A New Kind of Agency

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Today, we were honored by our inclusion in AdAge Magazine’s Creativity 50, which spotlights the the year’s most influential and creative thinkers and doers. It got us talking about the future of “the web” and how product development is changing.

The Internet of Things has established itself and it’s ushering in the era of holistic, programmable, and responsive experiences. We’re moving past smart products to integrated products and integrated customer experiences. Not just in browsers or mobile devices, but everywhere. We are taking the Internet of things, putting it in place, and creating new context. Leaders are disrupting their industries by leveraging technology to develop wholly new services that integrate web experiences into the bricks and mortar.

Now that the availability of open source systems, sensors, ubiquitous hardware, and interactive displays has enabled new digital experiences in the real world, there needs to be a new type of services company that understands how to develop new business models, map them to consumer behaviors, bring them together with beautiful interfaces, and integrate them with core business systems. But… who does that?!

Who would you ask to connect the disparate retail systems of brick and mortar, e-commerce, and mobile into an omni-channel experience? Who could you talk to about using passive technology and big data to activate customers? Who would you call if you wanted to launch a new integrated product? An ad agency? Your IT team? One of the big consultancies? A product vendor? Ghostbusters?

The ad agency would come up with some amazing concepts, moving story, and beautiful visuals, but to make a production-ready product they’d need to pull in a bunch of contractors who are used to making marketing one-offs. Sexy? Probaby. But would it be scaleable or integrated?

The IT team? They’d plan to make it robust and integrated, but they’re resource strapped, encumbered by legacy systems, and lack the innovation practice to develop end-to-end products and experiences that customers clamber for.

The Big Consultancy would come with industry research and business models. But get out your checkbook, get comfortable, wait a year, and be ready for something thoroughly logical, predictable and lacking any and all sex appeal.

The search for your new product or experience in a box is hopeless. If you’re buying off-the-shelf, you’re getting 3+ year old technology made for someone else that’s available to your competitors. Brand experience is not a commodity. Technology is a competitive advantage again.

There is a new kind of innovation company emerging that uses technology to create new digital products and experiences in the real world. Some are being sprouted from agencies and some are hacker-maker shops. Smaller agencies like Odopod (now part of Nurun) are focusing on innovation. Traditional atom based product companies like IDEO are testing the waters. Even architects like Rockwell are creating labs to try their hand in this new segment. But here’s the deal: We love what they do, they all take on pieces, but we have yet to see anyone pull it all together and make it scale.

At Control Group we’ve brought the entrepreneurial B-Schoolers, the ones that launched startups instead of settling down into finance, together with pragmatic hackers from tech-arts discipline, the ones who wanted to make something lasting and with more reach than you can get in a New York gallery.  We brought the systems engineers, who embraced the cloud and automation and avoided the trap of big IT enterprise, together with the ad agency creatives who wanted to design something beautiful, but something with greater purpose than banners, micro-sites, and marketing stunts. We put this mix of creative, business-focused technologists in an open room and challenge them every day to collaborate to solve challenges and create breakthrough solutions. It’s exciting to witness the birth of this new organization.

There has never been a time where an agency like this could exist, where in a tight knit group, the skills, experience, and tools– the ingredients to make amazing immersive, business transformational products– could be found in one place.  With a sharp innovation and prototype process that ensures the successful development and iteration of products and experiences, we are set to help bring about this next wave of the co-evolution of humans and technology.

Interested in making stuff happen? Visit our Careers page.

 

Reinvent NYC Payphones: New Digital Activation of Old Infrastructure

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We’re really excited to partner with Titan to submit for NYC’s Reinvent Payphones competition, because it’s the perfect project to highlight how we think and work at Control Group.  One of things we’re focusing on right now is developing strategies for our clients to enable them to capitalize on the coming congruence of the digital and the physical.  But we’re not satisfied to simply strategize with them.  We’re especially interested in working with them to digitally activate their spaces.

Digital activation of space means designing and deploying sensors, touch points, and interfaces within built environments to transform them into computing platforms, that is, large scale input/output systems.  As such, these spaces can become aware of the actions, needs, and interests of the people using them, data about which can be used to design further iterations of the platform to make it yet more informative and useful – both for the consumer and the business.

We begin by looking for aspects of the existing infrastructure that are under- or unused in order to uncover their potential.  That’s what we discovered in the payphones.  While they still produce healthy revenue through ad sales, they also represent a large sunk cost that, from the perspective of functionality, are more or less ignored for being obsolete.  We then work to design a digital platform that is modular, extensible, and scalable in order to activate that infrastructure, putting it squarely ahead of the technology curve.

Digital activation is only as good as its sustainability, though.  It’s only of limited value if it simply becomes the sunk cost of the future. That’s why we deploy as many of our projects as we can using an open architecture, so that others can contribute to the platforms evolution by integrating the latest technology developments addressed to changing circumstances and expectations.

