Q&A: Christine Mills on Experiences – ‘Expectations are Heightened, Appetites are Fierce, and People are Choosier Than Ever’

Christine is the Managing Director of George P Johnson, ANZ.

We recently caught up with Christine Mills, Managing Director of George P Johnson, ANZ, to talk about experience design and marketing and their importance in the consumer journey.

Mills has logged over 17 years in the industry – starting her career at Iris Worldwide in London where she joined as a graduate and spent 10+ years progressing through roles in client services, marketing & new business in markets including Singapore, Shanghai, Seoul, and Sydney. Prior to joining GPJ in November of last year, she led Gyro A/NZ (now Merkle B2B).

Over the course of our conversation, Mills talks about, trends in experience design and marketing, how working across several markets during her career informs her approach to leadership, engaging insights on her 2015 trek in Siberia working with nomadic reindeer herders, and more.


 

What interesting trends are you seeing in experience design and marketing that brands should add to their marketing strategies?

Experiences—in all of their various shapes and forms—are continuing to evolve. Expectations are heightened, appetites are fierce, and people are choosier than ever about what, where and how they participate. These are just a few trends we’ve been seeing:

Trend #1: After years of separation and an alarming epidemic of loneliness, people are craving human contact. ‘Experience seekers’ want to rediscover the essence of what it means to be human.

Trend #2: When the ‘real world’ shut down in 2020, virtual worlds opened up. Concerts found stages in Fortnite and we travelled the world through Zoom. As we returned to the real world, the desire for immersive experiences came with us; from immersive Van Gogh to virtual ABBA avatars to Apple’s Vision Pro.

Trend #3: Years of virtual-first engagement have raised the bar for compelling, high-quality content. This is driving a shift to thinking about experience-led campaigns rather than thinking about events as a single moment in time.


 

Based on these trends, here are a few tips for marketers looking to design and deliver extraordinary experiences:

  • GIVE THEM AGENCY: Enable users and guests to exert control over their experiences.
  • INVITE PARTICIPATION: Design experiences that prioritise participation over passive consumption.
  • ENABLE INFLUENCE: Give audiences opportunities to support and activate change, from big to small.
  • MAKE IT IMMERSIVE: For experience designers, the growing appetite for ‘real’ immersion is far more than a change in venue, it’s a shift in how the experience engages all the senses.
  • LEAN IN TO NOVELTY: Give people the opportunity to experience something new and exciting, just for the sake of it.

As an agency that specializes in experience marketing, what are some lessons you learned from the pandemic, when actual experience was limited, that you carry forth into the experience field now?

The true measure of how valuable experiences are was clearly demonstrated when they returned with such force after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. Brands and people alike were craving human connection again; a kind of connection that cannot be replicated by any other marketing discipline.

At GPJ, we’ve always known it is our emotions that compel us to act and influence the decisions we make. The pandemic impacted human behaviour in many ways, both good and bad, and this has made us more passionate than ever to create high-impact experiences that drive our clients’ success. From insight-fuelled experience design to fearless creativity, focused on flawless production and motivated by results.

“The pandemic impacted human behaviour in many ways, both good and bad, and this has made us more passionate than ever to create high-impact experiences that drive our clients’ success.”

Today, we are the agency that ambitious brands turn to for their most important moments. Brands with big, bold ambitions know that GPJ creates and delivers truly valuable experiences.

You’ve worked across several countries over the course of your career, how does that inform your leadership philosophy?

I’ve been extremely fortunate that my career has enabled me to travel around the world. I started out as a graduate at iris Worldwide in London, and over the course of 10+ years, I worked within their global network in Singapore, South Korea, China, and Australia. The cultural nuances I’ve experienced while living and working in different countries have been incredibly valuable.

In most cases, this continent-hopping career has been exciting and given me fresh new perspectives to help tackle age-old problems. However, at times, I’ve had to embark upon a steep learning curve, particularly when it comes to my management style. I learnt my ‘tools of the trade’ in the UK where there was a high degree of empowerment and collaboration in the leadership style. However, I found this was not always the way to get the best out of agency teams in some APAC markets, especially with more junior team members who desired more hands-on direction.

These experiences have taught me to step back and look at things from all perspectives before making a final decision. This has required being vulnerable and not being afraid to ask the seemingly silly questions. Ensuring I’ve understood the situation from multiple perspectives, not just my own, means I can be more confident to make the critical leadership decisions.

