Marie Stafford is the European Director of the Innovation Group of J. Walter Thompson, one of the most important advertising agency in the world.  The Innovation Group provides advice to brands on the global trends; Is the internal think that looks to the future.  During the Heroes event, Marie Stafford  will hold a workshop on the birth of empathic technology, entitled “Machines with Heart“.  The Workshop topic will be the use of artificial intelligence to create chatbots and machines that can interact with us more and more naturally and empathically. But for now we asked her to give us an overview of the subject matter in the below interview.

How would you define innovation?

I would say it’s about continual improvement and problem solving: creating products that perform better; processes that run smoother; ideas that add tangible value to people’s lives. It’s also about keeping ahead of change and ensuring your company evolves to anticipate future consumer needs.

Read too: How to grow your business using Growth Hacking – Interview with Armin Zadakbar

 You have experience with working for worldwide brands. What are the main trends that are common to Western and Eastern societies?

A key trend is longevity, which is increasing in most parts of the world. By 2030, it’s estimated that 1 in 6 people on the planet will be over 60. People are living longer and more productive lives, staying active and maintaining a youthful outlook, but society has not really kept up. We should reconsider everything from social and workplace structures through to marketing and brand communications to address the needs as well as the opportunities of older populations.

Another common trend is wellness-seeking, expressed in more holistic approaches to health and in response to hectic, stressful lifestyles. The desire for better balance in most advanced societies is driven by our always-on, hyper-connected lives where we consume at the speed of now.

In fact, brands the world over are having to respond to an increasingly well-informed, networked consumer with spiralling expectations. Increasingly, today’s hard-to-please consumers want it all: hyper-personalised products; instant service and delivery; low prices and good quality, with whiter-than-white brand ethics and purpose thrown in.

Allied to this is the rise of individualism: people now want things to be uniquely tailored to them. What was once the preserve of the VIP, is increasingly expected as standard. Brands like Amazon and Spotify have helped to raise the bar here, while new, plentiful data streams are increasingly making personalisation possible.

And of course, advances in technology are most dramatically reshaping our world. Artificial intelligence is disrupting businesses, upending industries and the workplace and transforming our societies. We’re also seeing the meteoric rise of voice technology, an interface shift which is freeing consumers from the screen and enabling easier, more conversational interactions. JWT and Mindshare recently reported on this trend at Cannes Lions, in our 9 country study Speak Easy and what we found is that adoption is happening quickly, paving the way for technology that is more natural, intuitive, and human.

 The ability to foresee the future is indispensable to a startupper. How can a startupper improve his/her insight of the future?

It’s important to stay curious and to draw inspiration from the wider world, not just your own sector.  Having a helicopter view of the world prevents you getting siloed and can help you spot changes and patterns more easily. Disruption can come from anywhere, so keeping interests as broad as possible means you are less likely to be blindsided.

I’m lucky to live in London where there’s a continuous flow of events at which you can hear thought leaders and change makers air their views. But it’s increasingly easy to access content online as well. I use Twitter because you can keep up with influencers at a glance and follow up with more research if something sparks your interest. Podcasts are also a fantastic way to capitalise on dead time while travelling – there’s a wealth of tech and future-centric content out there.

Everyone follows TED I am sure, but you can also get fantastic in-depth coverage of some amazing global events which give a glimpse of the future like CES, SXSW or WebSummit. Many conference hosts now share keynotes for free on YouTube, but you can also find roundups of the best talks online.

Building personal networks is crucial too. Whether digital or face to face, making connections with like-minded individuals with whom you can share learnings and insights and discussion is incredibly helpful. The start-up community is fantastic at networking so is probably already ahead of the curve on this one.

Finally, I think it’s important to keep an eye on popular culture, world events and the arts which give rich pointers to what’s coming down the line and allude to how people and behaviours might change.

