go see if that works. Prototype that thing." Then all of a sudden we're like, "Okay, let's test it on a client." We don't force it necessarily to say all right, that has to be the new global standard. Now everybody stop what you're doing and learn how to do this. The risk of course is at what point do you have duplication happening? There are so many ways to innovate that that duplication thing is far less our problem than realizing that there's 950 people that might have a good idea. If we think that the five or ten or seven at the top are going to figure them all out, we're I think toast.

Our job is to curate them and take flyers on them and endorse them and sponsor them. Then once we have something, we got to make that the next big thing. We got to be the salespeople, which unfortunately we're fairly well equipped to do.


Talent acquisition and retention obviously are two of the very biggest issues, maybe the biggest issues in creative industries. Are you consciously going after certain kinds of people and do you look in certain places for them? How do you go about looking for talent and finding talent?

Dianne Wilkins:

It's one of our biggest challenge. Anyone who says they got that fixed, I'd like their number. The breadth of talent that we hire is always staggering to me. We're in 11 different locations, plus a few other satellite areas with about eight different disciplines, and then levels within those disciplines, and then specificity in some of the places where it's a specific type of client. We can cast a pretty wide net, I think, maybe more so than different kinds of agencies or a little more focused kinds of agencies. We kind of do a bit of everything. We have big recruiting team. We have external recruitment partners. We host events and sponsor portfolio shows and do a lot of the typical kinds of things.

We have had now and again people lecture at different schools or get right involved at the school level. We've also got absolutely stunning internship program, which is a great source of talent for us. It's talent we have to nurture and grow, but that's not foreign to us either. This company started in Calgary. It's 250 people. It's still headquarters, and so there is no market in Calgary. It's not like there are six other agencies we can pull from. It's developed a bit now, but right from the beginning we were the only ones in town and have been the big dominant player there for so long that if we're going to find talent, we're going to hire them young, junior, and they're going to get this unbelievable opportunity to work on amazing global brands and travel all over the world and do all this stuff while being at Calgary.

The internship program was certainly born there, but it's a global program for us now. We'll bring in somewhere between 40 and 50 students every summer.


Oh wow.

Dianne Wilkins:

In at least six or seven or eight locations. All the different disciplines, and some configuration. Fully paid internships. Last year I think we had 12,000 applications for 42 spots or something. This year we'll have a few more spots as we continue to grow. We've basically run a thing where half their job is being the junior learning, contributing person on a team working for somebody in their discipline. The other half, they're paired up with the other people in whatever office they happen to be, cross functional teams and there's a live brief with a live client, and they have to pitch. They pitch the global executive team as well as the lead team of that client, that knows the client the best.

We select the winners and then fly the top teams in to present to the senior client and have them choose the overall winner.


That's fantastic.

Dianne Wilkins:

The live client thing we actually just did last year for the first time. It was absolutely stunning. First of all, our client's wonderful. She was really, really, really inspired by the program and loved the opportunity, made time to do live Q&As with our interns, and it was just like the head of Citi FinTech. Amazing experience for all of us. The reality of time pressure brief on an industry, you may or may not be super in tune with the future of the U.S. banking system when you get this brief from Citibank. We tapped in, the brief was wisely done by our team and Citi's team to focus on a millennial perspective because our interns were all 22 years old, but then forced into this cross functional team with people you may or may no really have met other than at orientation and worked together for eight, 10, 12 weeks under a bunch of pressure about deadline and expectation in a competitive environment.

It's a pretty good indoctrination into what it's like in the agency. We hire I think the rate right now is 58% of our interns.


Do you really?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah. It's kind of trial by fire. It's also the best three months of the year, not just because I'm Canadian and it's summer, but because of the energy that 50 super hungry 22 year olds bring to any company. It's awesome. It I think makes everyone pick their game up a little bit, and we were blown away by the talent last year. Their composure presenting and the breadth of their thinking, we were exceedingly impressed. It's [crosstalk].


What's notable about that whole description is how much you're investing in them. Fully paid, willingness to move them around, giving them opportunity and access to clients. There's so many components of that that I think are truly generous. Obviously they create a benefit for you, but there is real generosity I think at the core of that description that you've just given me.

Dianne Wilkins:

I think so. It's evolved. It's about a 10 1/2, 11 year old program. Every year it gets better. We've got a woman that runs and owns it for us. You can tell how, I'm engaged in it. This matters to us. The staff volunteered to be mentors and coaches for the intern team, so it's just more and more and more people getting engaged in developing the young talent and learning from them at the same time.


It gives them exposure to what it is necessary in a professional environment these days, which is clearly a disconnect for a lot of people. You see a lot of companies struggling with young people walking in and having a completely disconnected sense of what reality is about. Somebody told me over the weekend, I had some young person they hired and the person said, "I only do concepts, I don't do executions." 22, you're like, "No, actually you definitely do executions."

Dianne Wilkins:

You can do whatever you want over there.


Yeah, exactly. Feel free to apply that somewhere else.

Dianne Wilkins:

You're going to do more execution.


How do you lead? How do you get up in the morning and go about leading?

Dianne Wilkins:

I don't sleep that well, to start with. Actually ever since my son got sick. First of all, when I had kids, you stop sleeping a little bit. Then all that, I stopped sleeping very consistently. I have one of those always on brains that I try to numb with wine and now I'm trying to read all the time. I read books. I got Book Quest and that sort of thing, trying to preoccupy myself a little bit.


Wendy Clark actually said to me a couple of months ago, she said, "The entire future of DDB is mapped on the ceiling of her bedroom," yeah.

Dianne Wilkins:

I might have listened to that. She's a friend of mine, and a genius and a disciplined communicator. When I grow up, I would like to be Wendy Clark, except we're the same age. She's a force. There's work to be done. There's ways to make it better. I don't know. I love the invention part and the tweaking part and the human relationship. I'm a people person. I think most of us are in this area of the world and certainly creative in the leadership. You probably better be a people person. There's always something to do, something I want to do. That was a terrible answer. How do you lead? I don't know. There's a drive there to make it better, and again, I don't know if I would be the earth's most transferrable leader or if I'm just perfectly suited to Critical Mass, but I want this place to be the best it can be.

There's always work to be done there.


What's the definition of the best from your standpoint? How do you define the best?

Dianne Wilkins:

That's a good question. I don't know. I think it is the best it can be, not the best. I'm not like on some ranking list or whatever, that matters a lot less to me. I don't mind the outside accolades, but we're not particularly good at promoting ourselves. We can be better at that. I don't know. I think delivering at our full potential and not letting the bullshit get in the way of what's important. We've got a great point of view and position in the market in what we do and the ability to do work that actually helps people in some cases. Some cases we're selling cars or checking accounts, but in other cases we're truly helping people improve their financial lives or working with the UN to eradicate landmines around the world.

There's a lot of motivation to do those good things, and we're big believers, we talk about experience, design and a relentless focus on the customer and/or the end user, and those two things we think coming together in a deliberate experience can actually move the need for people, both on a little way every day as well as quite a meaningful way in the world. I think best for us is doing lots of that and not letting the day to day and the drama and the hassles and the process get in the way.


You talked earlier about being very much values oriented and values driven. Do you find it's, easy is probably the wrong word, but do you find yourselves living up to your own values? Are you willing to take action against them and do action? Are they actionable?

Dianne Wilkins:

Our values are honest, inspired, driven, passionate and real.


Wow, a set of values that one could actually remember.

Dianne Wilkins:

That was good.


Five words.

Dianne Wilkins:

That was good, yeah. We've had other values that no one could remember. We always did a B roll internal video thing. Remembering the values is like experience, design. These are pretty well known throughout the organization. Not everybody, certainly at senior levels. A lot of them are stylistic. We will conduct ourselves with honest. We don't cheat. We don't lie. We sell.


Do you fire people who do?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, we do, in a really nice way because we're still Canadian. We're not all Canadian, but our roots really are. Lots of As and apologies. We're proud of that too. If you think of some of those values are very Canadian, we're an incredibly diverse workforce. Our gender split is 50/50 roughly, 53 and whatever, both at the executive level and throughout the entire organization, and has been ...


Have you done that consciously?

Dianne Wilkins:

Not entirely. Certainly in the last few years we've been very conscious of maintaining it. It's not perfect in that we have some disciplines that have more female than men, but on the aggregate, certainly across the whole company it is just about half and half.


Where do you think that comes from, because obviously it's the conversation point at the moment, right?

Dianne Wilkins:

It really is. I get asked this question a lot. We talk about it a lot. I actually was listening to Wendy answer this question about what the industry can do the other day on your show. We don't have quotas. We don't have any ensure there is a candidate that's a woman or diverse or whatever. We just never have. I've said super corny stuff like it's just in your spirit and having an open mind and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, which is really kind of corny, and yet it's kind of true. It fits with our values. We are open minded, but if I had to guess, I think it goes back to the Canadian roots.

It is a little bit more open. Certainly we're seeing the differences between Canada and the U.S. not just in the Olympics, but in the political realm and everything else right now in that there is an openness, there is a willingness, there is an ability to stand up and say we were wrong. There's just a little less ego, and I think that shaped us accidentally because good people, good intentions bring the bias. We're not perfect in any way, shape or form, but we certainly have a pretty strong track record and a pretty good view around we could be better at it. I'd love to be even better at diversity without forcing it and creating the backlash that comes with that. It's been exceedingly natural for us to be like this, which I think is a bunch of power behind it. It's been almost unconscious.


I'm going to ask you the most unfair question I've ever asked anybody, and there's no way you can actually answer this, but I'm curious to get your instinctive reaction. Do you think the company would be the same if you hadn't been the CEO for the last 13 years, if a man had been the CEO for the last 13 years?

Dianne Wilkins:

No, I don't. Instinctively, it might be better. I'm not saying it wouldn't be, that it's the best it could be.


Even the balance in terms of the gender, in terms of the sexes would be the same? Would there be as much support for women?

Dianne Wilkins:

I don't know. The one thing I absolutely need to say is our president, Chris Gokiert, who literally started three weeks after, I mean we've been doing this together the whole time, super, super, super close. The whole team, it was me and a bunch of guys when I took over, and the whole time before that, and he was like, "This is gross. I can't take it anymore." I'm like, "Oh yeah, we don't have any other women." It was almost he's as big a feminist as I am and honestly if I wasn't here, I'm sure he would be in this job. It would still be different. I don't know how much. Actually there was a woman, a creative director in our Chicago office yesterday that was part of a small group that launched a program, #Unstoppable, and it's sort of a #MeToo type thing within the advertising agency business basically standing up saying women together and women that back women and women that believe women when they tell stories of abuse are banding together.

She sent a note sharing what she'd done, it was all passion project. It's really nicely done, and I think a really strong point of view and I really applaud her for it. When she let people know about it, including me, she said, "Listen, I didn't do this because of my experience at Critical Mass at all. I have heard, have seen, have whatever at other places and I'm pretty lucky to work at one of the most open minded places in the industry, plus we have a female CEO. I think there's more to that than I give credit for because I was born this way.


Right, just [inaudible] this way.

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, and Chris reminds me of that a lot. He's like, "Don't forget the symbolism of that." I'm like, "I don't think about the symbolism. I think about all the stuff I got to do." I think probably it does help. The company really is only 21 years old. I've been there for 20. I was running the Swedish one for two years and then came back and I was president at Critical Mass. I've either been number two or number one kind of thing in the whole company for the entire time.


The DNA has been appeased by it.

Dianne Wilkins:

I think so. Even though I was the only female for the first eight years or so, and then we started, Chris was the first one to hire women, or promote or whatever. We were all that age too. We were all 28, 29, whatever when we started, so everyone went through a lot of the, we were actually a bunch of couples for quite a while running the place, and then my husband stayed home to be the stay at home dad, but the other guys' wives stayed home. The ranks thinned a little bit that way in terms of internal candidates because life happens and choices are made and absolutely zero judgment from me. That's up to each person, family, whatever, to figure out for themselves.

I don't know if that's a good answer, but I think it probably has been very helpful to have a female in charge the whole time.


What do you want your legacy to be?

Dianne Wilkins:

Oh gosh, legacy.


Do you think about that?

Dianne Wilkins:

No. No, I don't. Someday I want to be able to go do something else, even if it's just sleep for two years and have Critical Mass be even better without me.


Are you building for that consciously?

Dianne Wilkins:

I probably should be more. I've probably said it enough times already, I got a great team around, so I don't worry about the hit by a bus kind of situation at all. Every time I think we're in pretty good shape, it's like you know what we need to do, we need to come up with these and we need to elevate. We just promoted a woman into SVP of Talent, first time we've ever had that role. The outpouring of excitement over that role and that person in that role has just been stunning. Of course making me think why the hell didn't I do this two years ago.

Now I'm like, okay, we got all the employee experience, I want to re-craft it just like we would the customer journey for a client of ours. Is it ever going to be good enough for me to go, okay, I'm kind of done. I know it's in great shape, and it'll just be better forever. Maybe, I don't know. Maybe I won't let myself think that.


Are you consciously developing the next generation of leadership?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, we try to do that quite a bit. Chris and I in particular were quite deliberate about that. We worked together on it, so we are assessing people and we do move people around to different roles, different posts, different offices, different situations and trying to, in some cases, I see a two year path for somebody. In other cases, this is the rising star. It may be six, ten years, but this is going to be the president. How do we build the portfolio, the exposure, the experience for this person while putting them in roles we need now, but to groom them for sort of a future kind of thing?


Are you conscious, I'm sure you must be, from an organizational structural standpoint? Somebody actually emailed me a couple weeks ago and said, "I'm curious to understand how different leaders look at the hierarchy of organizations in terms of unleashing creativity." Are you flat? Are you hierarchical? What's your organizational structure?

Dianne Wilkins:

We're pretty normal I think in the ad agency world, probably too hierarchical. Part of that comes from the number of disciplines and the number of locations. You can't help but inherently have leadership at every turn and level and place. I was trying to picture what a three dimensional matrix would be, and I'm not that creative, but then you've also got the account based teams and operations as well.


You're at that size where the third dimension is a really big factor, isn't it?

Dianne Wilkins:

It is. We're just that size. Just under 1,000 people, it's almost a weird place to be.


How many offices, eight?

Dianne Wilkins:



Oh 11.

Dianne Wilkins:

Lopsided. Some are really big and some aren't as big, and some are 21 years old and some are two years old kind of thing. We're big enough and far enough apart that it doesn't feel like one family kind of thing anymore, and yet we're very, very adamant, and I am a broken record on this one. I think I'd get consistency on communication, but there's one CM, one Critical Mass, one brand, one P&L that matters, one approach. We all win when we win. We all suffer when we don't.


Everybody's pulled into that. Consciousness.

Dianne Wilkins:

I try. It's really hard to overcome, but I see it with these guys. I'm a designer, so whatever.



Dianne Wilkins:

I'm in data science. I don't really care about the flaky stuff as much. That's why I'm so repetitive about it. It's like there's only one reputation out there and only one set of vales. A bunch of different cultures and I think the different disciplines and the different locations have different feels to them, which is totally fine and natural and I think to be encouraged. I think it's a tricky balance to say how much needs to be consistent and institutionalized and how much do you just let the creativity and the passion and the will to make it special and make it their own take root?


