How Retail Brands Can Build a Strong Foundation in the Age of AI | Jeremy Bergstein of The Science Project

Nov 29, 2023

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Welcome to the latest episode of Let’s Talk a Little Shop. Emilie interviews Jeremy Bergstein of The Science Project. The Science Project is a digital innovation firm that works with world class brands such as Nike, Kiehl’s. Uniqlo, Chanel, Calvin Klein, the Simon Group, Bloomingdale’s, and Kate Spade to create digital experiences into physical store locations, and vice versa. In this episode, they discuss:

  • 00:00: Meet Jeremy Bergstein
  • 02:58: What Makes a Brand Special
  • 03:44: What is a Conversion-Based, Creative Agency?
  • 05:20: Great Marketers Balance Creative and Data
  • 06:00: Jeremy’s Origin Story: From NYC Science Teacher to Luxury Brand Strategist
  • 11:30: Speaking and Connecting with Customers Requires Constant Reiteration
  • 12:15: You Must Use Data to Inform Your Customer Conversations Online
  • 13:00: You Can’t Build a Successful Business on a Shaky Foundation
  • 15:15: The Disruptive Nature of AI
  • 16:37: How AI Processes Data
  • 18:00: Consumers Are Just Starting to Experience AI’s Power
  • 21:00: Use Cases of AI in Retail – Product Discovery and Attribution
  • 24:23: As AI Progresses, Retailers Will Have to Adapt
  • 27:00: Evolving Digital Experience to Amplify Consumer Experience
  • 30:00: How Lady Gaga Used Digital to Tell Her Fans’ Stories
  • 31:18: The Considerations for Moving into Digital from Physical Retail, and Vice Versa
  • 33:27: Facilitating Brand Conversations at Every Touch Point
  • 35:37: Dynamics of Running an Agency – Hiring, Operations, and Cash Flow
  • 38:00: It’s Important to Have a Specific Expertise and Focusing on Your Core Strengths

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Emilie Lewis:

Welcome back to another episode of ASD Market Week’s podcast – Let’s Talk A Little Shop. Today. I am very lucky to have someone who is absolutely going to school me on all things Artificial Intelligence (AI). Mr. Jeremy Bergstein is the founder of an agency called The Science Project.

If you haven’t heard of the Science Project, I’m not sure what rock you’re living under, or what you’re doing – because they’re amazing. Let me just list off a few of Jeremy’s clients for you – a little known brand called Nike, another brand called Kiehl’s. Also, Uniqlo, Chanel, Calvin Klein, the Simon Group, Bloomingdale’s, and Kate Spade.

Jeremy Bergstein:

Emily, thank you for having me. Truly great to be here. The Science Project is an agency and it’s a creative and strategy agency that really set out to create conversion-based experiences across the expanded consumer landscape. And what that’s meant over the last decade plus is expanding the ecosystem.

We began as digital first really understanding how to engage consumers, engage shoppers, engage people in digital spaces, and then we were asked to create interaction and conversion in physical spaces and bridge digital and physical. And that’s where we really started to make a name for ourselves.

And then as we started to expand into virtual or mixed reality spaces, how can we take that same discipline around what is a brand, a product, an event, what makes it special, and how can we get people to interact with it and transact with it in physical, digital, virtual, mixed reality and a whole variety of these future ecosystems.

Emilie Lewis:

All the worlds we have to live in nowadays.

Jeremy Bergstein:

That’s right. And the work that we’ve done with brands, both some of the best in the world and some of the most exciting and new in the world is all very much held to that same standard as a really figuring out what makes a brand really special, whether it’s distinct characteristics that draw customers, shoppers, people to that experience, and how can we get them to fall in love with it across all these different types of spaces? We use technology, great design, and creativity to do that.

Emilie Lewis:

You said something that stuck out in my mind, you said you’re a “conversion-based creative agency.” I’ve never heard that. And is there a reason that you combine those words? Because I think conversion-based rings true to one side of my brain. Creative rings true to another side, and you’re mixing too.

Jeremy Bergstein:

It’s a deeper conversation almost, but I’ve had so many people over the years be like, God, that’s amazing. You should use that more often. And I’ve often shied away from it because sometimes people just think that you’re thinking of a cash register when you say conversion-based creative, and the creatives really want to hear about this elevated, beautiful, distinct experience.

Whereas the business people want to hear about conversion oriented funnels and metrics and stuff and how they come together and how that balance is created can be a challenge.

So yeah, I mean I use that sometimes and I should use it more actually as kind of mature in my career. I’ve embraced what certainly makes me and my thinking special, whereas maybe before I was just creative or just business. Now The Science Project sits very squarely in that space of conversion-oriented, creative experiences.

