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Craig Elimeliah on the Next Phase of the Internet


VMLY&R’s chief experience design officer speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about the future of the web and how brands, agencies and consumers will fit into it

Craig Elimeliah on the Next Phase of the Internet

Craig Elimeliah is the chief experience design officer at VMLY&R and he’s obsessed with unlocking growth through customer experience. Equally impassioned by his curiosity for tech, innovation and storytelling, Craig has almost two decades of experience in using inventive ideas and diverse teams to create solutions for real-world problems in the experience sphere. 

Craig’s category-defying experience work has earned him awards from Cannes, D&AD, LIA Clios and more, and he lends his expertise regularly as a speaker and writer on the topic. His list of current and past clients is a veritable ‘who’s who’ of some of the world’s biggest brands, spanning every sector; T-Mobile, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, United Nations, Disney Channel and Nestlé, to name a few. A self-proclaimed “massive nerd”, he’s a design and technology-obsessed web3 optimist, an avid runner, and a lover of cooking and travel.

Interested in what the future holds for the internet, as we verge on the transition to web3, Craig sat down with LBB’s Ben Conway to discuss what brands, consumers and advertisers alike can expect from this next online era. Discussing why web3 will “underpin” the entirety of this next stage, Craig shares his thoughts and predictions on why experience design is no longer just about designing, the increased demand for distinctly human technology, and how VMLY&R is helping clients embark on their web3 journeys.  

LBB> How would you describe the next phase of the internet? What features, platforms and tech are we talking about?

Craig> I like that you said ‘phase’ and not metaverse; the two terms can be interchanged and metaverse is simply the branding for the next phase, but like any good brand, it needs to be grounded in substance, promise, and aspiration. I see the next phase of the internet primarily through the lens of spaces rather than sites. Websites were these tightly packed, similarly designed destinations that really weren’t created for much more than brochureware. They were never meant to, nor could they fully contain the digital incarnation of a brand or an organisation or personality — they often ended up being one-dimensional. 

We have evolved from a single surface (screens) to imagining how content and utility lives all around us - and how to infuse it into everything we do, everywhere we go.  It becomes more anticipatory, more helpful, more personalised and, ultimately, more immersive. 

I am not saying ‘VR’, specifically because I believe we are social beings, and VR is not a place where we can share experiences naturally. We are entering into a mixed-reality environment where the actual world is our canvas, augmented with intelligence that will help to inform, entertain, instruct, connect, and collaborate in a way the internet was never able to deliver. It will be less technical and more human-centred, and will be predicated on connected systems over single technologies. 

Design will be further reaching and more transformative, and we will see much more cognitive computing and artificial intelligence. We will also see an increased demand for intrinsically human traits and capabilities such as empathy and compassion. Platforms will evolve, and the phone will continue to drive most of our attention, but wearables will slowly make their way into our lives as the tech becomes less intrusive and more natural. 

The next phase will be customer-led. Brands have been trying to fit customers into a little box, but humans are simply too diverse and their identities live on a much wider spectrum. Identity on the internet will become more fluid and dynamic, and brands will need to rethink how they target, create content, personalise, and sell to a more dynamic consumer. 

Lastly, this new phase will be more interoperable. It will allow for experiences to be combined and experienced in a way that allows for multiple brand interactions to happen at once. I am excited about all of it. 

LBB> So how will this new phase impact the ad industry?


Craig> The stage is being set and web3 will underpin it all. The first area of impact for web3 will be improving data transparency, which allows for a more even distribution of power between brands and consumers. Right now, we are surrounded by intermediaries who are creating a lot of friction and cost to transact; web3 decentralises a lot of that and allows for more one-on-one transactions in more seamless and delightful ways. It will unlock the power of verification and authenticity and make the internet and the ad industry more trustworthy. Consumers will tell brands exactly how they want to engage, rather than brands spending billions guessing. 

LBB> Conversely, what can consumers expect from brands?


Craig> Right now, we are playing a costly guessing game. We try and imprint our own views and experiences onto millions of others, which leads to massive waste and a lot of useless noise. Being consumer-led means that rather than coming up with a random idea you hope sticks, brands will do the work to understand what customers want, need, and truly value - not relying on shitty data or the potentially false information on social and in surveys. Consumers are going to expect brands to take the time and put in the rigour to better understand who they are, the lives they lead, and their nuanced values. They will expect to see brands starting to address those needs in ways that respect their identities, time and money.

LBB> So web3 can help with transparency around brands’ promises and an increasingly personal, or ‘human’ experience. Why aren’t brands delivering on that now? And how does web3 and other innovations force that change?


Craig> I don’t think they intentionally choose to not embrace human centricity or choose to not deliver on their promises. I think the problem is that there are only so many things a brand can focus on at any given time, and they are forced to prioritise one thing versus another. Being pulled in so many conflicting directions makes it hard to know what the best return on investment will be. 

Smart brands can see across a wider horizon and understand how all their collective efforts are enabling one another to produce greater returns as a connected system, not as desperate and disconnected bets made. Keeping track of it all is no small task; it requires a specific roadmap or playbook crafted for specific human needs across a particular brand’s ecosystem. Brands try to copy and emulate what other brands are doing and are even willing to employ the same playbook, often without the same results. In a customer-led world, you can’t simply mimic what other brands are doing. 