Do you cross teams across geographies?

Dianne Wilkins:

We do. Constantly and more and more. It happened, we tried not to and it happened anyway, because so many skillsets. It sends up being a lot more specialized. We have some groups, we call them studios that are COEs specifically in a single location that serve the rest of the company, but just practically speaking, you can't have everything everywhere. It's just crazy.


Yeah, it's too expensive.

Dianne Wilkins:

We also have a currency triaging and opportunities to be more effective that way too. We're sort of shifting to it's a pipe dream to think we're not going to crisscross all over the place. We need to really embrace and get better at virtual collaboration, which we do fairly well now anyway, and really imagine a future where we do it on purpose. We're literally casting against projects and assignments and clients in a very, very deliberate way with geography being almost a non-factor. Almost. There are exceptions.

I think one of the things we're talking about a lot now too is I think the big change, the drive that I'm going to be driving everyone crazy with for the next few years, is just the modernizing the agency to be prepared for the workforce of the future. It's not going to work the way it has worked. You're seeing it now. You mentioned people struggling with their 22 year olds and stuff already, and certainly we do too. We're similar to a lot of other companies, and wrestling with this whole everyone wants to be a contractor and everyone wants to work remote and people are giving up the "I'm going to come and slog it out in the city for 15 years to make my career and then I'll go back to Milwaukee," kind of thing that I think we all grew up in.

How do we create a mecca for amazing talent but enable them to live their lives they want to live their lives and where they want to live their lives, Upstate New York for example, and not have to commute every day. It's [crosstalk].


It's such a powerful reference point. It's funny how much this has come actually for me in the last two or three weeks, and I've been surrounded by people having these kinds of conversations. Obviously that's my lifestyle, to your point. I read somewhere that 35% of American's workforce now works the way that I do, don't work for a company or corporation, self-employed and put together virtual capabilities around us.

To your point, if you have confidence in yourself, you don't need a company anymore. The company has to come out with a different set of reasons why, come here and do this.

Dianne Wilkins:

That's right.


Access to the marketplace is clearly one, right?

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, access to that kind of client and that kind of work, for sure.


Mentorship I think will be another.

Dianne Wilkins:

Certainly. The inspiration, ability to learn. You can get so far hanging out, I'm not speaking about you obviously. You're doing very well, but the 30 year old sitting at home cranking out designs for example can get so far, but spend a year working with Connor Brady or a chief creative officer and you're going to get better, and that take you to that whole other level. Even if after that you go back working from your apartment or your barn upstate or whatever. We have not nailed this yet. This is what we're talking about now. This is the creation of the SVP talent role is we can be better at interim communications and all kinds of things currently, but I think we do have good intentions and a lot of great programs and stuff. It could just come together more nicely.

The big, big, big job is what's it going to be like? It's hard enough to hire and find people. They don't want to stay. They don't want to come to an office. They don't want to come to a consolidated holding company level office that everybody's moving to, that is shared space.


Yeah, somebody 12 levels above them and five blocks away is going to tell them how their lives are going to work, right?

Dianne Wilkins:

That's right.


They're going to have no interest in that.

Dianne Wilkins:

What they're going to work on today. They don't want to be told what they're going to work on. It's going to be I think the next five years is going to be quite pivotal for especially groups of creative and technical. You can do tech remote. Data. Do you really need to be there? What needs to be there? What needs to be collaborative? What needs to be in person? Is there a true substitute? We haven't seen it yet, my team, for getting in a room and having the argument and drawing shit on the wall and erasing it and erasing someone else's crap and pissing them off. That, I don't know, formative normative whatever.


The [inaudible].

Dianne Wilkins:

Yeah, that one. It's hard to replicate that with a big multidisciplinary different kinds of thinking team, and yet we have certainly seen that those kinds of teams are what breeds the best results for us.


I think that the other challenge is that there's just not that much expertise about how do we even think about this stuff. I've sat through recently some large consulting group presentations, and you think this is too formulaic, it's too structured, it's too regimented. It's too templated. It just doesn't work that way. I think the challenge is going to be where do we get the expertise and the knowledge and where do you as leaders find the time to even begin to think about this in the onslaught of everything else that goes on day to day. It's an absolute fundamental requirement, I couldn't agree with you more.

Dianne Wilkins:

The time to focus on those what's next big things is certainly a challenge for everybody I've ever spoken to in my entire life, and me included. I do think there's an advantage. We have an advantage having started in the Wild West, literally actually the Wild West, but also the Wild West of the internet, nobody knew what we were doing then either. There were theories, there was ad agencies saying, "This is how you be an agency," but then there was these digital agencies saying you don't have technology departments. We do, and kind of forming our own as sort of a subculture figuring this whole thing out and how do you incorporate a bunch of coders and now a bunch of statisticians and linguists and you name it into a creative agency.

Sort of the best prep I can think of to also now envision nobody wants to come to work anymore and they're going to cherry pick what they work on and who they're going to work with and charge you double.


2018-02-23 00:00:00 Critical Mass appoints first-ever chief data innovation officer and senior vice president, talent

Digital experience design agency Critical Mass announced Pedro Laboy as its first-ever chief data innovation officer and Sara Anhorn as its first senior vice president of talent.

According to a statement, Laboy will be a member of the Omnicom agency’s global executive team, and is tasked to “elevate and fortify the agency’s marketing sciences division, helping clients navigate the increasingly complex landscape at the intersection of data and technology.”

Laboy previously worked at MRM/McCann as their was executive vice president for marketing transformation and performance for MRM/McCann. He also held various senior positions at Tracx, a marketing analytics platform; Attention; and G2 Worldwide. In his 20-year career, he has worked with top global brands, including Mastercard, Mattel, L’Oreal, Kraft, HBO, Expedia, Nestle, Cigna, Logitech, Caterpillar, USPS and Dell.

Anhorn was elevated from her role of vice president, project delivery and has responsibility over overseeing HR, recruiting and internal communications across the agency’s 12 offices worldwide. Critical Mass said she and her team will be responsible for “crafting, preserving, and enhancing an employee experience that upholds Critical Mass’ vision, values, and culture.”

Both Laboy and Anhorn will report to chief executive officer Dianne Wilkins. “Critical Mass has been a digital agency since our inception, and we have continued to evolve ourselves and our services at the speed of digital,” said Wilkins. ”Adding data innovation leadership to our already thriving marketing science capability tees us up to help clients navigate the data transformation landscape and develop more comprehensive pictures of the end customers we all serve. I’m honored to have Pedro join our team to help make that happen.”

Laboy added, "I am excited to be joining such an industry-leading organization known for exceptional customer experience design. I look forward to working with Critical Mass’ amazing team to support our clients with data-driven innovation, integrated data technology solutions, and partnerships that deliver superb customer experiences and drive business results."

Said Anhorn on her new role: “My experience within project delivery and global business operations divisions has given me an appreciation and deep understanding of how we work, what matters to our employees, and what trends are going to shape the employee experience in the future.”

Read more at: 

2018-02-01 00:00:00
Four Ways To Focus On Your Growth Philosophy In 2018

For just about everyone, 2017 was a tumultuous year. But, right on schedule, a new year has arrived and with it a chance to look both backward and forward.

The very phrase “backward and forward” probably brings to mind the yearly ritual of recapping and prognosticating. We all end up doing it. Regardless of your industry, companies have investors, shareholders or parent companies that demand end-of-year results and next year’s forecasts. Privately, we look at our own lives, from finances to fitness goals, and try to get a sense of where we’ve fallen short and what we can do to improve.

Right about now, most of us will go through these various forms of self-reckoning, both as individuals and members of organizations. And driving our sense of urgency will probably be a single idea -- something like “improvement” or “closing a deal” or “acquiring a skill.” At the end of the day, we all want growth. And why not? Growth is invaluable. We’ve all read articles (or completed entire university degrees) about how to attain it. Trends to watch, market movements to capitalize on and technologies to harness -- all of it is vital.

But what about a growth philosophy? Not so much how or how much you’ll grow, but what kind of organization you’ll grow into?

At our agency, Critical Mass, we’re going to be focused on growth in 2018. And, lucky for us, 2017 has set us up for success where growth is concerned. We brought in some fantastic new clients and deepened the scope of the capabilities and services we offer. Growth in the coming year is a matter of doubling down on the momentum we’ve built. But, in our view, it’s also an opportunity to think about what it means to grow well.

So what follows are a few salient points from next year’s plan. Not a by-the-numbers spreadsheet, just a few aspects of our growth philosophy -- things that, we believe, can make creative agencies great places to work and great partners for brands to work with.

Letting Diversity Thrive

There’s no question that diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones (McKinsey calls this phenomenon the “diversity dividend”). We’ve spent years building diverse teams here at Critical Mass, but we’ve also bred a culture of inclusion, which is slightly different than diversity. By creating a culture of open-mindedness and respect for other viewpoints, we’ve created an environment where diverse teams thrive because their voices and ideas have a chance to thrive as well. 

2017-12-28 00:00:00
Helping Humanity with the Back Office

By Grant Owens, Chief Strategy Officer at Critical Mass

Inspired by: Companies that apply their unique assets to big problems

Last week, Bill Gates tweeted that his next big mission is to explore the enigma of Alzheimer’s disease. I got ridiculously excited. Not having a cure for Alzheimer’s is terrifying, but when Bill and Melinda Gates put the power of the Gates Foundation against a challenge, you can be sure they are going to move mountains. They are hell-bent on making the world a better place, and they have the power to do it.

Everyday companies large and small are taking their special skills, assets, and work force and improving a corner of the world.
Now, of course, not every company, let alone individual executives, has amassed the fortune of Gates and can apply that wealth to nearly any cause, but there is so much more the industrial complex can offer that doesn’t need to wait until retirement or billionaire-level wealth.

Everyday companies large and small are taking their special skills, assets, and work force and improving a corner of the world.

Earlier this year, social media personality Jerome Jarre recognized that the famine in Somalia had reached extreme proportions and surprisingly little support and attention was being paid to the crisis. He made a plea for netizens to join him in helping the dire situation. His biggest ask was for a plane to distribute supplies directly to the region. After a little homework, he found that Turkish Airlines was the only commercial airline provider that offered flights in and out of Somalia. So, he asked them directly if they could lend a plane with the sole purpose of carrying supplies to the area. And you know what? They gave him a plane! Not because they could make a profit, but because it was the right thing to do and Turkish Airlines was uniquely capable of making it happen.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Anheuser-Busch shifted some of their facilities from packaging beer and delivered over 400,000 cans of emergency drinking water to aid the response efforts.
Another example of specialized assets being applied to a problem came when Coca-Cola and inventor Dean Kamen crossed paths. In 2004 Kamen had created a single device that could purify water from any possible water source — be it salt water, sewage, and even water contaminated with chemical waste. The problem Kamen had was that he lacked the ability to deliver and maintain the devices in the far corners of the world. Running out of ideas, he thought about how you can buy a Coke in nearly every part of the world — even remote places where affordable clean drinking water isn’t widely available. In other words, Coke has bottling and distribution partners across the globe. In a brilliant industrial quid pro quo, Coke agreed to help Kamen if Kamen, in turn, would help Coke develop their now ubiquitous cartridge-based dispensing machine called the Freestyle.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Anheuser-Busch shifted some of their facilities from packaging beer and delivered over 400,000 cans of emergency drinking water to aid the response efforts. Since 1988, the St. Louis-based brewer has provided over 76 million cans of drinking water to aid disaster-stricken areas.

Opportunities to do good come in many forms — from AirBnB rallying it’s homeowner network to offer free places to stay for displaced residents in disaster areas — to a taxi app in the UK that recently gave its drivers medical equipment and training in CPR and first aid after they realized that 7 out of 10 drivers had experienced an emergency situation (e.g. picking up passengers headed to the hospital).

Each company is sitting on something that could bring immeasurable value to people in need. To explore these big opportunities, begin with these questions:

What specialized assets or skills have you created that could be applied to people with specialized needs?
What does your brand care most about and for what would your workforce be willing to donate effort, time and money to help solve?
What can your company do that communities wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve on their own?
You don’t need a reason to do good, but it doesn’t hurt to keep in mind that the good vibes will resonate across everyone who touches your brand. The customer that supports you. The investor with a stake in you. The employees who find meaning in the work they do with you. Everyone. 

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2017-11-22 00:00:00
Empathy Technologies: Humanity At The Heart Of Emerging Tech

“Human design” is one of those phrases that seems to crop up everywhere these days. I often get the sense that the rise of the term mirrors the accelerating pace at which technology evolves and enters our lives. With more tech, we need to be more human. Technology should connect us, rather than divide or devalue us.

But the more I work in this field, the more I see humans as the true connector — even among technological devices. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Think of a bank customer who opens a checking account on their laptop, pays a bill on their iPhone and gets a balance notification on their Apple Watch — that person is the focal point of a personal digital ecosystem. As a result, that ecosystem is totally unique — the customer’s preferences, goals, habits and unique story define it. If the designers who create this customer’s overall banking experience focus too much on the Phone, the Watch or the Laptop, then they need to stop and reorient their focus to where it belongs: the customer.

Don’t get me wrong; due diligence is necessary (data-driven research, heuristic analysis, journey maps, design stories, gap analyses, etc.). But there’s something more — a human element that separates “okay” from “fantastic.” When you push a little harder, care a little more and design for humans, not for devices, you simply get a better result. The customer wins and the brand wins.

That's why, at our agency, we’ve surrounded ourselves with tech-savvy people who believe that humans give purpose to technology, and not the other way around. It’s easy to forget how when computers first made their way on to the market, they were pretty useless for most people. They were the domain of a small number of technologically-inclined folks until companies like Microsoft came along and designed user interfaces that made it possible for everyday people to get involved. Overnight, the technology had a new purpose — making the lives of everyday people easier or more entertaining. It’s an old example of a persistent truth: Technology can do impressive things, but world-changing things can happen when humans create valuable user experiences for other humans.

We’ve come a long way since that time. Today, we have AR/VR, AI, voice and facial recognition — mind-blowing advances. My eyes still pop when I see a next-generation VR experience or when my phone correctly picks out all the pictures I’ve taken of my daughter.

As the head of a digital experience design agency, however, I believe I have a responsibility to ask, “What’s human about this?”

For example, facial recognition seems like an inherently human technology, but it makes me think of the devastating problem of losing the ability to recognize faces — especially of those we love. A little over two years ago, a few people in Tunisia, working for Samsung, used a technology as common as Bluetooth to help Alzheimer’s patients recognize friends and loved ones (by detecting nearby phones). The “Backup Memory” app really struck me and still does, because it took widely available bits of tech and did something important, beautiful and deeply human — giving the ability to recognize faces back to people who were losing it. That’s one way to improve life in a deeply human way. Now, with Apple’s iPhone X hitting the market, advanced facial recognition of a very different sort will be a functional part of our everyday lives. That phone will be an incredibly powerful agglomeration technology. And now that Apple has released it, I believe incredible good can be done with it if we design for humans, as humans. 

