By Marcela Lay, November 17, 2020

There is no question that customers' expectations have changed and will continue to change during and after the pandemic. It used to be that the customer experience was the only way to differentiate your brand; now the challenge is not just about standing out, but reacting quickly to the changing customer expectations, innovating and transforming the business.

One thing is for sure; the COVID-19 crisis has accentuated a world in which digital has become central to every interaction.  Consumer and business digital adoption has leaped five years forward in only a few months. The data tells a compelling story:

  • 78% of consumers have tried a new shopping behavior
  • More than half of consumers cite convenience and value as a driver for trying new places to shop
  • Food and household categories have seen an average of over 30 percent growth in online customer base across countries
  • The flight to digital and omnichannel will be prevalent during the holiday season, with 30 to 60 percent of consumers across countries reporting an intent to shift online for holiday shopping.
  • Most digital and contactless services have seen increased adoption since April, with more than half of new and increased users reporting an intent to continue post-COVID-19.

(Source: McKinsey)

What is the state of business eight months into the pandemic? 

  • Many organizations like in the case of Canlis (an upscale Seattle restaurant that redesigned its business model with three pop-up concepts: a drive-through burger joint, a bagel shop, and a “family meal" delivery service) had to improvise and experiment with responding to the new customers' expectations, and many organizations are learning and progressing quicker than ever before. 
  • By now, many organizations have digitized at least some parts of their business to reduce mobility limitations due to the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Organizations had to listen carefully to internal customers (employees and associates) and external customers (paying customers and vendors) observing, caring, and connecting based on how their behaviors are changing. 
  • And organizations, like in the case of Airbnb, who are demonstrating care toward employees will be rewarded as customers take notice. 

If there is a silver lining during this pandemic, it's the fast transformation many organizations have been forced into becoming customer-first. By now, companies had to focus on a fundamental element of customer-centricity: empathy. This demand for empathy has propelled a need for a deeper customer understanding that will lead to competitive differentiation. 

  1. In-depth customer understanding fuels innovative thinking.
  2. Innovative thinking that is quickly prototyped and tested, validates powerful and unique solutions that can be swiftly deployed to add value to customers.
  3. Adding value to customers through compelling and unique solutions drive competitive differentiation.

What is important now is to keep the momentum on this much-needed transformation. The way organizations have been conducting business is no longer sustainable for a multitude of industries. Reacting quickly to changing customer expectations, innovating and transforming the business will be the key to survival and competitive differentiation. 

Then, how can organizations continue to respond to customer expectations during the pandemic and map a path forward post COVID-19?

Discover how to transform your business in this new normal. Message us.

  1. Build hypotheses for what's to stay, and turn those into future-state scenarios, including future-state personas and potentially new customer journeys.  
    1. Examine the current customer journeys and your customers' satisfaction to address what they still need you to alleviate.
    2. Gather new Customer Needs, Wants, Pain Points, and TrustPoints to understand what customers will value post-crisis and develop new use cases and tailored experiences based on those insights.
    3. Identify and prioritize new sources of revenue.
    4. Audit your omnichannel experience to ensure you meet customers where they are today and where they need you to be tomorrow.

  1. Pivot to new business models that responds to the new normal. For instance, Starbucks, a brand known to be the main representation of the United States' second wave of a coffee culture centered on its coffeehouse experience, is closing 400 stores and expanding its takeout options. 
    1. Rethinking the organization, move from silos to networks, and teamwork with clear goals, focused teams, and rapid decision making.
    2. Consider non-traditional collaborations with partners up and down the supply chain.
    3. Inspire the team to consider new sources of value and capitalize on the adrenaline for innovation resulting from the crisis.
    4. Trim down offerings that are no longer viable.
  1. Prioritize, standardize, and scale digital-led experiences to support your customer who is now acclimated to self-service models.  
    1. Prioritize the redesign of Moments of Truth(Trustpoints) experiences and surprise your customer with anticipatory and empathetic experiences.
    2. Standardize and scale digital solutions across core business processes through learnings sharing.
  1. Accelerate time to market for new customer experiences by designing, prototyping, testing, and iterating rapid solutions.
    1. Deliver timely solutions that respond to the new reality will increase customer loyalty and advocacy.
    2. Release innovations in their “MVE” minimum viable experience state.
    3. Drive fast decision making by Advocating for action over research and testing over-analysis.
    4. Put in place a new operating model built around the customer and supported by the right processes and governance.
  1. Track customer-centric KPIs to determine success and to uncover any additional areas of prioritization. Companies cannot meet their business objectives unless they are connecting with their customers.
    1. Balance out business-centric KPIs with customer-centric KPIs.
      1. Customer Effort Score (CES)
      2. Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
      3. Customer Retention Rate & Customer Churn Rate
      4. Up-Sell and Cross-Sell Rate
      5. Average Order Value (AOV) & Average Revenue per Customer (ARPC)
    2. Continue to track Customer service KPIs
      1. First Response Time (FRT)
      2. First Contact Resolution (FCR) Rate
      3. Resolution Time (RT) 

Customer experience has taken on a new dimension during the pandemic. As we begin to rebuild, organizations that innovate during this crisis by staying connected to customers and building hypotheses on what is to stay will strengthen their brand-customer relationships in a way that will endure well beyond the pandemic.

