Christian Harris (Accenture): “Trends need to bring value. If they are just buzzwords, they won’t stay”

After studying Advertising and Business Communication, Christian Harris started his career as an Account in creative advertising agencies such as Leo Burnett (Publicis Groupe) and BBDO (Omnicom Group). After 4 years of growth as Account (from Intern to Senior Account Executive) on global customers like Procter & Gamble and Wall Street Institute, he moved to Google Ireland where in 5 years gathered different skills related to people learning & development, digital advertising, people management and product development. After that, Christian worked as Director of Customer Success in Persado, AI-generated marketing language cloud in the CNBC 2017 Disruptor 50 list. He is currently Senior Manager in Accenture Interactive, leading the Digital Media team for Italy, Central Europe and Greece.

I had the chance of meeting and talking to him after his presentation “What’s left after a 400+ innovations’ wave” that took place”, during a private Accenture event in Bucharest. Here are some of the most interesting topics we tackled.

interview by Romanita Oprea

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What made you choose this field of activity and not something else?

16 years ago when I had to choose my University, as you can imagine, I got different many suggestions from different people. My parents wanted me to get a degree in Economics, so I would get a secure future that was their point of view.  But one day, one teacher, asked us during an open day to bring home all the digital brochures we could find that day, scroll through them and see which one gave us an emotion. And that kind of decided my path as my first job was in an advertising agency – at Leo Burnett. Scrolling through the pages of a magazine, the advertising that drove me and got me emotion was most often a Leo Burnett advertising campaign.

I think it connects well with my presentation, because without knowing that I will be speaking at this event, 16 years later, it was all about emotions and me and what I was feeling from those brochures or watching advertising.

So first you worked in ATL and then you went into digital, no?

Yes.

And you first went to BBDO and then Google. Were you doing digital at BBDO as well or did you start at Google?

Actually, when I was in BBDO I did my first digital project and I realized I didn’t know much about it. Google was involved in the project and I realized I have been working for 6 years in advertising already and I only worked on offline advertising and I could already feel very clearly that the ecosystem around was changing dramatically. Google and Facebook were already a big thing, therefore I realized it was much more to the world of communication then TV, printing and outdoor, as very important as they are still today, so many years later,  and I realized that Google was a great company to be working for and I applied and I applied again and so on.  There were three years until I finally got hired.

Therefore, perseveration is the key.

I teach at University and when I talk to young people which I love to do, I am still young (34), I always say that if you put your head behind something, you have a very good chance of achieving it. I would it’s a basic idea, but I strongly believe in it. Perseveration is very important.

What other learnings would you share with the people that want to enter right now in the advertising world?

First of all, if you have a lot of energy and you don’t want to get bored, want to see a lot of stuff, try applying for Accenture. And I am not saying that because I have to do the work of the HR, but because it’s really a company where you don’t get bored. You see and learn so many things every day that is very exciting. I am saying it because I mean it. Previously to Accenture I worked one year in a start-up where I was really demotivated due to the fact that I was doing almost the same things every day.

If I have to think holistically, in general, I would say that you could follow my way of thinking things: try to choose something that speaks to your emotion, and, at the same time, put a bit of rational thought behind it as well. Try to think if you are investing your time on a trend – is it realistically the trend of the next years? Because I think that this is where the most of the fun will happen: you can still do advertising for a very traditional company, if you pick that career and you can still try to do it in an innovative way. That in the case that you are in the position of influencing the company and, if you are not, you can still try and influence your peers, your direct manager. Always try and do thinks creatively and smart. If you are in a traditional company it may be just a small drop in a big ocean, but it’s a start.

If we are talking about trends, what do you say are the ones that even they were considered to be next important trends didn’t live up to their name and expectations? The ones that didn’t prove to be real trends.

When I was working at Google we had this internal claim that we have to be a mobile first company. Something that proved to be difficult and the mobile trend shifted quickly towards AI. Right now it’s all about AI (Artificial Intelligence).

I think that what will really stay, in terms of trends, is what will bring value to the customers, to the humans. So if we take this AI in a very digital, technical, far from the customers’ way, we might be talking again in 5 years and we will see no difference. Trends need to bring value. If they are just buzzwords, they won’t stay.