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2017-11-20 00:00:00
Your Millennial Marketing Effort Isn’t Working

By Grant Owens, Chief Strategy Officer at Critical Mass

Inspired by: Marketers that don’t fall for the Millennial illusion

If any of us have to sit through another presentation about how Millennials are tethered to their phones and passionate about music, we might just get up and walk out — of the industry.

Why are marketers still trying to reduce a massively diverse group of people to a few salient points?

If you define Millennials today as 18–35**, the difference between someone that’s in college at 19 years-old, and a 33 year-old parent of two kids, is huge. Suddenly, the Millennial that lived a bus stop away from work (and didn’t see the need to own a car) is moving into a three-bedroom home and has a whole new set of product interests.

**Another problem is that we’ve been calling Millennials 18–35 for over 5 years. That’s not how these things work. Despite rumors, science has proven Millennials are aging at the exact same rate as the generations before them.

At 80 million strong, Millennials now represent the largest segment of Americans .
At 80 million strong, Millennials now represent the largest segment of Americans — among them are healthcare practitioners, snowboarders, and veteran teachers. They are as varied as any one segment can possibly be. They arguably represent a more diverse set of life stages than Generation X and the Baby Boomers combined.

Of all the core marketing keys I convey to my clients (e.g. create culture, right a wrong, pick an enemy, establish rituals, act small, etc.) none will perform very well at the scale of 80 million audience members. Sure, you could try, but if you take the lowest common denominator among such a large swath of the population and base your creative execution off of it, your marketing effort will probably come across as white noise.

Brands that chase a homogenous idea of the Millennial mindset are missing the bigger point: life stages and personal situations outshine nearly everything. If you’re trying to establish a pitch-perfect Millennial-edgy-youthful tone, not only are you chasing a phantom, you’re also cheating yourself out of the opportunity to offer your product or service directly to a customer who is actually interested in it.

Here’s a better approach:

1) Define the person you’re trying to reach.

2) Determine what that person desires in life (or on a particular day),

3) Show them how you can help.

Zappos follows these steps beautifully. Through a fairly basic use of data, Zappos knows I love to run, and the weather isn’t always perfect where I live. Recently they recommended an all-weather, long-distance running shoe. It was spot on, and I bought the shoes. Zappos made that sale without any sort of DJ, or food truck, or random age-related gimmick. 

Brands that successfully speak to a large segment of the population in a single voice often do it without resorting to generational distinctions. Patagonia, for example, recognizes the basic human truth that, regardless of age, many people want to treat themselves to a quality product while treating the environment around them well, too.


Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” work has proven that, regardless of demographics, we all have an inner photographer. Everyone appreciates a terrific view of the world. Everyone wants to capture and share a special moment as only they experienced it. 

If you’re going to tell people you know exactly how they think because they’re a so-called Millennial, at least make fun of all the clichés—like “follow the frog.” This example, from the Rainforest Alliance, pokes fun at the tropes of the Millennial mindset: 

And to round out these examples—an entertaining lesson in what not to do…: 

If thus far you’ve been unable to avoid the pitfall of chasing Millennials en masse, don’t worry. You can take what you’ve learned and save yourself from Gen Z. Spoiler alert: research will show they over-index for mobile phone use and are a highly social bunch with music as a passion point.

Now, go find out who they really are. 

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2017-10-25 00:00:00
Hey, Amazon from Critical Mass Working with the Calgary Economic Development office, they launched a campaign to persuade Amazon to choose Calgary as the location for their second headquarters (HQ2).

Critical Mass plastered Seattle with large-scale billboards and street art written in chalk with playfully provocative copy like, "Hey, Amazon. We’d change our name for you. Calmazon? Amagary? Love, Calgary" or "Hey, Amazon. We have 10 ski resorts. Super close. Even you can't move mountains. Love, Calgary". One of the billboards is placed directly outside of Amazon's downtown corporate office with the phrase, "Hey, Amazon. Not saying we'd fight a bear for you... but we totally would."

There are ~200 public displays scattered around Seattle, mainly on the Amazon campus, along with print and digital ads.

2017-10-23 00:00:00
My career in 5 executions: Critical Mass's Conor Brady

From Vonnegut covers to Aronofsky ads, Critical Mass's CCO sweats the details.

Name: Conor Brady
Title: CCO, Critical Mass
Years in ad industry: 30
First job in ad industry: Designer at Vintage Paperbacks

Conor Brady began his career designing covers for old books being reprinted in paperback. A signed note from Kurt Vonnegut thanking him for good covers commemorates those days. In 1995, Brady moved to Universal Music, using similar skills to design album covers like the ones he’d loved growing up in the 1980s.

In 2000, he joined the agency world as a creative director at Razorfish, where he began immersing himself in all things digital. In 2006, he became a GCD at Organic, rising to chief creative officer three years later.

After a stint as CCO at Brooklyn’s Huge, he joined Critical Mass as chief creative officer in 2014. "Get away from your computer and take time to think," Brady says, advice the avid cyclist takes to heart. "Embrace all forms of design. Always learn new things. Believe that design can be the difference in elevating a good idea to a great idea."

Here are the 5 executions Brady says have meant the most to his career.

Client: Kurt Vonnegut’s "Hocus Pocus"
Agency: Random House Publishing (Vintage Paperbacks)
Work: "Hocus Pocus" cover
Year: 1990

As a child in Ireland, Brady had been inspired by album cover art, especially Peter Saville’s work for Joy Division. At Random House, he was tasked with creating the first 100 covers for the Vintage Paperbacks imprint, including five titles by Kurt Vonnegut.

"I got to commission the artist duo Huntley Muir for the cover, people whose work I had long admired," he said. "It was the start for me, personally, in seeking out and working with a series of some of the world’s greatest artists, photographers and filmmakers."

Client: Decca Records
Brand: Ute Lemper and Elvis Costello’s "Punishing Kiss"
Agency: Universal Music/Polygram
Work: album cover
Year: 2000

From book covers, Brady moved onto album covers. "Out of all the record covers I did over a 12-year period, I enjoyed this one the most," he says. The shoot with Ute Lemper took place in an abandoned sugar factory in London’s docklands.

"She had just seen ‘The Matrix’ and insisted on styling herself like Carrie Anne-Moss," Brady says. "She was amazing in front of the camera, completely lost in the character she created. Usually we came back from a shoot with six workable shots—Ute gave us a book."

Client: Ford Motor Company
Brand: The Ford Centennial Project
Agency: Razorfish
Work: "Ford Centennial website"
Year: 2002

To celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, Ford wanted a state-of-the-art, interactive website, and it tasked Razorfish with creating it. "Design and tech were ready to come closer together," Brady says, "and designers and technologists were each beginning to appreciate what the other did."

The team spent more than a year digging through Ford’s historic collection, a process that Brady says turned him into a "car nut."

Client: The Meth Project
Agency: Organic
Work: "The Meth Project" films
Year: 2011

Director Darren Aronofsky had just released his fifth film, "Black Swan," when ECD Brad Mancuso suggested to Brady that they approach Aronofsky to direct PSAs for The Meth Project. He’d directed several in 2007, prior to his success with the Mickey Rourke vehicle "The Wrestler."

"To my amazement, we tried and succeeded," Brady says. "The results to this day still make me stop in my tracks. It’s a no-bullshit, shock-you-into-action approach to delivering a message."

Client: The United Nations
Brand: Sweeper
Agency: Critical Mass
Work: "Sweeper" app
Year: 2014

To drive home the randomness and destructive power of land mines, Critical Mass created an digital minefield at the New Museum in Manhattan, and an app that notified visitors when they’d triggered an explosion.

"Maybe once or twice in your career, you get to use all the skills you have to really change something, do some good and observe a real impact," Brady says. "The United Nations is an organization I have a lot of respect for, so to have been able to work with them on eliminating landmines—a cause that is central to their humanitarian mission—is a standout partnership for me." 

2017-10-12 00:00:00
Travel Alberta takes a breath of fresh content

Travel Alberta has updated the creative in its long-standing brand platform as it shifts to a more “always on” content strategy.

The destination marketer launched its “Remember to Breathe” platform in 2011, with creative showcasing the landscapes and scenery of the province that create goosebump-inducing moments.

But as audiences have evolved, so must its strategy, prompting the organization to move from being a campaign marketer to an “always on publisher,” says Tannis Gaffney, VP of global consumer marketing for Travel Alberta.

While the brand platform remains “Remember to Breathe,” with its updated strategy and creative, the organization has shifted to targeting adventure-hungry millennials who value spontaneity and experiences, she says.

The new creative still highlights breathtaking visuals, but it aims to put viewers and travellers more at the centre of the action, something the previous creative didn’t do, says Jared Folkmann, group strategy director at Critical Mass, Travel Alberta’s agency partner.

That said, the campaign is still highlighting exciting, shareable moments, like dog sledding and ice climbing, but through the lens of millennial travellers, including influencers.

The updated “Remember to Breathe” content includes two anthem spots – “Ready” and “Ready to Winter” – but also various video content of different lengths and a multitude of still photography for Travel Alberta’s social channels. The brand has also been leveraging more user-generated content through its social media channels, Gaffney notes.

For this iteration, the brand also used Google’s Jump virtual reality video offering to create as series of 360-degree videos. While they’re being used online, they are also a valuable asset for Travel Alberta’s trade marketing teams, Gaffney says. The updated content also includes “Ready to Roam” videos, each over 90 minutes, showing the drives between various locations in the province and all that can be seen along the way. 

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2017-10-04 00:00:00
Opinion / The Last Humans and the Next Brands

On August 2nd, 2017, a paper was published in Nature that explained how researchers at the Oregon University of Health and Science corrected a congenital heart defect. That happens every day. And while it’s big deal if it’s you on the operating table, it’s not a big deal for the wider world.

The patient, however, was not you, or I, or anyone you know, nor anyone you could talk to, or touch. It was a human embryo. More incredibly, that little human embryo was “repaired” with zero transcription errors (a big deal) thanks to CRISPR Cas9 gene editing technology.

If early August feels like ancient history – and fair enough – then how about late August, when the FDA approved Kymriah, a “Living Drug” that uses ‘genetically modified immune cells from patients to attack their cancer’.”

Whether you’re unborn, or unlucky, the wider world is wiping away the fault from our stars.

We are now riding the vertical asymptote of the exponential curve of technological progress, which is a fancy way of saying that innovations are helping us innovate faster. And they’re taking off! What was science fiction a few years ago is a product today (and old news – thus affordable – tomorrow).

It’s personal

A little about me: Up until now, I’ve thought of technological advances in terms of my career, because I’m a creative technologist and developer by trade. I’ve now reached the point where I think in terms of my children – because they’re going to be the first generation to inhabit a world that’s currently impossible for us to predict or fully imagine – only glimpse. And because I love my children.

We are raising a generation of children whose reality is inextricably intertwined with technology, and who, gene edited or not, will challenge the definition of reality and what it means to be human. We are raising Generation Omega, the last generation that is “only” human.

I love art. I love books and movies and music. But most of my daily contact with human achievements and ideas come in the form of device interactions, and by extension, brand interactions (which can still be art, but art of a different kind – functional art). But what will a brand be in the future? Where will culture and commerce intersect in the world of the Omegas?

Here’s one answer: we can’t know what Omegas will do or experience – not entirely – but the very mystery of their mind-blowing technological existence is already having an impact on brand identities in the present. And not only is that worth looking into, we can already see glimpses.

At the moment…

Children today don’t know what the world was like before smartphones existed. A “phone” is something that has always been in their (or their parents’) pockets. The collective knowledge of humanity is only a few taps away. Kids ask what and why all the time. Now, parents can answer.

Of course, you don’t need your phone. A clunky device that must be taken out, unlocked, tapped, and waited for. When your child asks a question, you can just ask Alexa, or Google Home (which Google has begun dramatising in their TV ads, below).

My four-year-old Omega’s first digital interactions have been voice, and a colleague of mine had to explain to his 18-month-old that Alexa wasn’t a “real” person. Alexa and her cohorts are going to get a lot more real. Real soon.

So, the Omegas are entering a world on a double-brink: 1) editable human bodies that can be nudged further from nature, and 2) digital counterparts that seem increasingly natural. There are other brinks, but I want to focus on these because they point decisively to something fascinating: the way a “brand” can define itself by creating a product story around informed speculation. Brands stories, more than ever, can edge closer to actual genres of narrative, like science fiction – a kind of speculative history told backwards into the future.

Truth in fiction

In The Culture series of science fiction novels, author Ian M. Banks describes a far future where humanoids and machines are symbiotic. The Culture has Strong AI, sentient machines, that are integrated with fleshy beings through a neural lace – a brain-computer interface that allows organic life forms to seamlessly interact with a cloud consciousness. An exocortex.

In March 2017, Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and Space X, announced his latest startup: Neuralink. Neuralink is building high speed brain-computer interfaces that will allow humans to access our metacortex, the Internet, with a thought. Brain-computer interfaces have been around in very primitive forms for years, and you can currently buy some off-the-shelf. But what Neuralink is proposing is something different. The interface is implanted in our brain. While this sounds like science fiction, in 2015 scientists successfully injected a neural lace into a living brain.

So, here’s the question: does this tell us more about Elon Musk and Neuralink, or Generation Omega? Does it help to sell Teslas, spur recruitment? What kind of answer do tech visionaries such as Google and Facebook have for such visions par excellence?

Or is this an example of a brand designing a product for what’s inevitably to come, laying the groundwork to supply the forthcoming demands of a rising generation? Can you corner a market before it arrives?

Final answer

I guess what my friends, myself, and other young parents want to know is this – will our kids grow up in a world where an exocortex becomes a reality, where the collective knowledge of humanity is a thought away?

My guess – highly likely. It’s highly likely that for adventurous Omegas willing to get an implant, and the Omegas who worry about falling behind their colleagues, an exocortex will be a lived reality. Hopefully they can explain how it works while making fun of HTML the way I made fun of rotary phones.

And from this day until that day, brands are going to have to decide for themselves what they want to believe about the future, and how they are going to position themselves with it, or against it. It may well be that the craziest brand stories of today turn out to be the most prescient and trusted ones of tomorrow.

Or as the poet William Blake wrote at the brink of the Industrial Revolution: ‘what is now proved was once only imagined.’ 

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2017-09-25 00:00:00
To Be the Best, Be Like Lego

By Grant Owens, Chief Strategy Officer at Critical Mass

This past week Lego announced some headwinds in sales and a 5% drop in revenue, but the power of the brand continues to hold a special place in consumers’ hearts.

Lego has created a seemingly unfair advantage in the toy market. That advantage is customer involvement. The core promise of the brand and the product experience is customer-controlled creation and imagination. Not only does the experience encourage involvement, but the company does a terrific job of stoking the fire.

The investment Lego is making transcends short-term earnings. Their currency is the passion and loyalty of enthusiasts across the world—for years to come.
Starting in 2011 they formed Lego Ideas to source and produce community-submitted ideas and concepts. If a submission to the website gains 10,000 supporters, it’s reviewed and considered for production as an official Lego set. If produced, the customer receives 1% of the total net sales and 10 complimentary sets of their Lego idea—but, most importantly, they get the credit. In-set materials hail the customer as the creator, complete with a short bio.