Create value for your business by creating value for your customer. Check out YML's work.

About the Author: Marcela Lay

Marcela has spent her 15+ year career pushing change and redefining the status quo. As a minority woman, a woman in tech, and a woman in senior leadership, Marcela has broken gender, ethnic, and managerial glass ceilings, not only for herself, but as a true ally and power agent for everyone she has the privilege to lead. She’s also led new business wins on Omaha Steaks International, Fresenius Medical Care, a major US healthcare provider, and guided the digital transformation on legacy Fortune 500 clients including State Farm and The Home Depot. This year, Marcela was recognized among Campaign's prestigious "40 over 40" winners.

How to make your digital design portfolio stand out, according to a chief creative officer.

By Stephen Clements, October, 28, 2020

This story originally appeared in Campaign US.

Back in March, we lost three clients in the space of one week due to COVID-19: two big restaurants and a major retailer. Ugh.

Across the industry, we watched businesses hemorrhage and countless talented people lose their jobs. Collectively, we took a deep breath and braced for the worst.

But it didn’t get worse. Demand for designing and building digital products increased dramatically during the pandemic. They are, after all, the ultimate social distancer. Now more than ever, perfecting your online offering is key.

So in light of the economic woes faced by many in our industry, we find ourselves in an interesting position: we’re hiring. I put a post on LinkedIn stating that fact, which got well north of 30,000 views and over 500 interested applicants.

I got to work reviewing portfolios. And lots of them. Here are nine tips for aspiring digital designers looking to stand out among the crowd.

1. You have 30 seconds.

And if I like what I see, you might have two minutes more.

Agency executives are busy. Getting across your value quickly in your portfolio is crucial. If it’s a maybe, I may spend a few minutes digging a little deeper before passing it along to our design leadership – who pretty much do the same thing.

2. Show, don’t tell.

Not only does writing out your creative journey step-by-step not translate well, but it distracts from the work. I personally hate text-heavy portfolios. We’re in a visual industry where pictures and videos do the talking.

3. Product, not process.

On that note, don’t agonize over showing every step you took to develop a creative product or solution. Your portfolio is just a door opener. We can talk process in an interview.

Less high-res pictures of Post-Its, more high-res, high-crafted design images. It makes you look better, and makes me look longer.

4. Slick sells.

If you’re a visual designer, this is a no-brainer. But this still applies to UX designers, as visual design is a huge part of digital experience.

When you’re pitching a client, all deliverables need to look polished and professional. Don’t skimp on showing that you value this in your work.

5. UX matters

In the vein of “show, don’t tell,” the UX of your portfolio matters, too. You can’t say you’re a bad-ass experience designer if your own site’s experience sucks.

And I can’t believe I have to say this, but make sure your portfolio is optimized for mobile. We live in a mobile-first world, and I review a ton of portfolios on my phone in bed (yep, I’m that guy, and there are more like me).

6. Brand yourself

Your brand matters. You need to stand out in a crowd of literally hundreds. Make sure your portfolio shows your style and personality – not just your work. 

Even your profile picture makes a difference. If you can’t design a picture of yourself that stands out, you will probably struggle designing anything that stands out.

7. Keep your side projects to the side

To be blunt, I’m not interested in seeing your watercolors or crochet side projects.

A few personal projects are okay, but if you’re not 100% committed to a career in this field, I begin doubting you’ll work out.

8. Don’t F up the basics.

This goes for job applicants in any field: watch out for typos, alignment mistakes, broken links and glaring errors. Double and triple check everything. Have your friends help you QA it too.

I once saw a portfolio that said, “I’m a designer with excellent atention to detail.” That’s a hard pass, thank you very much.

9. No is not the enemy.

No is how we get better. Take every rejection as a learning opportunity. Ask for feedback — I’ll give it to you straight, it’s the least I can do — figure out why you failed and adapt. Learn from your mistakes and bring that to the next interview.

There you have it, from a time-starved, 40-something CCO, with iffy eyesight, bad posture (designing for a living does that to you), and a relentless passion for people, products and design.

I hope it helps.

Illustration by Kevin Tudball

About the Author: Stephen Clements

Stephen Clements is Chief Creative Officer at YML. Formerly co-founder of Junior: the Rapid Invention Company, a product design accelerator for big brands, and before that, Executive Creative Director for AKQA, San Francisco, Stephen has over 15 years industry experience working at the top of the game. An accomplished product design and innovation leader, he created breakthrough work for brands such as Activision, Anheuser-Busch, Audi, eBay, Jordan, Levi’s, NVIDIA, Verizon, Visa, Xbox, and YouTube to name a few. Stephen’s work has featured in Wired, Forbes, BBC, WSJ, PSFK, the New York Times, USA Today, and has been joked about on Conan O’Brien. His efforts have been recognized in global awards including Cannes, One Show, ADC, D&AD, the Addys, the Webbys, and the Effies.

