The COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing mandate have dramatically altered the way we live and work. In March, MediaMonks, a SoDA member agency, released a report paying tribute to the many innovators around the world helping us find ways to move our lives and businesses forward while examining the role digital has played in connecting people through crisis. In a recent interview with Adobe, Sander van der Vegte, head of MediaMonks’ research and development team MediaMonks Labs, shares his perspective on digital transformation and the role innovation plays for brands who seek to engage audiences in unique, assistive ways.

Q. Tell us about yourself, Sander

A. For more than six years, I’ve been working for MediaMonks, a global creative and digital production partner, and as the Head of Labs, I lead our work that leans on R&D, emerging tech and technical innovation.

Q. Tell us about MediaMonks Labs

A. We’re in an age of hyperadoption where consumers are rapidly picking up and dropping new behaviors as technology changes. At MediaMonks, we’re known to thrive on the edge of what’s possible regarding digital production. In order to keep ourselves informed and provide our clients the insights and expertise needed to push boundaries, we do a lot of research. We also develop prototypes and partnerships to test new products and other technological advancements.

Sometimes this takes the form of inspiration sessions, which are obviously digital right now. We pick subjects with our brand partners that they may be curious about or interested in, but don’t yet fully understand. We aim to show and explain the potential of various emerging technologies, which builds a lot of trust, intrigue, even momentum. These are especially valuable and actionable right now and are compelling for brands looking to reach people in all-new ways to build connections in a time defined by social distancing.

On a related note, our monthly reports gather learnings from our experiments and share them with the public. Our research isn’t only for ourselves and our clients but is something that we want to share with like-minded people who find these things interesting. That’s an important part—being open about the work that we do.

Q. You recently released a Labs Report focused entirely on the incredible innovation taking place during the Covid-19 crisis. I love the focus on ingenuity when so much of our conversation these days seems to be around survival. Though the two clearly intersect, one seems so fear-focused while the other lens is inspirational. Thank you for taking the time to focus on the inspirational side.

A. Thank you, very much. You describe the same road we have been on. The pandemic turned the world upside down. Our report usually revolves around a prototype or demo we make specifically for the report. With the pandemic being an obvious theme, we wanted to develop something that can help others. We investigated what was already made and were surprised by the sheer amount of tech projects focused on solving a pandemic-related problem, small and big. It’s heartwarming to see the amount of brainpower collectively using their knowledge and experience to help a neighbor out. It deserves to be celebrated, if only as a relay to communicate hope. I’m thrilled you’ve noticed the report and are sharing it here.

A group of people playing instruments in a virtual room.
MediaMonks Labs Report: Innovations during COVID-19 

Q. As the report notes, “Even in these times shoulder to shoulder the show must go on(line).” How is your own team innovating differently right now?

A. Our team is scattered across the globe, so working remotely is not an issue. For some of our clients however, there is an immediate need to accelerate their digital transformation—a need to adapt. Those changes can be daunting for businesses, particularly if they’ve had a negative experience in the past with failed results. With our knowledge in tech, we help them onboard and speed up this process.

As for how we’re innovating differently, we’re pivoting our creative and production approach based on the rapidly changing needs of our clients. We continually track trends and assess client needs, which informs the work that we do in Labs. What’s needed right now? We notice a need for brands to adapt to meeting their consumers online, so we’ve become very proactive in demonstrating ways we can change conference calls, find creative opportunities for industries most affected by the pandemic, and solve bottlenecks with data compression.

Q. The current environment is definitely forcing us to be more inventive with the resources and tools we already have; a number of examples are highlighted in the report. What is one example, either in the report or not, that completely surprised you?

A. I’m impressed with how our Films team in Amsterdam has radically retooled its production style to continue producing high-quality shoots that are compliant with local guidance and regulations. The sanitized studio setup keeps crew members 6 feet apart from one another, while the director, producers and other client personnel oversee from a remote location. It shows how even when the world has profoundly changed, we’re still available to help brands achieve the quality they expect.

A less tangible example is the willingness to share, and the speed of communication. That really surprised me. While there is lots to be said about governments not responding fast enough, there is a countermovement going on of people’s ability to grasp the size and seriousness of the pandemic. Before, we have been seeing global issues that are too big to process. Even though you can rationalize the problem, the numbers might be too large to grasp. But for whatever reason, it appears that’s not the case for this pandemic. A sense of wartime survival instinct is instigated, one that is new to me. And as it goes, with the help of others you stand stronger. New methods to filter faulty news seems to be more efficient, and initiatives are starting to collectively produce what is immediately needed. It’s showing hints of a collective spirit, and it’s extremely exciting.

COVID-19 Safe Film Studio. Video credit MediaMonks.

Q. You mentioned you are head of MediaMonks Labs, what have you learned about the importance of leading through times of uncertainty? 

A. The need to stand together is big, and ironically social distancing is a big part of the solution. The contradiction couldn’t be bigger. For any team it’s important that no one is forgotten, and that everyone is listened to. The simple question, “How are you, really?” goes a long way. We couldn’t do our work without a daily check-in. That’s why it’s still important to maintain your team’s culture digitally, like hosting happy hours over video calls.

