Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Days of clients going to agencies with a business problem are gone: what3words' CMO

In an exclusive interview with Storyboard18, Giles Rhys Jones shares details about the company's brand playbook, its 80/20 marketing innovation formula, the customer list that includes Mahindra, Tata Motors, TVS Motor Company, and more

Published: Jul 25, 2022 03:00:00 PM IST
Updated: Jul 25, 2022 03:03:35 PM IST

Days of clients going to agencies with a business problem are gone: what3words' CMOGiles Rhys Jones, CMO, what3words

Technology company what3words has converted the entire globe into 57 trillion 3mx3m squares, allocating a simple three-word address to each one. Giles Rhys Jones, chief marketing officer of what3words, who has been associated with the company since its early days, has taken it from a quirky idea to global brand.

What3words is a proprietary geocode system designed to identify any location with a resolution of about 3 meters. The system encodes geographic coordinates into three permanently fixed dictionary words and is currently used by organisations, individuals and governments in over 170 countries. The brand’s maiden commercial for India, which is conceptualised by Famous Innovations, has been making the right kind of noise for the brand.

In an exclusive interview with Storyboard18, the former adman who has worked with agencies like Ogilvy & Mather and Saatchi & Saatchi, shares what3words’ India journey (so far), market opportunities, benefits of having an in-house agency, and more.

Q. What is what3words’ India story?

India is an incredibly exciting market for us as adoption of our system continues to grow at pace.

We’ve divided the world into 3m x 3m squares and given each a unique identifier made of three random words: a what3words address. We have done this in English and in 50 other languages, including 12 South Asian languages: Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, Nepali, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Punjabi, and Odia.

What3words is making it easier to get deliveries, find businesses, meet friends or to navigate to places in your car. It’s helping to keep people safe, and putting people and communities on the map that were previously not.

We’ve marked our presence in India with an exciting TV commercial, to demonstrate how our technology makes addresses simply simple.

Q. Where does India stand in the company’s growth plan?

We’re on a mission to help everyone talk about everywhere and are being used by millions of people and thousands of businesses around the world every day. India is a key market for us—vast, fast moving, receptive to new technologies, and hampered by poor addressing. It’s a country that is perfect for our solution. In fact, we’ve seen a 183 percent increase in users in India over the last year, matched by equally rapid business adoption.

Q. Why did you decide to advertise now? What were the insights that led to the making of the campaign?

Our recent Brand Capital International investment allowed us to broaden our existing digital advertising to more channels and we added TV, OOH, print and radio to the mix.

We are encouraging both consumers to use our free app and business to build our code into their systems.

Everyone we spoke to talked about the complexity of explaining a long-winded address in India. Turning this into a rhyme and setting this to music in a pseudo-Bollywood style film was a uniquely Indian way of dramatising and poking fun at the problem, and introducing our solution. Our UK ad had a very different take.

Q. What will be what3words’ marketing focus going forward?

We are concentrating on helping our commercial partners communicate their adoption of what3words to their customers, using it as a competitive edge. We have seen the impact this has had for other businesses around the world; delivering increased revenue, cost savings, and increased satisfaction.

Q. How much do you plan on spending on marketing in India?

Last year we announced that we received a $10 million USD investment from Brand Capital International to support our expansion across India.

Q. What are the challenges and opportunities for what3words in this market?

Changing human behavior and challenging the status quo in any market, and any category is a challenge. The beauty of what3words is that when people who struggle with addresses, or those who are optimistic about new technology see our solution, they are instantly sold and start using it immediately.

Our mission is to become a global standard for communicating location, we want people to see our unique structure ///word.word.word on a business card, check out form, a contact page, we want them to type it into search bars, post on social media or say to a voice assistant and for it to be recognised as an address. To become an indispensable part of everyday life is a huge opportunity.

Q. What’s your monetisation model?

We make money by charging businesses that benefit commercially from using our products. For example, we’ve been adopted by leading automakers including the Mahindra group, Tata Motors, and TVS Motor Company, so drivers can navigate to a destination with ease and precision.

Logistics companies in India such as Shipyaari, Vamaship, Sequel Logistics are using what3words so goods are delivered to the correct place every time.

Our technology will always be free for emergency services and qualifying NGOs. In India, the Maharashtra Government’s emergency medical ambulance services MEMS Dial 108, and emergency services provider Medulance, uses what3words for faster incident response times in medical emergencies.

Q. We spotted several social media users trying to understand the difference between what3words and Google Maps. Can you explain the difference for our readers?

Google Maps is a great tool for navigation. Unfortunately when you type an address into Google maps it often struggles to locate it, or the pin drops in the wrong place. what3words solves that by providing a very accurate address—precise to a 3m x 3m square. It’s a much easier way to communicate an exact location and can be typed, spoken or written down easily.

You can combine the two, and we even use Google Maps as a base map on our app. If you are given a what3words location, you can open it in the what3words app, then tap ‘Navigate’ and select ‘Google Maps’ to open the exact 3m x 3m of where you want to go in Google Maps, and get directions to that spot.

Q. Globally, you have built in-house creative, production, and marketing capabilities. As a marketer, why do you think this model works? Also, do you have similar plans for India?

We have a hybrid model that fuses a team of 45 in-house marketers with multiple external specialist agencies. This works really well for us.

Speed is also massively important. We have a mantra of “Ready, Fire, Aim” which means we get advertising into the market quickly, and optimise constantly once we get there. We plan and buy all of our digital media so we can monitor and adjust in real time, using hundreds of creative iterations. Having a brilliant in-house team allows us to do this.

Agencies bring local craft, insight and expertise skills and we use them for specific tasks like PR, media planning, and film development.

One of the major differences to our approach is that we also make content and materials for our partners. In the past few years we have produced work for Mercedes-Benz, Tata, Jaguar Land Rover, Sony, Mahindra and even won awards for our work on Airbnb!
We also work with other agencies who use what3words for brand engagement projects. To date we have addressed islands, hidden motorbikes at what3words addresses, and addressed large scale events. We’ve appeared on stamps, currency, and even in TV shows and movies.

We are always very open to chatting about these sorts of brand collaborations—it’s fantastic to see the endless ways our technology can be used and implemented.

Q. As someone who has worked with agencies like Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi, what are your observations about today’s agency models? Does it work for young brands like yours?

The retainer-based, large management team, international network, 360 approach doesn’t work for us. I think the days of a client going to an agency with a business problem are gone and, like us, marketers will be much more specific about the tasks and briefs that agencies are used for. Certainly for young brands, with small fast moving teams where every dollar has to be justified.

I think we will continue to see the rise of companies building capability in-house. This will be combined with the incredible creativity and deep channel expertise that agencies offer, rounded out with freelancers and creative and production marketplaces where clients can outsource work.

Q. What is the next wave of disruption in marketing? How are your teams and you getting ready for it?

We have an approach that we like to call 80/20 marketing innovation. We spend 80 percent of our time, resources and investment on channels and technologies that we know work and we aggressively optimise them. We spend the remaining 20 percent on measurable innovation.

We try new things, and if they work, we repeat. If they don’t work, we drop them. But the important thing is that we have learnt something along the way. This allows us to keep abreast of new marketing approaches and uncovers step-change campaigns.

By applying this approach we have appeared in places we would never have considered; from appearing in TV shows to having beers named after what3words.