“It's funny,” she says, “how just one gesture can make such an impact.”
We've met at the cafe of the Crosby Street Hotel in lower Manhattan. It's a few days before Thanksgiving, and the dining room already bustles with extra guests. Noting the noise and my tabletop recorder, Teo asked the hostess for a quieter table. The woman lead us to a private drawing room.
Teo's fascinated by consumer behavior, and clearly revels in observing her own “user” experience. She notes how our hostess's gesture has ensured her future patronage to this cafe.
This past April Teo became Chief Experience Officer (CXO) at McCann-Erickson, one of the world's largest advertising firms. Founded in 1902, the agency now counts Nikon, Sony, Ikea, Staples, Chevrolet, and Mastercard among its clients. Teo's title is a first for the company.
“I see myself as an advocate for a consumer-centric lens,” she says of her role. “It's helping brands play an altruistic role. And having that deep empathy and understanding of what makes a consumer's life a struggle.”
When pressed on the authenticity of corporate altruism, Teo contends that altruistic intentions are now a necessity in brand culture. “I think that ten or twenty years ago you could survive if you held onto the belief that brands exist just as a business to make money,” she explains. “I think that now, if you look at what the new wave of consumers are valuing, the stats show that millennial consumers believe in buying products from a company they have some positive association with.”
Teo traces her interest in interactive technology back to early web chatrooms. She remembers using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), an early version of instant messaging, as a student in Singapore in the early nineties. “Here's a technology,” she remembers thinking, “that lets me reach out to people half way around the world. And these are real relationships, these are people I invited to my wedding. I guess I was just enthralled about what technology can do for you.” When she read about an M.A. in interaction design at Carnegie Mellon, it seemed like an obvious fit.
After graduate school Teo worked in experience design with Bell Communications, and Sapient, and a couple of consulting firms. She stepped into the advertising realm in late 2010 as Creative Director and Head of User Experience at the ad agency AKQA.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would land in an advertising role,” Teo remarks, shaking her head slightly. “I always saw it as as something that I didn't have the expertise for, and to be completely honest, I didn't think I was cool enough for it,” she smiles. “But I realized that there's potential for this industry to challenge itself. Just because things are a certain way, it doesn't mean they have to be a certain way. Because the world around us has changed.”
While the industry's most stalwart firms are gradually recognizing those changes in consumer expectations, the concept of user experience (UX) itself has become a dog whistle for progressiveness in the advertising field.
“I would would say that it's less about agencies specifying the need for user interface design,” Teo reasons, “it's more about them saying, 'Ok, there's enough chatter going on in the industry about this thing called UX that other newfangled agencies seem to have, and we don't, and we better bulk up on it.' It's extremely worrying for a lot of traditional agencies to feel like they've been left behind on the digital front.”
McCann-Erickson approached Teo after she had spent 15 months at AKQA, and asked her to fill their new CXO position. She started the job this past March.
In order to tackle a position that had no precedent, Teo says she spent her first few months at the agency just observing its inner workings.
“You have to know how things function first before you can make any recommendations,” she explains. “I mean there are accounts that have remained in the McCann family for 40 years. And so understanding the account structure, understanding how ideas get sold through to a client, they were all critical.”
She next set about familiarizing herself with the account leads, the people with the closest contact with clients. It was then that she started to customize her own philosophy of understanding and appealing to consumers to make it fit with McCann. She had come to an agency that had managed to succeed for over a hundred years without having someone in her position, and she had to reconcile with that history.
“I had to constantly check myself to see, 'Is what I'm defining already done by other people?'” she explains, “because for the longest time advertising has survived with out experience design.” She says she continues to make an effort to assure her new colleagues that while she brings a new skill set, she is there to enhance what they have already been doing. “I'm respecting what you've done for the last 100 years,” Teo says of her outlook, “I'm not coming here to change it around completely, but I do feel that respect needs to work in two ways.”
Teo explains that traditionally, advertising agencies can be divided into two positions, creative and planning. “You've got your planners who will brief your creatives, and then your creatives will execute against a big idea or finding. So I think what [my position] changes is it opens up those conversations and says, well who else do we need to invite to the table? And if we invite them, how can we invite them in a way that's additive?”
“I think that now there is a reawakening,” she says, “that someone really needs to speak for the user so that their views don't get snuffed out by other viewpoints that might represent other business needs.”
“At the end of it, my job is to advocate for people. I don't even use the word user, because user feels removed. It's about understanding people. Having a deep empathy for what matters to them, and then translating that need into some kind of a tangible finding. I think everyone feels like customer experience is basic knowledge, we all have a sensibility about this. But when you go deeper, what I find is that different people take away different things from what they observe and what they hear.”
Teo relies on field work, her “reason for being,” to better understand the consumer experience. That means talking to individuals about how they use products, the influences behind their purchases, and the sentiments they associate with those products.
She pulls up a chart on her iPhone. It tracks the process women report going through when considering new cosmetics products. She explains that it's not a linear path of seeing advertisements, rationally considering the product, then making a purchasing decision – plenty of other factors can disrupt that decision. For example, the advice of physician or cosmetics professional can trump all other influences.
Teo learned from this cosmetics usage research that many women are unsure of when their cosmetic products expire. “Now a brand could take that and run with it,” she says, “and say we're going to establish this app that lets you see when your products run out. And when things start to run out, the brand gets first dibs on establishing a conversation with consumers.” By helping a woman know when her makeup products are past their safe use date, the brand has an opportunity to earn her trust, and ultimately her loyalty.
As for the future of experience design in advertising, Teo expects it to expand beyond the realm of the agencies. “My prediction,” she says, “is that there will be someone like me on the client's side working alongside the chief marketing officer, maybe even the chief technology officer, because everything you do has a technology underpinning. I think that’s still five to eight years out, but I think more and more you're going to see a chief experience officer or a chief customer officer on the clients side. And I can't wait,” she adds with a wide grin, “I can't wait to work for people like me, but on the client's side. I think it will be a ton of fun.”
As soon as our interview completes, Teo leans forward to proceed with her favorite pursuit. “Okay,” she exclaims, “So tell me about you!” She's ready to understand one more person's experience.