Emilie Lewis:

I feel like that’s the title of a book for you. I’m going to go ahead and say that because as a marketer, good marketers are exactly that. They’re not just creative. They’re not just conversion based cash registers. To your point, you have to really combine both.

And it is a special unicorn, in my opinion, that can do that. So I’m calling it now, that’s the title of whether it’s your autobiography or your business book. So we’re going to get into The Science Project and we’re going to get into tapping into the knowledge base of all things digital.

But before we do that, I want to get to you a little bit better. So if you’ll allow me, I’m going to ask maybe some more personal questions. So tell us a little bit about where you grew up, how you grew up, and anything you want to share with us about your childhood.

Jeremy Bergstein:

Sure. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City and went to college in Oregon, in the outskirts of Portland, was very much like an outdoor junkie. I went out there to climb rocks, climb mountains, boat, rivers, surf as much as I could. I wanted to see the whole West Coast of our amazing country. So I went to school there, and lived in Colorado, Vermont, California.

I have always been interested in the natural world, very much interested in obviously how everything works in science. Kind of the clearest distillation is how everything is working around me. It created some semblance of ordered pattern, I got introduced to the scientific method, and it was kind of one of the inspirations for creating a marketing firm.

I mean, some of the early agency briefs that I would give to clients revolved around setting a hypothesis and understanding what their challenges were and then solving those challenges. And I mean, my agency briefs and a lot of my projects very much really start with that razor sharp focus on solving challenges. And that really came from those sorts of learnings.

But yeah, I mean as far as being a teacher goes, I just found that I was always like, that one of my highest functions was spending time with people explaining complicated concepts, making them simple, making them fun, making them entertaining, and then guiding them along on a process together. And I think that that’s come, came from guiding, came from teaching and very much informed me of the sort of north star of my business in many ways.

Emilie Lewis:

Well. I love the connection points between science and marketing. Again, I have not heard anyone put the two of those together, but it’s a very interesting case study in the sense that you start with a hypothesis, finding and digging and researching what are your client’s biggest issues, and then you solve for it. So take us through that journey from being a science teacher to deciding to start a marketing agency. What did that look like?

Jeremy Bergstein:

I had come out of being a teacher during the first .COM boom and worked in software for a little while, decided for the most part the category that I was in. I was in the world of creating software for fashion agencies and I really love it for modeling agencies, model hair, makeup, photography, and it was not really my thing. I liked the technology part of it. I liked the great creative part of it. I didn’t love the agency world.

I found myself talking to a lot of brands at the time and the brands were trying to find their way through what to do in the world of digital, how to start talking to customers, how to start translating these sorts of fine brand attributes. And this brand language into digital formats was really very challenging at the time. So The Science Project came about to help guide that?

Emilie Lewis:

I can’t credit you for the “just do it” tagline, but that leads me perfectly into my next question because you work with amazing clients, Nike being one. Are there some stories that stick out in your mind that you can share?

Obviously I know there’s client confidentiality, but what are some stories that you can share with us about some mistakes in the digital landscape that you’ve seen clients make?

Jeremy Bergstein:

I think that some of the biggest mistakes, some of the biggest errors and the biggest challenges have been in infrastructure and in foundation.

I think that marketing and speaking with customers is sort of built for iteration. It is built for trying something out, finding out if it works, if it doesn’t work, readjusting and iterating and improving. And that type of communication has existed.

I think the biggest mistakes and errors are made in not building the foundation correctly. And that’s always been something I’ve always been known as creative technologists, strategists, and somebody who’s really understood the business and this connected customer landscape, but also have a measure of enterprise understanding and how to plug the systems in together and who to get involved so we can integrate a contiguous customer journey, collect the data, et cetera.

So I would say the largest mistakes have normally been in the foundation that some of these businesses have built and really making sure that you’re getting out from underneath bad enterprises as quickly as possible.

Emilie Lewis:

I think foundation is crucial and anybody, this is a very simplistic example, but anybody that’s ever bought a house knows that you know how critical the foundation is. If a foundation has gone wrong, you get out of that deal real fast.

Jeremy Bergstein:

Yeah, I mean I think that it’s like there’s so many metaphors for sure, Emily, somebody once described their systems to me, that elephant that’s on top of a stool that’s balancing on top of a house, that’s juggling and that’s how the foundation for their technology was built. And it’s hard to build a business that way.

And that’s one of the things I can say there’s good and bad things about an agency, but being able to go into different customers and different clients and different businesses and assess what their strengths, their weaknesses are and be able to build correctly to capitalize on where they’re strong and make recommendations on how to help them get away from their weak places, repair them, or just stay away from them. It’s certainly one of the things that I think is most critical with being an agency.

Emilie Lewis:

Yeah. Do you feel when companies come to you, they are aware of what their strengths and weaknesses are?