October 27, 2020

Have you and your partner had this conversation before?  “Where do you want to go for dinner?  I don’t know, where do you want to go?”  Cobble (launched after first venture, idk tonight) is a startup based in NYC whose mission is to help couples answer this question.  

Cobble partnered with YML to build the company’s first mobile application (iOS) focused on enabling couple decision-making through its curated content platform.

Crunchhbase recently recognized Cobble as one of its "Start-Ups" to Watch, noting that Cobble "raised $3 million in seed funding in 35 days. The round was led by a group of several strategic angel investors including Kerr Tech Investments."

Forbes also showcased Cobble, focusing on the originality of the concept and product. As Cobble's founder, Jordan Scott, shared in the story, "All of the apps that come out today are all about taking your time and attention and energy. The goal for us—not only because we want to be a successful business, but because we think it’s good for the world—is to give people their time back. Get to a decision as quickly as possible, and then you’re out into the world."

YML ultimately built a custom, mobile application platform with a CMS and data feed component, which has the ability to scale as the company grows. It was a phenomenal concept that the YML team was proud to bring to life.

In The News

"How A 25-Year-Old Created A Tinder-Style App That Will Transform Your Next Trip"

"Startups To Watch: Cobble, Oula And More"

10 years of progress in healthcare and technology equaled in just a few months. Discover what's next.

by Jason Rzutkiewicz, SVP of Client Strategy, YML

October 13, 2020

Every now and again society experiences seismic shifts. Now would be one of those times, as we see pivotal, decades-worth changes happening in the span of just a few months. Change is happening on all levels.

Jobs that weren’t possible to do remotely are now happening without missing a beat. People who have never used online grocery services now depend on it. Medical needs that couldn’t be met via a video visit now happen regularly. Shifts that have been building up for a while are moving society to think in more inclusive ways.

Many wonder when will we get back to normal. Yet, perhaps, the more productive question is—what does the new normal look like?

If we look to history as a guide, the 2003 SARS pandemic that permanently altered society offers similar parallels in digital transformations. Like today, retailers faced drastic disruptions to business (previously they were dependent on traditional retail channels). But within the climate of the SARS pandemic, Ecommerce in China grew by leaps and bounds, creating a fast-forward effect. Alibaba who had $10 million RMB in sales the prior year quickly soared to seeing that same amount daily. At the end of 2005, they reported $1.2 billon RMB in sales; a 120x increase.

In the last few months alone we’ve seen 10 years of progress equaled in just 12 weeks. 

Many wonder if people will revert to pre-COVID behavior once a vaccine becomes widely available. If we look at reversion patterns after the SARS pandemic passed, the clear answer was ‘no’ in that case. Ecommerce adoption and growth in China took off and never looked back. In 2019, China reported sales of $1.935T which was 3x the $611B reported in the United States.

Now, six months into COVID, we are seeing similar implications with an immediate and rapid acceleration of Ecommerce sales. Many retailers are reporting 100% increases in Ecommerce, impacting behaviors and society at large. In the last few months alone we’ve seen 10 years of progress equaled in just 12 weeks. 

While impressive, this current acceleration isn’t the same slingshot moment that we witnessed back in 2003. To find that we need to look towards digital healthcare. Pre-COVID telemedicine visits held at best, a high single-digit share of total visits.

That changed almost overnight.

At Kaiser Permanente, known to be one of the leaders in the use of virtual visits, telemedicine is now delivering 80%+ of care for its patients according to Prat Venama, their Chief Digital Officer. For those with a less mature trajectory, the impacts are even more dramatic.

Ascension Saint Thomas Health, located in Central Tennessee, conducted about 50 of 60,000 visits virtually in February. They now average 15,000 telehealth visits a month, a 300x increase. Whether it’s Stanford Health Care where televisits are 50 times higher, or Sutter Health who have seen the number of patients being served system-wide expand 175-fold by video visits, exponential growth stories are plentiful in today’s news cycle.

These changes have huge implications for the future of access in healthcare. And while many of these implications are positive, we also need to proceed carefully and inclusively as telemedicine has the potential to leave behind the ones that need it most.

Today, providers are struggling to reach vulnerable communities — including low-income and minority patients — during the pandemic. This can be directly linked to the safety net clinics provide for communities that don’t have the funds to support virtual care. This leaves those who are those most impacted by COVID at an inherent disadvantage.  

So what might the new normal look like? And how might we avoid the mistakes of the past and ensure it is equitable and inclusive? 

With as much innovation as there is coming online to advance telehealth, there is also a great opportunity to build additional, more inclusive, pathways within health care.

To begin with, COVID has forced many of the constraints that have previously held back innovation to be lifted out of immediate necessity. Reimbursement has been solved, cross-border care has been solved, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will now reimburse for more than 80 additional services. These changes are now being made permanent.

Todd Askew, the AMA’s senior vice president of advocacy, said during a recent “AMA COVID-19 Update” video. “We have moved forward a decade in the use of telemedicine in this country and it’s going to become, and will remain, an increasingly important part of physician practices going forward.”  

