2. August, 2022

The Optimizely Podcast - episode 22: Tech for good (featuring Digitas)

The Optimizely Podcast welcomes Rafe Blandford, Chief Product Officer of Digitas, one of Optimizely’s partners, who will be discussing how the company is using tech for good. Click below for more.

Transcript:  

Laura Dolan:

Hey everyone! Before we jump into today’s episode, I want to remind you that registration for Opticon 2022, Optimizely’s annual flagship conference, is still available. The event will be back in-person this year in San Diego, CA from October 3rd through the 5th. So please go to optimizely.com/opticon to save your seat! Again, Opticon 2022 registration is still open, so if you haven’t already, be sure to get your tickets now at optimizely.com/opticon and hope to see you there!

Laura Dolan:

Hello everyone and welcome to this episode of the Optimizely Podcast. I am your host, Laura Dolan. Today we are joined by Rafe Blandford, who is the Chief Product Officer of Digitas, one of Optimizely's partners. And he will be discussing how the company is using tech for good today. How's it going, Rafe?

Rafe Blandford:

It's going very well, thank you, Laura. Although as we record this, there's a bit of a heat wave happening in the UK. It's a proper heatwave, getting up to 40 degrees celsius. So sweltering a little bit, but that's absolutely fine for a podcast as it's just going to be audio.

Laura Dolan:

Goodness gracious, yes. I hope you have some windows open for a cross breeze, because that sounds horrible. Oh my goodness. Yeah, it's raining here in Ohio today in the States, but it's very humid, so it's kind of steamy outside. So it's like that steamy, heated rain, and it just doesn't feel very good. But yeah, I guess I can kind of relate.

Rafe Blandford:

I feel we've done the polite thing, especially as you're talking to someone in the UK where we always talk about the weather as our small talk in conversation. But I know there are some other topics you want to cover today.

Laura Dolan:

Yeah, we'll just jump right in then. Please tell me a little bit about your background and your history with Digitas.

Rafe Blandford:

Sure. As you said, I'm Digitas' Chief Product Officer. I've been at Digitas eight years, just over. I started as a mobile strategist and worked in our mobile team, and have been fortunate to sort of come up through the ranks and now sit in our kind of technology team.

Rafe Blandford:

And as the chief product officer, I look after our product and our technology teams and what we call our products and platforms proposition, which is really just a way of saying where we do product delivery, things like marketing and technology as well and data. And really that translates into building world class products and all the things that sit around them. From envisioning the strategy that goes behind them, through to managing them and optimizing them on an ongoing basis. And as you said we're one of Optimizely's partners, and we're very proud of that relationship because it's important to be able to build the best quality products, and you rely on the best quality enablers underneath that.

Laura Dolan:

Absolutely. How long have you been a partner of Optimizely?

Rafe Blandford:

I think it goes back before my time, so it's at least 10 plus years.

Laura Dolan:

Fantastic.

Rafe Blandford:

We have built, and have had many things over the years. And I think as with all technologies, we go through cycles of things that we've been doing. Our focus has always been on the kind of experience platforms. And of course now you tend to talk more about composable tech stacks with headless CMSs, but also the marketing technology as in the use of smart data and technology that is not just about personalization on the platform and stuff that I think Optimizely has its heart, but also increasing what Optimizely is doing around acquisition, retention, engagement. And so that's the change that we've kind of seen in that core product delivery function. But of course also the world has got more complicated. It wasn't just mobile in the last 15 years. We're now looking ahead to all those other things.

Rafe Blandford:

And so, when we talk about what we do as an agency, absolutely we're about product delivery, but we talk about connected experiences. And the importance of getting future ready. And that's because I think you have to take that wider view now, as well as product and platform, we have customer engagement and communications and medium. And those kind of represent the three stages of the product life cycle. And so my responsibilities are also to tie those together, and take that kind of product thinking view of the world, which I think is a really important thing. Because it enables you to think in a way that moves beyond just that sole delivery or that project. You've got to be more holistic in your approach.