Jeremy Bergstein:

Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a propensity though. There’s a propensity for some people to just be like, oh, this place is so dysfunctional. I sort of gravitate towards optimism and being like, let’s look at the places we can build real, having been built businesses, I know how hard some of it is.

And I also know how easy it is for people to come in and just be simple critics of places and I just don’t believe that that’s productive really. So I think that coming in and having an even sort of perspective on what can be done and how we can do it and capitalize on the good and perhaps not the bad.

Emilie Lewis:

I want to switch lanes just a little bit because the past year has most certainly taken a turn towards AI. With the release of ChatGPT, there’s been a lot of controversy around AI just recently. What is AI, what do you feel are some of the advantages of AI, and some of the challenges to AI as we see it today?

Jeremy Bergstein:

AI (Artificial Intelligence), is machine learning. A machine is processing information and making unquote decisions or determinations through the information that’s fed into it. It’s going and sorting through gargantuan amounts of data really very quickly and making determinations, making decisions based upon that data. So that data can either be, you’ve heard it referred to as large language models. So it can be written data, it could be code data, it could be visual data, or it could be computer vision.

Computer vision is cameras like a camera and a phone or a security camera seeing pictures, millions of pictures. And now that machine learning is sorting through those pictures and it’s learning from the pictures and it’s learning when somebody picks something up and puts it in their purse to flag them, potentially they could be stealing something.

AI is making determinations from massive amounts of data. Right now, I think it just came into a little bit more focus with chatGPT and with the fact that consumers could now see the power of it and it’s accelerating incredibly fast.

All the messaging that we’re hearing is this is without limit. So I think that that’s certainly scary for everybody. But having played with it and a couple different scenarios, there’s some good, there’s some bad and there’s some really ugly to get from, there’s so much promise and there’s so much possibility in this to here’s finite use cases that are valuable for your business right now is a long way still.

There’s a few use cases that I’m seeing that are successful, but otherwise people are just throwing AI on everything and it’s just another way of processing data. Searching a huge database for the top 10 customers is something that we’ve done for ages or the top 10 customers that like luxury brands or the top 10. So it’s just a way to sort through that and sort through several different data models. So I think it’s promising we’re at the beginning for sure.

Emilie Lewis:

How is your agency utilizing AI?

Jeremy Bergstein:

I mean, there’s a couple of different tools, some tools that we’re using. I know that the team is using some basic AI tools that are embedded in the creative suites from Adobe and then also from Canva that are just simple tools around image editing, around recommendations, around copy checking. But they’re basic, they’re smart and they’re fun and they’re cool, but they’re basic. So there’s sort of improved tool sets there. I’m also doing a couple projects right now with some companies that are utilizing AI fairly heavily and helping them find use cases in retail.

Emilie Lewis:

Can you give us an example of how your clients are using AI in retail?

Jeremy Bergstein:

I’m working with one client who is just trying to create a better checkout experience in their stores and they want to just create more frictionless checkouts. They’re always trying to reduce throughput on checkout so people have an easier time, and can check out faster. And in this case they’re taking computer vision and using it to identify products to make sure that some of the qualifiers for what it is and what the price is, so they’re doing it to sort of smooth out the checkout process.

There’s also some interesting use cases around improving the kind of the product attributes, making products more findable. So if you put something online and you describe it in a certain way, but that’s not how people are searching it out and looking for it, it can go out and actively assign more attributes to it to make it more searchable and findable.

There’s another client that I’m working with that is looking to use AI around understanding the client and creating more accurate and more interesting marketing content so that they can go and improve their marketing content, makes recommendations.

There’s obviously chatbots and those types of things as well, but on the operational side, there’s demand forecasts getting in front of and making predictions around the ebbs and flows of product demand so you can make sure that your inventory is prepared for it.

There’s pricing optimization that helps you go out and understand where you should price your product. So I think there’s a whole bunch of interesting use cases that are starting to bubble to the top. AI is just making it faster, making it more efficient, more accurate if you have the data to be mined through or can find the places to search.

Emilie Lewis:

Do you buy into the hype that AI is taking jobs that marketers, writers, the list goes on and on are not going to have a job 10 years from now because of AI?

Jeremy Bergstein:

I think you need to understand it and need to know what it is and what it’s capable of. I think you need to also know the process and the steps to prepare your company for it and your job for it. And if you’re caught advice, advice, if you don’t understand how you can prepare your job for it and utilize these tools, then yeah, you will probably struggle.

Emilie Lewis:

Yeah, that’s a little bit of the mindset that I have around it is there is an entire generation that grew up without computers and they had to adapt to computers, they had to adapt to the internet and to doing business via email. And now we’ve all adapted post-COVID to doing business via Zoom. This is a new layer to that same conversation that’s been happening for decades now.