One trend that would have not expected to become so big was the one Ashley mentioned about silence. To me it seems that we live in a world where noise and input are increasing exponentially, why I feel this trend should and will become more and more important. So, sometimes, less is more. And I heard about cool places where I would love to go and where you can enter, leave your mobile phone in a locker and just enjoy the human beings around you and the drink, food and music.

So how do you think that technology can actually bring emotion? Because when you usually think about technology and digital, you don’t think about emotion. And can you make them last?

In technology, the memory and the emotion need to solve a burning need. I will give you the most simple example in the world: I lived 5 years abroad, away from my family, my best friends, my home country. It’s not easy, but it was a lot of fun. And it was technology and the brands out there that were able to give me a video call with my family and I could see their faces, they could talk to me, they could turn the camera and show me the cat that was jumping on the wardrobe and things like that. With just one click of a button that technology connected me with my family and now when I think about living abroad I think about that software and the emotion it brought us. As simple as that.

In your presentation you gave a lot of examples from banking. Are you specialized on banking and what other fields are you specialized in?

In Accenture we have almost any specialization you can imagine, financial services is just a big one. I am not from our financial division, I work holistically across all industries, so I don’t feel I am a financial services’ expert, I used those example because I wanted to talk about human centric experiences and, plus, because of the audience being partially from that area. I work on digital media and I definitely left my offline hat behind for a while, but I think that as professionals on digital media we need to know the offline as well.

The online to offline experience that is not a trend anymore already shows us that we need to know how to connect the two things, in order to get the best customer experience. Otherwise we tend to disconnect from the customer.

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How do you convince a client for a more courageous idea when he /she is very reluctant?

Regardless if I speak on behalf of Accenture or myself, I try not to position myself or the company as the ones that know the truth: this will work and this won’t work. Because it is not like that.  We always make guesses based on assumptions, on trends, but we cannot be sure entirely. What I say to a client is that sometimes you should take example from your competitors. 99 % percent of the time it works. When it doesn’t, we show them business results. From similar industry or industries, from companies that already took that journey and saw some results. Show them the KPIs that count the most for them. And try to link that innovation to their objective.

When you try to push too much innovation down the client’s throat, it won’t work. You need to tailor the solution as much as possible, to their budget, and have them have a taste of what you are trying to bring them to and, eventually, you will be able to convince them.

What is, in your opinion, the most important innovation in digital in the last years and why?

All the innovations that are related to video are of great interest to me. I know that there are some Virtual Reality sistems that don’t make you nosious or dizzy, which will always be my block between me and technology, due to the fact that I feel dizzy quite easily, and I think that this is mind changing. There was an example of how you can configure your BMW from your kitchen, you care really design your whole car on your mobile phone, see the car in front of you, and you can even go inside, move around, and when you finally go to the branch they know exactly about what you designed and they can help you better. You can also share your ideas with your friends, etc.  This type of things are really cool and actually make a difference.

I think that those things that bring digital to the real, concrete world and are useful, those are the innovations that stick in lots of people’s minds.

Where do you find your day to day inspiration?

When I wrote my introduction to Accenture I said that I like the people that do more than digital, therefore I extract my day to day motivation and inspiration from people I interact with. Unfortunately, when you are so sensible to people around you, sometimes you can also become upset, because not all the people around you react or act as you would want them to. I go for the claim “choose kindness”, I believe that you can go whenever you want or you are needed and at the same time choose to be kind with the people around you.

You talked a lot about the importance of culture. Do you believe that with the technology and digital being so universal, do you see people reacting to it differently depending on the culture they are from or the part of the world that they are from?

You remember that some years ago we were trying to develop the marketing strategy around “personas”. But it turned out that knowing only the sex and the age it might be confusing, you really cannot know what they want. I am a different persona every day, depending on the interaction I have with the other people, on the music I listen to, what I read in the morning, what I eat, etc., therefore I think that is what we should be mindful of: not just a single persona for a whole week, month, year, etc. We change every time, so it’s more about understanding the trends, understanding the needs and where to reach your targets, that is what really matters. More than gender, language, origin, etc. I think this is an importance message: we are all the same. People are a sum of interactions, values, faces, sounds. That is the world we are living on now.