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Flowering on Freshness: Meet DDB North America’s Innovation and Experience Team


Christine Lane, Melissa Hochman, and Rock Darlington are DDB clients’ allies when it comes to bold, risky and unexpected work - LBB’s Addison Capper chats with them

Flowering on Freshness: Meet DDB North America’s Innovation and Experience Team

In March 2022 DDB North America announced the strengthening of its innovation and experience offering with three hires: head of experience Christine Lane, group director, experience Melissa Hochman, and group executive producer, experience Rock Darlington.

Responsible for designing novel, audience-forward marketing behaviour, the innovation and experience team’s work is the realisation of clients’ marketing and customer experience strategies. The aim and focus of Christine, Melissa and Rock is to create memorable experiences for audiences - ones that have the legs to be celebrated in mainstream media. The work might instigate change in a category, counter a problematic trend in culture, or amplify voices and trends worthy of greater awareness. 

To do this, Christine, Melissa and Rock ally with DDB North America clients to take bold and unexpected risks. Keen to find out more about how that works in the practice, and the trends that are most greatly impacting the type of work that they do, LBB’s Addison Capper sat down for a chat with the trio. 

LBB> Why does it make sense to have innovation and experience under one team? What is the crossover?

Christine> Our team mission is to build both brand and customer equity for our clients through experiences that combine storytelling and CX techniques. To do this in a way that’s attention-worthy often means we need to innovate our methods, creating something new, or in a new way, to capture value. As [DDB co-founder] Bill Bernbach said, “Advertising flowers on freshness.”

LBB> Why is having this centralised expertise so important within a creative agency like DDB NA?

Christine> Within DDB, we are all about borderless partnership and creative collaboration. Opportunities to create brand experiences can happen anywhere at any moment. Having a centralised team ensures every office in the region has resources available when they’re needed to help bring this work to life.

LBB> Can each of you outline your role within the team?

Christine> I’m responsible for defining the team’s capability and creating our strategic roadmap. I coordinate with the other agency departments, oversee the implementation of the team’s work, and spearhead client and community conversations about ways advertising continues to evolve. On top of this, I’m regularly rolling up my sleeves and designing special projects, helping craft how they’ll come to life.  

Melissa> I collaborate with brand and communications strategists on briefs to ensure there are thought starters, ways in, and opportunities to bring a brand’s purpose and mission to life in a way that directly involves the consumer and in a way that the press will want to talk about it. During the creative ideation process, I collaborate with experience and creative teams to strengthen the creative ideas to ensure the goals of fame, consumer participation, and brand purpose are delivered upon.

Rock> My role is to work with the experience and creative teams to help vet feasibility and formulate a production approach on how to make these ideas come to life. I outline the production process to clients so they understand how these ideas are executed and I also help produce and manage our production partners on the execution of the ideas. 

LBB> Each of you have quite singular expertise and roles - with that in mind, how do you work together?

Melissa> The unique combination of strategy, innovation and production experience has become a bit of a secret weapon throughout the creative process. The three of us frequently set up work sessions to troubleshoot a creative idea that’s got a few barriers to it. Using our collective brain power, we can come up with some solutions to not only keep an idea alive, but strengthen and scale it. We think about more ways to directly give the consumer a seat at the table, more ways to draw a tighter line from the brand’s promise to how an idea delivers on it, and we like to reimagine what working with a certain partner or client team might look like. Also, Rock usually has a subject matter expert, technical workaround or tweak up his sleeve that lets us ensure we deliver utility. 

Because we are so close, I can loop Rock in on the beginnings of a brief to make sure a way in is in the realm of possibility. It’s not a typical process in our industry for production to be looped in at the briefing stage - but being on the same team creates efficiencies to tap into these strengths whenever it’s warranted. And Christine’s got a superpower to deliver clarity, creative partnership, unique solutions, and an overall drive that’s valuable at every stage of the journey. 

LBB> How early in the process of a project with a client do you get involved? And how can that timing influence the final outcome?

Melissa> Our ideal process is to be there at the client briefing, not only to hear everything firsthand but to ask questions to better understand their business goals, how to leverage any existing opportunities or programs, and get the talk track around what they’re excited about or particularly proud of as it relates to the project. But we also come in when there’s an amazing creative idea that lends itself to something bigger, or a cultural moment that’s ripe for the brand to get involved in. For those situations, we jump in, have breakout sessions with the team, or develop a creative sprint to further fuel the ideation.

LBB> On top of getting into the nitty-gritty of the work, how important is it for you, and how much of your role is it, to keep your clients clued up on all of their opportunities with your tech and experience?

Christine> Conversations about innovation and experience with clients will always be ongoing. This type of work requires clients to create something the brand has never made before, to coordinate marketing efforts with other business units and take risks. It’s much easier to nod your head to these things in the abstract. Ultimately, it will come down to presenting the best case for a great idea when there is a brand need. This includes the rationale behind the specific concept and a reminder of why this type of work is critical for brand building.

LBB> This is almost the same question as before but how do you ensure that creatives are up to speed on what they can do in this space?

