Revenge of the Nerds: The Rise of New Creative Tech with Heckler and T&DA

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LBB’s Esther Faith Lew finds out from T&DA and Heckler why their expertise in creativity, design and technology places them in the spotlight of tech-savvy brands

The surging demand in client briefs for new technology applications bodes well for ‘nerds’. After all, it is the ‘nerd’ factor which drives the cult following of entertainment brand names such as Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones, for instance. As Tyrone Estephan, executive director of Alt Group puts it, “It’s a perfect storm when you put together nerds making nerdy art for nerds.” 


The “nerd appeal,” as he puts it, makes a lot of sense. There really isn’t anything nerdier than grown-ups and kids alike playing with their lightsabers, or just simply geeking out over a fantasy game or an AR experience. This ability to engage with a consumer audience over an alternate reality certainly lends weight to the saying, ‘the force is strong with you’. Whether it is a fantasy fan, a gamer or a tech geek, they speak the same emotive language. 


When it comes to production houses and creative studios, the geek force runs strong in the bloodline of the talents – a covetable mix of creative and tech instincts that enables them to tune in to the client’s wavelength effortlessly. It’s a perfect catalyst when the tech and fantasy worlds collide and spin off imaginative client projects that capture consumer attention – and obsession. 


Making the Brand Connection

Tech brands and many others are driving consumer engagement with AR and VR experiences, gamification and metaverse marketing, amongst others. They are strengthening their alliance with creative studios and production houses that have stepped out of the box to embrace new technology applications. Agencies too are increasingly going to them at the start of projects to brainstorm ideas, rather than at the scoping stage.


“We also work directly with clients who come to us at the conceptualisation stage; they trust that we get them and know what they want. Meta is a great example of such a client; they do like to come to us,” says Tyrone. 


Adds Ray Leung, creative director of technology at T&DA, “We like to prototype our ideas, so we’ll spend two or three days to produce something, and that’s usually what gives us an edge: the fact that we can provide a demo for clients to assess and make decisions based on what they can see.” 

L-R: Tyrone Estephan, Ray Leung

“When the briefs come to us, they can be quite top line, so we ask a lot of questions to finesse the whole picture, refine it, break it down, and fit all the pieces of the puzzle together,” says Heckler’s Richard Mayo-Smith, managing director and executive producer.


Heckler’s partner and executive producer Charu Menon adds, “We are often roped in at the feasibility stage to assess the complexity of the project; and to advise on the advantages and disadvantages of using certain types of creative treatment. It becomes more of a collaboration.” 

T&DA’s nerd alliance with their clients launches them into innovative projects that require the maverick treatment. As the sister company of post-production-focused Alt.Vfx, T&DA tackles all creative tech projects not related to film or post-production, and exploring out of the box is something that is second nature to them. Evidence of that can be seen in its many experimental projects born out of T&DA Labs.


Heckler, unlike T&DA, remains rooted in its post-production foundation. It handles a variety of projects comprising 80% post-production and 20% creative tech projects related to new platforms and immersive experiences. As a brand name, Heckler has gained a reputation for its cutting-edge work in post-production, so much so that its track record has gained the confidence of clients who want to work with them on projects that are not film or TVC related.


“We have a relatively large presence, and partly, thanks to Little Black Book, people in the PR space know us as well. New clients know what we do, so even if they haven’t worked with us before, they have a relatively good idea of what we can do,” says Richard.


“We are also approached by tech partners who create the backend systems for projects and require someone who can help with the creative production aspect of it,” adds Charu, emphasising Heckler’s role as a creative partner in its projects.


The Flow of Tech Trends 

Sitting at the intersection of creativity, design and technology, T&DA and Heckler have box office seats in viewing the many tech trends that have come and gone – and come back again. 


Heckler is seeing a lot more briefs involving “the creation of NFTs, design of worlds, environments or characters for web 3.0 and the metaverse, virtual influencers and AR/VR/XR storytelling”, says Charu, while T&DA is looking at a lot more game developments. “We have done a lot of AR, and that’s not going to go away. It will be a consistent trend, but gamification is such a huge thing for advertising now. It’s so engaging and user-centric that consumers cannot help but be drawn in,” says Tyrone.