Laura Dolan:

Awesome, yeah. It sounds like we have a very robust history. That goes back before my time too, I've been with Optimizely for about a year and four months. Today we are going to talk about tech for good and I'm excited to hear what your plans are. So in your own words, please tell me what you think tech for good means and how your company is involved with such an endeavor.

Rafe Blandford:

It's a great question. I think it's a phrase that gets bandied around a lot. And really, I like to think about it in terms of a simple definition. It's the intentional use of technology to have a positive and measurable impact on the world. And I think you can talk about social, economic, environmental impact, but really it comes down to positive impact and how you choose to measure it. And it can come across in different ways. And so from a Digitas point of view, it's to try suffuse that into our thinking, and that can be what you are going to do, moving away from maybe the purely commercial. It's also about the way you do things. And that can be everything from how you do prioritization for a project or for a product, through to things like inclusive design and accessibility.

Rafe Blandford:

And it can also be about how you do things. So when you actually get to the execution stage, and that includes solution design, like looking at infrastructure, the way you make that sustainable or environmentally friendly. But I also think you can take a step back from all of that and go, are there things that you can do, that otherwise wouldn't be possible to have that impact that is positive? I think it's when you talk about tech for good, it's tempting just to go to those big projects and think about those things. But I actually have a fundamental belief that you can have tech for good spread through anything that you are doing. The level of impact will change. And as kind of technologists and as product people, we actually have a responsibility to try and push that, because it's often commercially a good thing to do.

Rafe Blandford:

And especially these days, it's becoming more and more present in corporate social responsibility. It's also the right thing to do. And so much of what we do is based on people and their skills. It's also something that I think can be very attractive to people working on a problem, and that itself can have a positive impact right across the board. So, while I would hope it's driven mostly by good intent, there is absolutely a reason to do this that extends beyond that. And so it's a smart thing to do. It's pretty rare actually, to have all those things line up in terms of being kind of the right thing to do morally but also then the right thing to do from a commercial point of view and for sustaining those experiences or products that you are building and the teams that build them in the longer term as well. And so when I talk about tech for good, it's not a single thing, it's a mindset that you take to delivering digital experiences.

Laura Dolan:

And what are some of the ways Digitas is helping some relevant issues happening in the world right now? Is it applicable to what's going on with the environment or society? How is tech for good being applied to those?

Rafe Blandford:

It's a great question. We tend to think about it in three different areas. Societal, sustainable and equitable. I can give you an example for each of those. So, for something like societal, that is looking at how you can have a positive impact on society. And I think purpose is an incredibly popular word to use here in a lot of companies and brands are looking to do that. And I think that's a positive thing. For one of our clients, EE we built PhoneSmart, which is an online learning platform for children who are just getting their first smartphone to understand what the dangers of that could be. And that's around online safety, but also cyber bullying, the danger of sharing pictures. And the way we created that was to create episodic content. And as a learning platform, you step through it.

Rafe Blandford:

And it's based on a kind of visual style using comics, but it uses kind of a narrative or examples to talk children through that. And part of that is asking questions to make sure they retain that knowledge. A very common thing to use in an online learning platform. But as part of that, they are working towards their PhoneSmart license. And so there is an idea that there's a target to get to, and you can track your progress and the accounts are set up by parents and the children can log into them. And that's something we've done with our partner, EE, because it is part of their purpose to have a force for good or use tech for good, if you will, in what they are doing and how they are positioning themselves. So in this sense, it's kind of generating a real impact by using content and that online learning platform to put societal purpose at the heart of what EE are doing. You can then talk about the sustainable part of that.

Rafe Blandford:

And this is something that we kind of build into everything we do, in that if you build things properly, they will have less environmental impact. And the simple thing to talk about there is kind of page weight and how much bandwidth is being used. And that's important because that consumes more energy, which has a direct cause of impact. But I think that's a fairly common thing to do. And frankly, things like inclusive design and accessibility all add up to that. So that's kind of something that should just be in the DNA of any responsible organization and building things. But we've done and introduced a kind of tool or process that allows us to assess and give sustainability and carbon impact scores to our clients' as part of an audit process. And that encourages the reduction in wastage through smarter content.

