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Q&A with Peter Williams of Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge


Q&A with Peter Williams of Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge


Peter Williams has one of the more interesting job titles we’ve heard for a while: chief edge officer. At Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge, his remit is to explore the fringes of business and technology, the potential for business and make sense of it for business leaders.

He chats with us today about the frontiers the Centre is exploring, digital and technology in fashion brands and how Australian retail can break its defensive mindset.

What’s the Centre for the Edge currently working on and what’s most exciting to you personally?

The stuff that I’m doing a lot around is crowds: how do we leverage crowds? How do we create movement? How do we drive advocacy? How do we get stuff done through crowds? The other one is what they call gamification. It’s seeing how people respond and engage through what we call game mechanics, the notion of levelling up or kudos or leaderboards or recognition. I’m doing a lot of work around that.

In the fashion industry there is some really interesting stuff happening around 3D printing, and I think 3D printing is just huge. And that’s what we do in the Centre for the Edge, we look what’s happening around the edges and say ‘wow, look at where this can go’. Part of our brief it to say let’s look around what’s happening on the edges and becoming mainstream and changing the way things happen, and this stuff ought to be on business leaders’ agenda, it’s just that they don’t get it, they don’t understand it, they’re not exposed to it. So we try and make sense of that for organisations.

There’s some good examples of ‘edge’ stuff in Australia. I talk a lot about Telstra’s Crowd Support. Rather than ringing the call centre, post it on Telstra’s Crowd Support and geeks like me will answer your problem. I’m still not quite sure why I do that.

But again, it’s got leaderboards and kudos and you level up. I think I’m a senior member of that community now, and it was because I had an exotic problem that I couldn’t get resolved through the call centre… so I went, bam, and got a great answer and did it and everything was fixed, but I tweaked it a bit and shared what I had done.

Peter WilliamsYou’re giving a talk soon at the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival Marketing Breakfast. What will you be talking about?

A lot of the stuff will be really about how companies, particularly fashion companies or people involved in the fashion industry, can really leverage technology to build much more engagement, much more community around what they do. I think that historically the industry has tended to be very festival focused, fashion TV focused, the trade media stuff, and while some have made some forays into the world of social media and things like that, they still tend to be very push type messages. [For example they say] ‘here’s a picture of our model wearing this’. What about a picture of one of your customers wearing that? It’s still very highly curated content, all very stylish and stuff, where what we’re seeing is people want some of that, but they also want to be able to contribute themselves, they want a bit more, what I call, ambient content.

The other things is the notion of what I call ‘unlearning’. Unlearning is you don’t have to have everything highly produced by a world-renowned photographer. Sometimes we just want to hear from the people in the back or we want to see the sketches of the original concepts and those type of things.

It’s not that hard, it’s not that expensive, but it requires a bit of a mindset change. ‘Hey, that will be interesting to people who are interested in what we’re doing’. As I say to people, ‘there’s a blog post in that’. And you probably walk past everyday stuff that happens in your environment and think that’s normal, but to the average person out there, they want to see some of that behind-the-scenes stuff.

Would you say the fashion industry has been more forward or backward than other industries in embracing this sort of thing?

I think, like any industry, there are stars and otherwise, but I do think that, particularly a lot of the smaller fashion brands that haven’t got a lot of heritage in the web, because historically it was quite costly and out of left field in terms of the technology side of the world. Sass and Bide, for example, they’ve got a very large following on Facebook and Twitter, and they’re starting to push into those channels, but it’s still fairly ‘I am pushing the photos that I want to’. Interestingly enough, and not that they’re high fashion by any extent of the imagination, but Supré have, for a long time, been really, really strong in terms of how they engage their audience. Obviously it’s a younger demographic, but pretty well everything they post calls for an interaction. They do a lot of, ‘Do you like this or this?’ or ‘Hey, here’s our new collection. What would be the outfit that suits you for what you want to do on the weekend?’ So there is a real lot of two-way interaction as opposed to just posting something without much of a call to action.

I think the other thing is it used to be bloody hard to set up ecommerce sites and all that stuff, but these days it’s really pretty cost effective.

Going back to what you were saying about opening up the brand, for example, with behind the scenes type content, is there a risk to doing that if your brand image is based on mystique and exclusivity?

