Voice technologies will change the way we interact with the internet: Norm Johnston

The digital world of the future will scarcely resemble the world today and the challenge will bring many opportunities, says Norm Johnston, Global CEO Mindshare FAST & Global Chief Digital Officer, Mindshare

e4m by Abhinn Shreshtha
Published: Nov 6, 2017 8:58 AM  | 6 min read

Norm Johnston, Global CEO of Mindshare FAST and Global Chief Digital Officer, Mindshare, has been a trailblazer in digital marketing. In Mumbai recently to speak at the exchange4media Conclave, we caught up with him for a discussion on the future of digital and the challenges still facing digital marketers. Excerpts:

1 You were among the pioneers in digital marketing. How has this space evolved since those early days?

When I first started, there were no standards online. There were just simple banner ads and digital media spends were just 0.005 per cent. It was all new, we were making it up as we went along because there were no rules. If you see now, you have mobile come along which has pretty much changed everything and then you have markets like the UK where digital spends are more than 50 per cent. The forecast is that, globally, digital spends will be 46 per cent by 2020. It has just fundamentally changed. When I started off, Google did not exist, Facebook did not exist and now you have these big, dominant players. China, which was not even on our radar during the early days, is possibly the biggest digital innovator.

I think it will change even more in the next couple of years as the pace of change is extrapolating and when you look at things like AI, VR, VR, voice, etc. we really are at just the beginning of the journey.

2 New technologies like Amazon’s Alexa are changing the way consumers interact with devices. How does this impact marketers and agencies?

I think (the entry of) Amazon is great. We need more competition (in the digital space.) You can almost feel Google and Facebook sucking up the oxygen in the room. 90 per cent of the growth in digital advertising over the last couple of years has gone to these two companies. Outside of China, they control 75 per cent of all digital. So, I think we really need some new players in this space. I think the emergence of Amazon and, arguably, the emergence of Oath is healthy and we are also looking at China and what Alibaba and Tencent do. Their own ambitions are really bold. They don’t want to be just a Chinese or Asian brand but want to grow elsewhere too.

3 You have spoken about how only 5 per cent of connected devices by 2020 will have a keyboard. Is this a challenge?

It is a huge challenge because the way you interact with brands will be fundamentally different. By default, you will need to use voice to talk to the device and the brand itself. In the US, 32 per cent of new mobile connections are cars, not smartphones. It (voice technology) changes the way we do search because of the way you search terms via voice is different than when you type out a query.

Of all the things that I see happening over the next 5 years, voice and the way we interact with the internet is probably one of the biggest changes.

4 Mindshare has been a big proponent of adaptive marketing. How would you explain the concept of adaptive marketing?

Adaptive marketing is actually based on a quote by Jack Welch. He said, “There are only two sources of competitive advantage - one is the ability to know more about your customers than your competition and the second is the ability to act faster on this information than your competition.”

It is our belief that, with the internet, you are sitting on the world’s biggest focus group. You have more information and with digital channels, the ability to act much faster on this information.

5 How do you ensure that a huge organization like Mindshare remains nimble and agile in this digital age?

We have to disrupt ourselves. It is not easy and it is uncomfortable at times but what I keep reminding our people is that there are two people in a garage in Bengaluru who are completely ready to undermine our business and disrupt it. You now get into areas like AI, where based on the data, around 50 per cent of the jobs will be lost in the next 10 years due to AI in the US.

What you need to understand is that even when you lean into these areas of disruption, it does not mean that something like an AI will take over the world; we will still need people. For all the great things AI can do, it does not come up with brilliant ideas. When we look at disrupting our business it is about recognizing the reality. We not only keep pace with it but try to accelerate beyond it and then create a structure around that future.

6 What do you think are the essential elements of a media agency of the future?

The essential elements of a media agency of the future is to manage and manipulate data. The nature of the people we hire has fundamentally changed where we now hire people who are comfortable with this. Another thing is a comfort level of coming up with new ideas rather than having people to tell you exactly what to do. I think what clients also need are people who will help them navigate what is becoming an increasingly complex ecosystem of things that need to be understood. Every week, Facebook, Google, WeChat, Snapchat, Alibaba and more develop a new product, function or feature. So, we need people who can take a look at this constantly evolving ecosystem.

7 What would you see is one of the biggest challenge in digital marketing right now?

I feel there is a constant tension in digital marketing, maybe because of the pace at which it is changing. We are constantly making sure that the foundation elements are strong. This year has seen a lot of it where we have worked to ensure that we have the right metrics, we have third-party verification, we have good viewability, brand safety and we’re tackling ad frauds.

For me, this is the biggest challenge, because if you do not do these things, you run the risk of killing the goose that is laying the golden egg. If you look at ad blocking for example; it has seen double-digit growth with over 600 million devices globally that have some form of ad blocking. In our industry, with our eagerness to advertise online, we can annoy people.

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