Advertising’s Virtual Future



The duty of communicating a brand message to a targeted audience in order to sell a product or service is an oversimplification of the challenge the advertising industry is faced with today. Not only is the task at hand to conceptualise and execute an engaging brand narrative that differentiates the client from competitors and compels the consumer to action, but in order to do this effectively the responsibility of the agency is to become actively aware of new technologies and the potential for these to become new channels for communication. As new technologies are developed and adopted, consumer behaviour shifts. And so explains advertising’s obsession with ‘the next big thing’ that’s perpetually on the brink of transforming the industry.


Not technically a new technology – the concept has been around for half a century – the contemporary applications for Virtual Reality (VR) are making headlines as the next transformative tech for the ad industry. According to speakers at Cannes Lions its current novelty is not to be underestimated as a multi-dimensional flash in the pan.


Grant De Sousa is a director and part of the team at Sense Virtual, Africa’s first technology startup that is solely focused on creating content and developing applications for Virtual Reality. He says, “In the next few years, we’ll have fully immersive VR experiences that push the boundaries of what’s real and what’s not. The real excitement lies in the potential for this tech, such as how it can be implemented in almost any industry as both an educational tool and the next step in entertainment.” But he believes that VR is the ultimate tech for advertising, an industry whose purpose is to engage potential customers in an unforgettable way, “By immersing potential customers in a world created specifically to do just that, while communicating a core idea or product, advertising agencies will certainly be upping the ante to explore the possibilities of immersive marketing.” What could be a more natural progression for branded content than branded experiences.




By virtue of their requirement for being at the forefront of communication, brands are often early adopters of tech. While many regard VR to still be in that odd space where people are eager to use it but are still contemplating the best application, pioneering agencies and brands are already providing examples of what’s possible.


Graeme Lipschitz, co-founder of creative studio Wonderland Collective, shares some ways these technologies are being implemented in brand communication, “[Bands] like One Direction have used Augmented Reality (AR) to produce a picture book of their album. Net-a-Porter created AR storefronts in Paris, New York, London, Munich and Sydney to promote the new Karl by Karl Lagerfeld collection. The storefront looks fairly commonplace, but with a little help from the Net-a-Porter Karl app, fashionistas can reveal videos of the catwalk, product information, 360 degree product models, pricing and the ability to purchase the products.”


Through VR, Volvo allowed users to virtually test-drive their Volvo XC90, and Coca-Cola granted football fans virtual access to play on the legendary field at Maracana Stadium in Brazil during the World Cup. If cars aren’t your thing, how about taking a holiday for a spin? Also last year Marriott Hotels ‘teleported’ newlyweds on 4-D trips to far-off destinations using Oculus Rift.


When asked about pushing the limits with conservative clients, ECD at Joe Public Xolisa Dyeshana said, “Many creative people put the blame on their clients. At our agency we believe that the only way to get clients to do better work is to inspire them by showing them amazing ideas.” Adding, “Inspired people are a lot less risk-averse.” The potential for thrilling audiences aside, imagine how using Oculus Rift could change the client presentation game when pitching an experiential idea?




Currently the cost of producing VR video is proving to be a barrier to more wide-spread use of the technology with the production of a three minute video reportedly costing over $1 million or over 12,5 million rand. However, experimentation with other technologies like 3D printing is providing possible solutions through the printing of inexpensive camera equipment to aid shooting from multiple angles.


There has also been an increase in affordable VR and AR hardware with viewers like Google Cardboard providing a ‘simple, fun and affordable way’ for people to enjoy such technologies through apps on their smartphones. Penny Macpherson, Managing Director of digital agency Liquorice (Durban) says, “Your first VR experience is likely going to be with a low cost headset like Google Cardboard but it’s still going to feel magical.” The innovative product won the mobile Grand Prix at Cannes. 3D printing is also coming into play in this space. Grant says, “It’s been predicted that by 2018, Virtual- and Augmented Reality hardware will be generating globally around $1.06 billion, so the industry’s growing and doesn’t look set to stop at any time soon!”


He adds, “The potential of VR for social networking has become quite interesting. After buying Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg said that, “Oculus has the potential to be the most social platform ever. Today social networks are about sharing moments, but tomorrow it will be about sharing experiences.””


Why not meet these tech-savvy consumers where they’re presumably headed to be? Working with largely unchartered technologies like VR, AR or artificial intelligence inevitably means steep learning curves, so those who are already in the game are going to have a considerable advantage going forward. Saul Kropman, Managing Partner at boutique mobile industry consultancy SLV&Co and Chair of the Marketing Jury at the 2015 IAB Bookmarks awards, says, “Agencies always want to be playing with tech because they want to ultimately win awards. The challenge is getting someone to let them tinker with new tech and still pay.”


Advertising awards are rewarding innovative use of tech across media. Saul says, “In my mind promoting tech innovation is the number one reason for The Bookmarks to exist. Digital advertising is constantly changing: one week we’re excited about Snapchat, next week we’re interested in competitors such as Beme. If we’re not rewarding innovative ideas and technology then we all might as well be putting billboards up on the highway and hoping that our adverts will catch random people’s eyes. I’m pretty sure that the reason people are in digital advertising is because they appreciate innovation.”




As with the novelty of all once-new technologies agencies do run the risk of producing work that’s more publicity stunt than meaningful interaction. As Penny says, “There’s a responsibility to the consumer when selecting how you’re going to deliver the message. One of the risks is using technology for technology sake. These technologies are maturing, but for us we’re still effectively in an emerging market…We want to reach the broadest set of consumers across all of Africa so our choice of technology is always geared around that. That means constantly innovating even on older technologies that are accessible to all.” For Graeme, it’s about how they apply new innovation to their clients’ and in turn their customers’ needs, “We’re essentially the custodians or promoters (I prefer pimps) of it. I’ve heard a lot of commentary that it is quite gimmicky and my response is that it is as gimmicky as it is employed to be.” It’s what you do with it that really counts.


According to Saul advertising should be, “all about a story. Don’t even bother if you’re not telling a compelling narrative, regardless of medium.” Penny agrees, “Creating a strong brand narrative that resonates with consumers is always going to be at the heart of the content we share with these technologies. What we’re gaining with VR is total brand immersion, where we can take a consumer along on a deeper journey into new territories. The risk is always going to be finding the balance, so that it doesn’t feel like you’ve strapped a billboard to your face. So the challenge right now is to create great content that immerses your audience in your message and getting them to want to take that journey with you.”


A good ad, according to Xolisa, is “something that is original, unexpected, relevant and something that resonates.” Regardless of new trajectories in the industry, this will always be the case. As Penny reminds us, “Technology always changes, but people always stay the same.” So perhaps ‘the next big thing’ for advertising is not new technology, well at least not in isolation. It’s using cutting edge technology to talk to the right people in the right way at the right time. It’s true integration of media and message; human truths in extra dimensions. As Xolisa says, “Technology has brought an element to advertising that we are still grappling with. We are all trying to infuse the old with the new and I believe that when we get that right we are going to rocket to the moon.”


Follow this Glenfiddich series for more articles and interviews with 7 forward thinkers in art and culture to discuss their careers and what they predict for the future of their industries.





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