What’s key, is not just to absorb as much content as you can, but also take the time to reflect upon it and consider what the implications might be. I find keeping a journal of notes, clippings, and photos helpful. There are lots of great apps like Evernote you can use now, which make it easy to capture ideas on the fly. By periodically just going back over your notes, you soon start to spot connections which then spark new ideas.

AI technologies are going to change substantially our habits, in what ways it is going to affect us?

It’s almost easier to think of the ways that AI will not affect us: artificial intelligence technologies are likely to disrupt almost every industry and will impact the lives of every one of us. To put it into context, I like the comparison made by Andrew Ng, who likens AI to electricity for the way it will supercharge everything.

Cities will be transformed. Streets will be freed from heavy traffic as autonomous cars shuttle us from one place to another. Smart algorithms will carefully manage resources to create spaces which are less polluted and more liveable. Predictive policing and AI satellite monitoring will keep our streets safe.

At home and work, our digital assistants will manage much of our lives proactively: organising daily needs, setting up appointments and planning travel. They will know us so well through interrogating our data, that they will anticipate our needs, reserving tickets for a new show we will like for example, or booking a celebration dinner at the family’s favourite restaurant.

Virtual assistants will keep a watchful eye on our health, booking medical appointments or even rushing us to a hospital if they sense we are unwell.  AI will take on much of the health burden, diagnosing simple complaints and monitoring health preventatively. With the help of AI, we’ll understand our minds and bodies in ways we have never done before – we’ll be healthier for longer and make inroads into eradicating disabilities.

So we’ll move seamlessly through the world as tech recedes into the background, managing our world invisibly. Spaces and environments will customise themselves to our needs and preferences. Products will be tailored to our unique needs, based on analysis of our genetics. Our bodies – faces, irises, fingerprints – will identify us. We’ll no longer need to pay for purchases, they will automatically be charged to us.

Skills that previous generations prided themselves on learning will become obsolete. Autonomous cars mean we’ll no longer need to know how to drive, and in-ear translation devices mean learning languages will be unnecessary. Even shopping and cooking may be taken out of our hands and as our appliances and devices restock themselves for us, they will choose meals that meet nutritional needs identified through close analysis of our biometric data.

Jobs which can be, will be automated and we’ll learn to prioritise other, uniquely human skills like lateral thinking, creativity, and empathy. Further ahead, we may even be able to harness AI to augment our own intelligence, fusing technology into our brains and uploading knowledge and skills as needed.

How AI technologies will innovate the brand communication?

AI is paving the way for communication to become hyper-personalised – individual even. Rich sources of data which can be analysed at scale using machine learning will enable brands to develop deep understanding of their customers and to deliver personal products, services, and communication across the customer experience. The result will be much better relevance, improved relationships and optimised engagement as well as the potential for greater and more effective cross-selling. Brand will understand what works and how, driving optimisation and more efficiency.

Communication will become ever more responsive and adaptive too. Brands will tap emotion-sensing technology allowing them to understand how consumers are feeling in the moment and adjust tone and message accordingly.

New unstructured sources of data will power deeper understanding of consumer behaviour and trends. We’ll have a much better read of what consumers are thinking, what they are excited about and what’s frustrating them and be able to use this to drive innovation.

Chatbots and voice technology are already helping to automate interactions between brands and their customers, allowing 24/7 service at scale and empowering human agents to focus on more complex enquiries. Whether digital or via a service bot, the ensuing conversations will provide another new seam of insight on sources of friction in the customer experience, enabling continuous improvement.

Intelligent assistants, many powered by voice, are changing the way people find and purchase brands. In a voice-first world, brands will need to ensure that they are top of Alexa or Siri’s mind. So as we say in our Speak Easy report, instead of working out how to get consumers attention, a new discipline will be algorithm optimisation – catching the eye of AI, so to speak.

As for executions, we’ve already seen a few examples of AI driving the creative process. It’s likely that AI will help with optimising comms – helping to identify the best ideas, testing multiple iterations of content, and copy as well as managing placement, of course.


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