Paal Smith-Meyer, head of the Lego New Business Group said, “our fans and consumers have proved time after time that they have great ideas that can lead to products. We see this as an investment in the future rather than for immediate sales gain.”

He’s right. The investment Lego is making transcends short-term earnings. Their currency is the passion and loyalty of enthusiasts across the world—for years to come. That’s why, despite inevitable fluctuations, they’ll keep winning.

Winning with Customer Involvement

My team at Critical Mass has a pretty simple philosophy to ensure our clients are successful—if we can improve customers’ lives, our client will outshine the competition. In turn, our agency will shine, too.

To truly improve customers’ lives, we get them directly involved. We use a proprietary process to capture the voice of customers, but there are many other ways to capture some of the Lego magic.

Don’t Settle for User-Generated Content

The typical brainstorm around customer involvement often ends with a decision to launch a social media program fueled by user-generated content. Sure, you can host an Instagram takeover, but that’s a tiny fraction of the customer involvement opportunity.

Brands should explore ways to get internal ideas in front of consumers early and often. Offer them a chance to pierce the veil—your most rabid enthusiasts will certainly be engaged, and it will give indifferent audiences a reason to become fans, too.

Listen and Respond

Study your customers’ behaviors with your product and service, then follow up with big questions: What would you have done differently? What would make you consider a competitor’s product? What do you feel works well?

Looking at some data analysis and claiming you’ve heard the voice of the customer is not enough—nor is testing your TV spot on an arbitrary scale of “likability.”

Talk with customers. Listen. This is a lesson I learned as an intern with Procter and Gamble. Not only does P&G go out of their way to observe customers’ usage of their products, but they exercise less obvious ways of listening. For example, I asked my mentor at P&G if anyone ever calls the 1–800 number on the back of the product. He told me that the number isn’t for answering product questions but rather a direct line to frustrated customers. P&G had the valuable chance to listen, and customers could express any negative feelings directly to the brand (rather than to 10 friends).

Make Them Part of the Company

If involving customers in the process isn’t enough, give them a real stake. Consumer co-ops remain a largely untapped market in most product categories. The co-op model is a surefire way to achieve increased brand affinity and loyalty. This customer involvement model has been around for decades (e.g., credits unions), but it deserves to be explored more broadly.

Customers Won’t Invent Your Future

Involving the customer doesn’t replace your responsibility to invent and innovate. Push into new territories that customers can’t define yet. In research, customers are notoriously bad about being able to predict the future of a product or service, but they are terrific at giving feedback on the present. Use that insight, and then determine the strategic common threads that should steer your future product or service.

Start A.S.A.P.

If you don’t let them help you decide the future of your brand now, they will make you decide later by voting with their wallets. 

2017-09-21 00:00:00
Elon Musk is worried about AI. Should you be?

Aside from preventing Armageddon, the creative and marketing industry is responsible for shaping AI in a way that supports the greater good, says Critical Mass' CSO.

If you’ve been scanning technology news in the last few months you’ve probably noticed that Elon Musk is sounding alarm bells about the emergence of artificial intelligence—calling it "the scariest problem" and greatest threat to civilization he sees.

And let’s be clear, Elon Musk sees things you and I don’t—not necessarily because he is more visionary, but because in his role he simply has more access to emerging technology and technologists. People take meetings with him when given the chance, and I suspect they bring their most progressive ideas to the table. So, what exactly is it that has him so worried?

This is Old Hat
A couple of years ago as our industry began wading into the world of AI (for the purposes of brand interactions), I didn’t think much about potential side effects of our progress. We’ve been dealing with pieces of AI and building near-AI algorithms for years. To date, the threat of that technology has been limited and at times simply entertaining, certainly not an existential teeter-totter, as Musk views it.

At the time, I was able to sideline the conspiracy theory threats by suggesting that as long as we own the power supply, we’ll be fine. In other words, if things get out of hand we can just pull the plug—literally. What danger is an angry sentient robot with no current running through it?

But recently, in addition to Musk’s warnings, I’ve seen the rapid evolution of connected devices firsthand and can say with confidence, we’d never be able to cut the power early enough or broadly enough. Just as we’ve set up distributed networks for backup assurance, they can easily be used for AI resilience.

What’s Existential About the Threat?
In a recent interview at the National Governors Association meeting, Musk explains a fairly simple progression of an AI system whose incentive was to maximize the value of a certain portfolio of stocks (in this case stocks bolstered by the defense and military industry). One way the AI could maximize that portfolio would be to start a war—essentially by counterfeiting communications between two rival countries.

His anecdote reminded of the saying, "guns don’t kill people, people do", and the common rebuttal, "but the gun sure had something to do with it"—just replace the word "gun" with "AI" and you’ve arrived at the same concern as Musk.

In this case, what Musk is worried about is the latest developments of planning and reasoning that AI is now capable of executing. It wouldn’t take much for a human to insert an incentive into the AI system and unwittingly fail to predict the logical conclusion—the endgame.

Right in Front of Us
Aside from preventing Armageddon, the creative and marketing industry also has a very big responsibility for shaping AI in a way that supports the greater good, not just one cohort. We have to ask ourselves—how can we remove bias from AI and algorithms? How can we build AI tools that are incentivized to help all people?

Right now, millions of Amazon Echo devices sit in the homes of people who are likely more affluent than the average American household, and each day the Alexa AI platform becomes smarter based on the usage within those homes. Alexa is likely learning much more about what affluent customers want and how they speak than what low income households want and how they interact. That is a deeper digital divide that may soon be very hard to bridge.

As an industry, we can enter into these efforts with empathy and conscientiousness. If we can do that, I’m hoping that the 50 U.S. governors who sat through Musk’s warnings can start working on the Armageddon scenario in parallel.

Only You Can Prevent AI Forest Fires
So, to answer the question…should we be worried? Yes, but we shouldn’t be paralyzed by the risk. We should begin to use our areas of influence to discuss the incentives, the failsafes, and the role of industry self-regulation. In this particular territory, I think we are underestimating the power of our marketing industry to influence the outcome. Many of today’s top technology resources are aimed squarely at marketing efforts, and we may see early side effects and artifacts of these efforts that others cannot.

Grant Owens is CSO of global experience design agency Critical Mass.

Read more at 

2017-09-07 00:00:00
For travelers, chatbots and AI can't quite take you there

Ask any technology expert about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in travel and they'll breathlessly tell you we're on the verge of a revolution.

They'll describe a world in the not-too-distant future where smart applications can find and book a bargain airfare, manage your trip and troubleshoot any problems that might come up with greater speed and efficiency than any human travel agent.

But ask any traveler to describe their experience with AI, and you might hear a different story: One of struggling to be understood by technology that claims to be smart.

These early days of travel bots that specialize in customer service, chat, messaging and search are a cautionary tale. Technology may be good and getting better, but nothing replaces a person. That's unlikely to change for a while, and maybe ever.

Take my recent experience with Hipmunk, widely praised as the cleverest of the customer-facing AIs. I asked it repeatedly to recommend a cold-weather getaway. Instead, it suggested I book a getaway to Nassau, Bahamas. When asked for an island with lower temperatures, Hipmunk cheerfully changed my itinerary -- to a weekend in balmy Port Au Prince, Haiti.

"I don't think that AI in travel is even remotely usable yet," says Brian Harniman, who founded Brand New Matter, a strategic advisory and venture capital firm that specializes in travel. "It's what people are talking about building in order to sound like they have cutting edge tech."

Hipmunk shouldn't feel bad. In the recent past, social media chatbots have created their own incomprehensible language, spouted expletives and in one memorable case, two Chinese AIs churned out anti-revolutionary statements and had to be taken offline. Several travel chatbots I tested didn't even respond to my repeated text queries. Not knowing the difference between the Bahamas and Iceland is, by comparison, a relatively innocent mistake.

"Every experience I've had has been a total waste of time," says Bruce Sweigert, who works for a travel technology company. "I would love to hear at least one positive anecdote about using artificial intelligence in travel."

I asked travelers to tell me about their great AI experiences, but heard only crickets. Perhaps the they were too busy enjoying their AI-booked vacations.

People in the industry, on the other hand, were downright chatty. They explained that my expectations of the technology, which is still in an early stage, are too high. AI is reasonably good at simple tasks, for now they say.

"It can replace some of the simpler tasks," explains Kayne McGladrey, a computer security consultant in Bellingham, Wash. AI can help plan trips, recommend the least agonizing flight itineraries and handle some of the easier tasks handled by a hotel concierge, like recommending restaurants.

There's a reason why this technology works so well: it's not that new. Applications like "Ask Julie," the Amtrak automated virtual travel assistant, are five years old. Julie can field basic questions about train schedules, but don't get too cute with her. For example, if you ask about how comfortable the trains are, she's likely to respond with, "I'm not sure how to answer that. I understand simple questions best. Can you try asking that in a different way?"

Some of the latest applications can go further. For example, Avianca’s new AI, Carla, can confirm itineraries and flight status. For domestic flights in Colombia, passengers can even check-in through Carla using a mobile device. And's new booking assistant allows you to get support for your upcoming hotel reservations, including fast responses to your most common stay-related requests, like "What's my check-in time?"

But other chatbots are frustratingly one-dimensional. Ana, Copa Airlines' new web-based chatbot, seems more like a frequently-asked-questions section than an intelligent agent. It "suggests" questions from a pre-written list of queries.

Even insiders admit that the most advanced system is easily foiled. "My Irish accent gets stronger the more frustrated I get," says Conor Brady, chief creative officer of Critical Mass, an experience design agency in New York. "And obviously travel can get stressful. So voice assistants stop understanding me, as I'm yelling into my phone to translate a street name in Hong Kong, or point me in the direction of a decent cup of coffee in Lisbon."

Maybe you can have the best of both worlds. That's the idea behind new apps like Pana ( and Lola (, which combine the best of AI with human agents. For now, letting the technology do the dirty work and allowing human agents to handle the complex stuff seems like the most reasonable course.

The technologists are right: artificial intelligence will change the way you travel. But maybe not in the way they think -- or the way you think.

Where to find good AI in travel

Hopper ( Serves personalized suggestions about trips you may be interested in, but haven't explicitly searched or watched, based on your activity in the app -- just like Netflix recommends movies you might like.

Skyscanner ( A social media chatbot that helps you quickly find a cheap airfare on Facebook Messenger. I found a bargain fare from Seattle to Hong Kong. But you have to be specific, giving it an exact city. It found the least expensive dates to fly.

Carla, The CWT Personal Travel Assistant ( Still in development when I tested it, this AI chatbot for business travel has a lot of potential. It can make smarter recommendations on flight connections and lodgings, plus it memorizes your company's travel policy and your travel preferences. 

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2017-08-27 00:00:00
Discovering My Personal Disneyland


Inspired By: The Customer-First Magic in the BMW Welt
Each month, we’ll hear about the latest and greatest in customer experiences through the lenses of design and technology, straight from the brain of Grant Owens, Chief Strategy Officer of Critical Mass, a global experience design agency.

When it comes to customer experiences, the BMW Welt is next level. Next level design thinking. Next level service coordination. Next level retail theater.

The BMW Welt (translates to “BMW World”) is a magnificent multipurpose building opened 10 years ago in Munich, Germany to showcase BMW vehicles and welcome new customers from around the globe to the brand.

I’m a car nut, and the Welt is unquestionably my Disneyland. Beyond working on car accounts in the advertising space for the last 15 years, I worked in a car factory when I was younger. I can change my own oil, and I’ve done body work on a few jalopies. I speak car. And this place speaks to me.

Our agency, Critical Mass, works with clients in a vast number of industries that are in a tough battle to win over the customer, but few are more competitive and vigorous than automotive. And while other automotive brands offer physical brand flagships, there is simply nothing close to the BMW Welt. Yes, they are a client of ours (full disclosure), but even if they weren’t, I’d still say, with equivocation, that the Welt is arguably the greatest new customer experience in the world. The new vehicle delivery process at the Welt is a master class in delighting the customer.

Although more common in Europe than the US market, customers who order a specific vehicle for production can choose to take delivery and drive their new car home from the Welt. For customers based in the U.S., they can choose the European delivery program and take delivery at the Welt too.

For customers that elect to take delivery of their new BMW at the Welt, a flawlessly timed and coordinated experience awaits. To call it customer-centered is an understatement: mind, body, and family are all taken into consideration.

Here are the key elements of the BMW Welt that make it a world class brand experience:

Room to Breathe Customers are given space and time. Zero rush. Anyone taking delivery is given three days of access to the overall space and the private lounge. Beyond that they can peruse the public areas, shop the store, or even rent some of BMW’s most powerful vehicles by the hour. Visitors can also enjoy multiple restaurants in the building — with the two-Michelin-star EssZimmer being one of the hardest tables to book in Munich. Function Floating in Form The Welt, while multipurpose, is truly purpose-built architecture. This isn’t a Starbucks in an old bank or the Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal — while those things are great, this is even more impressive. In addition to a floating bridge defying gravity, it’s quiet on the second floor for those taking delivery and busy downstairs where others are looking at the latest products from BMW, MINI, and Rolls-Royce. The Welt manages to function as four or five separate environments in one open space — it’s a nearly paranormal architectural feat. Strategic Future Proofing The Welt experience satisfies every part of the supply chain and will for the foreseeable future. It will encourage product sales in a digital dealer era, a post-digital era, and beyond. For all of the doomsday forecasts of brick and mortar (with which I mostly agree) the Welt turns the retail space entirely on its head and makes you fall in love with bricks all over again. Less Paperwork, More Ceremony Anyone who has purchased and financed a new car knows the dream of getting your ride is quickly overshadowed by confusing piles of paperwork. The client advisors at the Welt have streamlined the process to the bare minimum and within minutes customers are either enjoying an hors d’oeuvre or getting one of the most advanced virtual product tours on the planet, infused with a personalized audio track based on the owner’s preferences. Product First Despite the wizardry and entertainment features of the Welt, the product remains the hero — the lead actor is always the car. As new customers leave the lounge and head down a floating staircase, the client advisors know exactly which stair to stop on right before the customer’s car comes into view. It’s the climactic moment, and I never tired of watching the smiles on their faces as their new BMW spun slowly below them as they continued down the staircase. After descending, they’re welcome to get in their car, start it up, and ask every question they can think of. Then finally, they can literally drive their vehicle in a spiral track through the building and out into the city. All That You Don’t See In addition to this being my own personal Disneyland, the Welt shares traits with Walt’s theme park creation. Behind the scenes, the logistics of the Welt are German engineering at its finest. My team and I were lucky enough to receive a backstage tour, and the precision between phases of prep and delivery is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are using connected devices to generate an experience that seems like magic to the customer. Some Secrets I Can’t Tell There are number of hidden areas and surprises within the Welt, and I’d be ruining it for many if I leaked them here. But suffice it to say, these special elements go far beyond delighting the customer. They add up to a brand impression and memory that surpasses the customer’s craziest expectations. Even those of the craziest car nuts, like myself. 