Premera Blue Cross agrees and is launching its first-ever virtual primary care plan. Likewise does McKinsey who recently reported that virtual visits, which accounted for an estimated $3 billion before the COVID shutdown, could potentially account for $250 billion annually, a nearly 100-fold increase, within the next year. 

With as much innovation as there is coming online to advance telehealth, there is also a great opportunity to build additional, more inclusive, pathways within health care.

Patients who don’t have access to a greater resource pool (monetary, educational, social) can also miss out on health and digital literacy that is often needed to engage with these products. For many more, English may not be the primary language. These same patients are also less likely to own digital devices. How do we ensure that this doesn’t limit their access to care?

How can digital experiences help bridge these divides instead of widening them?

As technology managers, builders and contributors, the responsibility lies in our hands to create authentic spaces for as many different needs as possible. These issues must be addressed to ensure a new normal that is both equitable and inclusive.

And while these are exciting times, this slingshot moment is just the beginning. Using SARS as our reference point—eCommerce in China continued to grow by 50% annually in the decade that followed. For Digital Health the most meaningful growth and innovation still lies ahead. Will your healthcare organization play a role in this once-in-a-generation transformation? The window is now. We can help.

Illustrations by Kevin Tudball.

About the author: Jason Rzutkiewicz

Jason is YML’s Client Strategy leader, playing a critical role in helping brands navigate the complex digital landscape of web, mobile, apps, search, and data and bridging them with physical spaces to create seamless experiences. He currently leads the YML healthcare practice and has led crafting experiences across a diverse range of audiences from physician, nurses, patients, caregivers and insurers. He augments his understanding of the digital health landscape with a long history of delivering complex engagements across a wide variety of industries for companies like Walmart, T-Mobile, Sephora, Adobe, Honda, Wells Fargo, and Choice Hotels.  

Jason leads multi-disciplinary teams of strategists, media experts, creatives, interaction designers, technologists, data scientists, and more to deliver experiences that drive results and exceed business expectations. He is particularly sought after for his ability to create alignment, accelerate velocity, and quickly resolve issues.  Prior to YML, Jason was at SapientRazorfish from 2004-2018, before which he spent time with Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Diamond Management Consulting, and McKesson. Jason lives in Marin County with his wife and three children. He enjoys cycling and the great outdoors.

October 8, 2020

Change is hard. The social habits that have helped create unsafe and untenable conditions for Black Lives in the United States are ingrained at the deepest levels of daily life, and have gone unchecked for far too long. That’s a hard statement to confront, because what is familiar is part of the problem, and we know we have a role in that. We know we need to become comfortable addressing what is real over what seems easy.

This is the work. And it’s exhausting. And challenging. But it has to be done. We know there is respite when we work together.

Lasting impact will not happen overnight—it has to be chosen and built every day. But racism is unequivocal; we’re either re-wiring our understanding and actions around it or we are upholding the status quo. As a culture, the temptation to glaze over, avoid, or sweep under is what we must overcome. We can still be constructive, considered, and intentional, but those words take on new meaning and accountability now.

While we strive for grace, we know beauty and strength are found in diversity, in healing what is ruptured, and creating wholeness where there have been fractures—no matter how ungraceful it may feel. We are optimistic because we believe change is possible in our lifetime, and that with incremental steps we can create momentum.

"We will celebrate Black lives and Black culture to the same degree that we provide focus and care on correcting this problem."

First and foremost, we are starting at home within our virtual office walls. To our families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers, clients, and future clients: Black Lives Matter. We know we are at the start of a new, evolving opportunity—one that involves seeking new habits of inclusivity that empower a diverse set of people within the Black community and beyond.

We will celebrate Black lives and Black culture to the same degree that we provide focus and care on correcting this problem.

We're also reflecting on the makeup of our own team; how and why we look the way we do, and what message that sends both internally and externally.

At our core, we are builders — architects, designers, and engineers building businesses, brands, and digital products that make a lasting impact.  We seek to translate that same ethos and focus to building the future differently through our core product offering, led by a team that brings a variety of perspectives. We are also committed to offering personal growth opportunities to people who are and have been marginalized within the current system in an effort to broaden a more equal playing field.

We have identified three key areas for improvement and change, across three timelines (immediate (1-6 months), mid-term (6 months to 2 years), and long-term (2+ years). 