Rafe Blandford:

And that can be something really simple, like image rendition. And you can do that with Optimizely and it's a surprising number of clients who don't do that, and it has a performance benefit. But it's also looking at something that can be more complex, which is for example, the infrastructure that websites get served on. A simple version of that is Greenhost, but actually for more complex cloud setups, you can often be talking about many servers. If you are scaling to millions of users, it can be tens or even hundreds of servers. And if you architect them in the right way, you can significantly reduce the amount of energy or the amount of servers that get used. And so, when we talk about doing a sustainability audit, of course, we look at it at that top level in terms of page weight, in terms of design, but we also go all through the tech stack and making sure things have been done in the right way.

Rafe Blandford:

And actually our experience suggests that you can only get so far with the savings from kind of page weight and sustainable design. Mostly because people are pretty good at doing that now. And actually that's not the big part of the energy equation for digital experiences. Whereas if you look at the kind of baseline of cloud, even moving to the cloud itself from on-premise can be very beneficial. And then if you can optimize cloud and have it more scaling up and down, that introduces very significant savings. But that can also be about the way the organization operates on something like data retention. And many people have heard the statistic that 95% of data that is captured is never used again. So, modifying your data retention policies maybe to drop things after 90 days for certain types of products, can have a significant impact. That's where I think we've had the biggest impact from the sustainability point of view.

Rafe Blandford:

And yes, we do things that are associated with that in terms of the kind of logistics. Sometimes that can be agreeing to walk to the client's office rather than catching the taxi or public transport, and those kinds of commitments. And we have that, as most organizations do, to get to net zero goals by 2025. But I think the place where we can have the biggest impact is in our work. And then the last example would be equitable. Which is a generic way of talking about fairness. And the example from work I'd give here is, we created an anonymous CV tool actually to use within Publicis group, which is the holding group that Digitas sits within. And what this does is, it gets some way to removing unconscious bias, because what it does is it anonymizes the CV by removing certain characteristics. And that can be things around education, gender, age, and a few others.

Rafe Blandford:

And what that does is, it means in theory, someone who's assessing those CVs is looking very much at the skill set and the experience rather than any other factors. It's really hard to put an impact on that, but we've put three and a half thousand CVs through that system. And I think it's been an important contributor to having improved our hiring processes. We've made that available as open source and it works with smart recruiters, which is one of the popular recruiting platforms. And so other people will be able to take that work and either use it themselves or, as with other open source, build on top of it. And so those three areas are probably what we talk about. And we think all of them have an impact on the effectiveness of our work. And we try to measure that and show that to our clients.

Rafe Blandford:

And the important point there is not any one of the projects. It's thinking about that from the get go and making sure it's a priority. And sometimes that means making a case for why it needs to be considered or why it's important, against all the other things that also need to be done. But more often than not, it's actually saying, "We should do it this way, or we recommend you do it this way." And sometimes it will be totally cost neutral or in the longer term, it can actually offer a cost saving. But as with a lot of things you have to say, "This is tech for good and what we're doing." As a digital agency, a lot of our role is to act as partners and strategic advisors to our clients. I think we're in a very happy situation where these things are understood to be important, probably far more so than 10 or 20 years ago.

Rafe Blandford:

And so it does feel like we're pushing at an open door. Of course, it still comes back to the commercial reality of when something needs to be done by a certain deadline. But I think where you can be most successful with these things is work out where it can be attached to things that you are already doing. Because there's typically a much easier case to make there than something from fresh, and don't get me wrong. Big new initiatives are also important, but for me, that's been a shift. Because you can go out into the world and see loads of examples where technology has been used for good. I'm a bit of a tech utopian. I see that as a way forward. It's much harder building that into the existing work, and trying to advocate and push for that. I believe it's a responsibility we have as a digital agency to do that, to be a good partner to all our clients.

