MEDIA's Agency of the Year 2010: Shopper Agency: Shopper Sciences

A former retail CMO sets up shop

Emerging Media Lab

Picture this scene: A group of savvy Madison Avenue types huddle in a conference room to whiteboard a plan for creating the "agency of the future." The plan starts with recruiting someone who really understands how marketers are grappling with the way technology is altering how consumers shop for their products and services, say, the CMO of one of the nation's biggest retailers. Then take that CMO and immerse him in a new media lab where he will be exposed to the kind of bleeding-edge technologies that will further transform the consumer shopping experience and the ability of marketers to influence it. Scratch that, let's put the former CMO in charge of the lab and make him responsible for not just curating and researching such technologies, but for figuring out ways of applying them commercially. Then, after letting him steep in that role for a year, have him design a new kind of ad agency that combines his years of hands-on retail shopping experience with his proprietary knowledge about where new technologies and media platforms - the Facebooks, Groupons and iPhone apps of the future - are going to take us.

That may not be exactly how events transpired when Interpublic's Mediabrands recruited former Home Depot CMO John Ross, but the end result was the same: a year after running Interpublic's Emerging Media Lab, Ross launched Shopper Sciences, a retail-focused agency leveraging the best working knowledge about the role of media in influencing how consumers make the journey that ultimately leads them to grab one brand versus another from a shelf and put it in their shopping carts, whether it be in a store or online.

That journey, Ross has learned, can begin long before the media strategies that are typically used to encourage consumers to shop at a store are deployed and it can end in ways that extend well beyond the checkout aisle. The reality, Ross has learned, is that the consumer's shopping journey is a far more complex and multivariate experience than most marketers or agencies may actually understand and that concepts like the "marketing funnel" are crude tools at best. While technology is at the core of Ross' new agency, Shopper Sciences, his greatest asset is something far more organic - the human brain - and the systems and tools that can be used to understand how it influences the decision to purchase one brand versus another.

To understand that process, Ross has borrowed some knowledge from the field of political science. Specifically, Ross has incorporated some of the best knowledge on how voters go from undecided to decided when making a decision at the voting booth.

"How voters go from undecided to decided on Election Day is fundamentally the same process a consumer goes through when deciding what bank or restaurant or store to go to," he says. "It's basically a decision-making process based on influence."

Shopper Sciences utilizes sophisticated neural mapping techniques that can pinpoint when and where people make up their minds about brands and what media can influence that process along the way. Often, Ross says, it's not the typical "moment of truth" that marketers assume it is, an epiphany occurring as the consumer walks through the aisles of a store or reaches for a product on the shelf. The process can begin weeks, even months before the consumer enters a retail location. And that longitudinal process isn't just for big-ticket items, but can also be for something as seemingly impulsive as buying a prepared cake mix. In fact, Shopper Sciences' research has proven that buying a cake mix has less to do with obvious attributes like price, taste and convenience, but may be related to a bigger array of consumer expectations, like planning or throwing a party or commemorating a special occasion. And understanding that process, when it begins and how to influence it, can alter everything marketers and agencies use to influence it, from the design of a product, how it's packaged and the media they use to communicate it.

That's not to say that important decisions aren't being made at the end of the funnel, when consumers are actually reaching for a product off a shelf. To understand that process, Shopper Sciences has been working not just with Interpublic's media lab, but with another famous one, MIT's. But that epiphany also came from a surprising source: a technology MIT programmers developed to help teach autistic children how to recognize emotions based on the visual cues of facial expressions. Utilizing that software, Shopper Sciences effectively flipped the concept around and used it to program cameras hidden in retail shelves that could read the facial expressions of consumers gazing at a marketer's product to determine what emotions they were experiencing when they decided to buy it - or not.

What makes Shopper Sciences unique isn't that it is focused on what happens when a consumer is in a store deciding on a product or brand, rather it is focused on all the factors, including media and marketing, which lead up to and follow these purchasing decisions.

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