1. YML Hiring, Employee Development & Diversity Awareness

  • Increase and maintain Black representation in talent and across our organization from 4.5% to 10% respectively (immediate to mid-term). After an array of recent hires, we are now at 6%.
  • Invest in professional development, up-skill opportunities and mentorship for all employees (immediate and ongoing). 
  • Continue to provide support and resources pertaining to well-being and mental health awareness (immediate and ongoing)
  • Mandatory employee and leadership-specific training, unconscious bias training for all employees (immediate). Progress: Weekly 2 hour sessions are in progress and expected to wrap up this week on October 9th. 
  • Monthly listening and education sessions conducted by our people team on topics of race, racial justice, and D&I (immediate and ongoing). Progress: Hosting a discussion on DE&I in Design and how we can impact diversity through the work that we do.
  • Education and dialogue opportunities: Unlearning racism reading and discussion group (immediate and ongoing) Progress: We just wrapped up “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. We are kicking off a new book this week called "We Were Eight Years in Power" by Ta Nehisi Coates. We sourced our new books by partnering with a Black woman-owned bookstore in the Bay Area. You can support Debra and Ashay By The Bay or your local Black-owned bookstore instead of getting it on Amazon.
  • Host leaders from the Black community to come and speak with our teams on the topics of leadership and D&I (immediate and ongoing). Progress: Dr. Kenneth Harris to speak on the topic of "The History of Institutionalized Racism". Dr. Harris is a celebrated Black Historian and Head of the National Business League. 
  • Re-affirm a zero tolerance policy for any discriminatory behavior (immediate and ongoing).

2. Business & Community Partnerships

  • Seek client and business partnerships with a mutual goal of impacting change (immediate to long-term)
  • Partner with a predominantly Black non-profit organization for our social impact efforts, using our strengths in the digital space to amplify their brand and voice. (immediate and ongoing)
  • Include ongoing education and celebration of Black Life in America through YML content and messaging. And we’ve already begun across our social channels. (Immediate and ongoing)
  • Seek to integrate technology solutions designed to eliminate bias (mid-term to long-term)

3. Service & Empowerment 

  • Partner with predominantly Black non-profit organization with opportunities for mentorship and internships of Black students (immediate and ongoing). We have already donated to Black Girls Code and Color of Change, and are seeking deeper partnerships with these organizations, and others.

We hope you will join us in this effort, as partners, supporters, and people who share the same desire for a better world. Here’s to change. 


by Ashley Heltne, Director of Client Engagement, YML

October 6, 2020

With the retail climate making a dramatic and immediate shift online in the past seven months, we, as digital makers and builders, have had an influx of clients asking the right questions: 

  • How do I mirror the in-store experience, online?
  • How do we make it better?
  • How do we convert with the same enthusiasm as in-store?

When recently partnering with Thrive Market, an inherently digital marketplace, our team defined three key rules that are true of every successful online retailer. The remit in this instance was to make a first-class user experience even better, with an emphasis on driving conversion.

In doing that, we were forced to deeply evaluate the components of a best in class experience in this new, socially distant, digital-dependent world. Here is what we learned, and is critical to consider when building your customer experience and, consequently, your evolved business model.  

1. Friction is the Enemy

Early development principles would have us believe that number of clicks, or time speed to checkout are the most important things to measure, but we keep finding that users are becoming more and more adept at navigating the online purchase process. In fact, several users actually look forward to searching, shopping, and creating carts.

In other words, online grocery shopping could soon replace the proverbial game of Tetris.

With this behavior shift, the real killer to conversion is friction. Upselling? Fine. Added recommendations engines? Fine. Inspiration boards? Fine. Additional features blocking the user's ability to add an item to cart? Friction.

Key takeaway: 16% increase in 1st time orders for Thrive Market members.

2. Try Everything, Pivot Quickly

To more efficiently make an impact on our client’s business in this shifting landscape, YML has evolved your typical client / agency relationship into a more transparent partnership. Gone are the days of waiting two weeks for your agency to put together a dog and pony show deck for the bosses waiting in Conference Room B.

To keep up with the rapidly changing nature of product development, our client teams collaborate in the same working files (shout out to Figma and Miro - our new necessities), to take notes, suggest edits, and build out new user flows in real time. Our rule here is simple: no idea is bad. Build it and test it. But if the idea doesn't work - move on. The only true expert in product development is the user, which will come to light in user testing. Even the most brilliant design system is out the window if our core user isn't able to navigate it easily.

Key takeaway: 9.7% increase in membership sign ups for Thrive Market.

3. Customization is Key

Navigating an online marketplace with over 7,000 sku's is overwhelming. But unlike brick and mortar stores, your digital product has the opportunity to learn and grow. With robust data collection and analytics, the ability to create customized experiences results in efficiency and stickiness; for example, when Thrive users search for an organic, dairy product, they have always been served a variety of recommendations based on those specifications.

Simple enough.

But now, when we also find out that this user is a mother of two who is married to someone with a peanut allergy, we offer meal suggestions, put together thoughtful shopping lists, and introduce recipes that inspire further discovery in the kitchen.

Key takeaway: 64% increase in Thrive Market customers who added products from personalized recommendations.

Users have come to expect these principles as table stakes from online stores. And every leading retailer has already conquered them; Target, Houzz and, of course, the all powerful Amazon know that users become loyal when they find delight in knowing that their online experience causes zero frustration, knows what they like, has fun searching around, and, most importantly, saves them the hassle of roaming crowded, picked-over store aisles for an hour on Saturday mornings.