However, in talking about tech trends, both companies preferred to downplay their significance, citing the unpredictable ebb and flow.   


“AI is the current buzzword, but so was NFT last year. I have to stress that T&DA doesn’t just jump onto the bandwagon. We want to be more thoughtful about the tech trends that come up, and only take on those that present a really clear strategic or value add to a client’s brief and project,” says Tyrone. 


Offering another perspective, Charu says, “It’s not so much of whether a tech is a trend or not, but more a case of finding the right application for it.” But, Richard and Charu agree that gamification has taken on such a strong organic growth that it offers undeniably great opportunities for brands to take advantage of. 


Creative Projects with Strategic Results

The projects undertaken by Heckler and T&DA are not only bold and inventive in concept, but also strategic in approach, with results that help drive action deliverables for clients.


“We have just completed an interactive, gaming experience that involved creating a concept customers could interact with on WeChat as they queued outside a pop-up store for a major skincare brand. The brief was to create high-end CG particle simulations that would lend themselves to being personalised and gamified in real time, to be broadcast on the pop-up store’s interactive, digital LED screens,” says Richard.

Adds Charu, “It was a very interesting brief. We had to provide as many permutation combinations of the CG assets as we could, so that customers could easily play around with them to create their own bespoke version of the products. Also, we had to make it look beautiful with a user-friendly interface. It gave the power back to the customer. The idea of extending the customer experience beyond the pop-up store and actually bringing it outside, even as they were queuing up, was genius.”


From strong brand engagement projects such as that, to immersive AR experiences such as the one for Jewel Changi Airport, Heckler played a part in getting Singapore’s outbound tourism to a happy lift-off. Not only that, the appeal of the AR ‘Jurassic Park’ drove local crowds to the airport for shopping and dining. 


“We do know that it got an insane amount of PR because it was an experience meant for kids and Jewel is considered as a leisure destination in itself, and not just for travellers. Getting kids to hunt down dinosaur eggs and go on an adventure certainly brought in the footfall to the airport,” says Charu.


Leveraging AR tech to bring in visitor numbers and amplify social impressions is a heady concoction when it taps into an existing fandom. Similarly, an addictive game by Riot Games that’s based on popular animation fantasy series ‘Arcane’ received overwhelming attention from fans.

“Riot gave fans something to think about and to tinker with – a magical digital puzzle box. Based on how you solve it, it matches you to an Arcane character, revealing which champion you should play. Boasting the most advanced WebGL authoring environment to capture detail and depth, this mobile game experience garnered over two million plays in just two months – all within a standard browser,” says Ray.


Ray also shared that another game created for Riot together with BBH Asia Pacific – ‘League of Legends Star Guardians’, gained immense popularity as well. “There are 37 cards to collect, of which two are date gated to be revealed four days after release. Heavy use of software development facility reduced the project file size, enabling us to essentially build a micro site within the Spark AR platform. We also established a custom rarity algorithm to ensure users are able to collect all cards within 25 packs on average,” says Ray.

“The key target for using technology is that it offers a chance for the user to have subconscious engagement with your brand. They are immersed; they are at play; and all the while engaged with your brand. According to research by Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, up to 95% of our purchase decisions are directed by subconscious mental processes, so you can see the real powerful opportunity in using technology in such a way,” asserts Tyrone.


With no lack of talented nerds in the industry to weave magic into their projects, this rise in new tech is here to stay and play with brands that are doing it right. Both T&DA and Heckler are forward-thinking companies that plot their own paths in creating new tech applications that inspire and set the example for the industry. 


As creative collaborators, they take their place alongside agencies in ideas generation and innovative development. While agencies may have departments with in-house technologists, companies like T&DA and Heckler will continue to grow in importance as their expertise and tech infrastructure make them an indispensable partner to have at the pitch.