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2017-08-15 00:00:00
The Next Frontier in Digital Experiences: Fluid Personalities

Let’s Take a Step Back
What makes a brand a brand? Let’s hazard a definition and say this: a brand is the sum of its experiences. That, and differentiation.

Whether you agree with that pithy definition or not, there’s one thing we all know intrinsically: we know a great brand experience when we see one (or hear one, or participate in one). And the brands we love become intimately familiar to us. We form relationships with them. They’re like friends, in a way.

But what if you could recognize a brand’s voice the same way you do your best friend’s voice (because your brand called you, and the moment you picked up, you knew who it was). You expect your friend’s voice and personality to resonate regardless of whether you are swiping through their Insta-story, sending GIFs on messenger, or FaceTiming. The level of intimacy and interaction changes, but you still know it’s your friend on the other side of a screen.

We Like Experiences, but We Love Personalities
As technology gives brands the ability to be more like your flesh-and-blood friend—to make the “sum total of their experiences” more “human” in an uncannily real way—the very nature of interactivity is going to change. Even a simple idea, like “brand voice,” is going to take a literal turn as voice interaction and chat bots suffuse the digital landscape.

With 360 videos, live-streaming, VR, AR, chatbots, and voice assistants, today’s breadth of interactive and conversational digital interactions is already pushing (if not shoving) us into a new frontier of digital brands with near-real personalities and literal voices. In other words, the idea of a “friend,” “brand,” and “immersive digital interaction” will blur together into a mind-bogglingly personalized, entirely new kind of experience.

The future digital brand will have the capacity to edge closer to approximating an influencer—a real-life and nuanced individual—than an invented fictional icon of the past (e.g., Tony the Tiger). And brands will need to find ways to explore what a cohesive brand personality could entail—an up for grabs question. In fact, as tomorrow’s technologies and design possibilities emerge, brands may very well find uniformity, differentiation, and cohesiveness in a unique brand personality like never before.

The Journey and the Destination
Human-like brand personalities driven by immersive content and voice interaction can seem a little esoteric. So let’s bring the topic back to earth by talking concretely about a specific industry—like Travel and Tourism.

Google (in their “Think with Google” content) makes the convincing case that there are four basic yet distinct phases of the traveler journey: “Inspiration, Planning, Booking, and Experiencing.” That’s precisely where brand personality comes into play—a way to provide a fluid yet consistent, unified yet momentarily apposite brand encounter across each phase. Differentiation is no longer a question of updating a style guide or color palette or imagery, but a broader conversation about the how the brand is expressed—in every sense of the term.

Know Thyself
In the near future, improved voice-interactivity, smarter personalization, and increasing proliferation of AR/VR will open up enormous traveler experience possibilities. But incorporating those opportunities is step two—step one is pinpointing a consistent brand tone and personality.

Ask yourself, is your brand a coach? An authority? A friend? Does the language it uses reflect your heritage? Or does that tone reflect the language of an aspirational audience? With the growing demand for multi-channel communication, asking questions like these is a “must-do” exercise for all brands, including those in the travel and tourism space.

The more robustly a travel brand can articulate itself in terms of personality and tone, the more successful it will be as it incorporates things like machine learning and immersive content into its overall experience.

The Goal: Fluid Personality + Technological Opportunity
The traveler journey is a precarious, emotionally charged buying decision, because so much anticipation and expectation are attached to the outcome. Depending on the kind of vacation—a tour, a resort stay, a cruise, hotel-hopping through a cosmopolitan city—many travelers may find themselves choosing varying routes, locations, accommodations, and activities all at once. A brand personality, married with cutting edge technology, could turn anxieties, confusion, and frustration into a seamlessly reassuring, companionable experience. Here are some ideas to keep in mind (or to be on the look-out for):

1. Inspiration/Building Awareness: In digital personality building, this is a brand’s first introduction, a chance for a good first impression that also provokes intrigue. An awareness piece could be a 360 photo of a hotel or key landmark, an immersive Facebook canvas, or a promoted piece of UGC content; having the ability to know who a traveler is early on (as travelers conduct research over multiple, sporadic sessions) will help you to personalize content, establish your brand as a helpful advisor in the planning process, and provide opportunities to introduce key elements of your personality. By tapping social listening tools with AI-enabled natural language processing (NLP), a brand can further identify key audience needs and speaking styles and reflect them back in its own voice.

2. Planning/Winning Consideration: The planning phase is the time to deepen both personality elements and the sense of relationship—so use a little enticement. Be generous and show off your best features. The ability to surface information and content that best matches the style, preferences and budget of your potential customer is a key component of building rapport with your brand. It’s a matter of frictionless, not just info. Imagine if a traveler could ask your brand’s voice assistant, “Hey TravelBot, I loved that day-sail by the Great Barrier Reef—any tips for Turks and Caicos?” A good answer, with a unique personality, would build trust and legitimacy by delivering right at a traveler’s moment of need, and with a memorable style.

3. Booking/Converting Sales: Booking can seem overwhelming—especially for infrequent travellers and groups. A Chabot can guide travelers through the process, eliminate steps, and set defaults for effortless onsite bookings. But that’s just the beginning. A chatbot represents a chance to really anthropomorphize the brand overall. Brand values can lay a foundation for both manners and mannerism—a unique “voice,” inflected in every word and phrase, that resonates from the initial greeting. A travel brand that can mask the complexity of booking with a helpful and distinct personality can go beyond engagement and build a relationship.

4. Experiencing/Maximizing Service: For travel brands that host guests directly, the “experiencing” phase is an ideal time to have an ongoing conversation with a voice assistant—part friend, part guide that shepherds, amuses, and accompanies travelers as they explore everything on their “must-see” and “must-do” list. Voice interfaces backed by deep learning and AI are ideally suited for providing engaging, deeper, ongoing levels of trip personalization. By immediately adapting the experience based on inputs that could include anything from traveler reactions or changes to local weather, things like tour itineraries could evolve from static timekeepers to dynamic local guides that can single out the best things to see and do for each individual.

The Takeaway
The next generation of brand personality must gradually and appropriately build across the customer journey. The digital experiences and touch points become more and more immersive and intimate—from banner ads to smart bracelets—as the customer moves down the funnel. The connective tissue that stretches across the journey is a consistent voice, tone, look and feel that eventually translates into a distinct personality. Or ideally—it’s one personality that subsequently translates into a consistent voice, tone, look and feel.

For a brand that wants to make a mark with digital innovation, the first order of business should not be to launch a suite of shiny objects and immersive content for the sake of launching shiny objects and immersive content. Instead, ask why you're bringing the bleeding edge of digital experiences into your ecosystem, and what your overall brand personality will be in an age of chatty AI, virtual immersion, and data-driven personalization. If you focus on cultivating an engaging and unique personality, it will be a lot easier to find the tactical improvements that will subsequently bring to life the brand your customers will fall in love with. 

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2017-06-28 00:00:00
CM Designer Named Advertising Age Cover Contest Finalist

Ad Age invited young creatives for the eighth time to design the cover of our annual creative-focused issue that is distributed at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The duo that created the winning cover won a trip to the festival, and will be saluted at Ad Age's Cannes cocktail party.

This year's winners, Carlos Quimpo and Byron Co, are junior art directors at TBWA Santiago Mangada Puno in the Philippines. Their simple but striking interpretation of the brief to "create a visual capturing the essence of the creative process today" features raw beef marinating. (Read more about that, and the winners, here).

The eight finalists we selected after reviewing hundreds of entries from around the world will be there, too, in the form of billboards featuring their designs outside the Majestic Hotel during the Cannes Lions festival.
Our finalists include Rosie Mossey, an art director at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness in New York, who embroidered a red cover with white letters spelling out "Mak Am ri a G ea Ag ain" with the six missing, ripped-out letters forming the word "Create" below. Christopher Ruh, a junior designer at 72andSunny in Los Angeles, turned our cover into a blue computer screen covered with groups of tiny desktop files that each told a story about the creative process and were fascinating to decipher in "Inspiration Overload."

Other finalists are talented young creatives working at international agencies around the world including Critical Mass in London, Publicis Ambience in Bangalore, Geometry Global in Hong Kong, and, in the U.S., Ogilvy & Mather, Brand Union, and SapientRazorfish.

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2017-06-12 00:00:00
Things We’re Talking About: May 2017 2.0


A recent study from the Fox School of Business at Temple University describes how social media marketing harms has been hurting business in the long-term—users who find posts annoying are quick to tap ‘unfollow.’ While the study focuses on WeChat, the learnings could be applied to all social channels. In order to keep fans coming back, brands need to be less invasive, find the right post cadence and use data to discover what their audiences want. Brands who jump into the social world see a lift in sales short-term, but brands that aren’t engaging with audiences in their preferred way will see a decrease in followers and business. And that’s the most annoying thing of all.


We’ve always been champions of the power of word of mouth. However, this recent survey on how negative reviews affect purchase decision further drives home how truly powerful word of mouth has become. Whether it’s faulty product reviews, hidden fees or a lack of customer service, over 88% of respondents said that a negative review on social media would change their mind about a purchase. And it doesn’t stop there. Over 73% of respondents said they would leave a negative review to save other consumers from a negative experience. Brands need to actively review posts on their pages, react to any negative reviews and rectify any problems ASAP. Or else lost sales could be in their future.


We’ve all heard how viewership of standard TV is down. The Academy Awards, the Super Bowl and more have experienced a decline in the last few years. Younger generations are moving farther and farther away from traditional TV, watching 13% less year over year. Instead, Millennials and GenZ are watching their content online, with the main winner being social media. Marketers who have not yet shifted their focus to social need to do so now, otherwise you’re wasting your money.


On their latest earnings call, Amazon gave its clearest indication that advertising could become a “meaningful part of the business” in the near future. If this is true, it’s increasingly important for marketers to understand the Amazon ecosystem and start thinking how advertising and SEO could become a part of the mix. Brick and mortar stores continue to see a decline, with ‘showrooming’ becoming an increasingly popular trend. Advertising on Amazon offers brands a platform to sell their products right next to check out. Nothing that Amazon does is small, and this is a difference that could set them apart from other social channels in a big way. Even Facebook doesn’t offer a fully integrated advertising and purchase experience—although they are trying to bring the QR code back for in-store rewards.


Facebook may be the biggest of all social networks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t newbies on the social media block that deserve attention. We like hearing about the up and coming social networks fighting for our attention, and the newest additions to the social media landscape have some pretty compelling offerings. From lip-syncing fun on to Lego’s truly safe social network for kids, there are quite a few new players that are worthy of a second look. At least until Facebook buys or copies them.


Understanding how to use social media responsibly and staying in compliance with federal and state laws and regulations is critical to your brand—as well as maintaining credibility and trust with audiences. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has developed online training videos to help you implement successful social media campaigns and navigate FTC disclosures. Learn more about these online courses at WOMMA University. 

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2017-05-09 00:00:00
Opinion / Personalisation’s Promised Land

We’ve all been there. You are sitting in a meeting and a client says, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could present a tailored cross-sell offer to each of our customer segments on the homepage? You know, really personalise it?’

Everyone nods in agreement. It makes sense. Salespeople get excited by the possibility of meeting their aggressive sales targets. Marketers imagine tightening the grip they have on their customers by selling across multiple product lines. Tech says they can target the offer to a particular segment. Perhaps at this point, talk turns to how success will be measured and the possibilities of A/B testing various offers.

The overall tone of the room is a feeling of satisfaction that the company will be implementing a ‘personalised’ experience.

Who in the room, though, is asking whether the customer will be satisfied?

Targeted offers are just a ‘nod’ to personalisation

Personalisation is about more than just tailoring marketing messages in order to sell more stuff. That’s a typical business-first perspective that results in short term value. As CX pros, we need to approach personalisation from the customer’s perspective. Our job is to help them get done what they want to get done – and done in the way they want to do it. A truly personalised experience demonstrates empathy – less like the creepy result of data mining and more like a “bear hug” from an understanding and trusted friend.

So, where is the real potential for personalisation?

Think about the last time you upgraded your cell phone. What caused you to consider upgrading in the first place? Perhaps your phone was getting sluggish. It wasn’t broken, chipped, or cracked, and it was as feature-rich as you needed. But the last few times you updated the software you noticed a decline in speed that became frustrating.

What did you do next? Did you take it to a store to see if it was a software glitch that they could fix? Did you update your status on Facebook venting to your friends and asking for their advice? Did you turn to Google to troubleshoot the problem on your own? As your frustration grew, perhaps you started to browse phones and plans or access your mobile provider’s app to see if you could get an upgrade and what it would cost.

Did you do some of these things from your phone? Others from your tablet or laptop? And when and where did you do them?

At some point, all of these small moments added up. They helped you to make a decision and accomplish the “job” you wanted to get done: To have a faster cell phone.

But how well did the existing digital experiences keep up with your journey? As you jumped from activity to activity, did each step in your experience recognise the cumulative and evolving context across these actions? Did it serve up content that accurately predicted just what you needed next? Or were you left to manage this inventory of information, process it internally, and decide what you would do next on your own?

This is where UX can help

Right now, too many brands are asking their customers to bridge experience gaps. ‘Bear with us, and please muddle through this digital experience – we apologise for any inconvenience.’ That’s not the customer’s job. It’s yours. Especially if you work in UX. If you’re part of a UX design team with responsibility for digital platforms, you have the power to impact your customer’s journey for the better.

For personalisation to add value, we have to meet customers with the right content, at the right time, in the right place. Sounds easy. Until you start to unpack what it’ll take to deliver on such a mission.

Even Amazon, who is often referenced for its exemplary, personalised UX, repeatedly does things like re-target customers with baby toys, soothers and onesies because they once bought a diaper bag for a friend. Amazon lacks the full context in which the customer made the purchase. To customers, it becomes painfully clear that Amazon doesn’t really know them.

But imagine if Amazon identified it as a potential annual purchase and then sent a timely birthday email reminder on the anniversary – complete with a recommended gift based on age, sex and what others have bought and rated highly. Amazon could even pre-populate the delivery address of where you sent last year’s gift, removing one more thing you need to do.

One-click and done. That is a contextually-driven user experience. Personal, meaningful, easy.

Where to start

Ask yourself: what are you ready for? I don’t recommend putting your hopes into a slick vision of machine-learning-based personalisation on day one. It takes enormous amounts of investment, technical know-how, and organisational wherewithal to get to the personalisation promised land. You can get there, but be prepared to crawl before you run. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Break down internal silos and identify a cross-discipline team who can take responsibility for your personalisation efforts from strategy to implementation
Integrate disparate data sources for a single view of your customer at any moment in time
Evaluate your CMS to ensure it’s flexible enough to handle dynamic content
Evolve design systems to be more modular and component-based
Model your customer’s most important needs from a content and experience flow standpoint
Identify the moments that matter and the context that surrounds them; then use personalisation as a tool to improve them.
Final thoughts

We should all strive to create meaningfully personalised experiences that go far beyond targeted offers. These experiences need to identify and elevate the moments that matter through thoughtful personalisation.