About the Author: Ashley Heltne

Ashley is YML's director of client engagement. She has over 12 years of experience building successful and lasting client partnerships. She has worked at several top advertising and consumer experience agencies including R/GA, Digitas, and Y&R. While there, she led integrated marketing programs for brands like Verizon, Taco Bell, eBay, EA Games, and Liberty Mutual. Ashley’s agency tenure has equipped her to tackle any business problem from a strategic, solutions-first approach.

Several of the consumer engagement programs Ashley’s team built for Taco Bell, Verizon, and Liberty Mutual were regarded as first of their kind, securing three Cannes Lions, four Clios, and one Effie. While this work garnered attention from the industry, they also increased acquisition, retention, and loyalty for her clients’ business.

Agency on Track for Best Year Ever: 75 New Hires, 35 Open Positions, Upping Staff to 400 By Year-End

YML is having its best year ever — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and expanding their global staff with 75 new hires, 35 positions still open and an expected total staff count of 400 by year end.

Today, two key industry talents join YML as Rajeev Bhanot comes onboard in the new role of Head of Product, directly from The Walt Disney Company in New York, where he was Senior Director of Growth & Product Management for Disney+. Additionally, Erica Sayers joins as Director of Client Engagement, coming from Huge, where she was Group Engagement Director on United Nations Women, U.S. Department of State, Capital One, Under Armour, Dell, and Dun & Bradstreet, among others. 

“The pandemic massively accelerated the need and speed for every brand to digitally reset,” stated Ashish Toshniwal, CEO & co-founder, YML. “Our culture is now at an inflection point where the digital product business is booming and Rajeev, with his creator vision, will add critical product strategy expertise to YML’s leadership team, while bringing a lot of the start-up growth culture from Spotify and Disney+. Rajeev shares the same “builder” spirit core to YML’s DNA.” Bhanot reports directly to Toshniwal and will be based in YML’s Silicon Valley, (Redwood City, CA), headquarters office upon reopening.

YML has been behind the scenes injecting Silicon Valley’s velocity and innovation into Fortune 500’s and disruptive startups for over a decade. YML remains true to its founding as a pure digital agency, with Silicon Valley innovation and tech at its core. All revenue originates from strategy, design and engineering for digital products and experiences, and encompasses everything from websites and e-commerce platforms, to mobile apps and emerging tech (AI, machine learning, AR, VR).

YML has spearheaded digital transformation initiatives for some of the world’s largest brands including Apple, The Home Depot, Facebook, State Farm, Universal Music Group and L’Oréal, among others.

“Erica is a rare find,” shared Marcela Lay, VP Client Strategy and Head of YML Atlanta.Seven years ago she reached out to me for coffee searching for career mentorship. We didn't know each other, but I admired she was looking for ways to grow. I love Erica's strategic mindset, her passion for team collaboration, and her focus on delivering impact to clients under a customer-centric approach.”  Sayers reports directly to Lay and will be working remotely from Washington D.C.

Campaign US’ 40 Over 40 Awards celebrate the most talented and accomplished individuals transforming the advertising, technology, and communications landscape, and Marcela Lay, YML's VP of Client Strategy and Head of the Atlanta Studio, was named to the prestigious list on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.

“Marcela’s impact on YML’s business and as a team leader has been truly invaluable,” stated Ashish Toshniwal, CEO & Co-Founder, YML. “She doesn’t just lead by example, she immerses herself in every problem to deliver a thoughtful, impactful solution — whether it’s for a client, a teammate, or the future of our business. Marcela embodies the best of YML, and we’re grateful every day to have her as one of our executive leaders.”

Marcela has spent her 15+ year career pushing change and redefining the status quo. As a minority woman, a woman in tech, and a woman in senior leadership, Marcela has broken gender, ethnic, and managerial glass ceilings, not only for herself, but as a true ally and power agent for everyone she has the privilege to lead. She’s also led new business wins on Omaha Steaks International, Fresenius Medical Care, a major US healthcare provider, and guided the digital transformation on legacy Fortune 500 clients including State Farm ® and The Home Depot. Marcela joins incredible company in this year’s winner with leaders from Droga5McCannNerdWalletVerizonMediaLinkPublicis and more.

"Campaign US is excited to honor the senior talent paving the way in our industry. The individuals celebrated on this list have shown innovation and leadership across all areas of marketing, advertising and communications," said Campaign US editor Alison Weissbrot.

Nominations were judged by a panel consisting of the Campaign editorial team as well as decorated industry leaders including Steve Williams, global COO of Essence; PJ Pereira, cofounder and creative chairman of Pereira O'Dell; Heide Gardner, SVP, chief D&I officer of Interpublic Group; Mel Edwards, CEO of Wunderman Thompson; and Doug Melville, chief diversity officer of TBWA Worldwide.

by Joe Johnston, Creative Director + Co-Studio Lead ATL

Today, when shoppers are likely to be skittish about being in stores—if they visit at all—those who adapt using technology strategically and design intuitively will be better positioned to survive. More than just ordering online, digital solutions will have to consider every aspect of the business: operating logistics, employee safety, the use of physical space. And, if social distance becomes the new norm, how can technology connect humans for the better? 

