Today I’m meeting Gavin Payne, the head of technology for JWT MENA in Dubai. We’ve agreed to meet at the Internet City metro station and Gavin is waiting for me in the ticketing area. He instantly picks me out from the crowd and comes striding over with a big smile.
“You must be Anouk!” he says as he shakes my hand vigorously. “It’s great to meet you!”
“Let’s jump on the next train towards the Burj Khalifa. We can talk on the way.”
As we get on the escalator to the eastbound platform, Gavin starts telling me about his background: he is Irish and moved to Dubai a few years ago with his wife and daughter. His second daughter was born in Dubai last September and was given an Arabic name, Aiya.
“I come from an entrepreneurial background,” he explains. “After setting up a number of start-ups back home, I really wanted to work in a more established environment. Especially one that understands how significant this time is in terms of technology.”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“We are on the cusp of the largest technology jump of our lifetime. It’s a landmark event: the fusion of the online and offline world. I came to Dubai in 2011 especially to join JWT,” he continues enthusiastically. “I wanted to work with like-minded people that get digital and have the scope and ability to become trailblazers in this digital revolution.”
The metro pulls up to the platform and we step into the air-conditioned carriage. “Wow, so how is this fusion going to take place?” I ask.
“The world around us is transforming,” Gavin says passionately. “It’s going digital. A great example of this is the consumer electronic show. CES happens every year in Las Vegas, and every year it is getting bigger and bigger. Not because Sony are releasing more TV’s or Nokia are releasing more phones. No, they just showcase new products for the year ahead. It’s growing because more and more products are becoming digitally enabled. More and more products are becoming “consumer electronics”. Last year cars appeared at CES for the first time. Today, if it makes business sense to add a digital component to a product, it will happen.”
“We are in the midst of a mobile revolution,” he continues, “with faster and better mobile devices; a data revolution with faster, cheaper and more available internet connectivity; a consumer revolution with a maturing digital consumer; and a digital revolution with the world around us becoming increasingly digitally enabled.”
He’s totally on a roll now, painting this brave new future in front of my eyes, but I’m having a hard time keeping up.
“Hang on a minute,” I say, “I need to think this over.” Outside, I see Palm Island passing by. I turn back to Gavin and try to come up with an intelligent question. “How does this fusion take place?” I ask. “What will happen? Is it like a meteorite crashing into the Earth?”
Gavin laughs out loud. “No, nothing like that thankfully!” he says. “But the impact will be as big. It’s comparable to the Industrial Revolution. Nothing will be the same: advertising, automotive, financial services, healthcare, transport, international travel, entertainment…” Gavin pauses to let his words sink in.
The Mall of the Emirates whizzes by on our right. “Ok, so what is the 21st century’s steam engine, that trigger for change? What is the innovation this time round?” I ask.
“Obviously smart phones are important,” Gavin answers, “but a technology like NFC is a game changer. Near Field Communication (NFC) allows our phone to interact with physical objects with ease. If you have an NFC-enabled phone, all you need to do is tap.”
“So how is that going to concretely change our lives? Can you give me an example?” I ask.
“Sure: Tap to pay… your phone as your virtual wallet. No need for physical cash. Tap to share … share photos with a friend by tapping phones. Tap to connect … tap your car to interact and automatically load up your personal driving settings and music. You’ll be able to interact with virtually any object that is NFC enabled.”
Gavin explains further: “As the world around us becomes increasingly digital, we must be able to interact and feel a relevant, personal experience. We need to identify ourselves and share some personal preferences. This is where NFC comes in – think of your phone as your digital passport.”
“Our social profiles will become our passport to interact with the world, with digital media providing the destination for new experiences. NFC is the very first frictionless technology to connect our online identity with this new digital world.”
I’m still trying to take it all in and formulate a shrewd question when the train stops at the Burj Khalifa sation.
“Let’s get out here,” Gavin says. “Have you been up there?” he asks, pointing at the tower in front of us. “It’s the highest man-made structure in the world … this is an incredible building. When I first went up to the viewing deck I felt anything was possible here in Dubai. I still feel that way. There is a huge drive for innovation in this region. And that’s something I am very passionate about.”
“Don’t you think innovation is an over-used word these days?” I ask.
“There is a fundamental difference between innovative people and an innovation strategy,” replies Gavin. “Innovation is an art form. We work hard on this at JWT.”
“Is that why you chose the Middle East then?” I ask. “Do you think it is more advanced than, say, the US or Asia?”
“The Gulf region is one of the most digitally inclined regions in the world. Believe it or not, we have the highest YouTube consumption in the world; some of the highest Facebook use; the highest smart phone penetration and a growing data infrastructure. The space where brands, technology and consumers meet is our playground. And this region is right on track for digital innovation and new types of brand engagement.”
As we leave the station he says: “Let’s go up to the observation deck on the 124th floor and look down on the world. I’ll tell you about more campaigns and products we are developing at JWT.”