The Idea Engineers

by Jessica Ramesh SapientNitro

Nigel Vaz, SapientNitro’s Managing Director and Malcolm Poynton, Chief Creative Officer tell Figaro Digital why creative innovation is born out of original business thinking

Once upon a time, all agencies needed was to have a brilliant idea, win the pitch, target the market, create the campaign, launch the project and keep the creative team in Mad Men-style Dirty Martinis. They still need to do all those things – minus, of course, the Dirty Martinis – but the world in which they operate wouldn’t just be unrecognisable to Mad Men’s Don Draper. It’d be a mystery to anyone working in this field seven or eight years ago.

SapientNitro are an integrated marketing and technology agency and they haven’t just adapted to the new digital landscape. They’ve played a significant role in shaping it. This is a company which proudly proclaims it has more in common with Pixar than with traditional ad agencies, and has the creative kudos to prove it.

But, explains Managing Director, Business Nigel Vaz, SapientNitro’s ethos is all about driving results for its customers. “It’s the very core of who we are,” he says. “And I don’t mean that in a theoretical sense. Every decision we make on a project – whether it’s a choice between something being in red or blue or between one technology and another – they’re entirely based on results. That philosophy is the very essence, the DNA of the company.”

Designs for life
Vaz and Chief Creative Officer Malcolm Poynton describe SapientNitro’s twinning of the commercial and the creative as ‘idea engineering,’ and the interface between these two spheres is what enables SapientNitro to come up with demonstrably effective, consistently innovative work.

“The power of our company,” says Vaz, “lies in Malcolm with his pedigree in advertising, and my strategic approach. He and I sit two feet away from each other every day tackling problems from completely different perspectives, but with the same end objective in mind.”

For Poynton the only limits in this new digital domain are those of the imagination. At SapientNitro, he says, the teams are made up of interactive developers, experts in experience design, hardcore information architects, information technologists, interactive designers, creative technologists, interface designers, graphic designers as well as content creators, copywriters and art directors.

“At any given moment in time we will have four, six, eight, different kinds of experts working together, collaborating on solving problems,” says Poynton. “I think that’s why the way we solve problems is different: because the work is not arrived at by a traditional copywriter and art director and the answers aren’t traditional media answers. We just don’t have a baton-passing linear process that an advertising agency has. It’s much, much more fleet of foot than that.”

From a business perspective, however, SapientNitro see part of their job as helping clients think hard about what they really need, then framing and shaping the opportunity so that it yields the richest results. Defining the task begins with refining the ask.

Effective creativity, stresses Vaz, is only born out of a clear, value-driven context. “The strategic business problem – quantifiably solving a business challenge – is sometimes the less sexy end of the business, but it’s potentially the thing that drives a better idea. Doing something just because it’s cool is frankly not in our DNA. But doing something that’s cool and has the potential to be hugely valuable – that’s exactly in our sweet spot.”

Digital smile
Unsurprisingly in this era of accelerated digital development, Poynton and Vaz agree that consumer and enterprise technology are among the most significant factors currently facing marketers. “A massive advantage for us,” says Poynton, “is that we don’t really have to consider whether we can technically do something. We can pretty much do anything technically. And our creative capabilities grow and grow infinitely.”

Fighting talk, you might think. But the evidence is in SapientNitro’s work for Unilever on a project which sounds as if it was beamed in directly from science fiction: the smile-activated ice cream vending machine.

This groundbreaking collaboration, based on research suggesting ice cream consumption can actively raise the licker’s level of happiness, used new face-recognition software capable of reading the human face 15 times a second. A big enough grin ensured a free serving of ice cream. The vending machine then uploaded a picture to Facebook, so not only were users granted a unique experiential encounter with the brand, they were encouraged to revisit and deepen that relationship online.

“The power of experience is often far greater than being in receive mode in front of somebody else’s message,” says Poynton. “So we thought, how could we recreate all the magic that people remembered from summers where ice cream was delivered by bicycle or the ice cream van? You can spend an awful lot of money buying up media trying to explain what you mean through a 30-second spot which, no matter how expert someone may be at writing a 30-second spot, is an awfully difficult challenge. This was an opportunity to get away from the main distribution channels and find some other way.”

Cool though this project certainly was, Vaz makes it clear that, as with all SapientNitro’s work, function underpinned form: an unwavering focus on measurable benefit for the client ensured the creative ideas were grounded in genuine value-creation. “The markets in which we operate are changing to the extent that it’s impossible to create a brand moment or idea without genuinely ensuring that the customer feels that lived idea and engages with it,” he says. “Success depends on making a promise to the consumer, then fulfilling that promise. If it’s not executed that way the results are not going to hold up.”

A brand new approach to social
In 2011 most of us are only just beginning to understand and untap social media’s potential as a marketing tool. Conventional thinking puts power back in the hands of consumers: we can tell brands – and just as significantly our friends – what we think of a product and why. But, says Vaz, SapientNitro began going down this road eight years ago with their work in online self-service, and – executed properly – social media can be empowering for brands as it is for consumers.

“The social context has given the individual consumer a voice that allows them to be heard on a much larger stage,” he says. “But for us that challenge always existed within organisations – it’s just that now consumers have a platform to voice that opinion across a broad spectrum of people. I look at social media very much as the enablement of communication back to a company about what customers really think, as opposed to the filtered view they got in arbitrary focus groups or through the selective hearing of customer service feedback.”

The power of social was leveraged spectacularly for SapientNitro’s multi-award-winning ‘The Best Job In The World’ campaign for Tourism Queensland. This was the highly publicised search to find a live-in caretaker for an idyllic Aussie island. “The genesis of that was a business problem we were trying to solve,” says Vaz. “The problem for the client was, ‘how do I compete against campaigns like ‘Incredible India’ or ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’? They’ve got 30 million dollars and much bigger geographies. I’ve got a million dollars and I’m not even marketing Australia – just a part of Australia.'”

The key to solving this problem, SapientNitro realised, lay in asking the right questions. “Our initial response,” says Vaz, “was, ‘what’s the problem you’re actually trying to solve? Are you trying to solve the execution problem of doing print work – in which case we’re probably not the right agency to be working with you. Or are you trying to solve the problem of how to get people to experience tourism in Queensland? Because if it’s the latter, you’ve got a significantly bigger problem – or opportunity – depending on how you look at it.'”

Since Tourism Queensland’s budget was roughly that of a classified campaign, explains Vaz, “We said, ‘what if we think about this completely differently? What if we just use classified ads, but make it the world’s most read classified, and give serious value back to the community?'”
The campaign was phenomenally successful on every level and, true to SapientNitro’s ethos, it was born out of a perfect interface between creativity, technology and a deep understanding of human behaviour. This combination enabled the innovation, and the innovation delivered on the business strategy.”These three things coming together is the power of idea engineering,” says Vaz. “It’s the very genesis of how this business operates.”