Like a true friend, make your customers’ lives easier. Surprise them, delight them, and don’t be afraid to give them a bear hug. They may just hug you back. 

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2017-05-08 00:00:00
Headset, Ready, Go! VR is Here—Time for Brands to Catch Up

As a creative technologist at a digital agency, I have a lot of tech-related conversations with brand marketers. These days, a number of conversations turn to the topic of VR:

“When will it really make sense for us to start using VR?”

“How do VR experiences scale?”

And my favorite:

“Is it just hype?”

In other words—“Is VR for real, and what's holding it back?”

VR is real. Everything that digital brand marketers and agencies have been doing for years has taught us almost everything we need to know to make immersive VR experiences. And VR platforms, while nascent in maturity, are everywhere and waiting for you.

We have the knowledge and the tools, we just need to put them together.

VR hardware is already mass market

If you have a smartphone, you have a platform for VR. The quality of the experience depends on the computer in your pocket, or desktop, and the supporting hardware to enable the immersive environment.

At the entry-level we have affordable handheld devices like Google Cardboard—something you can fold together, like an industrial designer’s origami View Master. It’s not very interactive, but it’s cheap, and it works. VR for all.

Mid-tier devices, such as the Samsung Gear VR, Google Daydream, and the actual View Master, feature better optics and can add remote controls that give us a way to interact with the virtual environment good for a quick, more functional fix of a virtual world.

Currently on the high end are the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, each enabling a highly interactive, full-range of motion to room-scale experience. Requiring a traditional computer with a high-powered video card, these devices are expensive but amazing. With a price tag starting at $2,000 for the computer and the VR headset, they are not mass adoption platforms, but they are great for understanding the power of high quality VR.

I hasten to add that there are other platforms (e.g., PlayStation VR sold over 1 million units in its first 6 months), and more on the way. The options are on the shelf. VR ubiquity is here.

You Already Know What You Need to Know
If you want to create a VR experience, focus on two things: 1) tell a great, immersive story, which is something we already do, and 2) design for a variety of devices, which is something we also already do.

As for the variety of devices: Think of mobile-first design. Start with your most constrained platform, a mobile phone, and design a beautiful experience. As your devices get larger and more powerful—tablets and desktops—the designs become more complex and immersive. It’s what we call progressive enhancement, a process by which we define a baseline user experience we want the widest, most inclusive, audience to experience. Then we build on top of that experience, adding more features and enhancements as platforms allow.

So why stop with a 2D desktop experience? On the flip side, why feel that your brand story isn’t worth telling unless it's done in room-scale VR?

 Great options abound.

For Now, You Can Keep It Simple
WebVR is an emerging standard that provides virtual reality experiences inside of web browsers. Expanding on the idea of progressive enhancement, WebVR can progressively enhance a traditional digital experience based on the hardware you have available. Do you have a Google Cardboard or Daydream? Great, snap your phone in (right now) and watch the mobile experience in VR. Oculus or Vive? Try a (currently) experimental browser and see the future of the immersive web.

 That said, even the ability to control the experience can benefit from progressive enhancement. With hand held controllers, a beautiful passive experience becomes interactive.

Next, You Can Get Social
Web browsing experiences aren’t the only way that brands will be able to use VR at scale. Social VR is coming. In fact, Facebook has placed a $2 billion bet on social VR by purchasing Oculus and furthered its inroads with the beta release of Facebook Spaces. Google is all in on VR being a scalable platform, and Google looks for things that scales to billions of users. The question isn’t will VR be adopted by the masses, the question is when. Price for a quality experience is the biggest problem now. The high-end hardware is already there in quality. When the quality of the Oculus and Vive experience can fit on your phone we will see mass adoption. And that’s just a matter of time.

But Always, Be an Amazing Storyteller
While the hardware and software to create immersive experiences are ready now, figuring out the storytelling angle is paramount. A 360-degree live action video is an inherently different experience than an interactive computer-generated environment that allows you to move about freely. For truly interactive experiences in VR, experience design is going to start to blend into game design. Game designers have been creating immersive worlds for decades, from text adventures to incredibly massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. This is a talent gap agencies will need to bridge.

VR is ready for brands to start telling stories that take advantage of the medium. If you don't feel ready, it's because you just don't realize how ready you already are. 

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2017-05-03 00:00:00
Is It AI or BS? Here's Why the Answer Doesn't Matter

A recent article in Ad Age argues that, for some marketers and product developers, AI's buzz-worthiness may be more enticing than the functionality of the tech at hand. The author rehashes a number of complaints from within the industry: machine learning erroneously gets called "AI"; companies use AI technologies without understanding them; marketers and product developers are riding a wave of AI hype to fuel the promotion of AI-powered products.

Fair enough. But there's a sunny side to the hype. In fact, hype is a good thing.

What's in a name?

Terms such as "machine learning," "neural networks" and "natural language understanding" (among others) may not be as sexy as "AI," but does that really matter? Is it really detrimental to have a term that can be used to describe a complex set of technologies in order for them to be better understood and ... gulp ... marketed?
I say no. Having a term that acts as a categorical signpost of a family of technologies is enormously helpful because, over the long term, it helps promote understanding and adoption of technologies that have the potential to change the world.

A prime example is the term "internet." This single name belies the rather large and complex set of technologies that work together to create our understanding of what the internet is. But over time, "internet" came to stand for sum total of our digital connectivity, and we all wanted to be involved with it. Right now, a number of platforms and technologies are finding their way to market thanks, in part, to the iconographic aura surrounding "AI." The internet was hyped. And now, so is AI.
What's really worth getting hyped about?

The technologies that make up AI have advanced to a point where they have come out of academia to become accessible to more people. In other words, the barrier to entry is low -- lower than most people realize -- and will continue to decrease over time. And that's exciting.

The code required to support the creation of neural networks need not be written from scratch. Advanced computer science degrees are no longer required. For example, you can download TensorFlow, an open source machine learning toolset, from Google, and focus only on the problem at hand, the neural network itself.  

The result? Advanced technology is wielded by more hands and is used in more and more creative and interesting ways. I'm the first to stand in awe of the computer scientists and academics who create and advance the technological foundations of AI, but I also stand in awe of the creative visionaries who can find ingenious uses for new technologies. When different kinds of brilliant minds can advance the way a technology can be used, we get more products and solutions.

Which leads to innovation.

Which then leads to hype. Healthy hype.
It also doesn't hurt that these technologies are actually proving to be useful and have started to have a massive impact in our lives (e.g., if you've used Siri, or searched for something on Google today).
In other words, they have real purpose, which actually is the fundamental issue we should be thinking -- and getting hyped -- about. Technology used for technology's sake rarely works or sticks around very long.

It must have a purpose and value.

It must improve a customer pain point, or enable new business models and products.

If you can't clearly see the purpose of a particular AI-driven technology -- if you can't answer the question, "What problem are we solving?" -- then AI may not be what you need. But people are indeed asking those questions, because AI is inspiring creative minds, providing fundamentally different ways to approach problem solving. It's sparking wonder and innovation. That can't be a bad thing.

I, for one, can't wait to see how these technologies will evolve, and what innovations they will spur. And if a few companies decide to use AI as a marketing and product strategy, so be it. The market itself will filter out the empty hype eventually. It always has. 

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2017-05-01 00:00:00
Critical Mass invests in mobile agency Prolific Interactive

Omnicom digital agency Critical Mass has bought a minority stake in Prolific Interactive, a Brooklyn-based mobile design and strategy agency that develops apps for clients like American Express, Saks Fifth Avenue, SoulCycle, David's Bridal and Sephora.

Prolific will continue to operate as a stand-alone brand but will be known as a Critical Mass agency, joining the Zócalo Group in Chicago and Hangar in Costa Rica. The company has grown to more than 100 employees since its 2009 founding. CEO and co-founder Bobak Emamian will continue in that role.

"There’s a real complementary nature to the way Prolific approaches things and ours," said Dianne Wilkins, CEO of Critical Mass, which is part of the DAS Group of Companies. "We’ve certainly grown up as a services agency. The process and mindset they have is quite different. We’re really hoping we can learn from and inject some of the product development speed and speed-to-innovation within Critical Mass."

As for Prolific, the company was growing beyond its startup phase, and Emamian and his colleagues were beginning to ponder their next steps. "We hit this point personally and professionally where we soul-searched," said the 29-year-old Emamian. "What do we really want? Who are we? To operate with intent was absolutely crucial."

In the end, the resources and experience of an established partner won them over. "The opportunity that we have with Critical Mass and Omnicom is something that gives us the biggest opportunity and legacy over time," he said. And it will be easier to answer clients’ questions about investors and ownership stakes. "We’re definitely excited to not have to brush that off anymore," he added.

The cultures of the two agencies are also a good match. "When you meet Di and her team, that’s the way we’ve built the business so far—surrounding ourselves with genuine, incredible people who are so generous with their advice and time," Emamian said.

"They feel like us a few years back." Wilkins said. "Super-high value on culture and the agency’s culture and being a great place to work, the ability to help clients and produce great work."

Since its founding in 1996, Critical Mass has grown from a single shop in Calgary, Canada to 12 locations worldwide, and the Prolific team is eager to tap into that knowledge base. Prolific opened their first expansion office in San Francisco shop three-and-a-half years ago, and the process was more difficult than expected. "Critical Mass is super ambitious in terms of opening new offices," Emamian said, "so we’re excited to learn from Di and the team about the best ways to do that."

Read more at 

2016-12-14 00:00:00
The Betamax Generation Have Gone Digital and Here’s How to Design for Them Imagine an implacably vexed grannie. She’s squints over her bifocals at a mobile phone and then hands it to her grandson in desperation and disgust.

That’s a common stereotype in our youth-obsessed marketing world. And it doesn’t exist anymore.

People over the age of 50 are embracing digital—in fact, 84% of people over the age of 65 would miss the Internet if it was not part of their daily life. Older people are shopping (77%), socializing (58 minutes daily), gaming (7.4 hours weekly) banking (80%) and living online.

They’re relatively wealthy, too. How wealthy? In the UK, over-50’s have 80% of the wealth. They purchase 65% of new cars, 68% of cosmetics, and 70% of luxury travel. They also drive 40% of Internet traffic, and are projected to drive 50% of the growth in consumer industries over the next 15 years. Yes, 50%.

So over-50’s are the most valuable segment in the history of marketing—and yet, they’re the most ignored. Only 10% of marketing budgets are directed to them. Yes, 10%.

They deserve closer attention.

To that end, we surveyed 500 over-50s and interviewed an additional 20 of them. Our hope was to get a clearer picture of what they want from digital, and what they don’t want. Here’s some of what we found:

Be an Authority, and Build Trust

Over-50’s differ from their younger counterparts in a number of ways, but none so much as their perception of authority. Younger internet users go online because they feel like they’re missing something when offline. “Boomers” on the other hand, care less about missing out (21% less, to be exact). Instead, they want substance. Older users engage with brands who can provide authoritative information on products and industries—someone who can answer questions.

Make it Safe

Older users also crave security. Among the people we surveyed, we found a direct correlation between perceived security and rates of adoption. Or as one person put it: “Guarantee my security, and if you can’t, no business.”

Go Big on Mobile

Squashing your desktop site into a tiny device is not going to cut it. Mobile is wonderfully convenient, but the small screen is not a plus for older users. “I embrace some [mobile experiences], but due to a small screen size on my phone, I usually prefer to use my laptop.” Whatever you design for mobile had better be simple and clear.

Don’t Bombard Them

Relevant content will bring increased engagement. Likewise, don’t spam your over-55 customer, who would quickly tell you, “don’t flood my box with unrelated emails,” if given the chance. Older folks have seen every form of junk mail in history. Be the hero that ends it once and for all.

Be Human

Don’t just throw information at your over-55 customer—especially on digital. Guide them. Help them get to the answer they need. And if there’s a problem, talk to them. Exactly half of them prefer call centers, and roughly a quarter will settle for chat.

Above all, Be Simple

There’s nothing we can say that this man hasn’t said: “If it’s not simple or easy to use then I’ll piss off. I have little patience.” Bravo, sir.

Article by Alistair Millen, Strategy Director & Shey Colbey, Director of User Experience at Critical Mass 


2016-12-06 00:00:00
7 predictions for voice and AI in 2017

Unlike every other hot topic from 2016, voice interaction and AI does not bore me. I hope you feel the same, because we’ll be hearing even more about them in 2017. Here’s what we should keep our eyes (and ears) on. 

1. Standards emerge
As standards and intuitive features emerge, and digital designers everywhere recognize how momentous that is, voice interactions will improve greatly. The set of definitions and models we create for voice interaction with assistants like Alexa and Siri today will influence the shape of things for a long time to come. For an analogy, think back across the models of interaction that caught on over the past 20 years — how we browse the web, or the common icons, forms, and gesture styles we use across the app market. Standards for how we interact with voice assistants will emerge in the same way.

2. Voice-activated AI encroaches on Google search dominance
Voice interaction experiences represent a small window of opportunity for competitors to loosen Google’s stranglehold on the search market. For the most part, voice interaction remains an exercise in precision and contextual search results. Even though it’s still a “best algorithm wins” game, all algorithms are pretty good now. Just as everyone got hooked on Googling for information, they could easily get hooked into a new interaction habit with a voice assistant that isn’t powered by Google. In fact, Microsoft’s Bing currently sits behind Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, and of course, Cortana. I’m personally not betting that Google gets unseated  —  they are running hard at this space  — but again, it’s a window of opportunity. I wouldn’t be surprised if new entrants steal coveted user loyalty.

3. They give parental advice
Are you, or have you ever been, a new parent? If not, let me bring you up to speed: New moms and dads have their hands full. Literally. The conditions for voice interactions are perfect in a home with young children . In addition to being able to give your child a bath or cook a meal without interruption, every parent can tell you that if you try to stay connected with your mobile phone in proximity to a young child, the phone will be ripped from your hands, used as a teething toy, and then flung across the room at the cat. And it turns out phones are expensive to replace. Want to know how to improve your voice efforts? Talk to new parents.

4. AirPods help you communicate with the AI
I think Apple sees AirPods as something akin to Google Glass, but with less risk of negative social bias. AirPods, which have been called a computer for your ears, present an always-on, always at-the-ready opportunity for personal connection to content. Apple is simply placing a first bet on a nonvisual connection  — at least until optical wearable technology matures. In 2017, we will see this new product become more and more useful as an interface to AI assistance.

5. Brand personalities go multi-platform
If Max Headroom were around today, he’d be impressed by what’s to come in 2017. The closer voice interactions and AI get to natural language conversations, the more we can apply personality traits to our virtual agents. It’s important to craft unique personalities and a tone of voice that aligns with a core brand  — or potentially introduce a new character for a brand that can shift perceptions or attract a new audience. In either case, look for these new personalities to make their debuts through voice in 2017, but more importantly, look for them to take hold across multiple channels, platforms, and apps. In the very near future we will see a new TV brand character that was originally born out of a digital voice experience.

