Enabling John McEnroe to time travel and play a younger version of himself at tennis. Helping you order pizza with your mind. Making video chat easier for kids on the autistic spectrum. Brands come to Unit9 for what its director of production Mindy Lubert calls “the never-been-done experience.”
Unit9 capitalized on metaverse fever and built ‘never been done’ experiences
When it comes to big, out-of-the-box, tech-driven ideas and experiences, brands and agencies make a beeline for Unit9 as a production partner. Founded in 1996 and named Ad Age Production Company of the Year in 2019, it’s always been ahead of the curve in engaging with emerging technology. But in 2022, as brands scrambled to engage with the metaverse, AI and other rapidly developing tech, its talents were more in demand than ever. Revenue soared 46% year-over-year on the back of 16 new client wins.
Capitalizing on the metaverse craze, Unit9 launched a Metaverse Advisory Department, working with clients including Meta, Lululemon, Universal Music Group and Porsche Digital’s Forward31. The division accounted for 22% of Unit9’s revenue last year, but what clients were asking for was what it was already doing, said Rosh Singh, Unit9 managing director for EMEA.
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“The industry really latched on to it and it became the buzzword for the year,” Singh said, “but when we looked at what people meant by the metaverse, they are putting the physical and the digital together, and these are the principles that we have been putting in our craft for years.”
Unit9’s U.S. division alone grew by 30%, according to creative partner Michelle Craig, who credits the success to “the emergence of this co-world of technology and experience that has always been a sweet spot for us.” That was on display in what Unite9 said was its most challenging project of the year: Michelob Ultra’s “McEnroe vs McEnroe,” a groundbreaking televised project that pitted the real tennis champion against virtual versions of his younger self.
Using AI, the team studied virtually every match McEnroe has ever played, which took 14 months of being virtually “locked in a room and trying to make this work,” said Craig. Unreal tech then scanned his expressions and body movements, and robot arms synced up to match avatar movements. The campaign received more than 10 million views across ESPN’s channels.
Unit9 also broke new ground with “Project Convey,” developed for telco Cox to help people on the autistic spectrum with video chat. Born of an insight that people with autism find it easier to empathize with emojis than human faces, the campaign used speech and facial recognition technology to translate facial expressions, words and tone of voice into single emojis. While the system was a prototype, Unit9 is in talks with a “big tech company” about a rollout.
Domino’s Pizza also turned to Unit9 with an impossible-sounding brief: an app customers could use to order a pizza, using facial recognition, on a virtual set of the Netflix sci-fi series “Stranger Things.” The campaign was able to engage “Stranger Things” fandom and encourage actual Domino’s sales: Nearly 2,000 “Mind Orders” were placed as a result.
Unit9 also opened a music and culture division in 2022, as well as a dedicated division servicing theme parks, museums, cultural institutions, retail, hospitality and global expos. It also added an office in China to its existing presence in the U.K., U.S., Canada and Poland.
Since launching, the team in China has already worked on projects for Coca-Cola and Nike. But as well as having a physical presence there, Unit9 chairman and co-founder Piero Frescobaldi said he also sees “bringing Chinese talent into what we do” as exciting. “It’s about accessing a new way of thinking, a new generation of people that helps keep us relevant,” he said. “In fact, I would still describe us as a 25-year-old startup. We still have that spirit.”