I’ve also seen the importance of keeping teams agile and motivated. We’d recently made a fun project that keeps track of how crowded the office cafeteria is, to identify the best time to get lunch. Now that everyone is working from home, that technology could be used in more inspiring ways to determine what locations are safe for social distancing. Being open to pivot ideas into new solutions like that are great for keeping the team motivated, on their toes and focused on what’s most relevant now.

Q. What lasting change(s) do you think this pandemic might have on the creative industry? On MediaMonks?

A. Digital transformation has always seemed like a vague and abstract concept, but with the speed at which the world has changed, including consumer behavior, brands are quickly recognizing gaps in their digital maturity and the need for innovation, making the process more practical and actionable. Brands that are in the right headspace can start to think about the long-term implications on culture and user behavior, and may be better able to compress digital transformation projects to prioritize those needs.

Creativity is going to see the greatest effect. Everyone is always trying to reach consumers, and the same is happening right now. You see certain brands faring well by the nature of their business, like streaming companies and gaming, who are ideally positioned to help consumers fill time. But if you’re in the travel industry, for instance, we’re going to have to get super creative to offer something interesting and useful to capture attention and offer value to consumers.

Last year’s “People Are the Places” platform for Aeromexico, which focused the travel booking experience on people rather than destinations, shows how brands can find unique ways to fulfill consumers’ desire for social connection. The platform impacted 20% of sales and took home the only Gold Cannes Lion for Mexico last year. Bridging the gap between creativity and technology is what’s needed most now.

Q. I have heard some say they feel a bit like this is forcing us to slow down and reminding us about what’s really important in life, and on the other hand I have people saying they’ve never been busier. How have you personally been impacted by these stay-at-home mandates? Any fun things you are doing to cope?

A. Work has thankfully been very stable. The topics might have shifted a bit, but there’s still lots to be busy with, per the usual. At home, I have started a Minecraft server and invited my nieces and nephews to play together. It’s a simple attempt to stay connected, but definitely worthwhile. I enjoy the opportunity to balance time with my family and with work.

I have hit one snag, though: the spacebar on my keyboard has stopped working, so today’s challenge will be to contact support and get it fixed.

Q. I think we will all have pre and post-COVID-19 images – what is your pre- and what do you hope to be your post?

A. Before COVID-19, we were busy playing with technologies like AR and computer vision that connected people together while on-location or at events. Now, we’re working on tech that better connects people at a distance. In a post-COVID-19 world, I would like to see that broader definition of connection—uninhibited and unconstrained by distance—remain, supported by technology.

In assessing a pre- and post-COVID-19 landscape, it’s interesting to see how the conversations around tech and innovation have shifted so suddenly. As priorities change, it’s possible that the pandemic has completely altered how tech in general will evolve, moving in a different direction than we expected at the beginning of the year.

Covid-19 illustration as a popular board game snakes and ladders with fun and bright colors.
Image credit Prabhat Mahapatra.

Q. Ending on high note – what is your favorite-of-all-time innovation? And why?

A.  Something that’s really amazing to me is how easy it has become to use machine learning. From a technical point of view, using machine learning with clients isn’t difficult anymore: it’s just a matter of finding the data set that you need and the system takes care of the rest.

Another innovation is the speed of processing video data and computer vision to enable AR experiences. The fact that purely based on images we can scan a room and detect the surfaces within—and the amount of instantaneous calculations performed in a mobile device to do so—is astounding, and opens up new doors to more immersive and lifelike digital experiences.

Thank you so much for your time Sander. It has been wonderful to hear your experience and gain some additional insight into the ingenuity taking place amongst these stay-at-home requirements. I am hopeful individuals and businesses alike will glean some actionable ideas to help them through this challenging time as well. You said it best in the beginning, “It’s heartwarming to see the amount of brainpower collectively using their knowledge and experience to help a neighbor out. It deserves to be celebrated, if only to communicate hope.” MediaMonks has always managed to be one of those companies that inspires. Thank you for that. And I hope your spacebar is quickly fixed!

In addition to the MediaMonks Lab Report we discussed, MediaMonks also released a report to help guide brands as they pivot and are forced to reassess strategies at lightening speed, (Re)Activate Customer Obsession. This provides brands with the initial steps towards building emotionally resonant digital experiences during a time in which audiences crave connection.

Head of MediaMonks Labs, Sander van der Vegte headshot in front of the camera.

An eighteen-year digital production veteran, Sander van der Vegte knows the possibilities of new tech like no other. As head of MediaMonks Labs, Sander advises major brands, IPs and agencies on the production of new digital builds. He has led the production of award-winning projects for clients such as Activision, Google, LEGO and Old Spice, and was behind the world’s biggest public AR experience, Into The Wild with Google, Lenovo and WWF. Before joining MediaMonks in 2014 as the head of games, Sander started his career in the gaming industry as a developer and journalist, later founding and directing a number of production studios including Green Hill and Coin-Op.