News & Views

Agency 2030 Debrief: Behaviour-Enhanced Technologies

by Contagious Contributor

Alastair Moore, deputy director of UCL Advances, shares some of the discussions that took place at the first Agency 2030 event in London, including why it's important that agencies attention to neuroscience and consider our sub-conscious processing of emotions 

Fifteen years ago very few people had heard of search engine optimisation (SEO), social media ‘friends’, or ‘likes’. Today web technologies, and the memes they have spawned, are commonplace in advertising and agency work. Trying to manipulate the workings of algorithms like Page Rank are now full time occupations for people running brand strategies and campaigns.

At UCL we think that the changing technology landscape is going to continue to disrupt the creative industries; creating demand for new skills, roles for specialisms where once there were none, and likely alter the form and structure of the companies that help shape the world around us.

The creative sector is very important for UK plc and further exponential growth is expected, with The Arts Council predicting that the UK will become the global ‘creative services hub’ by 2025. Moreover, NESTA forecast that higher than average growth rate of creative jobs since 1997 would imply roughly one million new creative jobs by 2030.

We believe, increasingly, that the subjects and craft that are currently the preserve of research institutions like UCL will influence the creative industries – from psychology to engineering to medicine to law – and we’re interested in thinking about what the next 15 years might look like. We think this is important not only to help keep our teaching relevant for a new generation of students, but because of the influence it will have on job creation, the potential impact on the wider UK economy, and because it will affect our culture and the way we live our lives.

Two months ago we launched the AGENCY 2030 project at The Hospital Club in London – a programme of invitation only events arranged in collaboration with DH READY, a cross-discipline communications and innovation agency. The aim is to create a ‘meeting of minds’ as academic thought-leaders across science, technology and culture come together with pioneering industry brand thinkers to forecast the changing dynamic of creative agencies across the full spectrum – advertising, media, PR, social, digital, live, design, sponsorship, content and mobile.

The first event played host to Dr Parashkev Nachev (senior clinical research associate at the Institute of Neurology, UCL) and Brian Millar (director of strategy at Sense Worldwide) who discussed the potential interactions between neuroscience and brand creativity.

Dr Nachev began by sharing an overview of how changes in neuroscience modelling had developed, from simple explanations of behaviours towards complex multivariate models.

This move towards high dimensional models, whilst temporarily forfeiting some of the simplicity of causal explanations, meant that the functional models for brain processes could become data-driven and provide greater insights, by not being reduced to population averages. This means behaviour predictions can be understood at the level of an individual.

One recurring illustration discussed over the course of the evening was how we react to the transmission of emotions. For example, our brain responds to the low frequency information in signals that represent a smile – that is a soft, blurry version of a face – rather than the high frequency information. One consequence of this is that the line drawing version of faces, that we see in emoticons or other graphical representations of faces, are not well suited to communicate the emotions they are intended to illicit. A discussion in the room ensued about how many other communication channels that we use regularly in various comms scenarios, are not well optimised to for communicating to their intended audience – the future is likely to include optimising more than just SEO!

Subconscious processing

As the number and variety of technology interventions increase we might get to a point where we can start to monitor the degree to which a message is being accurately conveyed, thanks to functional imaging (images showing changes in brain patterns). Although this is currently rather crude in non restricted settings, it is improving rapidly so technologies like near infrared imaging via a mobile phone or the modulation of the Wi-Fi signal within an environment might soon be able to give real time feedback on a person’s cognitive state in response to stimulus [MXR Communications, Spectratech].

This observation about our ability to measure responses lead to a discussion about the distinction between behavioural, functional and cognitive models of mind. Psychology, and in particular data-driven models, would obviously play an increasingly important role in influencing the design of campaigns intended to connect with our subconscious processing – and be able to produce powerful reactions – beyond language and our usual conscious powers of reason.

One fascinating example of the subtle differences in responses to emotional stimuli was a piece of experimental work on the subject’s response to observing the smiles of others. We are naturally inclined to smile when viewing a smiling face, a reaction detectable by surface electromyography, and that tendency, as well as the characteristics of the induced smile, may vary with the subject’s personality, including within the spectrum of psychopathy. We may soon be able to pick out the psychopath simply by the way their ‘eyes’ do or do not smile!

Whilst not currently possible to do this sort of analysis out of the lab, the penetration of mobile devices has enabled new types of research. An early example of a research project gaining insights into people’s emotional states was Pocket Smile, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, that seeks to determine if seeing faces of smiling people could make people happier.

At UCL Advances, UCL’s center for entrepreneurship, we have started to see a proliferation of research-based apps for both quantified self and citizen science research. UCL Advances’ Digital Business Labs now helps support this sort of research activity, both within the departments at UCL and also with hundreds of digital start-ups that are now using services to support product UX, data analysis, machine learning or trial design.

This opportunity for universities to support the adoption of new technologies in the creative industries was picked up by Mr Miller. Brian kicked off a discussion with a salient tale of how the dominance of the quant/focus group culture had reduced the creative input on which the industry depends. He thought that the industry should be wary of financial drain on the creative industries if there is a sole focus on technical or scientific solutions.

Shared problems and skillsets

Miller's experience at Sense Worldwide demonstrated the value of building complementary teams and working on a common language to tackle cross-disciplinary problems. The problem is building HR policies to help identify the right skills. Against this backdrop it is hardly surprising that there is interest in what future technological trends will mean for workforce jobs and implications for policy (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011, 2014, Mokyr, 2013, Frey and Osborne, 2013) and this focus on different or emerging skills is something that we will come back to over the course of the AGENCY 2030 series.

Brian went on to give an example of how the innovation cycle this time round might present different challenges, where he discussed Boeing’s stage gate process – a 10 year process innovation cycle – with a false positive reduction bias (i.e. not bringing a bad product to market at the risk of missing some good products along the way). However, the innovation cycle in tech and ‘lean’ methodologies means that some products (particularly mobile) can be delivered in weeks, so finding new methods to work flexibly with different skillsets was critical – in particular Parashkev emphasised that marrying conceptual innovation with our new capacities to obtain data models would require new approaches.

The discussion came back to the role of narrative, brand authenticity, and how technology help could help or hinder – with a reflection on Francis Bacon’s observation that “I do not want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much … to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.” This lead to a discussion about whether profiling – rather than specific monitoring technologies – would likely lead to a more seamless experience. For example, would biological profiling be used to predict someone’s likely responses to a certain media – where would this information come from and what likely ethical implications for companies exploiting this? Parashkev’s take away was that the role of a biologist would be less in creation than in vetting, filtering what is and what is not likely to work on biological grounds, rather like a lawyer checks advertising copy in case it infringes someone’s copyright or libels someone. One possible emerging role was for an ‘Experience Biologist’ giving a view/opinion on how to make the overall consumer experience much more in-tune with how our brains work.

However, the consensus from the first event was that there were “no simple rules” – yet – for how to capture the new opportunities that are emerging. We’ll return to this subject later in the project by working with experts to put together a series of summaries about potential new roles within a creative agency and how that might change the structure of companies delivering the next generation of creative projects.

The next AGENCY 2030 event is on Monday 6th July. Please contact Duane Holland on Tickets are free but limited.