6. Hardware peripheral support emerges
Siri now works with multiple apps. It’s a clear reminder that we’re heading to a voice-enabled future. The only issue is that many of those products were not engineered with listening and speaking in mind. The quality and ability of the microphone in most multi-use devices can’t keep up with purpose-built ones such as the beloved Amazon Echo and Google Home speaker. We will continue to see PC devices that have voice interaction software capabilities, but imperfect hardware out of the box. I expect to see Apple launch purpose-built peripherals as well.

7. Your CMS starts to listen to you
It may be the last thing many people think of, but it will be one of the first things companies notice. The current state of major website content management systems (CMS) and digital asset management (DAM) is about to fall woefully short of consumer demands, because companies are still building infrastructure around text, forms, and image assets. Many companies have not prepared themselves for the next 3 to 5 years, and, as they begin to look into delivering voice-enabled experiences in 2017, the gaps will begin to appear. That won’t do. Companies need to start building for the very near future if they want to deliver product-related audio content across new sets of channels and interactions. Now that the CMS has become the hub of the content marketing cloud, it must evolve to facilitate voice interaction — just as it evolved to syndicate content across channels. 

This article first appeared on VentureBeat

2016-12-02 00:00:00
CM Ranked an Elite Agency in The Drum’s Digital Census The Drum’s Digital Census, conducted in partnership with Results International and Merit, outlines the performance of digital agencies across the UK.

Here, you can find a snapshot of the census results, grouped by staff size, with a separate ranking for media agencies. 

Read more here

2016-11-29 00:00:00
Marriott Hotels and CM Launch a New Digital Travel Magazine

When Arne Sorenson became Marriott’s CEO in 2012, he shifted the brand strategy to target next-gen travelers. A year later, the hotel giant created a website built for millennials,, and now Marriott is evolving that site into a digital magazine of the same name.

"Travel Brilliantly is something that millennials may not think of instinctively" when thinking about Marriott, said Michael Dail, vice president of global brand marketing for Marriott Hotels at Marriott International. "The whole mission of the brand is around our guests being innovative, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. Our role is to help them on their journey."

The site will feature long-form quarterly content that aims to give readers insight on travel through an editorial lens. "We’re not trying to be Buzzfeed; we’re not trying to always be on social content providers," said Dail. "We want to have a purpose and some thought leadership that’s appropriate for the brand."

In its inaugural edition, dubbed "The Curiosity Issue," readers will find interviews with Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as partner content from TED, art/tech company VSCO and female entrepreneurial firm Create & Cultivate. The brand partners will also host the content on their sites.

"This speaks to the creative class," said Jonathan Cohen, vice president of strategy and insights at Critical Mass. Tasked with creating a platform that would represent Marriott as a travel brand, not just a hotel chain, Critical Mass began by researching the content produced by the competition and found that there was much room for improvement. "Because we live in the digital age, everyone feels obligated to be always on and pumping out content," he said. "Finding good quality content was sometimes tough. Just the din of noise of travel-oriented content was extraordinary."

Travel Brilliantly originally began as a vehicle to showcase consumer-generated brand ideas, such as integrating local mixology scenes in hotel bars. The new site features a curated collection of thought pieces from partners like TED and influencer interviews. A sister site, Traveler, is made up of general interest stories from partners like Dail said Traveler and Travel Brilliantly will co-exist in an "organic relationship," as the newly launched magazine consists of long-form content and Traveler focuses on quick tips like the best bike routes in Barcelona.

Read more at 

2016-11-07 00:00:00
Life In The Time Of Everyday Cyborgs


It’s the early 80’s, and my family is visiting Southern California.

I’m on a soundstage at Universal Studios when a man in an orange jumpsuit pulls me from the crowd and asks if I’m ready to run 60 miles an hour, jump over a building, lift a truck, and save the day. “Are you ready to be The Six Million Dollar Man?”

I am so ready.

And thanks to the magic of late 70’s “special effects,” I ran sixty-miles-an-hour, jumped over a building, and picked up that truck… one-handed no less.

I was as close to real a cyborg as you could get.


Some thirty years later, I found myself in a room teeming with medical equipment, doctors and nurses assisting in the delivery of my son. After he was born, I registered the sudden quiet of the doctor, saw the subtle alarm of nurses, and heard the blood-freezing phrase, “Mr. Rickey, could you come over here for a moment? We need to talk.”

My pulse raced. My mind recalled every congenital malady I knew of—and then I saw the obvious. Much to my surprise, our bright, beautiful bundle of joy was short one ear.

We found out that he was born with a condition called Microtia Atresia / Hemifacial Microsomia. It’s a mouthful, but it means: small ear, no ear canal, and a short mandible on one side. Most people call it “microtia” for short.

A flood of emotions and questions hit me in that moment. But one question stood out above the rest. Can we rebuild him?


The answer was simple. Yes.

And this is where things get both interesting and agonizing. Rebuilding my son has involved the meeting place of astounding medical technologies and a question wracked with ethical quandaries and parental guilt: “Are we making the right decisions for the right reasons?”

Our first decision: how should we rebuild the ear itself? The long-standing method involves harvesting rib cartilage; it’s invasive and can’t be done until grade school. But then we learned about a newer option—a polyethylene plastic implant called Medpor that only requires day surgery and can be done before a child enters kindergarten.

We kept our sons ribs intact and embraced the new technology. A year ago he had an outer ear rebuilt using Medpor. The porous plastic framework allows vessels and skin to integrate with it—to become a living part of his body.

Plastic instead of cartilage. A being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. Our son is now a cyborg.

But that is far from the end of this story.

The benefit of the Medpor ear is socio-psychological, not functional. He has always had a working inner ear, but not an ear canal. Sounds have to be loud—really loud—for him to hear them in that ear.

This issue puts us on the precipice of determining the next step in his technological evolution.


Pause for a moment and consider how much our personal technology has changed in the five years since his birth.

He was born a year after the first iPad was launched. The same year the iPhone 4S was launched.

In that time we have seen the rise of wearables, and the Internet of Things, and a myriad of other devices that, thanks to progress in technologies like BlueTooth, Wi-Fi, miniaturization and more, have fundamentally changed our world.

The style of hearing aid we are exploring is different than the kind that most people are familiar with. My son has a functioning inner ear; he can process sound—the problem is that he has bone where most people have an ear canal, which means sounds can’t reach his ear-drum in the first place. Rather than an air-conduction hearing aid or cochlear implant, he requires a bone-attached hearing aid (BAHA).

Since the first US-approved use of BAHAs in 1997, the tech has progressed considerably. When it was new, the technology produced a result far inferior to normal hearing. Oh how things have changed.

Today, someone with a BAHA can far surpass people with ordinary hearing. Superhuman capabilities.

A BAHA can attach to a smartphone. It allows for adjustments in volume. You can play around with the treble and bass. You can save custom settings for certain locations. It can connect to microphones. Or link to a wide array of devices from televisions to wearable mikes. It remembers every place it’s been, and constantly creates a record of how the processor is working. The BAHA can advise your audiologist how it can be fine-tuned and personalized based on your behaviors.

Just as smartphones keep getting smarter, so do BAHAs. They learn.

And since sensors and processors are getting smaller and better by the day (and always have), you can bet that this tech will only get better as well. BAHA-users will continue to be able to hear more, and hear better, than the rest of us.

My wife and I have already made a decision to proceed in treating the hearing loss, and with good reason. Kids with microtia have a high rate of needing to repeat a grade thanks to struggles with hearing loss and self-confidence. The rebuilt ear will make him blend in, which helps where social development and self-confidence are concerned. And a BAHA hearing aid would dramatically increase his ability to hear in a classroom. He has the chance to hear what every other kid hears. In fact, he could have the chance to hear better than other kids.

But there was a catch. There’s always a catch.


There’s a routine conversation we have in our house that must seem crazy to anyone who doesn’t have a child with microtia.

We frequently debate the pros and cons of two methods by which we can permanently attach a BAHA to our son. One way involves driving a titanium screw into his skull and leaving part of that screw exposed to serve as an abutment for the hearing aid. Alternatively, we could opt for surgically lifting a portion of his scalp so that we can drill shallow wells into his skull that, in turn, will serve as placements for magnets that hold the processor in place.

It’s a perfectly sensible topic in light of the advantages that both procedures offer to his long-term development and chances at success. Of course, we’re talking about drilling into his skull…


As our skull-drilling debates suggest, becoming a cyborg isn’t without its invasive issues and some very difficult choices. Self-improvement and mutilation are eerily intertwined.

The recent 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil brought some of those issues to light when U.S. sprinter, David Prince—a unilateral amputee—vented: “Oh, to be bilateral.”

He was watching Greek runner Michail Seitis set a world record for his division in the men’s 400-meter final. Seitis came in sixth place out of eight runners—behind five double amputees.

Prince voiced his belief that prosthetics technology has advanced to the point that it’s better to be a double amputee than a single amputee—in track and field, at any rate. And he’s not alone in asserting that prosthetics have improved so significantly that they are beginning to confer an advantage on those who were previously considered “disabled.”

After Oscar Pistorius’s performance in the 2012 London Olympics (in the days before his legal notoriety), the International Association of Athletics Federations subtly changed the rulebook—rule 144.3(d) to be exact.

Long story short, the IAAF reversed a policy that forced officials to prove that “mechanical aid” gave an unfair benefit to athletes. Unlike four years ago, the burden of proof now rests with the athletes themselves: “[not allowable is] the use of any mechanical aid, unless the athlete can establish on the balance of probabilities that the use of an aid would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.”

This shift is a key reason why German Paralympic long-jumper Markus Rehm was not allowed to compete against the 2016 Olympic gold medalist American Jeff Henderson. He could not prove his blade prosthesis did not give him an advantage.

For context, Rehm’s personal best would have beaten Henderson by two centimeters. Who knows what he could do if he were bilateral?

Once upon a time, we had to pick up science fiction novels to encounter conflicts between humans and cyborgs. Now, we can leaf through the rulebook they use at the Olympics…


So here’s the question we are all going to be asking in the near future: How far will we go to embrace technologies that rebuild us? The technology is only getting better. Quickly. Everyday cyborgs already walk among us. And they have amazing abilities.

And as our population looks to address injury, illness, and the age-old dilemma of old-age itself, the ability to bring our abilities back (and then some) will alter our fundamental assumptions about our own bodies and each other. We’ll know blessings and burdens of superhumans intimately.

No “special effects” required.

Russ Rickey is a Strategy Director at Critical Mass. He’s spent the last sixteen years leading multidisciplinary teams on delivering strategic insight and creative experiences through understanding his clients’ needs, their customers’ wants, and the latest in industry trends. He also holds a PhD in Digital Writing and Performance Theory from the University of Calgary. 

2016-11-02 00:00:00
CM Pine-Sol work featured as AdWeek’s Ad of The Day

Most folks won't be floored by these brief, humorous Pine-Sol vignettes. But that's probably OK with the venerable brand, which just wants to tell viewers that its grease- and stain-fighting action works on lots of household stuff, not just floors.
Running as YouTube pre-rolls geared to the site's most popular searches—from "funny cat videos" to "makeup tutorials"—each ad opens by explaining something the product can't do.
For example, in the clip below, will Kitty leap onto the table or the countertop? Pine-Sol concedes it hasn't got a clue. But it has got the right stuff to make either surface shine:

Heh, Mr. Boddington's all like, "I'm stock footage—meow!" Using stock exclusively allowed Pine-Sol to keep the costs low across 19 videos.
"The work was designed to resonate with the audience by meeting them where they are, and talking about the things they're talking about—literally," says Stefan Smith, senior copywriter at Critical Mass, which developed the campaign. "Our target is too clever and focused to watch something they don't connect with right away, and Pine-Sol isn't something they are naturally enthused about."
BrandShare Content

What Brands Like Hershey, Mrs. Meyer’s and Cuisinart Know About Customer Experience
C'mon, dude, who isn't enthused about Pine-Sol? (Maybe they'll put you on a car account next time.)
Oh, and the tagline changes to fit each ad. "Pine-Sol. We're not cats" serves Mr. B. well enough, but aspiring rockers get a different slogan:

Wow, "We don't rock" shows admirable self-awareness, Pine-Sol! Kidding, of course. You absolutely rock—as much as any household cleaner can.
"By tying into the thing they're actually looking for, we've got a way better chance of getting the viewer to watch our ad and consider our message," Smith says. "It doesn't seem so random, as so much pre-roll does. It might even be a little surprising or uncanny, making them wonder how we did it."
Does this qualify as Cannes-conquering comedy? No. That said, the best ads of the bunch are amusing absurd. This next one deals with dating, and as it turns out, this particular scenario sparked an animated discussion among the creative team:

"We end the video with 'Pine-Sol. We don't date.' Which is obviously true. A bottle of Pine-Sol has never dated anyone or anything," Smith says. "But originally we wanted to say 'Pine-Sol. We're lonely.' Which consistently had us laughing out loud. But then we had to be our own buzzkill, because a bottle of Pine-Sol doesn't ever feel lonely. And we argued over that point for hours. There's still a bit of schism in the office. There's a good chance the argument may come back up at the Christmas party." 

2016-09-23 00:00:00
Create Culture, Don't Just React To It One of the most memorable lessons on “brand culture” I ever received didn’t come from an article, or a textbook, or an all-night strategy session. No, it happened very unexpectedly—on a day I stepped into Ralph Lauren’s flagship store on Madison Avenue to find a gift for a friend.

I remember thinking that the store’s entryway oozed that classic Ralph Lauren style, mirroring the essence of the fashion staples that lay within. But for all the on-brand architecture and pitch-perfect decoration, something else stood out. The antique merchandise counter cases at the front of the store held dozens of vintage watches from brands other than Ralph Lauren!

The insightful Ralph Lauren team recognized that classic Americana exists in many forms, in many coveted products—even those without the vaunted Ralph Lauren name. They were holding up other brands in order to broaden the reach and substance of their own culture. Sure, you could buy a new Ralph Lauren watch at the store, but the look you’re going for might be best supported by a vintage Hamilton military-issued watch.

Many brands co-opt culture, but truly great brands create it. They add words to the culture’s lexicon. They establish rituals. They champion cultural exemplars and even instigate fights with other brands that don’t align with their ideas, their culture, or their cultural values. Above all, brands that actively create culture wield an outsized influence in their category and beyond.

The good news is that all brands have an opportunity to look beyond short-term sales to support the long-term health of their culture—a deeply meaningful way to create lasting business and brand equity.

And there are myriad ways brands can stake a successful claim for cultural influence (other than showcasing competitors’ wristwatches). Hosting events, for example. Lululemon offers free yoga classes in public parks throughout the world. This “gift of yoga” brings like-minded people together—people who will likely end up buying Lululemon’s clothes and pushing yoga further into the community.

Brands can also pony-up some money to further their cultural growth. One of my favorite examples comes from Burton Snowboards. In December 2007, Burton announced their Sabotage Stupidity campaign. A bit of background: there are four ski resorts in the US that don’t allow snowboarding (to snowboarders, this is stupidity worth sabotaging). Burton offered $5,000 in cold hard cash for the best video documentation of a successful poach of these resorts. The effort was part of Burton’s “open minds, open mountains” campaign to open more areas to snowboarding. What the campaign really did was seal Burton’s place in a fickle counterculture—a counterculture that would readily abandon a brand that didn’t align with their inherent values.

