We were thrilled to announce that Fast Company voted us in their list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies last month. In fact, we’re number one on the list in the Design sector, ahead of tough competition from Audi, Ikea and Marriott. We were chosen because we’ve ‘helped brands create dynamic identities that respond to major technological shifts such as voice interaction and the Internet of Things’.
Our identity for the IoT consortium Zigbee Alliance gets a special mention, and we’re recognised for our belief that ‘purely visual identity is no longer sufficient to capture a brand’s DNA. Identities need to adapt to platforms and users’ needs.
Having been at Wolff Olins for 23 years, most recently as COO, Sairah Ashman took over as CEO last summer. Ahead of her talk at Collision next month (a US tech conference to rival SXSW), she spoke with the organizers about the overlap between technology and sociology.
Hi Sairah! Congratulations on your promotion to CEO. How have you found that transition?
Stepping into the CEO role has been an enjoyable challenge. Dame Cilla Snowball (Chair and group CEO of AMV BBDO) memorably advised that when you take on this kind of role all the easy stuff is solved before it reaches you – you get the more interesting tricky stuff. She’s right and every day is different.
The fact I’ve been in the business and at Wolff Olins for so long has made it smooth. That said it takes time to develop your agenda, build your team and determine where best to spend your time. I wouldn’t say I’m there yet. I’ve spent my first 6 months getting a feel for where I can have the most impact and what needs to be in place to make us successful. Success for me is about creating value for our clients, making Wolff Olins the best place you can work in our field and becoming better known for both.
You’ve been at Wolff Olins since 1994. In today’s world, people rarely stay in the one place so long. Do you see any advantages, or indeed disadvantages, to doing so?
Culture and connection is key for me. The more part of a place you become the more you’re able to influence and contribute to it. If it’s the right place for you then I think it’s a smart move to invest the time. You get to know how things work, what makes the place tick and how to do more of the things you enjoy. The credibility and network you build gives you a lot of freedom to experiment, expand your scope, enjoy what you do and have an impact.
People and culture are a huge part, as well as the challenging problems we get to solve for progressive and often global clients. It’s a powerful combination. Whenever I’ve felt like I’m about to plateau or become bored I’ve found a way to keep growing, through taking on unusual projects, new roles or some pretty substantial learning. It’s kept me interested and excited.
Moving around regularly might help you progress through roles faster, build a more diverse network, and get a deeper insight into different types of companies and environments. At the end of the day you have to decide what’s right for you.
You have a masters in digital sociology. How do you see the world of tech and sociology overlap?
They’re intrinsically linked and feed each other. How we behave affects how technology develops. Likewise, how technology evolves informs how we behave. It’s a virtuous circle. Intelligence in machines is obviously the interesting and hot topic right now. That intelligence is able to move faster and increasingly beyond our own. Digital objects exchange with each other in ways we don’t always control and the ‘decisions’ they make can have huge consequences. We’re experiencing a unique moment in time in developmental terms.
This new kind of intelligence has the capacity to enhance our experience of being a human being or to diminish it. As such, I think it’s important to be ambitious and optimistic while proceeding with extreme caution and forethought.
I take the view that progress in technology is fundamentally a good thing, but progress at any price is not. We need to talk about this more, both globally and politically.
You’ve spoken of your interest in AI. Could you share why that excites you?
The range of applications or problems AI could solve is enormous as it rapidly evolves way beyond our own ability to conceptualise and process information.
The most exciting developments for me are in the area of critical systems. Take healthcare as an example. The ability to process, analyse and apply learnings from huge data sets of information being added to in real-time means better outcomes for us all. The same in a laboratory setting will speed up the development of new ‘cures’, as well as the forms they could take. The same goes for helping us manage our health more proactively through AIs being integrated into our everyday lives to head off potential issues further down the line. Imagine living in this world, it’s not very far away.
Many people are cautious of AI.
Yes and we’re right to be. There’s no single organizing principle for the development of AI practices and applications. The ethics surrounding this topic are fraught with danger. Who do we trust when AI increasingly has the ability to control our access to information, services and resources? We shouldn’t leave this in the hands of one institution, organisation or nation to decide. Self-interest and the drive for personal gain must be overcome, and a universal set of principles adhered to in order to ensure safety, security and benefits for all. I don’t want a single government, business or tech billionaire controlling these choices on behalf of humanity. Neither should you. We need some clear checks and balances in place.
You will be joining us at creatiff at Collision. What big themes do you expect to see while there?
The use of AI, data and personalization will continue to be big themes. How do you advertise your products and services via Alexa or through Amazon? When shopping is effectively being de-branded and consumers are being served up default products at the will of a commerce platform? How do you create loyalty and trust in this more transactional sales environment? We’re now living in a world of ambient technology primed for response and recall, how do you build an emotional connection and is it relevant to do so? I hope to see some innovative responses to these questions.
Last Autumn we commissioned research to ask people about the role of brands and businesses today. Europe, the US and Latin America told us: They should help people drive positive, radical change in the world. With Big Tech in question recently, and private sector figureheads like Larry Fink agreeing with us, make sure you’re up to date with the thinking in this report. And stay tuned for more later this year.
We’re on the brink of a new era, defined by Artificial Intelligence, and Chinese cloud services giant Alibaba Cloud is at the forefront of this. ET Brain – its innovative AI platform – has transformative potential but first, came to us to create an identity for it.
Alibaba Cloud is the cloud computing arm of Alibaba Group. It provides a comprehensive suite of global cloud computing services to power both international customers’ online businesses and Alibaba Group’s own e-commerce ecosystem.
At the heart of this ambition lies ET Brain, best described as an intelligent, adaptive technology platform for practical applications where data processing, machine learning and real-time processing are key.
It has the ability to revolutionise established systems, influencing everything from urban traffic flow and environment management, to healthcare practice. And as a highly technical and radically new proposition, it needed to establish its presence in the world.
Evolutionary technology Whilst countries like China have embraced automation, the West tends to fear AI and robotics, perhaps because of extreme media portrayals and increasing concern over control.
Alibaba Cloud took a fresh approach to this challenge. It thinks of ET Brain as a partner rather than a tool. Our task was to create a visual, audio and behavioural language that would feel natural, friendly and human, whilst still feeling future-facing and exciting. We called this ‘Evolutionary Technology’ – a technology that understands us, evolves with us and is for everybody.
Creating connection From the start, it was clear ET Brain was more than a static visual mark. For people to be able to build affinity with what could otherwise be a ‘cold’ computing technology, it needed to feel like a living system – an intelligent, conscious entity, capable of emotion.
Using motion as the starting point, we focused on a core set of behaviours and built out subtle animations. We paired these with signature sounds to form the core brand.
Beyond digital The identity would be used to represent both the technology and the company on screen at conferences, and, in some applications, it would form a direct interface with users.
Beyond digital, ET Brain needed a representation in the physical world, and the central dot, as the key tool of expression, could be anthropomorphised into a face. It’s a common cultural expectation that technology products have a mascot, manifest in lines of merchandise, costumed characters at trade shows and even animated entertainment.
Hello ET Brain ET Brain was launched to the world in January 2018, first at the Beijing Yunxi Conference and subsequently at CES in Las Vegas. Alibaba Cloud faced its most high profile airing yet as the worldwide cloud services partner of the Olympic games.
ET brain is an exemplar of intelligent identity – a future brand for the future of our digital lives.