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'Smart Signals' Drives Interdisciplinary Innovation

Arc employees create problem-solving projects using emerging technologies for internal design contest.

Emerging technologies are forcing the industry to evolve at an increasingly rapid pace. So rapidly, in fact, that what clients ask for "now" is often already outdated by what's next.

Observing this tension, John Florek, VP creative director, Arc Worldwide, was inspired to find a way to help creative teams stay competitive and knowledgeable: by creating products that use emerging technology.

"Almost every creative that I've talked to about innovation has a desire to learn about things like voice activation, Internet of Things, VR, AR, artificial intelligence," says Florek. "But the perception that there's a steep learning curve and the pressure to answer immediate client briefs often sends us back to finding solutions within our comfort zone."

Enter Smart Signals, an internal innovation and design contest inspired by Google's Paper Signals Internet of Things initiative, which allows anyone to build a voice-controlled paper object to track simple things, such as the weather. The not-so-simple goal? Build a physical object that uses internet data to provide information at a glance.

In a partnership between Arc and in-house production studio Greenhouse, Smart Signals launched in February and was met with more than 40 creatives, producers and developers who raised their hands to participate. Volunteers were divided into six teams, representing an interdisciplinary mix of art directors, copywriters and producers. Each team was also paired with a Greenhouse software engineer to support concepting, code writing and accessing the various data sources needed for each idea.

Smart Signals challenged teams to think beyond a template, collaborate across disciplines and create a new solution to a problem of their choice, using whatever materials they wanted. Each team had one month to concept their ideas, find a data source and bring it to all life.

Collaboration across the agency was a key driver for the program.

"While a huge part of this contest was about connecting our people with emerging tech, I also wanted to foster more connection between people from different accounts and creative backgrounds," said Florek. "I tried to mix up the teams so you were forced outside the comfort zone of solving problems with the same people you work with every day."

Altogether, the six entries used more than 10 data sources (many combining two or three), such as a meteor tracker, a visual emotion detector, sports schedules and an International Space Station locator, to name a few. In March, the entries were put to an agency-wide vote. The winning signal, "Feet of Strength," pulled up-to-the minute data from two executives' fitness trackers and displayed who was winning via two arms locked in a wrestling match.

For Florek, the enthusiastic response to the initiative and the broad range of creative problems the projects were able to tackle has been especially rewarding, and he is already laying plans for another group-based, hack-a-thon style event for the fall. Looking ahead, he hopes that emerging technology projects like these can be increasingly used to inform client-based work. In fact, one Smart Signal is already being repositioned for an existing agency client.

"Smart Signals was designed as an approachable way to spark curiosity and provide a hands-on playground for practice with emerging tech," said Florek. "The more tools we have at our disposal as creative problem solvers, the more effective we are at creating Irresistible Commerce for our clients."

June 14, 2018