Matthew Keegan
Jan 31, 2023

Accenture Song’s Nick Law & Johnny Tan on the tailwinds that will push Asia's emerging markets

In a wide-ranging interview, Song's creative leaders talk exclusively to Campaign about the importance of giving design a seat at the table, creating clarity in complexity and AI becoming the co-pilot for creativity.

(L) Nick Law, global design and creative technology lead, (R) Johnny Tan, SEA chief creative officer, Accenture Song.
(L) Nick Law, global design and creative technology lead, (R) Johnny Tan, SEA chief creative officer, Accenture Song.

Back in April, Accenture announced they were rebranding their marketing services business from Accenture Interactive to Accenture Song. According to CEO David Droga, this was in order to symbolise its post-pandemic growth journey with clients, a growth journey that is predicted to post revenues around US$14 billion this year.

Accenture Interactive acquired 40-plus agencies over the past 10 years, among them big and feted agencies like The Monkeys and Karmarama. Since rebranding to Song that acquisition and consolidation spree has only continued. This year alone they have acquired brand and experience agency Romp in Indonesia, The Stable (a US commerce agency) and most recently Fiftyfive5 to boost data and performance capabilities across Australia and New Zealand.

Like it or loathe it, Song is now a giant billion-dollar behemoth with a lot to prove. With acclaimed creative icon David Droga at the helm, one of the very first calls he made when accepting the role last September was to Nick Law.

"Nick is someone I have admired for well over a decade," said Droga. "From R/GA to Apple, he is truly one of the most future-facing, design, technology and communications leaders. His work has inspired millions, grown revenue by the billions and set new benchmarks for how design and tech need one another to thrive."

Now, nine months into his role as global lead for design and creative technology, Campaign Asia-Pacific spoke to Nick Law and Song's new CCO in SEA, Johnny Tan, in a wide-ranging interview that covers design thinking and how they apply it at Accenture Song, getting creatives excited about new technologies like AI and the metaverse, as well as why Asia is leading from the front on creativity, and the need to reshape the industry to meet people in the middle.

Design thinking and “having a seat at the leadership table” has been a topic of discussion for years. Now that you've got that seat at the tablewhat are you doing with it?

Nick Law: As valuable as design thinking is from a business point of view, I think for us, and I think this makes us pretty unique in the design world, is that we execute and we execute at scale too, which is another part of the Accenture role. Accenture is fairly new to me. I've been here for nine months, and that's one of the things that I've definitely noticed is the breadth of discipline, different ways of thinking, including design thinking, but also just the big tech muscle and the business intelligence that you have at a place like this. I'm getting used to all of the opportunities. I have to admit I'm a little bit dizzy at this point.

But I think design thinking is overused. I think it's important to ground design thinking because if you're not "design making", who really cares what you're "thinking"? There should be an output if you have ambition to change behaviours and to change the way people interact with the world for the better. One would hope that you would have an artifact at the end, which was in the customer's hands.

Johnny Tan: I think once upon a time design was viewed as a garnish, to make something look cool. And I think it's changed dramatically now. There's an awakening towards the realisation that change needs to have design within it, and in all aspects of it.

So brands have understood that every experience and touchpoint that your consumer has with a brand requires a high level of design thinking. You know, hence to your question of earning a seat in the table, it's an imperative now. It's not a nice to have. So I think that we're seeing that change quite dramatically, particularly in Asia, where change is happening at rocket speed.

With the tech and digital evolution accelerating at such a pace, and how that intersects with design and creativity, have you encountered any "fear of the new" or resistance to this change?

Nick Law: Absolutely. This is something that I've been talking a lot to clients about. It's very difficult to adjust to the pace of this change. We've seen coming out of the pandemic that the last pieces of our lives that weren't mediated through an interface are now mediated through an interface. And we're completely and utterly connected in a way that can be very dislocating. And so how do you turn that into an opportunity? How do you make sure that you design interactions between companies and people and messages between companies and people that make that a better world? And not a worse world. And a lot of that has to do with helping make simple messages and simple interfaces. It just helps people in this sort of complexity and change.

Johnny Tan: The proof is in the pudding. The results have shown that companies who embrace change thrive, and those that don't will wither. So you have a lot of brands or companies who have been institutionalised in certain ways of working, and have seen results of other people moving ahead. So there is resistance of course, but you cannot fight the truth. You have to embrace that kind of change. It's moving faster for most and, you know, not so much for others, but inevitably that kind of change has to happen.

Talking of change, where do you stand on emerging technologies like AI?

Nick Law: What I have seen, even in the early days of this generative AI, is the difference between someone that has sort of mastered the prompt language, and those that haven't. So there's a lot of sort of gimmicky stuff that's coming out and people say 'oh, that's funny. Look, you can put a frog on a cat or whatever'. But then there's quietly in the background, some people that are mastering this and creating beautiful stuff. And the technology is being manipulated in a way which is very artful.

Can you tell us more about your "deep simplicity" approach to navigating modern marketing and why you believe solving the complexity crisis, triggered by internet and infinite choice, is a design problem?