Another inspiring example?—Converse’s backing of a music culture icon. When London’s legendary 100 Club announced it was struggling to stay afloat and intended to shutter its doors, Converse, who has consistently supported efforts in the music space, stepped up and signed a deal with the club that would keep it open for future generations and fans of independent music. And because Converse truly “gets it,” they didn’t swoop in and insist the club be renamed or colonized by the Converse brand. Sometimes all a culture needs is a visionary and benevolent benefactor.

In the case of our own work with Nissan, we created an app called Diehard Fan that lets fans of U.S. college football show their team pride by virtually applying thousands of extremely life-like facepaint designs to a selfie photo. The adoption was so widespread we’re now expanding the app to cover other sports across the globe. The takeaway is that the Diehard Fan app helped diehard fanatics become more fanatical and participate in a culture they love.

So the question is, what can your brand do? If you have a physical presence, this opens an entire canvas of creative opportunity. Ask yourself, “What happens to the space after hours? Who in our community might be able to benefit from access to square footage?” Or, as in the case of Ralph Lauren, what products, outside of your own, make sense to merchandise and share with the culture?

Territories to explore:

Offer a platform for the community to connect – does your customer base have the best tools to connect? What else can you offer or fund?
Curate and share ideas that you feel support the culture – what are you publishing on the topic?
What technology does the culture need to thrive? What can your brand provide access to?
How can your brand help entertain or educate the community?
What partnerships or alliances can you create to make the culture even stronger? Could you put differences aside and partner with a competitor?
If your brand can go beyond merely co-opting culture and start creating it instead, you’ll find that the community will suddenly find themselves with a new set of rituals, experiences, and legends that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. 

2016-08-01 00:00:00
Conor Brady on The Value of Marginal Gains What makes a great bike? The basic design hasn’t changed much in a century. The "double triangle" of the frame still strings together two wheels. In truth, a bike is a collection of brands and functional components that work together in a specific way, united by a basic idea. When they work beautifully together, you get a really great cycling experience — a "great bike."

The parts work beautifully together because each individual component gets slightly fine-tuned, year after year after year. Scan the history books and you’ll see there have been some grand gestures at changing the fundamental design, but they rarely stick — slow, steady, incremental improvements have gotten us to where we are today.

This kind of evolution is called "marginal gains."

Marginal Gains is also a great way for normal humans to achieve superhuman feats. It’s how Sir Dave Brailsford led the British Track Cycling team to Olympic glory in 2008. Brailsford took a team of good riders, not amazing riders, and won 70% of the gold medals — something no one had ever done.

His secret? Over four years, Brailsford extracted small, 1% improvements in every single aspect of the riders’ performance: mental preparation, physical preparation, training plans, nutrition, bike position, the weight of the tires, the shape of the chain rings, even the pillows they slept on.

He called his revolutionary training philosophy "The Aggregation Of Marginal Gains." It changed cycling forever. And it’s catching on elsewhere — in other sports, in education, and in any place where "improvement" is the name of the game.

Now, you'd think the world of brand marketing would be quick to catch on — but there's a problem. Creatives and designers of all stripes are scarcely able to tap into the power of marginal gains, and the brands and businesses they work for are missing out as a result. The reason? Transformational change is often credited to a defining decision or moment.

In contrast, a 1% philosophy is barely noticeable. And we live in a time where impatience and skepticism demand immediate, impressive results, especially in digital design. A marginal gains approach takes time.

There are other barriers, too. Disposability, for instance. "Design" itself often gets churned out fast and tossed aside — something immediately useful but quickly replaced in search of change. There is no "double triangle" to hold up our iterative improvements over time.

Our process (i.e., methodology) can be another barrier. We idealize an "agile" way of working and "getting it built at speed." While agile has a lot of similarities to marginal gains, it’s ultimately about a single delivery, with a single deadline.

Marginal gains works differently when applied to experience design. It’s about breaking an experience down to a series of components and applying time and patience to make each part, and thus the whole, best-in-class. It’s about a long-term investment. It’s about lasting partnerships and working toward a shared, long-term goal.

And it’s about time we did more of it.

If marginal gains contradicts the pressures and business-as-usual of the marketing industry (especially its digital territories), then how do we convince our clients to invest in an agency, not a single "project" or an idea? Will they buy a series of small wins that will eventually compound to the big win for the brand over time?

The answer is yes, but the change needs to begin with us — the designers.

To begin with, we can stop contributing to a myopic status quo. We can stop rushing to the biggest quick win possible to prove our value, and we can stop grasping for the "grenade" to blow up extant design and start again.

Instead, we can start imagining a foundation of design that we can iterate upon week over week, month over month. And we can start scoping differently, staffing differently, thinking differently. We can lean into the fact that a marginal-gains approach can be a driver of true collaboration between brands and design agencies. It represents a chance to start a dialogue about investing in a true partnership and a longer path to results, with the brand itself as the ultimate product.

For us, redesigning the process should be as important as the design. And the payoff will be huge. Besides, tiny 1% improvements might get you to great things faster than you think.

Read more at 

2016-07-20 00:00:00
Critical Mass Opens Award Season with Accolades from D&AD, New York Festivals, The Webby Awards, and the Effies Critical Mass, a global digital experience design agency, started this year’s award season with accolades from D&AD, New York Festivals, The Webby Awards, and Effie Worldwide.  

The Webby Awards honored Critical Mass for “Sweeper,” a physical and digital installation they designed on behalf of United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS).  UNMAS and Critical Mass created an iBeacon-powered virtual minefield to make it possible for New Yorkers to experience the fear millions live with every day. The installation was so successful that it's now a permanent exhibit at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. “Sweeper” earned a Webby in the highly competitive category of Mobile Sites & Apps, Events. Nominees for the category included TEDConnect by TED Conferences, and SXSW Go Official Mobile Guide by Eventbase.

D&AD and New York Festivals have recognized Critical Mass’s “Diehard Fan” app (designed for Nissan North America). Diehard is an augmented reality face paint app. It combines the time-tested fan tradition of face painting in team colors with innovative technology and facial mapping to deliver a fun, sharable way for people to actively engage with college sports and Nissan.

D&AD awarded ‘Diehard Fan’ with a Wood Pencil in the Digital Design, Apps category.  New York Festivals awarded ‘Diehard Fan’ two Finalist Awards in the Mobile and Media categories.

Critical Mass is also nominated for an Effie for work on behalf of SAP, “Run Simple,” in the Business-to-Business category.  The North American Effie Awards will be announced on Thursday, June 2nd.

2016’s creative accolades bolster the agency’s credentials. Earlier this year, Advertising Age named Critical Mass an ‘Agency to Watch’ in 2016, citing a new business winning streak, an expansion of services, and a growing global footprint. The Warc 100 listed Critical Mass as the 3rd best digital/specialist agency in the world, and Gartner listed Critical Mass as an “Agency to Watch” in the annual Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Marketing Agencies, citing “the firm’s high-quality work, as well as the insight of its strategists, creative/ UX professionals, technologists, and program managers.”

2016-05-24 00:00:00
Advertising Age Names Critical Mass as an Agency to Watch Critical Mass has been churning out high-tech digital and user-experience work for clients for many years. But in 2015, the agency made moves that would help it stand out in a crowded marketplace. 

2016-02-02 00:00:00
Critical Mass Begins Operations in São Paulo in Partnership with Grupo in Press Critical Mass, the Calgary-based digital agency, will open an office in Sao Paolo, Brazil, next week, continuing its rapid global expansion. More here: 

2015-11-24 00:00:00
Critical Mass Takes Home Two Digital Alberta Awards CM was awarded two Digital Alberta Awards! Nissan Meet the Machines won for Best Microsite, and Travel Alberta Living Photos won for Best Display Ad or Campaign. 

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business-building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-10-14 00:00:00
CM Wins Prestigious Jay Chiat Award Critical Mass has won a bronze 4A’s Jay Chiat Award for Strategic Excellence in the Non Profit category for UNMAS Sweeper. 

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business-building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-10-14 00:00:00
Critical Mass Wins at MMA and OMMA Fresh off a sweep at last week’s W3 awards, Critical Mass had a huge night on the awards front. We are proud to announce that we took home an OMMA award in the Banner: Standard/Flash/Rich Media category for our “Living Photos” work for Travel Alberta.

“For the last 11 years, MediaPost’s OMMA Awards honor agencies and advertisers that push the potential of digital advertising. We congratulate Critical Mass and their “Living Photos” campaign for Travel Alberta, a perfect example of what the OMMA Awards stand for.” –Laura Daly, Director of Communications, MediaPost

Meanwhile, across town (in NYC), some more great news came out way. We took home Silver for our Sweeper work at the Smarties, a global competition held by the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA). The MMA Smarties Awards is the world’s only global mobile marketing awards program honoring innovation, creativity, and success. 

2015-10-01 00:00:00
Critical Mass Named Elite Digital Agency Critical Mass is featured in the Drum’s Digital Census and is ranked 11th in their Elite UK Digital Agency review. 

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business-building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-09-21 00:00:00
Critical Mass to Partner with Quinnipiac University on Digital Transformation Quinnipiac University hired Global digital experience design agency, Critical Mass, to deliver a new experience that exemplifies the university’s commitment to excellence while serving its audiences through simple and intuitive interactions across devices. In addition, the partnership includes a major platform consolidation (Adobe Experience Manager).

Quinnipiac consistently ranks among the top regional universities in the North in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” issue and, in 2014, was named top up-and‐coming school with master’s programs in the Northern Region. Quinnipiac also is recognized in Princeton Review’s “The Best 380 Colleges.”

The announcement follows Keith Rhodes joining the University as Vice President, Brand Strategy and Integrated Communications in March 2014. Rhodes joined Quinnipiac following 20+ years in integrated marketing communications, most recently as SVP Group Director at Young & Rubicam Group of New York.

"We’re excited to work with Critical Mass given their demonstrated success in combining strategy, design and technology to deliver on business objectives,” said Rhodes. “We’ve spent the better part of the last year developing a multi-year marketing communications transformation strategy for the University and we’re looking forward to working with Critical Mass where we will seek inspiration outside of higher education in order to deliver a website that establishes a new standard for the industry.

“We’re honored by the opportunity to work with an institution as prestigious as Quinnipiac,” said Di Wilkins, CEO of Critical Mass. “We look forward to partnering on some very ambitious goals, and strengthening the university’s place at the forefront of digital.”

About Quinnipiac University

Quinnipiac is a private, coeducational, nonsectarian institution located 90 minutes north of New York City and two hours from Boston. The university enrolls 6,500 full-time undergraduate and 2,500 graduate students in 58 undergraduate and more than 20 graduate programs of study in its School of Business and Engineering, School of Communications, School of Education, School of Health Sciences, School of Law, Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine, School of Nursing and College of Arts and Sciences. Quinnipiac consistently ranks among the top regional universities in the North in U.S. News & World Report’s America’s “Best Colleges” issue. For more information, please visit Connect with Quinnipiac on Facebook at and follow Quinnipiac on Twitter @QuinnipiacU

About Critical Mass

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business-building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-09-16 00:00:00
CM Wins Three 2015 WebAwards The results of the Web Marketing Association's 2015 WebAwards are in and Critical Mass has won the following awards: for Advertising Standard of Excellence, Sunglass Hut for Fashion/Beauty Standard of Excellence and Nissan Meet the Machines for Outstanding Website. 

About Critical Mass

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-09-09 00:00:00
Critical Mass Hires John Cavacas As Vice President, Technology Global digital experience design agency, Critical Mass, announced today that John Cavacas has joined the agency as Vice President, Technology.

Most recently, John served as Head of Technology at Blast Radius, where he spent the past five years based in the agency’s offices in the Netherlands. In his new role, John will be based in Critical Mass’ Toronto office, and will report to Jon Toews, General Manager. John’s responsibilities will span all account teams and clients. He will also have a special focus on Business Development.

Prior to Blast Radius, John’s background includes roles at Wunderman, Idea Couture, Softchoice Corporation, and Sapiens amongst others. John has worked with global brands including NIVEA, Michelin, Starbucks, Novartis, Electronic Arts, Newell Rubbermaid, Bel Groupe, Onitsuka Tiger, Sony Pictures, Adidas, Ford, and Microsoft.

About Critical Mass

Critical Mass ( is a global experience design agency with a relentless focus on the customer. Founded in 1996, the agency has grown to 10 full-service offices operating across North America, Europe, Latin America and Asia. Its unwavering belief in delivering brilliant customer experiences has produced business building results for clients that include Citibank, Nissan, Clorox, Luxottica and many more. Critical Mass is a part of Diversified Agency Services, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. 

2015-08-31 00:00:00
Andrea Lennon Joins Critical Mass As GM For Asia Pacific Region Global digital experience design agency, Critical Mass, has announced that Andrea Lennon has joined the agency as General Manager for the Asia Pacific Region.

Andrea’s remit includes agency operations, leadership on existing client relationships and new business development throughout the region. She will be based in Critical Mass’ Singapore offices and will report to Critical Mass’ Chief Operating Offer, John McLaughlin.

Andrea joins Critical Mass from WPP, where she served as Executive Vice President, Consumer Brand Lead overseeing omni-channel brand communications initiatives for Bank of America.

Prior to WPP, Andrea worked as Group Account Director at R/GA where she lead a series of award-winning efforts as client lead for McCormick & Co., including a Cannes Lion for McCormick’s Flavorprint. Prior to R/GA, Andrea’s background includes engagements at T3, TBWA, and JWT working across verticals to enhance and extend the value of some of the world’s most recognized brands.

“Andrea’s appointment comes at a crucial time as Critical Mass’ global client relationships are rapidly expanding in the region,” said Dianne Wilkins, Chief Executive Officer of Critical Mass. “Her diverse background, expertise and success leading global accounts will be a major asset as we continue to develop our footprint in Asia.” 

2015-07-16 00:00:00
Critical Mass Promotes Pair to GCD Roles at Chicago Office Global digital experience design agency Critical Mass promoted Jeremy Hlinak and Amy Haiar to roles as group creative directors at the agency’s Chicago office, effective immediately. Both Hlinak and Haiar, who were formerly creative directors, will be among seven group creative directors at the agency globally, and will report to Julia Perry, senior vice president and general manager of Critical Mass Chicago and chief creative officer Conor Brady.

Haiar joined Critical Mass in 2009, following a two year stint at iCrossing as a creative director. Prior to that, she spent two years at as a senior art director and a year at Gams Group as an art director. Over the course of her career, she has worked with clients including Nike, United, HP, Vail Resorts, Starkist, Energizer and 3M.

Hlinak arrived at Critical Mass in March of 2007, following a brief stint interactive for Greenhouse Communications/Uncommon Thinking. Prior to that, he spent almost four years as an art director at Modern Luxry, which followed a two-year stint in the same role at UR Chicago. He has worked with clients including Budweiser, Harley-Davidson, Illinois Lottery, Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Association. 

2015-07-15 00:00:00