Technology Is About To Change The Retail Experience Forever

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Get ready for a vast array of real-world analytics and an armada of touch screens to invade your favorite brick-and-mortar shops. Advertising that targets you by age and gender, touch screens that let you check out, order from other stores, or return/exchange items yourself, dressing rooms that recommend a shirt that looks great with your pants; the shopping experience as we know it is about to change forever.

Brick-and-mortar retail hasn’t changed too drastically since the early days of the shopkeeper. It’s long been an experience based around tangible goods hanging on a wall, and a clerk behind a counter. Wooden boxes and coins have been replaced by cash registers and credit cards, and chain stores have moved the experience from the owner to an underpaid clerk. However, from evaluation of products to payment, the process of a retail purchase has looked pretty much the same for thousands of years.

Now we are about to experience a shift in retail moving from pure human interactions to interactions guided by technology-enabled physical spaces.

Three things have happened that will ensure a wholly different retail experience moving forward.

1. Technology is available to automate the experience

From sensors like RFID, cameras and mobile traffic to touch points like the iPad and integrated payment products like Square, the technology that can be leveraged by retailers has exploded in the past few years.  It is now trivial to have a computer recognize a repeat visit, accurately judge a person’s demographic and customize an experience for that person.

2. Consumers have changed their perceptions towards privacy and expect more from the stores they patronize.

The ability to predict buying preference based on age, gender and purchase history is perhaps the oldest and most fundamental sales technique. Since trade first appeared 10,000 years ago, the vendor with greater intelligence and a better relationship with his customer had the advantage. With products like Immersive Labs’ , customer demographic targeting becomes an automatable technique and retailers are starting to employ adaptive experiences based on real time video analytics. While there is some backlash, and the FTC has stepped in to offer guidelines, Customers have shown that they prefer to be marketed towards based on their demographic and history, it’s something they’ve come to expect from years of online purchasing and it’s about to break through the brick and mortar.

Additionally, for routine purchases, consumers are more comfortable using technology than talking to a human. Zipcar revolutionized the car rental experience by getting rid of the person behind the counter and replacing them with an app. Rather than being a help, clerks can stand between the customer and the product they want.  With customers finding better product recommendations and reviews on their phones, and checking out faster at a self service stations, the clerk becomes a gatekeeper and a potential source of frustration.

3. Retailers have recognized the benefit and are ready to make the investment.

Lower overhead, happier customers, higher revenues – it’s clear that technology, implemented seamlessly, is a sound investment.

Reducing headcount is at the top of the list of most companies of looking to minimize overhead. Decreasing staff has a compounding benefit; not only does it save salary expense, but benefits drop and associated HR costs, training costs, and administrative costs drop as well. If these new digital experiences allow this to be done while increasing customer satisfaction, there is an opportunity for a substantial return on investment.

Solving challenges like dwell time, loyalty, integrated online/offline experiences, or inventory shortages will increase revenues at an incremental cost. By using analytics to recognize implicit behaviors and capturing explicit customer interactions with touch screens and mobile devices, retailers can enhance a unified Customer Experience (CX) cycle that draws a common thread through marketing, e-commerce, in-store, and supply chain, driving an increase in bottom line.

Now begins the difficult task of defining the ideal experience for a given retail environment and a specific brand, assembling the ingredients to make it possible, and integrating it from supply chain to campaign.  The consumer will have a smoother more personalized experience, better customer service and lower prices.  The retailer will see a lowered overhead, greater sales and more loyal customers.  Retail is about to truly go digital and a trip to the market will never be the same again.

BYOD: A Built-In Disaster Plan

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The biggest shift in technology management in the past 20 years has been the liberation of technology from the hands of a central technology team into the hands of departments and workers. Now, central IT should focus on more important things like the policies and strategies that promote business goals and interoperability, and less on the management of how tools are used to get business done.

IT has the opportunity to be the force that puts new technology and capabilities into the hands of the staff, and not play the part of technology police, limiting the various lines of business by dictating what technologies they can use. The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement is the most salient example today and Superstorm Sandy has proven why it’s so important.  Allowing employees to work on their personal device, in a secure way, has 3 distinct advantages:

 

1. Employees choose devices and methods best for their personal and team workflow.

2. Employees take responsibility for their own productivity, eliminating the blame game between users and the IT department.

3. Companies are no longer dependant on central messaging, device provisioning, or management.


The difference between companies who used cloud based messaging and personal devices vs. those with traditional BlackBerry servers and data center-bound communication services, in many cases, meant the difference between a company working through the storm and a company that ground to a halt.

Similar to BYOD, decentralized, always-available services support flexible work schedules and locations. By allowing staff to work from home for a period of time during the day or week, businesses see a productivity gain from employees who enjoy the flexibility and a greater quality of life.  In addition, the business gains agility through a built-in disaster plan: when disaster strikes, failing back to working from home is hardly a break in the routine.

