"I believe that companies that know how to leverage challenging times to innovate - and innovate for good – are the ones that endure," said Jon Cook of VMLY&R. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Dubai: The world of digital was supposed to the last frontier for advertisers and brands to conquer.

Over the last decade, they had been getting the hang of connecting with consumers on all manner of digital and social media channels. The content was getting to be as creative as anything seen on any other medium from a non-digital past. And the best part was that the interaction with consumers was playing out in real-time.

And then came the Metaverse - an alternate-reality digital word that consumers, brands and advertisers would be shaping in the years to come. Are advertisers ready to make that leap? Would all that they picked up in the digital space work when it comes to the Metaverse?

Jon Cook, Global CEO at the advertising and marketing powerhouse VMLY&R, is hot-wired into what’s happening - and what could happen next.

Stock - Metaverse
The way the Metaverse is shaping, consumers worldwide will soon be spending a lot of time in these virtual reality spaces.

The Metaverse – do you think it’s more a distraction than anything at this stage for the ad industry?

For better agencies, I don’t think it will be a distraction. For agencies who have kept pace with technology and the application of story-telling for brand engagement through the internet, this is simply an evolution of new and exciting ways to engage. Honestly, the Metaverse has been around for many years.

Consumers have already been there in big numbers and have not waited for brands to be there. Even more in the last two years, people have flocked to virtual and gaming escapes such as Fortnite, Roblox, or Decentraland.

In fairness, many platforms in which consumers have experienced the Metaverse haven’t been ready for brands. But investments are being made to create better connected social experiences, bringing businesses closer to people in these new spaces. And I think brand integration will only accelerate in these environments.

What would all this mean for the consumer and advertiser?

The impact will be two-fold - richer experiences and cross-over of virtual into the physical world. The opportunity for us is that creative-minded people and businesses – such as ad agencies – will be instrumental in unlocking the potential that the Metaverse has.

I am personally very excited about the unique storytelling and connected experiences it will allow us to create for clients. I see that already coming through in some of our current work, such as the campaign we did for Green Peace, called Los Santos, and the work from our Berlin Cameron team for Under Armour, which released the world’s first cross-platform metaverse sneaker with in-game functionality.

Would you say that the pandemic created a situation where there is a digital overload?

The pandemic accelerated consumer trends we saw on the horizon back in 2020: digital and social commerce, hybrid reality, social community influence, and more. It is an inspiring time for businesses. Business success will be made and lost based on how much companies are willing to transform based on this acceleration. I am not sure consumers think about digital the same way we do in our industry. When people pick up their smartphone, they don’t think “I am having a digital experience”. They think, “I am calling a friend”.

To us, it’s always been about consumer behaviour. Better – and more – technology enables that behaviour, sure. But looking at behavioural insights first will never go out of style. If businesses keep their focus on people and create meaningful connected experiences by leveraging the right platforms and interfaces the physical, the digital and everything in between, I see no reason for any backlash.

"The value of an experience doesn’t come from it being digital or physical; it comes from how it makes people feel and act," said Cook. Image Credit: Anas Thacharpadikkal/Gulf News

Do you worry that with cost inflation likely to be the main theme this year, advertisers will have to be cautious with the global consumer?

I would contend brands need to focus on their long-term value, especially during periods of inflation. It will be imperative to showcase their value to consumers in meaningful ways, from product innovation to product performance.

Inflation will add chaos and fear. Like how savvy investors know how to make more money when the stock markets are down or in turmoil, there will be brands who make big moves and statements while others sit out the inflation chaos. The bold will win.

Under your watch, WPP and VMLY&R have been snapping up digital agencies – wasn’t digital advertising meant to be all niche-led?

As long as technologies, platforms and marketing services keep evolving, we will continue to evaluate acquisition opportunities. Digital capabilities are central to a fully connected consumer experience - so, we will always integrate this expertise into our offering and delivery for our client partners.

You won’t see us ever have standalone ‘digital’ agencies with VMLY&R. Before we merged VML & Y&R in 2018, I came from 23 years at VML. We found success by putting digital at our central core and DNA early on.

In that same era, most agencies make ‘interactive’ as a separate company down the hall or some sub-branded part of their organizations. We avoided that trap, and always will.

Have you completed all the consolidation efforts at the Middle East level?

We’ve been present in the UAE for more than 35 years, and our vision for the future truly aligns with the UAE vision of harnessing creativity, technology, and culture to create world-class connected experiences. We are currently bringing together three companies – VMLY&R, VMLY&R Commerce and The Partnership people. There’s great power in the capability of working closer and closer together. It allows us to pay off our ‘We Build Connected Brands’ promise even more.

We are lucky to have people like Nick Walsh, George Barsoum and Miguel Benfica leading our unified end-to-end offering from BX to CX with Commerce at the centre.

VMLY&R was Cannes Lions’ ‘Agency of the Decade Middle East & Africa in 2020’. Our ambitions are in line with that legacy…

If you were a betting man, would you say the ad world will end 2022 in the positive?

I am an optimistic person. Even with a realist outlook and mindful of the challenges in our world right now, I see 2022 as a year of extraordinary opportunity. And I believe that companies that know how to leverage challenging times to innovate - and innovate for good – are the ones that endure.

Apple’s initial supersonic growth happened during a recession because they doubled down on brand investment to drive commercial growth. I’m excited about 2022.