May 27, 2021

HZ Attended WPP Commerce Conference 2021—And Here’s What We Learned

A recap from the jam-packed two-day virtual event held last month.

If consumers were already embracing online shopping, 2020 was the year that solidified that relationship. “Clients, we have to be where consumers are, and that’s totally changed over the last year,” said Mark Read, CEO of WPP, in a Q&A conversation with Beth Ann Kaminkow, CEO, VMLY&R COMMERCE, at WPP’s Commerce Conference 2021

Even in the month since this virtual conference took place, the physical retail landscape has continued to change. In the District of Columbia, near HZ’s headquarters, for example, the Covid-19 capacity restrictions were lifted on May 21—meaning stores can open “normally” once again. But judging by the sessions in this packed two-day virtual conference, commerce (and its twin sister e-commerce) have forever evolved. “I think it is a permanent change in consumer behavior,” Read said. “The reality is that the high street [aka “Main Street”] to some extent will be permanently weakened by the change that’s taken place.”

But where physical retail faltered, e-commerce stepped up. “I like to say that every company today is an e-commerce company,” Read said. “An airline is to some extent a bunch of planes with an e-commerce engine at the front.”

For some companies, this meant pivoting to digital replacements for real-life experiences. “[J]ust thinking about this world of commerce and e-commerce and consumer connections,” said Shenan Reed, SVP, head of media at L'Oréal, “the moment for us when stores were closed, and our consumer—who is used to being able to try something, or to hold and touch the bottle, or to look across the range of colors, or even just to hold it against their skin or try it with a tester—didn’t necessarily have that opportunity. We have been really leaning heavily into virtual try-on and virtual services. And it’s made a huge difference.”

For others, a year without retail reaffirmed the importance of it. “I think we’re about to enter a period when we’re going to need to double down on real expertise and investment in training at a retail level,” said Ian Fitzpatrick, global director, brand strategy & operations at New Balance. “Retail matters incredibly to us, but transaction is the easy part—mobile checkout is simple. A great RSA who can help you navigate a shoe wall, that’s really hard—really really hard to do—so figuring out how we bring those points of expertise into whether it’s owned retail, owned digital, or even as critically, wholesale digital, is really, really hard. And those are the nuts we’re trying to crack right now.” 

The year 2020 was also one in which brands were tasked—perhaps more than ever before—to publicly defend the “how” behind the what they do. “I think that consumers increasingly judge companies not just by what they sell but how they make it and how they treat their people and how they respond to activities in society,” Read said.

In her opening remarks, Kaminkow said: “The lack of relevance is a lot more lethal than it used to be,” which stuck with Jamie Barmak, an account supervisor at HZ. “I heard a lot of the same themes throughout the conference and one big one was that we have to be relevant—in our guidance to our clients, in the outputs from our work, and how we make decisions,” Barmak says. “Consumers want brands that are in tune with the NOW. Speaking up for what’s right, and aligning themselves with causes that matter to them. We as marketers need to put the human back into what we do. They asked, and now I ask myself, in my work, what extreme relevance would look like for this business.”

Lindsay Maarec, HZ’s SVP, Business Development, was particularly inspired by Perry Nightingale’s “Inclusive E-commerce for a Diverse Customer” breakout session. “The session really opened my eyes to all types of impairments and mobility challenges that we as creatives don’t always incorporate into our products and designs,” Maarec says. “From admiring Tommy Hilfilger’s collection of inclusive streetwear to nodding my head vigorously when parents of newborns and senior citizens alike were categorized as mobility-challenged, I left the session with a new appreciation for accessibility and inclusivity, and look forward to empowering our HZ team to ‘design with empathy’ from this moment forward.”

For more insights from WPP’s Commerce Conference 2021, watch recorded sessions on-demand. And, as always, HZ is ready to help your brand evolve in this new commerce future, whether that’s redesigning an online store experience or doubling down on strategic messaging.