Brands must be squarely focused on how their unique promise meets the specific needs of their customers, based on what the customer is telling them, not the other way around. If that promise isn’t unique and doesn’t address the human needs of their customers, then they are simply a commodity with no differentiation. 

The tenets of web3 force brands to take that consumer-led approach and think differently about engaging with consumers. Another aspect of web3 that I find particularly attractive is the idea of ownership over personal data and putting that ownership back in the hands of the consumer. Consumers are now deciding if they want to share their data, who else can share that data and the terms under which it is shared. Brands will create assets that will no longer be the sole property of the brand but will be made in partnership with their consumers. I believe we will see a proliferation of experiences where the idea of digital ownership is at the core. Like the ability to buy stock in a company, we will see consumers who want to buy into the brand. We got a small taste of that with NFTs - which needed a longer maturation period but was exciting to watch and will be exciting to see its evolution. 

LBB> How do you see your area of experience design adapting to the ‘new internet’? Have there been evolutions already?


Craig> I love this question on so many levels. Experience design is no longer just about designing interfaces and experiences; it is about approaching everything a brand does ‘by design’. It requires our designers and experience strategists to think less about pixels, form fields, and check boxes, and more about the orchestration of experiences at scale. A brand today must be connected end-to-end so it may fully deliver on the value it promises its customers. Connecting a brand is no small task. It requires every touch point in that brand’s ecosystem, both physical and digital, to be part of a larger narrative of aspiration, purpose, innovation, and perspective - plus promises made and fulfilled. 

We see signs of evolution all the time as experiences that are crafted around specific consumer and business pain points help alleviate barriers and open opportunities for people to have better and deeper connections with one another. It can be as simple as taking away the need for someone to wait in line and to be more productive while their turn approaches or as complicated as finding ways to occupy the time people will have when they no longer drive their own cars. Opportunities abound all around us. Brands need a partner to help identify these opportunities and orchestrate them for the right person, place and time. 

This is not going to be contained on the internet as we know it. These experiences will live in a multitude of connected spaces that surround those people and things that will benefit from them most. 

LBB> What is VMLY&R doing to prepare for and adapt to these changes? 


Craig> We have been on a journey to connect all the vast capabilities within our agency network. There is no other agency with the capabilities we have across the entire experience spectrum. We have embarked on a quest to constantly challenge ourselves to get better at helping brands become more connected with their consumers and themselves through design and experience. To do that, we had to rethink the way we structure our teams, the kinds of people we hire, the processes we employ and the ways we go about integrating it all. 

A project that demonstrates this way of working is one we recently launched with our partners at T-Mobile. We helped add two new innovative features to its flagship app to simplify the frustrating, time-consuming process of switching wireless companies. The first one is called ‘Easy Switch’, where people can move over to T-Mobile in as little as five minutes, taking the process from an hours-long ordeal to a few simple steps that can be done from the comfort of their home. The second ensures that customers can switch carriers with confidence. It is called ‘Network Pass’, a new feature enabling consumers and businesses to experience unlimited data on T-Mobile’s network for free for three months. In doing this, T-Mobile is helping those users compare their current network to T-Mobile’s with a customised Network Scorecard.


LBB> What do you think are the largest obstacles for brands and marketers at the moment in this space?

Craig> Orchestrating every touch point across their ecosystems. Brands no longer have three channels; they must now thrive authentically in so many places. Some brands make beautiful promises in the form of a film or an ad that resonates culturally and emotionally but then fall flat when it comes to fulfilling that promise at the purchase or post-purchase part of the experience. Some brands excel at saving customers time by automating everything they do, but don’t provide that warm human touch people crave and need. This is the largest obstacle for brands today — to recognise their strengths and weaknesses across their entire experience, then find the right partners to create a roadmap and connect it all seamlessly. These opportunities are wildly abundant, but brands need to recognise them and do the work to deliver them in ways that matter for their business and their customers. 

LBB> Where can brands find these opportunities?


Craig> I love the idea of brand interoperability. Imagine a brand that can allow for its customers to experience it in any context they like. A humble brand that considers how the consumer wants to experience the brand, not the other way around - a brand so malleable it can organise itself around the needs of its customer without losing any of its integrity or promise. This sounds lofty and aspirational, but this is where I truly think brands should be focusing their sights.

Think about the fluidity of the ‘metaverse’ in the sense that we will no longer be experiencing brands inside of walled gardens but within a vast and expansive connected world. Each brand will make up a part of a larger narrative that the consumer chooses to engage in. I cannot imagine any brand wanting to intentionally opt out of that story, so to prepare for that involvement, brands will need to figure out how to become active ingredients inside of a larger narrative where they will compete for a share of the value story a customer will choose to opt into. 

This can happen inside of a gaming construct, a digital and physical construct, a mixed-reality construct or some completely new kind of space we haven’t yet seen. Brands focused on this kind of interoperability and identity will be setting themselves up to succeed. 

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VMLY&R New York, Mon, 05 Dec 2022 16:52:00 GMT