Nick Law: There's something about the promise of the internet which has failed us. The good thing is that it's an amazing tool. None of us would want to do without it, but along with the sort of accretion of possibilities, there's been an accretion of complexity.

There are more things to be designed than there are designers to design them. That's what the app economy has created. And there's more content to consume than we'll ever be able to consume. And there's also this sort of feeling that somehow, in the middle of all of this complexity and quantity, that it's harder and harder to make choices. And so, when I think about our role as designers and marketers, part of it is creating clarity in this complexity. And you give weight to people's decisions through simplicity. That's true for the interface. For example, you don't want to have 15 features on the interface, because it makes it more difficult to use something. Similarly, when you communicate with people through advertising or marketing, you want to make sure it's simple, but compelling, and that you understand the value immediately.

So how are you creating clarity amid all this complexity and quantity?

My thing right now is to start from a marketing point of view in the middle. And what I mean by that is don't start at the top, at the sort of big brand narrative place. And don't start at the bottom where we've got this new tribe of mathematicians called performance marketers that really understand modern technology and how to use it, but they don't have the craft of people at the top. And so the truth is, if you're in the middle, if you leverage these technologies in a smart way, but you do it with a sort of artfulness and craft, you can help people understand the value of something in the middle, and then you can always inflect it up to make them feel something and inflect it down to make them act.

But the problem right now is that we've got an industry that's shaped like an hourglass shape, and we've got consumer behaviour that's shaped like an onion. And so consumers are making decisions in the middle, but marketers are either at the top, at the brand end, or at the bottom at the performance end. And the truth is, it's a false choice. So I think we need to sort of reshape it more and meet people in the middle.

How have creative ideas shifted compared to 10 years ago? And do you think the core process of ideation will shift?

Johnny Tan: I think the creative idea used to be "a nice to have". Now it's like an imperative. I think the evolution of creativity has now gone way beyond the big idea. I love what Simon Sinek said in a TED Talk that people don't buy what you make anymore, they buy why you make it. They want to be aligned with your sense of purpose. They want to align with the kind of compass you have, moral or otherwise, and they want to be aligned with the style and kind of breakthrough brand that you might have. So the notion of creativity now needs to permeate through a lot of different things. I don't know if many brands have done it well. I think some brands like Apple have done it quite naturally. But now I think it's more and more important that brands start to embrace that.

And how about Asian creative workhow does it compare to western work these days?

Johnny Tan: I spent 12 years in China and I saw the rise of China. I've seen this mentality of I'm going to do whatever I can to level up with the rest of the world. But I think that's changed dramatically now. They're now looking back at the rest of the world and saying: catch up if you can!

There's a huge shift in the level of confidence and skillsets that exist now. In the past there was a little bit of just kind of copy the West and try and be better at what they do; I've never seen junior creatives consume award show information like the Chinese back in the day. But now I think you're starting to see a breakthrough that's happening. Technology is a big part of that. It's a great leveller in some cases. But there's a new brand of creativity that's coming out of this region that is incredibly unique.

Now you're seeing great ideas come with great craft and done in ways make you go, oh, that's incredibly fresh and daring. Because I think there's an "I got nothing to lose" attitude. Like, just go for it. And that's why the work is interesting. And I think we all need that. We all need to look at a certain part of the world and go, wow, I'm jealous of that kind of work. And I think in a lot of ways the more developed ad markets are looking to Asia and going, I want some of that.

Even beyond the giants like China and India, I think you're starting to see great markets like Vietnam and just incredible work coming out of these places. In Southeast Asia in particular, it's such an enthusiastic and robust market. I think there's some markets here that hopscotch what most developing countries have gone through. They've sort of gone from zero to like a hundred overnight, especially when it comes to technology. They are very open to embracing what's new and how technology can help fuel creative thinking in all forms of marketing and design. So that's really exciting to see. 

The consultancy vs. agency debate has been ongoing for some time. And certainly there's a trend where consultancies such as Accenture and Capgemini are investing in or acquiring creative agencies. What are the pros of this and how do they compare with traditional agencies?

Nick Law: We typically start further upstream than the more traditional agencies because we have these sort of deep tech and business relationships with clients. And so we might end up designing for a business that we help the client build and then we get to work communicating about the product that we design. So it's more sort of vertically integrated in many ways. But any creative company is difficult. In fact, I often think that the level of pain and frustration correlates with the quality of the output.

Also, I think what makes us different to the other consultants is that we build stuff. So we do see the fruits of our imagination out in the world in customer's hands. And so that makes everything worth it.

Johnny Tan: Acquisition is not anything new. We are building up a stronger Southeast Asian presence, but we are also building our own sort of creative culture through that. I've been in big agencies and small agencies, and I think one of the challenges has always been how do you get everybody to work together? What I find most interesting about what Accenture Song is doing right now is, as the name suggests, it is like a melody. You're taking all the other notes and putting them together to create a great orchestra. And I think we're doing it in a way that overcomes some of the challenges that networks have, which is, we work as one team literally and you can deploy resources on different projects as you see fit.

The flavour of the work is next level. And I think that's what is exciting so far with the acquisition of these companies. And perhaps we might continue to do that and build it out. I think the creative culture that'll come out of it is going to be really exciting.