Jeremy Bergstein:

Yeah, I mean there’s a lot to talk about there because we’ve been doing that for a long time. I mean, just riding off the tail end of what we were talking about with regard to AI and the fact that it’s sort of the same but different, and you’re very much looking to create continuous sort of behaviors and attract and engage customers around those brand attributes like those emotions.

But how they get delivered in a physical space, in a digital space, in a social space, in a virtual space is just slightly different. So much like what we were talking about with ai, I try to keep the sort of emotional and behavioral level sort of constant and simple and easy, and I’m like, okay, we’re looking to engage and create awareness.

  • How does the brand really stand out or how does the product stand out?
  • Or how does your property or your technology stand out?

Well, here’s its distinct and its most powerful attributes. Here’s how it fits in with a customer’s life.

  • How are we going to communicate that in a whole variety of different parts of the ecosystem? And then how can we track it?

How can we make sure it drives ultimately to conversion, which is data collection, product engagement, ultimately sale or greater average order volume for a visit or revisit or creating higher lifetime value.

So while we’ve always been very innovative in how we’ve created those experiences across these different pieces of the ecosystem, we try to keep it really simple in that we’re trying to use those key brand attributes. It’s a relationship with a customer, and then how are we going to engage them? And we’ve used some crazy different ways to engage them, but that’s just good fun marketing and creative thinking.

Emilie Lewis:

I wonder with the progression of digital, I wonder if brands feel the pressure. I know consumers feel the pressure, and I’m sure brands do feel the pressure to be the first, the fastest because digital moves at such a pace that we’re all seemingly trying to keep up.

  • So how do you mentor a brand if they build the foundation, but they’re just trying to keep up?
  • Do you keep chasing or do you pick your spot?
  • How does a brand decide that?

Jeremy Bergstein:

It’s a good question. I guess it’s very sort of timely. I’ve engaged a lot of times now with those longer strategies like here’s coming on board, understanding what the strengths, the weaknesses, what the stakeholders are responsible for, what the measures of success are, and then how we can create a roadmap for it.

You need to have short-term wins and long-term success. So how can we do that all at the same time? So I find myself doing quite a lot of that these days where I come in and help them put together that strategy, that plan, and then bring in great teams to hit all of those goals and those roadmaps. So I enjoy stuff like that because you get to know the organization really well and the people and make stuff happen.

Emilie Lewis:

If you don’t mind getting vulnerable with us for a minute, will you tell us, since you’ve had your agency now for over a decade, and obviously you have success working with some of the world’s best brands, tell us a mistake that you made.

Jeremy Bergstein:

I mean, listen a lot. It’s like, I don’t know how vulnerable you want me to get as sort of a business owner, but just so many, but a lot of successes as well. I would say listening, passion, creativity, empathy, powers, decisions, but it can also be limiting the idea of hiring people and not firing them fast enough.

The sort of classic agency conundrum of not contracting, expanding and contracting according to how much work you have and really wanting to build a company. And sometimes just having too many people on staff for how much work is in-house at one time and really struggling with cash flow problems, I think is one of the things that sort of pervades throughout an agency, and it kind of degrades the fabric of the business.

You’ll have 50 people on staff and enough business for 15 people, and that’s fine, but you have to size your business to make sure that you’re, so I think that operational issues like that, I think early on in my career, I certainly micromanaged too many parts of the business is certainly something that also comes to mind.

And then also early on in my years, just a lack of focus. We built and launched some products to varying success, and I think that you really just have to be very careful with that. The greatest thing about an agency is you work on lots of different projects and lots of interesting things, but it can really start to, your focus can be in many different places at once, and you really have to just make sure you’re aware of that and be just an agency person.

I had gone to work for a product company for a while, and they had sort of lured me in there, and I really enjoyed it for a little while to work in-house. I also worked in-house for a cosmetics brand as well. I liked the stability of it, but also they had trouble with funding and trouble with all the usual suspects over the last year and a half. And I realized that what I really liked was running an agency.

And I’ve recently, it’s sort of rekindled my love for just solving problems for brands and creating great experiences for customers, but that not embracing your strong points and trying to do too much is something that I feel that I made a lot of mistakes in trying to just be a pleaser and do too many things all at one time. And as you kind of get older and a little bit more mature, you really realize you.

Emilie Lewis:

Yes. Well, thank you for your honesty, and thank you for maybe debunking some notions about agencies or maybe demystifying for some people what an agency actually does and the work that you guys create. I also personally appreciate the fact that you bring the analytical and the creative sides together, because that’s the world that I live in every day, and I really think that that’s very important. I wish we had more people that understood both are equally important, and together they’re a superpower.

Emilie Lewis

Emilie Lewis