Laura Dolan:

Yeah, sounds like you guys are doing a lot, especially to mitigate the digital footprint of your products out there. Because let's face it, any product we come up with or anything we do does take a lot of that literal bandwidth out there. And so yeah, that's amazing. When you make these adjustments to your products, do you find it has an effect on their performance, or do you feel like people would notice?

Rafe Blandford:

Yeah.

Laura Dolan:

If you've made any of these technical adjustments to make it more conducive for saving energy and things like that?

Rafe Blandford:

On the sustainable side, generally when you do these things, it actually improves performance because most of the time what you're doing is reducing the page weight or reducing the amount of time it takes to do something. That's not always true, because sometimes you're going, "We're not going to do this in real time. We're going to batch it." But the vast majority, I'd say 95% of things we do add to your results and a better customer experience. And that's probably because there is a causal link there and it does make it easier to justify. But also I think it's because in so much of digital, there are better ways of doing things and best practices to implement and those quick wins and those smaller gains are often some types of things that you can do quickly. I would say, in general, products aren't always optimized as well as they should be. And that's why it's good working with a partner like Optimizely. It's kind of at the heart of what you do.

Laura Dolan:

Right.

Rafe Blandford:

And explaining that to clients and saying, "Yes, it will have a commercial impact, but by the way, we'll also be able to test these scenarios and provide kind of database evidence." For that kind of thing it's incredibly valuable. But I would say the average webpage can probably have 20% or 30% savings just by implementing some of the best practice guidelines. Because it is quite hard to keep that on track, one of the things we do is actually have tools that, via Google, have APIs that look at page loading times. It's their Lighthouse product or their PageSpeed insights. And if you monitor those over time, we have dashboards that we can show clients, to show how that's changing. So very often it is a positive thing. It then can sometimes be a narrative that our clients can talk about to their customer and say, "We've done this."

Rafe Blandford:

And there is plenty of evidence out there that shows, if you reduce load times, you get better conversion rates, less dropout. And so I would say most of the time that is a positive impact. The interesting bit is when you look at more of the product mentality, and that's kind of what you are choosing to do. That can be a little bit different. It's not always about performance because performance can be a bit misleading if you just make it about speed. Putting friction into something to make sure someone's really sure about the action they're going to take. And that could be within a user journey for submitting a smart meter reading for electricity or gas. Or, in a path to buying something on a retail site. Technically that may introduce an extra step. But if that is going to have a positive impact. That could be something about making sure the information that's being submitted is accurate, seeking consent for opt-in around marketing, or some other stage on the journey.

Rafe Blandford:

And there are a few examples where it's been about, "Will you round up this purchase?" You know, technically that is adding a step or slowing things down, but we've seen very positive results from doing that, because I think the race to the bottom that a lot of products and technologies have is to make it faster and make it better, make it automated. That's when it's so important to also be user-centric in these things that you are creating. And so, while I think performance is the what word and it's the one that's very easy to measure, also thinking about things being equitable and being inclusive can have an impact that you can only measure if you look at it overall. And so if you create a product that's accessible to 95% of people, rather than 80%, that's got to be a positive thing, even if sometimes that will introduce something.

Rafe Blandford:

And ideally you won't do that. And I think companies are increasingly being measured around that, and they have goals around that. And probably the next big thing in terms of kind of regulation, just as we've had with GDPR and other collect consent policies, is probably seeing more around that. Simply because with digital, everyone kind of assumes it's universal, particularly people who work in it. But there is an audience that is not digital, or finds it difficult. And so making things easier for them is incredibly important. And so, those communities that are underserved by digital, because they've not been made accessible or there hasn't been that tech for good attitude, is something that probably interests me most.

