Emad Tahtouh tells LBB’s Alex Reeves how Finch’s tech department is forging its own path with a Die Hard-inspired name and now a Cannes Grand Prix
It tells you a lot about Emad Tahtouh, that he plays poker to unwind. “Every now and again, generally if I’m really stressed, I’ll maybe jump in to try and relax for a little bit,” he says. Nowadays he’s managing director of technology and innovation specialists Nakatomi - which grew out of Australian production company Finch - but before he joined advertising, the cards were his life. He was a professional poker player for six years, jetting around the world competing for prizes, sponsored by PokerStars.
“I started playing poker because it was a hobby. When I first started I was obsessed, absolutely loved it. And then it started getting more and more serious,” he says. “They say the worst thing you can do with your hobby is turn it into a profession, which is what happened. That absolutely killed it for me.”
He’s tried to put that behind him, to push that part of his life down his Google search results with the amazing work he’s done at Australian creative production and tech studio Finch since 2011. But it’s left its mark on the way he views the world and the advertising industry.
“It’s why I like talking about data,” he says. “Data is the foundation to everything. For me, data is the minimum amount of information relating to whatever you’re doing. The data in poker is the mathematical odds of winning this hand or how I need to bet and what’s required to be able to win, but also the behaviour of the person across from me - what data they’re emitting and how am I reacting to that - then what data am I giving out?”
Emad saw the parallels straight away when he moved over to advertising. Poker had got him thinking about psychology and it transferred over very smoothly. “Everything revolves around incentives,” he considers. “Probably the biggest crossover for me between poker and advertising is something that’s not directly related to either - social engineering. Before poker, I was in IT, a network engineer. I specialised in data security. I did a couple of stints at banks and telcos in Australia. So I started getting into social engineering, which is basically what hackers would use to extract information. It’s how you get somebody to give up information you need without realising that they’ve given you the information. And advertising is a bit like that as well. It’s something that’s always in my mind.”
Ever since Finch began in it’s had a strong focus on technology. And that’s largely down to Emad. “When we started it was just me doing tech,” he says. “I was this weird nerd sitting in a room trying to build shit that was interesting.”
He ended up succeeding in this pretty quickly, with projects such as 37 Degrees
for Pedigree Adoption Drive in 2012, where audiences could watch one of two films at the cinema at the same time. Depending on whether they’d donated or not to the charity, they would be given either red or yellow 3D glasses. Those who donated saw the a story of an abandoned dog, Buzz, as he’s rescued and nurtured back to health. The viewers who hadn’t donated saw the world without the effect of the adoption drive, witnessing Buzz's bleak future should he never find a home. Winning Finch two Gold Lions in 2012 and a Yellow Pencil, it secured Finch’s reputation in the innovation space.
Within a few of months of that they were developing The Most Powerful Arm
, a petition-signing robot arm. Then in 2013 they built a robotic orchestra for Intel’s Intelligent Sounds campaign with award-winning recording artist, Flume.
Emad’s little room soon started to become a dedicated technology department over the years. “What we found is that the budgets aren’t there to grow a business like that, just doing experience tech,” he says. “We do an amazing technology experience and it’s not about the money because there is no money in it, but it gets us a lot of positive PR. It builds really strong relationships with clients, because quite often you’re in the trenches with them trying to do something amazing to an impossible schedule and an impossible budget, so it really builds camaraderie. You reap the benefits of that down the line with more work.”
As for Nakatomi, the name given to Finch’s innovation lab, that was around from the start. Executive producer and founder Rob Galuzzo always liked the name - the fictional corporation from Die Hard. When Emad started running the tech ‘department’, Rob thought it was funny to call Nakatomi, conjuring images of a Japanese multinational megacorp in people’s minds. “And then they find out it’s just me sitting in a room,” says Emad. “Now it’s still funny but we’re 22 people sitting in quite a big space. We’re trying to live up to the name.”
Earlier this year they made the name official, launching Nakatomi as a venture in its own right, with the view to expand in new areas. A few things had recently fallen into place to make this possible.
In the past couple of years Finch introduced a dedicated VR and AR team. They’ve since created some compelling work in this area, from an educational space app
for ABC’s Stargazing to a big interactive VR experience for the Australian Defence Force, trying to show engineers in particular that the defence force is about humanitarian aid and rebuilding, not just about combat.
Then about 18 months ago Finch acquired a post production company and brought them into the team, adding three visual effect artists, five sweets across our three offices.
In seven years, Nakatomi has grown from one person to 22, spread across three offices. As Emad puts it: “the pillars of Nakatomi are visual effects, VR and AR and experience technology. And within experience technology we also do things like product design and back-end technology. Nakatomi is a visual technology company.”
