There have been lots of words written about the demise of Blippar over the last few days and in writing mine, I am perhaps merely adding another uninvited observer’s point of view into the mix.
So why am I bothering to write this article, when frankly there are Xmas presents to be bought and wrapped and final e-mails to be sent hopefully putting to bed 2018, with some sense of order?
I am definitely not writing it, unlike a lot of commentators, to suggest that the UK can’t build good tech businesses, pick holes in the character of the people that started it, somehow connect it with Brexit, or state the bleeding obvious like Blippar didn’t make enough revenue to justify its valuations.
My motivation is actually to highlight some things I think have been tellingly glossed over. It’s easy to blame the people, the tech and the lack of use cases and to somewhat smugly say “I never thought this would catch on in the first place”. It’s much harder, however, to point our critical gaze back onto ourselves, our industry and the assumptions we have made about how start-ups achieve scale.
So here are three questions I think the demise of Blippar should prompt our industry and us as individuals to ask, as we count down the days until Die Hard.
Does our industry have the right relationships with technology platforms?
Before I left the good ship Karmarama to do my own thing at Curve, a big part of my role was building close relationships with tech platforms. All of them- smaller emergent ones like Blippar included - hire smart, creative people - often from agencies - and task them with finding agency partners to build great use cases for their technology. There is of course nothing wrong with that and some valuable, creatively exciting work has come out of those collaborations. However in building those relationships I - and lots of others- may have suspended my disbelief too often. Maybe I didn’t ask the uncomfortable questions I should have, like “what is the real consumer attraction of this technology”, “will people use it” and “will it make my client’s brand more famous or more profitable”. Maybe asking those questions, although seemingly critical and harsh on a new business, might be more constructive than being excited by the tech and going along for the ride.
Does insight eat innovation for breakfast?
There seems to be a school of thought that Blippar’s real issue was not innovating quickly enough.
“If only they had transitioned from a consumer focussed advertising business to a B2B provider of AI services”- to paraphrase a lot of the opinions currently being proffered. That opinion is downright wrong.
Every article, blog post, visit or demo from Blippar brought evidence of huge moves forward in diversified visual search and indeed in its ability to create new products and services based on its core tech. The problem was that never did the evidence of technological success come with something that truly motivated consumers to pick up their phone and use the app. The Innovation process at Blippar clearly produced new things that moved on their understanding of the Technology but seemingly never anything that gave them a better insight into what consumers wanted, either directly from them or via a partner. Perhaps it became too late to question the appetite for AR, but at some point listening to the market rather than assuming you could create it may have paid off.
Are VCs to blame?
The emerging narrative is a company that burnt through its cash trying to prove it could get to traction and profitability and along the way grew too fast and perhaps too extravagantly, finally put out of its misery by a single investor- connected to the Malaysian government- who had given up hope. No-where in this hubristic fall narrative does anyone question the judgement or responsibility of its investors. VC’s, of course, have to make multiple bets with their own money to get a return, so the loss very much appears to be theirs - or sometimes the Malaysian people’s. However, if anyone is guilty of suspending belief about technology and not looking at real consumer data in the case of Blippar it is the people that continued to invest in it. Yes, it’s a numbers game and brave VCs can create markets and change industries playing it, but all too often insight into what people actually want goes missing. That creates pressure, skews markets and convinces people that a big valuation means success is within touching distance.
So what does all of this mean for brands and agencies? We all need to understand, embrace and experiment with new technologies and realise that not all of them that we invest time and money in will succeed, that is the nature of Innovation. However, we should be brave enough to use our special skill- a true understanding of consumer behaviour - to be critical, constructive partners to the technology, start-up and VC community and help them build better things, as well as using it on our own Innovation programmes and projects.
Suspending our disbelief and criticism has created exploding stars like Blippar and allowed the bad behaviour we see in some of our big tech platforms to flourish. If we want a better Technology future, we and our industry have a key part to play.
Lawrence Weber is a partner at Curve