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From AI and CGI to smart devices and streaming platforms, the digital era continues to revolutionize our relationship with entertainment. Ahead of his September 26 Spikes Asia panel based on Havas Group’s latest Prosumer Report, “The Future of Entertainment,”Havas APAC’s Chief Digital Officer Darrell Nelson talks shifts in consumer behavior and passions, the most important product brands can make today, and why he sees his role as “everything and nothing.”

How did you get started in this industry? 

I have been living in Asia for about 17 years now, mostly in Tokyo but also in Hong Kong and a brief stint in South Korea. Initially, I actually came over as a professional rugby player, but after a career-ending injury, moved into the real world. 

Tell us about your role as Chief Digital Officer: What do you enjoy about it? What are your biggest challenges? 

The role of CDO is everything and nothing. Digital isn’t about channels and platforms, but about connecting and enabling people, so my role is more about enabling us to unleash the potential within Havas to help brands connect with their customers in new, impactful, and meaningful ways. 

I love the fact that, to keep up with the ever-changing landscapes, you can’t rest for a minute. This means that you have to be constantly either trialing new ways of working or coming up with ideas and actually inventing new things, if they don’t exist already. I am constantly changing hats depending on the project; one day I may be a strategist, the next a creative, the next a data person.

How do you explain your role to people not in the industry? 

CDO is a tough role to be in because, as I mentioned, essentially everything is digital now. That black, rectangular device you have either in your pocket or sitting on your desk right now has changed everything. It is a pretty weird title to have. I see it being more about creating better experiences for people that can impact their lives in a positive way. If we aren’t doing this, then we are just creating pollution (of which there is enough out there already).

Your panel at Spikes Asia’s “Let Me Entertain You” with UMG’s Janice Jose and singer-songwriter Charlie Lim focuses primarily on the Future of EntertainmentSo, what are the current shifts in consumer behaviors and passions?

The old brand model, which advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers, is a thing of the past. As consumer culture has accelerated at furious speeds and connectivity has moved from physical to virtual, we now have this weird blurring of lines. People no longer consume merely for functional satisfaction; consumption is meaning-based, and brands are often used in the construction of identities.

Entertainment sits at the core of this. How we experience content has vastly changed from a linear programmed screen to a vastly more interactive experience due to new platforms such as VR, AR, gaming, social, and many more. Brands need to understand that this new way of “experiencing” entertainment needs a whole new vocabulary and skill set to tap into the demand that is out there. 

How do these evolving demands from consumers change the ways brands approach creating entertainment and content?

Given how fast competitors can copy each other, the world of marketing has moved way beyond features, benefits, and simple entertainment. Successful brands are now creating value not just through the products or services they represent, but through the meaning they generate. Meaning, therefore, becomes potentially the most important product a brand can create today.

What is the responsibility of brands to consumers who see entertainment as a vital part of life, rather than as a way to distract and to pass the time?

It is important that we create value for customers that resonates with what we stand for as a brand. Younger consumers particularly can smell inauthenticity a mile off and will not only refuse to patronize the brand but call them out on it, which, as we have seen, can turn nasty very quickly. But if the brand can represent what it stands for in a way that resonates and is attractive to a customer, then they will not only flock to that brand but will allow it to become part of their identity. Take for example Supreme: They, along with a few other brands, have changed the game for streetwear. They did this because they realized that streetwear was not simply a trend within fashion, but rather the fashion component of a cultural shift that spans fashion, music, and art.

How do brands remain relevant in a world of constant clutter, competition, and consumption?

In order to be relevant to consumers and be sustainable over time, a brand must operate much like a culture. This usually exists at a point of tension. It is up to us to discover what that point is for the brand’s audiences and then work out how we can be a relevant part of exploring that tension and help the brand stand for something. 

What must brands do to reach consumers who are actively avoiding ads?

Obsess about our audiences, know everything about them, and create an ecosystem around the user that facilitates, rather than interrupts.

What brands are getting it right when it comes to the future of entertainment?

It is a bit tiring to keep going back to Nike, but they are consistently nailing it when it comes to connecting with their audiences. Whether it be plugging into cultural moments with product, such as in the recent Stranger Things collab, and then making it their own with product innovation, or putting out content that inspires (e.g., their Kaepernick campaign), they continually stay true to their core ethos established way back under CEO Phil Knight, which is that they “bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world” (*If you have a body, you are an athlete.). This unswerving, laser focus means that their communities don’t just tap into the brand, buy the product, and stay loyal—they live the brand as part of their identity.

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