When VMLY&R Health rolled out a slate of hires and promotions earlier this month, it touted the creation of a newly created role: chief experience design officer. Walt Geer, who joined the agency in 2020 as an executive creative director, has been promoted to fill it.
MM+M spoke with Geer about the evolution of the role and why it could soon be a must-have for agencies of all sizes and stripes. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
MM+M: What was the thinking behind the creation of the chief experience design role?
Geer: VMLY&R has always been rooted in digital and it’s the first agency to come out and talk about the fact that experience design matters. It’s baked into our DNA. When we moved into the digital world during the pandemic, there was this realization of how everyone can come together in more impactful ways.
I had been working as executive creative director on experience design for the past year and a half since I got to VMLY&R. [Global CEO] Jon Cook and Claire Gillis thought that it would be the best idea to ensure that, as we grow as a business experience, design has a seat at the table.
So what does a chief experience design officer do?
I’ll bring experience design, strategy, creative and science together to create opportunities that matter for people and save people’s lives.
At VMLY&R, we always say that we are an experience-led agency. Quite frankly, that’s what drew me in the first place. Throughout the 22 years of my career, I have always leaned heavily on the ad-tech-slash-publisher side of the world. Being in that space and then moving over into the agency space in the past three years, you see that so many individuals lack an understanding of transformative technology — the consumer journey, mapping consumer touchpoints, creating experiences that matter.
People talk about experiences, but we always say it’s about creating the experience that matters to an individual. That means you need to understand everything about who they are, what they do and where they go. Most of the time, creators will look at data and say, ‘Let’s build a persona on who this individual is and then build something that we think works for them.’
But experience design involves how you take that data and create dynamically generated solutions that are memorable and magical. You take that beautiful creative thing and figure out how to communicate to these individuals throughout their day.
Is this type of role potentially more impactful in health and wellness than it is in other verticals?
When we talk about regular consumer business — let’s say we’re talking about New Balance — we want to understand where consumers go, what they do, the things they purchase and where they spend their time, both in the real world and online. But that understanding changes quite frequently when you layer on health. Now you have an individual who’s dealing with cancer and chemo, or you have someone who’s post-chemo, or someone who’s 10 years out and starting to feel a little bit more comfortable with the fact that they’re safe. You look at an individual through these health lenses.
When a brand shows up to this individual, it has to do so in a manner that’s authentic — but more importantly, in a manner that shows we know who they are and that we understand what they’re going through. And that’s why experience design needs to be elevated across a global agency like ours.
What do agencies that don’t have this function miss out on?
Having experience design at the table means we are spending time focusing on creating opportunities at the right moment. It’s about knowing when the right time is to reach out to someone through Alexa or to engage someone through augmented reality or the metaverse.
Our job is to take these ideas and look across the real world and understand how people are engaging — but more importantly, to understand how they are going to engage a year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now.
We are moving to a space where we’ll wear technology everywhere we go. As wearables continue to evolve, we’ll move from typing and touching devices to conversations. Ten years from now, today’s UI designer in experience design is going to be a copywriter who understands the consumer journey, how to engage a consumer or HCP and how to open a two-way dialogue between the two.
What’s next in experience design? What are you looking out for in the months and years ahead?
A big one is wearables. There’s so much opportunity for wearables in understanding an individual’s health. Of course, there’s going to be limitations in terms of the data that we can get from people, so we’ll see how that goes.
And we’re at the very cusp of the metaverse. I like to say that where we are with the metaverse today is like where we were in 1999 with dotcoms: Everyone is scrambling in every single direction, and no one knows which way is the right way to go. Eventually, we will see a standardization take place.
The metaverse is more than just headsets or mobile devices. It’s a space with multiple platforms and portals that allow us to get there. And with health and even mental health, to be able to create a world that someone can step into and feel included in and welcomed can do so much. We’re still a ways off, but it is something that excites me for sure.