Back in 2015, you trekked across the Gulf of Ob in Siberia, living and working with the endangered nomadic Nenets reindeer herders. That’s amazing. What was that like, and how did the experience shape you personally and professionally?

The Nenets are an incredible example of resilience and teamwork. Faced with some of the most treacherous living and working conditions, knowing the role each member of the tribe plays as part of the whole group is vital to their survival during the reindeer migration. Trust and respect are paramount. No one Nenet is greater than the tribe. I believe this to be true of any successful team, be that reindeer herders or agency teams.

Personally, this trip was an extreme test of my mental and physical strength. This expedition came with the promise of minus 36°C temperatures and a high chance of frostbite (luckily I escaped with only a minor bit of frostnip on my cheek). Fortunately, I was part of an incredible team who helped me push through the tougher times. We were all on the expedition as part of Women on a Mission (WOAM), an organisation that sets out to raise awareness and funds for women survivors of war support women who have been subjected to violence and abuse. We were the first all-female team (representing the UK, Dubai, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and more) to travel with the Nenets during a migration, which was an incredible honour.

“Personally, this whole experience has become an important reminder that pushing myself outside of my comfort zone will ultimately make me stronger (and in this particular case, keep me alive).”

Each day, we would have to head out from the Chum (the traditional dwelling of Nenets, like a Tipi but wrapped in reindeer hide) in search of wood and pick an ice hole in the frozen tundra for fresh water. Every 2-3 days, we would pack everything up at 4am and travel 20 to 25km to find fresh pastures for the 10,000 reindeer to eat.

One of the most confronting moments for me was the slaughtering of the reindeer. The Nenets depend heavily on their herds for food, clothing, tools, transportation. While eating the liver and kidneys and drinking the warm blood might sound barbaric, raw reindeer is an essential source of nutrients for the Nenets during the winter. Personally, this whole experience has become an important reminder that pushing myself outside of my comfort zone will ultimately make me stronger (and in this particular case, keep me alive).

Generative AI and its effects on the marketing industry is a hot topic. What’s your take in general, and what role do you see it playing in your field?

Generative AI’s surprising ability to replicate human-like responses via text along with the ability to re-create images has become an area of great interest for GPJ over the past nine months.

Whilst these advances are incredibly exciting, we’re also taking appropriate caution as they all currently come with risks around copyright, bias, privacy, and transparency. These are all things we believe will eventually be sorted out, but for now, not so easy to legally use for the vast amount of client experiences we deliver.

“As we work through the finer points of application, we’re looking at some trends that we think make sense to extrapolate from and be able to really make use of AI as part of our experience.”

However, we have been able to find instances where we can utilise this in a fun way. Our most recent work for IBM’s The Weather Company in Cannes used Generative AI with up-and-coming international artists to interpret what historical events would have looked like if the weather had been different.

As we work through the finer points of application, we’re looking at some trends that we think make sense to extrapolate from and be able to really make use of AI as part of our experiences. The more the technology is used, the better the models get and the experience of using them becomes more useful and seamless. Our current focus is exploration and discovery.

We certainly won’t lament the loss of some of the repetitive, time-intensive tasks. Instead, we see this as an opportunity to free up our employees to be able to spend more time on the most important parts of experience design and delivery.

What are some campaigns you’ve been a part of over the course of your career that you’re most proud of?

During my time at iris Singapore, we worked on a digital marketing experience to redefine whiskey mentoring for Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Our interactive digital story immersed people in three epic vistas, each one inspired by the key flavours of Johnnie Walker Blue, where they could explore and learn more about the flavour and craft of the whiskey. Each of the six core flavours were translated into a musical note that was combined to create a piece of music that guided you through the experience.

This campaign was part of a broader immersive and theatrical physical experience called “Symphony in Blue”, developed by Bompass and Parr. Our digital campaign allowed this experience to live on beyond the single moment in time and created content that could be applied to multiple different applications. Without losing any of the magic and immersion.


Quick Hits:

Book everyone in the industry should read: The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger

Favorite show you’re watching lately: White Lotus.

One album you would take to a deserted island: My Spotify playlist of “Liked Songs”- it’s quite the eclectic mix!

Something you want to learn or wish you were better at: Playing the piano.

Picture of Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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