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Can brands take the risk out of digital experiments? R/GA’s Michael Olaye thinks so

Michael Olaye, R/GA’s VP and MD of experience community

R/GA hopes its ’experience community’ of digital specialists can help guide brands through a changing online landscape. As part of The Drum’s Experiential Marketing Deep Dive, we speak to Michael Olaye, vice-president and managing director of its ’experience community’, about why marketers need to have one eye on the future and a willingness to apply experimental methods.

While many people have begun new, remote jobs during the pandemic, few have faced as many obstacles to eventually meeting their new colleagues as Michael Olaye, the recently installed vice-president and managing director of experience community at R/GA.

Olaye is speaking to The Drum from Sweden, where he is waiting for the US government to lift coronavirus travel bans on much of Europe; the restrictions mean he hasn’t seen his immediate family in over a year.

While Olaye waits to ship out, he’s pursuing a deceptively simple brief from agency boss Sean Lyons to build ”best in class brand experiences”, working US hours while leading a team (the ’community’ part of his job title) that encompasses a ”full sweep” of specialists drawn from R/GA’s US and Latin American offices, including designers, developers, creatives and strategists.

Formerly chief growth officer at The North Alliance, Olaye says he ”jumped at the chance” to join R/GA and reunite with Lyons, who he worked with at Havas when Olaye was head of technology and innovation in London and Lyons global chief digital officer.

Future present

In the present, the ”experience community” he’s gathering together will help brands activate digitally and bridge the gap between those brand marketing efforts and the rest of a consumer’s relationship with a company (he refers to this work as ensuring ”synergy of systems”), essentially building a practice that combines digital transformation, CX and digital experiential work.

In the future, though, Olaye hopes the team can act as a guide for brands exploring the next evolution of the internet, ensuring clients aren’t lost down online rabbit holes. While he argues brands should be actively investing and exploring new technologies and methods of reaching audiences, he says ”there’s still risk there, of course”.

R/GA’s heritage in design matches these ambitions; in previous iterations, it was a special effects provider to the film industry and was later involved in video game development. Although he suggests clients must have a ”future-first mindset”, Olaye contends that brands need not fund such experiments themselves, but can let R/GA do the hard work for them. After all, he says, ”innovation is in our DNA”.

Talk of synergy, future mindsets and ’Web 3’ obscure how these services help make R/GA, and its clients, more profitable. But providing a more holistic digital marketing offering, which goes far beyond promotion, is increasingly important both to clients and agency rivals. Earlier this week, Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 detailed its ambitions to provide an ”end-to-end offer”, while AB InBev – the largest brewer on the planet – has been experimenting with metaverse marketing since June.

According to Olaye, R/GA’s experience community specialists will be working both for the agency’s biggest clients and smaller, younger startup brands, for which his team will be bringing their capabilities to bear ”at the speed of small”. Social commerce is set to be a major focus as the channel evolves and grows in prominence, and getting such solutions to scale effectively is key.

For the new VP, the future looks a lot like ’Unstaged’, a series of virtual gigs created by R/GA for American Express. With in-person shows off the cards, AmEx hosted concerts by Dua Lipa and SZA, which were combined with unique second-screen content for those watching at home, as well as merchandise drops such as commemorative photos available as NFTs (AmEx sold these for $100 a pop, given then niche accessibility of NFTs and the cryptocurrency typically required to buy them).

Olaye believes that blockchain technologies, such as crypto and NFTs, while considered ecologically unsustainable by many critics will soon make good for marketers. ”The technology has caught up to the hype,” he says, ”but it’s just in phase one.”

”My personal view is that the crypto explosion has proven that the blockchain infrastructures are unlocking new ways of value storage and financial operations, following completely new models deliberately created to break existing monopolized systems.” The move of the Ethereum network to a proof-of-stake system (considered less energy intensive than the systems used to run Bitcoin) is proof the technology can become sustainable, he says. Olaye also hopes that networks such as Cardano, a new cryptocurrency, can fulfil their promise; he predicts that platform will ”will change financial independence and improve transparency for various sections in Africa.”

Talent competition

In this context, Olaye says R/GA’s biggest competitors for business and talent is the tech giants and digital startups. ”We already are competing with them; we have been for some time.”

Can R/GA convince digitally-minded young people that an ad agency is the best start for their career? Olaye says that the variety of the work and the culture will help make the difference. Agencies, he says, must require a ”challenge mindset” from young talent, and in return they can give them something unreachable in other sectors. This argument explains, in part, why the self-professed ”technology evangelist” has spent most of his career in marketing. ”It’s an opportunity to work with the widest possible variety of clients.”

From festivals to retail installations to unmissable activations, we examine the avenues open to marketers to reach consumers enjoying their newfound freedom in The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive.

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