Now is the right time to clearly distinguish Nakatomi from Finch because they’ve been having more and more conversations with companies outside of the advertising and marketing space, helping companies with product development, producing their own technology and building their own experiences, putting them out there. “In the past saying ‘we’re Finch and we’re a production company’ made sense. Now it makes less sense,” says Emad. “When you’re sitting in a meeting and you have to spend the first five minutes explaining that you’re a department within a production company and you do something that isn’t really related to production, it gets very confusing and you can see their eyes glazing over. So now when we introduce ourselves we are Nakatomi. We’re a visual technology company. We provide technology solutions to many different problems.”
The biggest problem they’ve played their part in solving recently was the devastating effects of ALS, which causes sufferers to eventually lose the ability to speak in their own voices. Working with agency BWM Dentsu and voice cloning technology firm Lyrebird, Nakatomi helped give Ice Bucket Challenge founder Pat Quinn his voice back with Project Revoice
. Last month the project was awarded the Grand Prix for Good at Cannes Lions, as well as one Gold, one Silver and three Bronze Lions in various categories. Naturally, it’s a company-defining project for Nakatomi.
“We want to make partnerships with the best people we can find in the field and we want to add value wherever we can. So we won’t take on a project unless we can add an enormous amount of value and we won’t take on a project if it’s about just reinventing something for the sake of it,” says Emad. “Revoice is a really good example of that because we partnered with the industry leader, Lyrebird. Up there with Adobe, they were the first people to come out with this sort of technology.”
When Nakatomi first partnered with them they weren’t collaborating with anyone else. “They had been extremely protective about the technology and what purpose it was used for,” says Emad. But a combination of their relationship with Nakatomi and the brilliance of the idea from BWM convinced them.
BWM found every YouTube video and interview that Pat had ever done, stripped out the audio, cleaned it up and transcribed every word what he said. That allowed the team to re-arrange pre-existing footage of Pat speaking into the phrases that Lyrebird would need to be able to train its machine learning algorithm and rebuild a Pat’s voice.
Alongside their partners, it Nakatomi’s role was to integrate Lyrebird’s tech into Pat’s wheelchair. “Somehow we needed to get Pat who’s paralyzed, in a wheelchair, using his eyes, to somehow be able to use this technology,” says Emad. “In his wheelchair he’s got this system called Tobii, which is eye-tracking software that lets him speak by using his eyes. But their system’s completely locked down. We tried having a chat with Tobii and that wasn’t going anywhere.”
So Nakatomi got their hands on a Tobii system and found a way to interrupt the normal process Pat uses to select words. Instead of Tobii using its default voice, the text he’d typed would be assembled in Pat’s reconstructed voice and then would come back and play out of his wheelchair.
Emad explains why he’s so happy with it as a flagship project for the company: “I think the work really spoke for itself. It's innovative, emotional and impactful, and just as importantly, easy to understand and not overcomplicated. It's a real problem with a real solution and a hugely positive and scalable impact. The success of the work is truly a testament to the hard work and dedication of the creative team at BWM. Oskar [Westerdal] and René [Schultz], led by Ash [creative director Asheen Naidu], were so passionate and dedicated to this project from day one. We were fortunate to be brought on and lend some of our expertise in bringing the various pieces of tech together, but it really was due to their hard work and perseverance that this project was such a success.”
“Winning the Grand Prix for Good is obviously quite a big deal. And we're getting a lot of positive attention and new opportunities as a result. We've had some success over the years innovating and developing new tech for social good causes, and I see us continuing to go down that front. Not with the sole purpose of winning awards, but because it's a valuable service to the community.”
Project Revoice is situated at the centre of some debates and trends that are quite intense in the advertising community at the moment. “Machine Learning and AI were big talking points at Cannes this year, and I see no sign of it slowing down,” says Emad. “If anything, we'll most likely see an uptick in 2019. In the tech world, creativity is considered to be one of the last vestiges of human ability that will be achievable and replaceable by any AI. I therefore find it fascinating and strangely ominous that in arguably one of the most creative industries on earth, there is such a massive amount of time and energy being placed in using AI.”
But even though he’s in the eye of the tech storm, Emad knows trends are to be approached with caution. “Everyone’s trying to integrate machine learning into everything,” he observes. “Some of that’s because there have been amazing advancements in it and that means you can do things you hadn't been able to do before. A lot of it’s also just to put a bit of gloss around the work.
“Innovation is quite often not about something that’s completely new. It’s about repurposing or reusing something that’s been there the whole time. We’ll always see that kind of work put in the spotlight, especially when it’s something that might have been right under everyone’s nose for years.” Going back six years, the Pedigree adoption drive work demonstrated this power. 3D technology had been in cinemas for at least four or five years at that time, but Emad, a “weird nerd” sitting in his Nakatomi room, found a new purpose for it.
As it edges forward, Nakatomi calls its ethos ‘Constant Evolution’. “We will build, change, evolve and push things to the point of failure at every opportunity,” says Emad. “I think we're very fortunate in that we get to work daily with cutting edge technology and are in a position to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what innovation means for creativity, and we're able to divert all of that thinking into social good causes when we see a real utility. The recognition from this award shows us that we're on the right track, and motivates us to keep pushing.”