‘The industry needs to be educated’: How voice experience agencies will finally go mainstream

UX, CX, and now VX... it can be hard to keep up. But now that voice experience has well and truly landed in Australia, Mumbrella's Josie Tutty talks to award-winning VX agency Versa about how to sell a product that Australia hasn't quite got its head around. Yet.

In 2007, Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage at MacWorld and introduced the audience to a product that would change the world. At that time, no one had ever heard of an iPhone, let alone understand the concept of an app.

In the same year, Kath Blackham was working at realestate.com.au, heading up the global product team. She didn’t think apps were going to be a thing. In a world where smartphones were just a few months old, it was a concept she just couldn’t get her head around. Why would anyone go onto a phone and download an app?

“I wasn’t quick off the mark and I paid for it,” explains Blackham, who these days is the founder of Australia’s first enterprise-level voice experience agency, Versa. The agency recently won Emerging Agency of the Year at this year’s Mumbrella Awards, and she’s explaining why second time around, she knew she had to bite the bullet and take a punt on the new kid on the block: voice. And that’s exactly what she did.

“Because I’d had that experience, I just picked it. I saw it coming out the US, and I was pretty convinced it was going to come into Australia. I contacted Amazon and Google and said ‘if you were to ever launch here, give us a call’.”

Amazon called her. Blackham’s agency is one of the first of its kind in Australia, and is now tasked with the same issue that plagued mobile agencies in their early stages of existence: how do you sell something when the majority of people don’t quite understand what you’re selling?

Blackham: ‘I spend at least half of my time educating’

“I don’t think it’s so much marketing ourselves, it’s educating brands on the opportunity,” she says. “I spend at least half of my time educating. I present at a lot of conferences, I present in front of senior management teams and marketing teams, on the opportunity of voice. What it is, how it works, what brands can do to take advantage of it.

“It is just as important at the moment to educate the market as it is to actually sell our product.”

Explaining how Versa works isn’t just an issue with client communication – it can be a struggle to attract talent, too. Blackham explains how, since Australia is not exactly teeming with ready-made voice experience experts, she is tasked with training staff who come from diverse roles across both adland and tech.

“The industry needs to be educated,” she says. “So at the moment we’re training from within. We take creative technologists or highly skilled UX people and we retrain them. There’s a whole lot of more traditional roles that we now know are good to move across and train up in voice.”

Investing in training is a great way to make sure you have the best talent, but how do you then keep them from flying the nest to a competitor? Blackham is honest when she says: “The pressure to keep people is real.”

But despite the pressure, Versa posted a 100% staff retention rate on its Mumbrella Award entry, something which the agency’s managing director attributes to “being at the bleeding edge of [the] market.”

“We’re on a the global panel for Amazon at the moment, so we know exactly what’s happening before it’s happened,” she says. “You can’t get that anywhere else. There’s that forward thinking: ‘If I work here I’m going to be right at the top of my game.’ I think it makes it hard for people to move on.”

The Versa team collecting their Mumbrella Award

A four day working week helps, too. The team take Wednesdays as a flexible day, to be used however they feel. “We’re the first agency – us and our sister agency Deepend – are the first agencies to my knowledge in Australia to do that.”

Plus, Blackham is realistic about staff eventually flying the nest. “Some of those people will end up back out in the industry eventually and that’s okay. I’m realistic enough to know that I just have to keep moving forward.”

Emerging vs emerged

Versa won in the Emerging Agency of the Year category. But how does an emerging agency make the shift to one which is fully formed? “It’s probably going to happen pretty quickly,” says Blackham. “I’ve given myself a year to 18 months. 18 months from now we will have 100% emerged as an agency.”

Versa’s Emerging Agency of the Year award entry

Looking to the future, there’s also the question of whether voice experience agencies will be able to stick it out on their own for long, or if they will succumb to acquisitions and integrations from larger agencies. “It will be interesting to see what voice experience agencies do. If you look at what happened in mobile, eventually mobile agencies ended up being integrated back in to pure full service digital agencies. It’s not something I’m afraid of.”

For now, though, Blackham believes there is a place in the market for a pure voice experience agency. “We live and breathe this stuff every day and we are the experts in it,” she says. “There will always be a need for professionals in this space. For example, a conversational strategist is only just becoming a job, we’ve only got a few in Australia still. That will just become very, very common, just like with mobile.

“We used to just have app developers. Now you have Xamarin developers and native developers. There’s a whole industry that’s come out of mobile and I know, eventually, the same thing will happen with voice.”


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