Gravity Road pioneers new realms of time and space in the metaverse

Niantic's venture into the metaverse, with advertising by Gravity Road, shows how the agency marries technology with creativity

By Elliot Leavy

Last week, augmented reality (AR) platform Niantic raised another $300 million in investment, taking the company’s value to a whopping $9 billion. Niantic is of course the business behind the world-renowned Pokémon GO, and with the help of Gravity Road released its first branded campaign last month.

Its chief executive, John Hanke, an ex-Google man who set up Google Earth, has been making headlines too. Back in August, before Facebook announced that they were rebranding their parent company to Meta in hopes of cashing in on the coming metaverse, Hanke was describing the vision being laid out as ‘dystopian’.

Since then, and whilst companies such as Facebook have been widely ridiculed for its subsequent celebration of its very robotic — and at times downright bizarre — vision of the future, Niantic has instead opted for a more positive, human one.

Creative Salon spoke to Mark Eaves and Mark Boyd, founders of Gravity Road, about how that translates into their latest campaign, how Niantic’s definition of the metaverse differentiates to Mark Zuckerberg’s description that it is “an embodied internet that you’re inside of instead of just looking at”, and if all the hoo-ha around the metaverse is really hoo-ha at all.

This latest campaign - 'Meet you out there' - is all about the metaverse, why do you think the metaverse, in the words of Hanke himself, is viewed as ‘dystopian’?

Mark Eaves: A lot of this comes from two areas. Firstly, we're seeing the horrors of science fiction being brought to the contemporary world. This comes from the fact that at this point, many of the reference points for the future come from dystopian science fiction literature.

As we all know, dystopian science fiction is much more fun to read than utopian science fiction literature. So it's no surprise that a lot of the pictures have been painted out, are dystopian.

The other factor is that the metaverse seems to be directed by large global corporations, with the implication being from a lot of them that you are going into another world, rather than enhancing your own one.

After a couple years of lockdowns, it seems like a strange feature to be championing?

Eaves: Exactly, what's exciting is the seamlessness with which worlds can continue. Identities can continue or evolve or change depending on where I want to be and who I want to be: there's still a thread of reality, we're not leaving it entirely. It’s about enhancing the physical world, as opposed to rejecting it, which is what many cultural commentators are articulating at the moment.

So the campaign conveys this celebratory tone rather well. What was the brief and how did you start working with Niantic?

Mark Boyd: It all started with a very competitive pitch for a new game, Heavy Metal [a Transformers game] last November. We got it and we were working on it, and then came the pitch for the actual brand campaign.

That was back at the beginning of the year, when the world was certainly uncertain. And so at the simplest level, Niantic wanted to give people the confidence and the permission and the encouragement to get to explore the world again, and to do that with friends and family. That was the brief.

Usually for these bigger holder companies, it is hard to get the essence of what they are about communicated effectively, I would argue this campaign bucks this trend, why?

Boyd: It all comes from John. He’s a thought leader, who can articulate in a very clear way and so fuels this whole discussion. I mean, fundamentally, he created Google Earth because he was concerned his son was playing games too much. That vision is what gives the ARship a North Star to follow, and its the message of the work too.

A good example is that, as part of the campaign, we thought we should close the office so that everyone at Niantic could live that vision and not just talk about it. When you are a huge business like Niantic you would have thought closing the office for the day would be a tough pill to swallow. But they went for it in a heartbeat. That’s the kind of company we are dealing with here, one with good principles in abundance.

Just like that vision, the campaign is about getting out there. Yet at the same time, the campaign always champions the real world over the virtual one. It’s all in the spirit of Hanke.

There was a lot to unpack with this campaign, and certainly one of the most surprising things was the announcement of the open-sourcing of Niantic's new developer pack.

Boyd: It goes back to Mark's point about a few large corporations trying to own and control the internet, Lightship [Niantic’s new developer pack], gives everybody the tools to be able to develop experiences out in the world, it’s once again about openness instead of exclusivity.

Giving that kind of control to developers, democratising the metaverse in a way, is really exciting, and its why we wanted to put the airship logo (we call it the ARship) front and centre of the campaign – it’s their most singular and distinctive asset, which was much loved internally but hadn’t been explored externally.

What opportunities do you think the metaverse will give agencies such as Gravity Road?

Eaves: Well, at the most basic level what this means essentially is the creation of whole new realms of time and space. This will play out in lots of different ways and there is a clear creative opportunity there as we are talking new contexts rather than just new concepts.

The other bit is that over the past decade or so, content and creativity has all been about the mass sharing of information. Who owns it no-one really knows, but really its just been about sharing.

What’s interesting about the metaverse is that we are seeing the use of technology and the tools to actually create tailored, one-to-one experiences and interactions. This has always been one of the main challenges of digital: that the uniqueness of an interaction that you can have in the real world has never been able to be replicated in the digital one.

And now because of blockchain, crypto, and the beginnings of digital scarcity, the chance for brands to have really rich one-to-one experiences with someone is ripe for the taking.

The effects of this opportunity for brands to have millions of unique interactions and relationships with audiences will be profound. There will be implications across all aspects of our industry from general customer experience through to big brand set pieces.

Boyd: The good thing about us is that we are designed for these new systems. Ten years ago, we were one of the first to go big on social video, now one of our clients is TikTok, it’s not a coincidence.

You’re defined by the staple of businesses that you work with. We've always worked with some of the most progressive media and entertainment businesses, and that's really been a hallmark of all Gravity Road’s work in the past.

Should all agencies be thinking about it now then?

Eaves: We’ll definitely see many organisations that try to engage with it, but that will probably be little more than the creation of a chief metaverse officer who will be pulled onto a call and talk this and that about the future. But then after the call it will be back to business as usual.

The good thing about this at the moment is anyone who's completely convinced they know what is going on is definitely making it up. You can always tell straight away, if someone knows nothing, because they act like they know everything,

Because the artist formerly known as Facebook has changed its name to Meta it means that sadly everybody has to have an opinion on it now without necessarily being a practitioner in it. But without doubt the metaverse is fundamental, anyone who says it’s not probably has some business models that are not quite ready for it.

Boyd: What we are seeing is real interest from clients on this because it combines commerce and social all the main touch points. Luckily our clients are often quite senior in terms of innovation, which really gives us space for creativity and exploring what’s new.

Eaves: If you think about social media, it took platforms like Facebook and YouTube well over five years to understand how they could offer a platform for advertisers where content and commerce could be interlinked.

With the metaverse, you’re looking at this whole new world where commerce and transaction is a fundamental part of it. So at a board level for global businesses the commercial and creative opportunity here is clearly evident.

So is the metaverse the end of a tech cycle or the beginning of one?

Eaves: There is a lot of creative disruption on the horizon. The tools that people will use will be distributed across a decentralised web. What comes next will feel like the early days of the internet, before it was owned by a number of platforms.

In terms of the technology cycle, it gets interesting when it's the application of technology in ways that mass audiences will start to adopt. Where we are is that we have a lot of stuff that has been around for a while, but now it’s actually going to accelerate to the mainstream. And what's breathtaking is the speed that it's happening: the metaverse is not just something that cultural commentators are talking about, it’s driving much of Wall Street right now too.

Boyd: I go back to remembering how text messages weren't designed for consumers. They were designed for engineers who sent code from base stations back to servers and then consumers came along and found a completely different use case. The metaverse is only at the beginning of its articulation proper, I can’t wait to see how punters use it.


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