Rock> Today, more than ever, creatives are not only coming up with ideas but already come armed with their own research. There’s so much content and information at our disposal these days that during an afternoon, you can do research about how to apply a certain technology to solve a business problem - or you can figure out how to turn manufacturing waste into a sustainable fabric. 

I tell my mom that I get paid to be a professional Googler. I take what the creative team has already done research on and I use it as a jumping-off point, doing more extensive research, poking holes in the idea, and having discovery calls with partners and subject matter experts who we can gather information from to help us craft the ideas into a viable solution for our clients.

LBB> What is a recent positive example of where your team has impacted work for a client?

Melissa>  Our team partnered with the Coors Light team in Chicago on a project called Chillboards, which won a Cannes Lion in Outdoor and Industry Craft and was shortlisted for a Titanium. Coors Light’s brand promise is to deliver as much chill to consumers as its beer does. So we put advertisements on the rooftops of Miami apartments using a white coating that reflects 85% of sunlight and lowers the surface temperature by as much as 50 degrees [fahrenheit], making it more efficient to keep the inside of those apartments cool. These Chillboard ads brought the brand’s promise of chill to life in a way that meaningfully helps consumers, and it turned an outdoor media placement into a round-the-clock utility. We partnered with Miami’s ‘chief heat officer’ to ensure our Chillboards would do what we expected them to do… and let’s just say she wants more of them. 

We may or may not be working on that brief right now….

LBB> What have been some of your key observations from the last year that have really impacted the conversations you're having and the work you're doing with clients? 

Christine> While not new, a conversation related to innovation and experience that continued during 2022 was the level of trust that’s required between clients and agencies to create this work. Clients are used to seeing scripts and key visuals before giving approvals. On I+E projects, design is a funded phase that follows concept approval. This ensures agencies can collaborate with SMEs whose expertise will elevate the work. It requires a tremendous amount of trust by brands to approve a concept and refrain from designing it before it awards. 

LBB> What have been the biggest widespread changes in customer experience brought on by the pandemic?

Melissa> Seamless and immediate customer experiences are now table stakes. Products and services were reimagined for new environments and new pain points, and because the consumer need was urgent, real and widespread, our culture leapfrogged technological advancements that are now commonplace and widely adopted. Look at shoppable everything, multiple ways to receive deliveries, work from anywhere. Consumers expect there to be multiple, convenient options for how, where, and when they consume a product or interact with a brand. The pandemic also fuelled trends that were already bubbling to the surface, with customers holding brands accountable for not living up to their promises and not being inclusive. 

LBB> Covid saw a huge focus on e-commerce and a lot of companies paring back their physical footprint - what do you think the future holds for physical retail experiences?

Rock> I think a lot of retailers see the value of not tying themselves to long, expensive leases so that they can have five different brick-and-mortar stores in one town. I think more and more retailers will try to mimic the Amazon model and ship direct to consumers. 

Best Buy and Target both recently came out that they actually are building larger brick-and-mortar stores, but the extra square footage was put into the back rooms where they could handle more deliveries to fulfil same-day delivery orders directly from the store.

Brick-and-mortar shopping experience will always serve a purpose in communities though. Everyone knows that shopping for clothes online can be a frustrating process, especially if there’s no free shipping involved.

LBB> More generally, what are your predictions for 2023 in terms of innovation, experience and their use by brands?

Christine> As the internet has continued to evolve, we’ve gone from the democratisation of information to the democratisation of publishing, to now ownership with web3. Historically, brands have held brand assets close to their chest and agencies have fed this behaviour through work-for-hire contracts. I predict in the next year that we’ll see examples from some forward-thinking brands and agencies that explore the relationship and revenue value in shared IP.

Melissa> I think there’s going to be more creativity in commerce, with seamless shoppable integrations on every platform that cross over to brick-and-mortar. The blurring of channels will continue, because consumers don’t want to think about mobile sites vs. social vs. the IRL experience – they think of it as one experience and I think more brands will be able to catch up to this from a tech perspective… especially as you see the pendulum continue to swing from DTC back to big box retailers.

I also think there’s going to be a push towards equity when it comes to user-generated content and creators. More profit sharing, more demand to monetise influence that goes from transaction to equity… which will shape how partnerships and collaborations come to life. 

Rock> Web3 tech is clearly a hot topic amongst marketers and agencies alike. My prediction is that the metaverse will continue to see issues with adoption rates in the next year. 

It reminds me a lot of the first wave of AR experiences, where users had to download branded apps in order to experience them. Everyone saw the potential in the tech, but brands fell out of love with it as there were too many barriers of entry. AR went dark for many years until the tech caught up. AR started being implemented into apps you already were using (Snap, Facebook, Instagram) and with the introduction of WebAR, it finally eliminated the barrier of having to download a specific app to engage with a branded experience.

I find the metaverse in a similar situation. There’s definitely extraordinary potential for the future, but for the short term, there are too many metaverse options, the experience is way too technical for a mass audience, the desirable land is still really expensive and the graphics leave a lot to be desired from a 3D experience. Until Zuck’s vision of one metaverse is achieved, the barriers of entry remain a lot to overcome.


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DDB North America, Tue, 24 Jan 2023 14:57:07 GMT