I’m not saying doing a step by step – ‘This is everything we did in the process before we do the fashion show’ – but once we’ve done the fashion show, just open up a bit more, just share how you go about this or where your inspiration came from. I think people really like to hear that sort of stuff. And I don’t think it’s actually taking away the mystique, I think it’s actually adding to how they go about this and how they think about this.

Particularly, you might do something quite radical – what was behind that? Why did you do that? But I think that’s one of the big things for organisations to overcome is that they have this sort of perception that ‘we control our brand’, where in fact, your brand only lives in the perceptions of the people who want to engage with it. And I’ve been at pains with a lot of organisations to say that you don’t need to over-produce everything you do. Sure, have some great quality stuff, but also have some of that fun stuff.

And this is not restricted to fashion at all, is it?

No. And what we’re seeing, particularly in Australia, the ability of the Australian individual to absorb technology is right up there with the best in the world. So you’ve got a community and audience that have really embraced this stuff, but organisations haven’t been able to, perhaps, absorb the change as fast as their customer or the person on the ground.

But that also means that if you can start to build strong networks and communities around what you’re doing, these people have also got their networks. So the ability to amplify is something that active engagement through the social channels or through mobile, or even just leveraging and encouraging people to use social channels or mobile – because everyone who goes and buys a designer dress is going to be taking a photo of it when they wear it out.

An example, my daughter just had a 21st, she sent a link via Facebook chat to me about the dress that she wanted to buy from a fashion designer, and which was effectively sharing the video of the catwalk thing. But she was also sharing it with her friends, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of getting this dress. What do you think?’

So it’s the way that your customers or your potential buyers or advocates or your bloggers or your writers and all that stuff are all looking at this stuff. These people talk about it anyway, just encourage it or make a call to action, or highlight it. It doesn’t kill the mystique, but it makes it accessible as well. And somebody like me bought that thing.

I think there’s a lot of opportunity to take that content beyond the catwalk, beyond the highly produced images, and make it still the high fashion stuff but make it mean something to people.

Retail in general in Australia has been in a fairly well-publicised state. One of the challenges we’ve heard is in aligning online and offline in an omni-channel sense. What do you see as the way forward for the big Australian traditional bricks and mortar retailers?

I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think clearly if you’ve got a mass proliferation of lots of stores everywhere, clearly you’re going to have higher rent costs, you’ve got to staff it more and the online channel is the cheapest channel that you can deliver through.

Online retail makes up, what is it, 7% or something of overall retailing in Australia, and that will continue to grow at fairly rapid rates, and that might be 15 or 20% over the next five years. There will still be a bricks and mortar thing. But part of what I’ve been saying to a lot of people who have got bricks and mortar retail, start to think about that customer experience. To me, Wi-Fi is as basic a service as water, heating and lighting and there is this great myth that everybody is running around showrooming, taking photos of things so they can go and rip me off [by buying online]. In fact, my wife got challenged in a store the other day because she took a photo of a bed. She’s like, “I’m actually taking a photo to send it to my husband to say this is what I want to buy. Should I buy it?”

Mobiles and Wi-Fi are part of our lives, so it’s just embedding that into the shopping experience, and the person who is going to showroom was never going to buy it from you anyway, so don’t worry. But for the person who does want to use their mobile as a way of shopping or take a photo or pay, it is how we work these days.

I think the fear factor has driven a lot of the problem that we’ve got, that we face now, where retailers are all reticent about how they make the experience. I was in a store in New York, Guess, I think it was, with my daughter, and they just had an iPad at the end of the change rooms, so while I’m standing around waiting, I’m flicking through the iPad seeing what else they have got and what else she might like. Fairly simple stuff about bringing the technology into the environment based upon the way that people live and run their lives these days.

So it’s a change in mindset from defensive to embracing.

I’d done quite a bit of work with some of the major shopping centre owners and it’s basically saying to guys, ‘just Wi-Fi the joint’. People don’t want to go to a place where they can’t use the web or if the phone reception is dodgy or slow, or they haven’t got a lot of data left on their phone. Just make that experience because it’s what we expect, and people feel unhappy if they’re disconnected.

[Overlooking] digital is a major threat to be avoided at all costs. To digital is the way the world has moved, your customers have moved there, your employees have moved there, and if you haven’t, guess who’s wrong?


Peter Williams will be speaking at the L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Festival Marketing Breakfast next Friday 22 March.


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