Rafe Blandford:

Because I think performance is something you should just do because it's best practice and it's table stakes. But looking with that kind of user-centric or product thinking view of the world, you go, "How can we make sure that everybody is able to use these things?" And sometimes that can actually be about not doing the usual thing, but making sure there is a route for someone to phone up and get customer support or whatever it might be, and being very cognizant of that in the way you approach kind of experience design and product design.

Laura Dolan:

Exactly, yeah. We all appreciate the path of least resistance. So just being conscious of time, Rafe, what more are you hoping to do with tech moving forward?

Rafe Blandford:

It's a great question. I think part of my job and what I'm most passionate about is looking at what's coming next. Really hard to answer, so I'll try and do that. Right now, there's a lot of attention on Web3 and Metaverse, so I want to avoid that as a subject. But if I look at the last 10 or 15 years, probably the big driver in tech, including tech for good, has actually been the ubiquity of smartphones in everybody's pocket. And it's hard to actually imagine a world where that doesn't exist. But if you think about that as a thought experiment, what's interesting about that is it really drove the use of tech out of the home, or rather away from your desktop computer, whether that's home or office, and now kind of near universal access to information. And that's been amazing in the way it's democratized access to information and you can think of Wikipedia or Kahn's Academy, all of which are good examples of tech for good, but I do think that's been a bit heads down.

Rafe Blandford:

So people kind of look at that and see the world through kind of a small screen. And that dominates the kind of attention now on digital experiences, even over things like TV and other forms of media and communication. But I think what we're starting to see now is activity that is going to drive heads up activity. The greater use of community, the importance around culture and things like that. You can see that coming from things like augmented reality, which quite literally make you hold your phone up, and what I would describe more generally as the world overlay, and that is present right now. You only need to look at the likes of Snap or Instagram and all the kind of proof of concept demos that you see around that. I think that's just the first step. And I think that in itself is amazing for tech for good, but what I really see is what that's going to do, is kind of merge the digital and physical worlds ever closer together.

Rafe Blandford:

And you can sort of get a bit visionary about this and go, "There's going to be smart glasses." And I don't know whether people are going to put junk on their face or not, there are wiser people than me thinking about that. But what it does mean for me, is that world is going to become as ubiquitous as having a phone in your pocket. And what that will be able to tell you about the world around you and what's going on, the options that opens up for telling stories, for encouraging people to do certain things or just inform them about what's going on, is going to be absolutely amazing.

Rafe Blandford:

And yes, a lot of that will be built off Web3, whether that's Metaverse or blockchains. And to me, they're just enablers for more technology for good. And so these are the things that we're starting to think about and where we will be pushing our clients because that next stage of digital experiences is probably moving away from them being locked into devices, and actually opening that up into how you combine those physical and digital worlds. And I believe they will drive action and activity in the physical world, which is actually where so much happens. And so in a time that's not exactly been the most optimistic in the last two years, that is what gives me cause for optimism for the next five years or so.

Laura Dolan:

We all need something to look forward to, right?

Rafe Blandford:

Absolutely.

Laura Dolan:

Awesome. Well, you sound like you're doing so much Rafe, I'm so proud of what Digitas is doing. I'm so proud to be a partner with you guys and kind of helping in some of these initiatives. So, it's all positive all around. We're doing everything we can to make the world better place, right?

Rafe Blandford:

Absolutely. It all happens in small steps and small stages.

Laura Dolan:

Exactly.

Rafe Blandford:

Optimizely is a great partner for us. And thank you for inviting me on the podcast.

Laura Dolan:

Absolutely. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on today, to talk about what you guys are up to. And thank you all so much for taking the time to listen to this episode of the Optimizely Podcast. I am Laura Dolan and I will see you next time.

Laura Dolan:

Thank you for listening to this edition of the Optimizely Podcast. If you'd like to check out more episodes or learn more about how we can take your business to the next level by using our marketing, content, or experimentation tools, please visit our website at optimizely.com, or you can contact us directly using the link at the bottom of this podcast blog to hear more about how our products will help you unlock your digital potential.