Contactless Shopping 

While stores are quickly rolling out contactless payments due to COVID-19, many still use self-service touch screens and pin pads for transactions and loyalty. Given new CDC guidelines, where people are being encouraged to avoid using touch screens and pin pads, in some cases, they may no longer be allowed to use them at all. Additionally, with supply chain challenges and keeping items in stock, customers have been left with limited choices on where and what they buy.

This has led companies to adapt to new technology solutions and speed up their digital transformation. Critically, they're working with customers in partnership toward creating a more safe environment for the benefit of both parties. Stores and customers alike have had to make huge adjustments in recent months. Relying on customers to use their own devices places greater ownership in their hands to help manage their own safety, as well as contribute to the safety of others, including store employees. With this new behavior, stores are discovering even more benefits to digital product strategy.

Mobile checkout can help save customers time, both in the aisles and at the register.

Utilizing personal devices reduces interactions with physical screens and pin pads, and enables real-time loyalty offers to be activated, as well as preemptive stock tracking. During COVID-19 when 52% of customers buy what's currently available, this creates an opportunity for stores to help shoppers shop more efficiently.

"Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?"

Going beyond in-store experiences, this same idea is being applied to companion services. Think grocery store gas pumps, for example. You know the drill—slide in the card, punch your loyalty and PIN number, push the fuel type and fill the car. Just like mobile shopping, mobile check out at fuel pumps can happen in a similar way. Especially during this time of hygiene safety at the gas pumps, which option is better for the customer—wiping down every surface as they move through their day, or adjusting to a new and improved contactless experience?

For companies that adapt to the latter, they are not only helping to curb the spread of germs, but discovering new ways to improve the customer experience. Shell has already shown how this shift can occur. The mobile experience can be as easy as sitting in your car, selecting the pump, adding your loyalty and paying digitally, reducing physical touch points as much as possible. This experience could extend after COVID-19 allowing customers to stay in the car and out of the elements.

Rearranging Space

For brick-and-mortar grocery locations, adding new mobile device and digital capabilities can also add a layer of complexity and challenges for grocery stores. A strong wifi network is needed to support customers checking out and scanning items. Also, monitoring accurate check out using a self-service mobile device increases risk of inventory loss in some cases.

Although, if customers are able to shop at home and simply pick up their groceries, it can reduce the burden on a central digital network and minimize the need for extra security considerations.

With other restrictions, like limited store capacity, using an app for customers to schedule shopping time could help. Stores like Walmart started limiting the number of shoppers and re-examining their entire shopping and checkout system. No more than five customers will be allowed in for every 1,000 square feet, which is roughly 20% of a store's capacity. If the app was mandatory before entering the store, things like virtual queuing and in-store monitoring could be managed more easily by the store. Think the Fast Pass at Disney, which allows pass holders to reserve ride times during scheduled windows and change as needed.

Another aspect of the contactless shopping experience we expect to see take on more prominence is the use of temperature scanning and contact tracing methods.

Currently Apple & Google are in partnership developing a contact tracing API that could help stores and customers understand when they are in range of a potentially infected person. This would require shoppers and employees alike to have the store app downloaded, assisting in additional safety and security measures.

As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.

Hygiene theatre will play a crucial role for business because, well, customers have expectations of things being clean. The expectation is to see these things happening in front of them. From wiping down grocery carts in front of customers to seeing cleaning crews to communicating times the stores are closed each day for cleaning. Several grocery stores are installing physical plexiglas sneeze guards in checkout lanes to visually show the safety between employees and customers. This expectation will only grow.

As the uncertainty grows around traveling to grocery stores, let alone being in them, customers want to feel safe and showcasing hygiene transparently will act as a short-term customer experience differentiator for some businesses.

The Rise of the Grocery Consultant 

With more people ordering online than ever before, essential workers may find themselves shifting into more of a consultant-type role, learning customers specific dietary and budget needs, then packaging them up for pick-up or delivery.

Traditionally, professional personal grocery shopping has been seen as a luxury. But with apps such as Instacart opening this service up to more and more people, it has become a common activity. What’s missing from this experience, however, is specialized knowledge to help navigate the moments when a critical selection decision has to be made based on dietary or other shopping criteria.

The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 

As COVID-19 continues to increase online ordering and delivery activity by nearly 3.5X, the idea of people with specialized knowledge becomes a differentiator. Additionally, it creates a greater opportunity for essential workers to cultivate a growth path through UpSkill models,. This method can boost employee engagement and satisfaction that ultimately benefits everyone—employees, customers, and company managers alike. It’s one of the ways corporations can work toward greater operational goals that align with ESG(Environmental, Social, and Governance) practices.

One of the top reasons customers love to shop for groceries themselves is to be able to enjoy the range of items. In the current environment, with limited or inconsistent supplies, numbers suggest people are eating less produce (36%) and more processed foods (47%). Additionally, customers place more trust in an end-to-end experience, reducing the chance for errors or third party logistics that increase more points of contact.

