From Foolproof to future-proof? How one modest acquisition could point the way for marketing

Partners at Green Square, Corporate Finance Advisors to the media and marketing sector, cast their eyes over the latest industry deals and look ahead to the next tranche of acquisitions.

Foolproof's Peter Ballard

An interesting takeover popped up a week ago on the Green Square Deal Monitor, which got me thinking about design and creative technology and the increasingly important role they play in marketing.

First, let’s look at the deal itself. Just under a fortnight ago, London/Norwich/Singapore-based ‘experience design’ specialist Foolproof acquired creative technology company Knit (based in Norwich) in a deal which is expected to see the newly-combined group of more than 100 people turn over £10m in the coming year.

Launched in 2002 by entrepreneurs Peter Ballard and Tom Wood, Foolproof uses consumer insight and data to “drive an evidence-based approach to the creative design of digital products and services”. Its clients include some impressive names – Sony, HSBC, Shell, TSB, pharma giant Eli Lilly and Domino’s Pizza.

Knit was launched in 2010, with funding from Omnicom. The agency “harnesses new technologies to create unique brand experiences, building solutions that bridge both digital and physical worlds”, and has created campaigns for blue-chip brands such as Nissan, BMW, Lucozade, John Lewis, HP, Asda and Volvo.

Although terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is understood that Knit will continue to operate under its own brand name from offices in Norwich and London.

The reason the deal is interesting is because, as Peter Ballard, co-founder of Foolproof, said: “The last decade has been about optimising digital and mobile platforms; the next 10 years will be all about the marriage of digital and physical experiences.”

Adding Knit to the Foolproof group extends the agency’s service offer into this new world, where relatively few agencies currently operate.

There is, however, one brand – one of the world’s biggest – which has understood this for more than three decades, and that brand is Apple. The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs knew that experience, not features, were what sold tech in the long run. Every Apple product, hardware or software made under his reign (particularly after he returned to the company in 1997) was created with the end user’s experience topmost of mind; products that looked good, were easy to use and easy to find uses for.

It’s arguable that a good deal of Apple’s success over the past 17 or so years has been down not to its technological innovations or superiority (smartphones existed before the iPhone, GUIs before the Mac OS, MP3 players before the iPod, super-light laptops before the MacBook Air and tablets before the iPad), but a single-minded focus on the user experience.

Apple’s products were often under-spec’d and more expensive in comparison to those of its rivals, but they were made with ordinary business and consumer users in mind, not geeks.

The same products were usually brilliantly marketed, but really they were their own marketing. Remember when the iPad launched in 2010? Critics wondered what on earth it could be used for; that is, until they picked one up and started playing with it. The famous ‘Think Different’ campaign for the original iMac in the late 1990s brilliantly played on Apple’s then-challenger brand status, but really the iMac, with its uber-cool candy-coloured curves and neat all-in-oneness (in an era when desktops were ugly beige boxes with bulky CRT monitors), and ease of use out of the box, sold itself.

And who can forget that great iPhone campaign from a few years back which focused on the great things you could do with an iPhone and its apps, how it could make life easier and better, rather than the specifics of the phone itself?

In the media release for the Foolproof-Knit deal, Nick Thompson, MD and founder of Knit, said: “The most-hyped technology is often a solution in search of a problem, stuck in R&D or experiential marketing silos, too far from senior business decision makers. Joining Foolproof gives us the platform from which we can help more brands understand how new technology can be deployed into the most important areas of their business, and in a way which is firmly rooted in genuine customer needs.”

I think he is absolutely spot on. Tech doesn’t really exist in a vacuum. It has to be built from the ground up with the user or consumer in mind. In a world increasingly dominated by technology, this will become ever more important.

The tie-up between Foolproof and Knit positions both companies at the forefront of multichannel experience design and their combined capabilities will allow them to create compelling digital and physical experiences in-home, out-of-home, in-store and in-branch. It’s not a huge deal in the scheme of things, but it’s a far-sighted one I think, and Foolproof are really on to something.

New technologies have the ability to deliver a brand experience that bridges the digital and physical world. Foolproof’s Ballard cites some examples: vending machines operated by social media, notifications sent to our smartphones when we enter a store, interactive ink turning windows into digital displays… the possibilities are, literally, limitless.

Scores of companies have plenty of consultants queuing up to paint a vivid picture about how the latest technology will instantly change their business. Very few of those actually get their hands on the technology, take it apart, and figure out how it works. To give actionable advice, you need to know the limitations as well as the possibilities of the devices, and how they can be linked to other technology to deliver a compelling customer experience. It seems to me that the new Foolproof-Knit tie up could offer this.

If the last decade has been about building and optimising digital and mobile platforms, the next few years are going to be about linking the digital and physical worlds – especially as the internet of things (cast your mind back to Google’s acquisition of smart thermostat maker Nest Technologies last year) becomes a reality, and ecommerce becomes completely mainstream.

But the lessons of the last 10 years also demonstrate that designing any piece of tech, or a customer experience without reference to consumer needs and motivations, will probably fail.

Too often new technology is a solution in search of a problem. Its application is borne more out of technology for technology’s sake than responding to a genuine customer need. Think of the ill-fated Blackberry PlayBook, the recently-ditched Google Glass or even QR codes (which nobody really seems to know what to do with). By marrying the disciplines of insight-driven experience design with the in-depth understanding of new creative technologies – which is essentially what Apple has been doing for years – this problem is nullified.

Brands increasingly recognise that to compete they have to deliver a compelling customer experience across all channels, and this experience needs to be seamless and frictionless. Their branches, retail stores, mobile and web stores have to be seamlessly integrated.

I wonder if, somewhere, the most forward-thinking brains at the tech giants and big marcomms groups aren’t thinking along the same lines. I don’t think it’s hype to say that in the long run, this comparatively small deal done in East Anglia, might not represent the future of marketing…

Barry Dudley is a partner at Green Square, corporate finance advisors to the media and marketing sector

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