How tech can help move us forward

By Rhys Handley, Monday 04 February 2019

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Hunched over her podium, Mary Portas let out an exasperated sigh. “Oh my god,” she said, opening her talk at ITG’s 2019 live event in Birmingham on 17 January. “The speed of how the world has changed!”

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The self-appointed ‘Queen of Shops’ benefits from a bird’s-eye view of a rapidly transforming, increasingly digitised marketplace. The world is shifting, and she can see the patterns in the confusion.

2019 is likely to see more change for the print sector and the businesses beyond; GDPR, automation and Brexit are all primed to make noticeable impacts.

For marketing services provider Inspired Thinking Group (ITG), the new year presented an opportunity to invite brands, including some of the most inluential print buyers in the world, to think broader than the specific challenges ahead.

ITG welcomed three speakers regarded as leaders in their respective fields, all with a proclivity for approaching problems sideways. It hoped the trio could offer guests a fresh perspective on their businesses and a new set of tools for 2019.

Physicist and astronomer Brian Cox took the stage first to introduce his audience to quantum theory and how understanding the building blocks of nature can foster an inquisitive and adaptable frame of mind.

“Thinking scientifically can teach us how to think about broader issues – why the universe is the way it is,” he said. “These may seem like impossible questions, but the key to scientific thinking is to start with smaller questions and build up a reservoir of knowledge to start answering the bigger questions.”

According to compère and business writer René Carayol, the net value of the 320 brands in attendance was in excess of $1tr – “one person here is from Amazon and then the rest is bonus.”

But his quip points to the financial clout behind the tech juggernauts, and few understand the forward march of tech like second speaker Randi Zuckerberg, who was drafted in at the ground floor on her brother Mark’s pet project, Facebook.

In her time as director of market development, she understood the influence of an entity like Facebook, and the pros and cons of advancing technology, more than most.

She said: “Something really special happens when people just go big, but we are afraid of sharing our most creative ideas. At Facebook, we put on ‘hackathons’ to encourage people to develop these ideas. 

“When you free up people to be their most creative selves, you get incredible ideas from people you would not expect. I came up with Facebook Live at a hackathon – now it reaches a billion people.

“But we must ask ourselves the tough questions about where we are driving with our technology; children can now live out their lives entirely through screens. We have the ethics of progress and how this will impact the world.”

Closing out the day, Mary Portas sought the happy medium that Zuckerberg desires: utilising the proliferating ingenuity of digital technology without losing the human dimension in an effort to rejuvenate the UK’s high streets.

“The biggest disruptive aspects of the internet are convenience and time,” she said. “Brands wondering what went wrong see it as a commercial issue rather than a social one, but high street shopping is about community. With data and AI, shopping is going to get more creative and interactive, which is brilliant news for consumers and entrepreneurial spirits, but this is not for the faint hearted. 

“The most important thing is that we have got to move forward with integrity, with things like sustainability becoming more important to customers. It will not all be digital; retail experiences are as much about having a conversation – human interaction gives energy.”

This pivot back to the real and tangible is encouraging for print companies who might worry the attending brands had their heads completely in cyberspace. There is still room for tactile, printed media in the marketing mix of the most forward-thinking businesses.

“It’s fair to say 10 years ago everybody thought print would be obsolete, and ITG was founded geared less towards it,” ITG joint MD Sue Mountford said at the event.

“But it remains a relevant channel, and it supported us building a business in the middle of a recession. We have a dedicated unit specialised in print and there is still opportunity to layer it into our client’s communications for the very best multi-channel blend.” 

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