The technology that makes this possible is here. The number of products and services that support cloud computing, Bring Your Own Device, and enhanced worker mobility are a clear indication that the market is ready and the price is right. The challenge now is to change people’s perceptions about how technology should work. At the end of the day, the IT department should support an organization, not hold it hostage to old ways of working. Control Group strongly believes that we can use technology to transform business, products, and spaces. Let’s work together so that your business can weather the next storm.

The Digital Economy: Leaders of the New School

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1939 WPA Poster

The ground-breaking on Manhattan’s Academy for Software Engineering could not have coincided better with two events to prove how long overdue it is for a high school for the digital economy to open.

On the digital side of the economy you have the $1B Facebook purchase of Instagram, a 13 person company whose product makes your camera look broken. On the analog side of the economy you had Ducati, a company that makes some of the most iconic motorcycles in the world (with over $600 million in annual revenue), sell for just a fraction more. How can this make sense?

Now think about which company you would rather own: a nostalgic trophy company with thousands of employees that is anchored to huge capital investments in real estate, supply chain management, and inventory; or a company of 13 people with a growing community of 30 million users, minimal expenses and essentially zero cost for shipping a product to a customer. It’s no wonder that demand for analog machine operators is dying while the demand for digital machine operators is climbing. Unfortunately our education system is not producing skilled technologists fast enough to meet this shift in demand. TechCrunch recently posted on acompanyresortingtopanhandlingforengineers on the streets of SOMA, while the national unemployment rate is still way above average. This creates a losing dichotomy: where the cost of business climbs as skilled technologists command incredibly high salaries while consumer demand remains hobbled by the burdens of the analog economy.

Given the circumstances, one must wonder why it is that we can be 15 years post-Internet Revolution and we’re still not training enough technologists. We need a new New Deal. In the wake of the Great Depression we saw vocational and tech schools pop up like mushrooms after the rain. We needed the skilled workers to fuel the factories, public projects, and businesses that drove the economy.

This brings me back to the Academy for Software Engineering. It’s a rare thing to find a solid CS curriculum in a High School, let alone a school devoted to preparing kids for the new economy. So kudos to NYC DOE and the Bloomberg administration for making it happen, as well as to the private sector, including Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, to get this one off the ground. In classic private sector success, it took pragmatic tech leaders to realize that without a continuous supply of smart young engineers, there would be no one to staff their investments.

The fact of the matter is that this is just signs of the economy shaking itself out.  But it’s frustrating that it’s taking so long. Every city needs an Academy of Software engineering, and every high school needs a CS program, just as every city had a vocational school and every High School used to have a shop class.  Analog products and their many physical requirements are no longer as valuable as digital products. It would be nice if the education system and our political leaders didn’t take another 20 years to figure it out.

LinkedIn’s user rating is taking a hit over shady Android app update

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The pillaging of private data by mobile apps may be coming to an end as users are becoming more vigilant and savvy. Look no further than the growing backlash from the most recent update of the LinkedIn Android app. About a week ago, LinkedIn released an update with the note in the changelog, “Fixed several bugs reported by our members”, but said nothing about changing permissions. Bad move. The app’s user rating is taking a major hit.

While providing no new features or benefits, the app now requires “Read Sensitive Log Data”, which allows the application to access general information about what the user is doing with the device.  This could include personal or private information. But who knows what info they’re pulling or why? …LinkedIn doesn’t tell us.

With the growing spotlight on data and privacy issues, consumers are moving away from blind trust and more towards vigilance.  Like the public’s rejection of Path Intelligence’s tracking of cell phones in the mall, users are uninstalling the LinkedIn app and flaming it in their reviews.  Mobile app developers and firms like Path Intelligence could learn a few lessons from the browser cookie. While Path’s system and LinkedIn’s app take user information and offer no explicit benefits to the customer, cookies provide a more personalized, user-friendly web experience because of the data.  And they can be disabled. Privacy is a two way street. People are willing to give up some personal information to a trusted partner with the understanding that they’ll get something in return—and their information won’t be abused.

LinkedIn’s rating is dropping like a rock because they took their users for granted and figured they would install any update and accept any permission, even if there was no tangible benefit.  They have also failed to respond to the community’s feedback. It’s been over a week and they have yet to change the description of the app.

To fix this debacle, LinkedIn needs to jump in immediately and update their description with a solid explanation as to why they need these new permissions, and put it in user focused terms. However, rolling it back altogether would show a greater interest in protecting the privacy of their customers (who are, in essence, their products).

This is a lesson to all app developers, but especially those dealing with social features: The users are starting to pay attention. You need to treat your community with respect. Take only what you need and give more than you take… or get ready for the backlash.