Does the structure of working for such a super-sized company like Accenture present any challenges?

Nick Law: Yeah. I mean we're a big company. Accenture has over 721,000 people globally. So it's a big coordination problem now. Song is smaller obviously, but we're also connected to the bigger Accenture. So just figuring out how to deal with that sort of scale because you can't create a uniform culture across that many people. When I've travelled around to the different studios and teams in Accenture Song they're all a little bit different, but the thing they have in common is that there's just this group of very diverse skillsets that have come together.

After the initial hype and buzz, many are now saying the metaverse bubble has burst. How confident are you about its potential and future?

Accenture provided 60,000 employees in US with an Oculus headset. In 2022, the firm planned on onboarding 150,000 new hires in the metaverse. 

Nick Law: I think the context for AR is endless because it's just an overlay on the real world. So when the technology gets to a place where you have a heads-up display that looks more like the glasses I wear, then I think that it will become as ubiquitous as what smartphones are now because it won't look geeky because it won't be a big lumping thing and it won't be a Google Glass which is prototype technology. It'll be something that's just more embedded and we won't think much about it. As for the technology to create that hardware, we're not quite there yet, but to me the difference between AR and VR is that VR is singular and immersive and AR has endless sort of contextual applications, both professional and social. And so I believe that will happen. Definitely.

Johnny Tan: As for putting on a headset, it's interesting because I was talking to someone the other day and he mentioned this point; he's like, what's going to make me want to put this thing on my head and look really stupid and then experience this and come out of it really great. We keep talking about the technology, but there's a reason why you need to motivate somebody to put this on, to do this. And that part hasn't been figured out yet.

You know, what would drive somebody to really want to do that? There has to be some human value there that will need to motivate you to do that. We are developing the technology, but we haven't figured out what's going to motivate someone to really want to put that headset on. I think some people have done it really well. I think in the past, like New York Times when they had an experience where they took you into an Ebola camp to understand what it feels like; that takes you to a whole new level that's not just getting on a roller coaster. It's asking what added value are people getting out of it. I think we need to crack that code.

Is there anything that stands out or excites you in the way of trendseither right now or that is coming up?

Nick Law: I can sort of see where AI's going and that excites me. I can see that it's going to accelerate certain things and make production of creative assets easier and more flexible and more democratised. There’s also mixed reality, and all of the things that are in the metaverse continuum, I do see that that could end up in all sorts of different ways and the creative hand can really shape where it's going.

One of the things that I like about the spatial internet, whether that's VR or AR, is that it combines the two sort of creative sensibilities. One, which is storytelling, another one, which is design. Because I think what you're creating in the sort of spatial internet is you're creating systems of stories, like how you navigate your way through these spaces is sort of temporal because it's a story of a journey, but the options and the space that you're in is architectural. Back when I was at R/GA, I thought this was the most primal way to separate creative thinking. You're either a storyteller or a designer. You either process the world one at a time, or you process the world all at once. You either understand the power of the revealed moment or you understand the relationship between things. And the thing is, the metaverse brings all that together. You can't think about a story without thinking about the space it's in. So I just think it's going to unlock new collaborations, new ways of thinking, new worlds, and new possibilities.

Johnny Tan: There's so much that's happening that it's hard to even keep up with the exciting possibilities. I mean, I'm working on a metaverse project right now. I can't divulge too much information, but the whole notion of an AI influencer now seems very obvious, but the difficulties behind engineering something that has real credibility and reliability is such a challenge. And I'm actually excited about the mistakes we're making while making the metaverse right now because we're learning so much. And that in of itself is really cool. I was at Singapore ComicCon recently trying to pull a very great graphic novelist to link up with the guy who's building the applied intelligence behind it. And having them have a conversation is exciting because we are going through all the things that would fail in order to know what wouldn't.

Also, we're talking to a university right now about revamping the entire continued educational system because people now consume education differently. You know, do you have courses that are in 20 minute windows? Because that's how much information you can take to different channels and whatnot. So the fact that we are reimagining institutionalised ways of being, that is so fun. And I think that's where you can really make a stark difference. So it's no longer thinking in the lines of campaigns. It's really transforming how people behave around your product, your brand. Those possibilities are where we are at right now. We are at that intersection trying to make that happen. I think that's why it's so exciting.

And what about this question of whether or not all brands should be rushing to enter the metaverse? Buying up virtual land and readying campaigns. Are they running before they can walk?

Nick Law: You have to decide strategically why you're doing it. I don't think you'd do it just because it's there. And that strategy might be, by the way, just to experiment so that as these things develop, brands are in a better position. Looking back at my relationship with Nike over the years, they tried a lot of things early, which were just getting their feet under them.

Nike's purpose-built metaverse space, Nikeland, uses the Roblox platform to allow its fans to meet, socialise and take part in promotions. 

They were always a little bit ahead of the curve. And so when they were ready to scale, they had the skillsets and the vision. So I think that there's value to that, but you've got to be very intentional. The worst thing you could do is do something without thinking about it and then give up on it straight away. That's the worst scenario.

Source:
Campaign Asia

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