The need for in-store employees to support customers who order online with meeting dietary needs, balancing healthy eating habits, or helping them to shop on a budget is a space ripe for exploration and optimization. 

Food Door-to-Door

Perhaps the largest shift in behavior during months of quarantine has been the move toward online food shopping. As restaurants were at first ordered to close their doors, many found a loophole to staying open and keeping a skeleton staff employed through pick-up or delivery only services. Those already with an online ordering system made the shift easily. Others who may have had a website, but not the capability to order, worked to expand their digital or mobile services. Newcomers found make-shift solutions to help them keep going.

Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.

Grocery outlets and online food services, however, have seen the largest uptick in business. Just last year, only 11% of consumers bought groceries online once a month. What was once a novelty experience for some, has turned into a practical solve for keeping the kitchen stocked, inspiring people everywhere to wonder why they haven’t shopped this way until now.

Think about it—no more dragging screaming kids to the grocery store, no more wandering aisles aimlessly and hungry, the ability to manage spending and avoid impulse buys, perhaps putting those resources into buying higher quality food.

With some stores like Menards, creating no kids policies, this further focuses the opportunity for food delivery services.

Customers make 1.6 trips a week to the grocery store on average. This is trending down because of COVID-19 with nearly 73% of customers making fewer visits. Customers are also nervous and have high level of anxiety when shopping. 60% of customers report being fearful of grocery shopping and having a sense of panic. Controlling the full store-to-handoff experience as hygiene considerations increase will set some companies apart. For example, places like Chick-fil-A now allow you to select Chick-fil-A Team Member Delivery.

The Digital Employee Experience

Today, with everyone managing a new sense of normal, store employees have been among the most impacted. Having long-forgotten how they used to work, they have already adapted to new ways of interacting with daily tasks, as well as customers. Company leaders can further support their employees by adopting digital-first resources for education and learning.

Using mobile experiences to re-train employees will be key.

Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.

Communication is one of the best tools companies have in organizing a coordinated response to new ways of doing business. Creating learning modules that can be monitored for completion and designed for all types of learners is a valuable investment that will sustain a company well into the future. By using a digital platform, new policies and learning materials can be easily uploaded or updated. Topics around proper hygiene, how to stock shelves with customers nearby, or even training materials to help essential employees grow into greater service providers can all be supported by a contactless, online portal.

Loyalty doesn’t end with customers.

Incentivizing employee loyalty through a digital experience allows people to quickly learn and improve skills for new types of work. Companies like Walmart have a robust suite of associate apps that bring new skills opportunities to their employees.

If there’s one thing that has become vastly apparent during COVID-19, it’s that essential workers have given us all a life line. With grocery store employees and delivery personnel at the front lines, it’s a great time to bolster support and appreciation for their roles. 

Illustration by Kevin Tudball.

About the Author: Joe Johnston

Joe has over 18 years experience in the areas of experience design, service design, customer insight, and innovation for many notable brands including: Lowe's, Coca-Cola, UPS, Capital One, State Farm, Arby's, Bosch, Herman Miller, AT&T, TIAA, Freddie Mac, Meijer, Principal Financial & Sony Music. This includes experience and service design, future visioning and ideation across brand experience and strategy. He's also an accomplished author, speaker, and expert on user experience/customer experience and experience innovation. Formerly Joe was the Group UX Director at Huge in Atlanta leading a team on several top brand experiences and exploring new innovative technologies.

The YML team is diverse, separated across four continents, and now entirely remote. "Spotlight" is a monthly series showcasing a different member of the YML team from across design, strategy or technology.

Who are you, and what do you do at YML?

Hey, I’m Brent! I’m a Senior QA in the Indianapolis branch here at YML.

As a QA, I wear many hats. Day-to-day, it’s my responsibility to ensure that our work meets the high standard of quality our clients expect. From a larger perspective, my job is to not only test the final product, but to be a part of the process from beginning to end, working with both our internal team and the client to craft a product that is understandable, testable, and outstanding.

Where are you from / where do you live now?

I was born and raised in Bedford, Indiana. It’s a small town just south of Bloomington. Bedford is a quintessential Midwestern USA town, boasting the title of  “Limestone Capital of the World” and vast, vast amounts of farmland.

A couple of years ago, my family and I moved to Franklin, a town just south of Indianapolis. We just bought our first house here, and we’re excited to explore this charming, local business-focused town.

Tell us a little about your background.

Considering the work I am doing and loving today, I have an extremely eclectic background. My first “adult” job following high school was in Quality Control for a medical device manufacturer, Cook Medical. Obviously this was confirming quality on a physical item, not software, but quality is quality, and this job really prepared me for a direction I didn’t even know I was headed at the time.

Following Cook, I worked in Technical Support for a small ISP in Southern Indiana, followed by an IT Coordinator position at a large Central Indiana industrial supply company, where I got to drive all over the state to assist some incredibly interesting manufacturing companies with controlling very expensive tools used in manufacturing trucks, giant gears, jet engines, etc. via vending solutions. 

Opportunity knocked at YML, but I had a lot to learn. I had to learn how to apply the basic tenets of quality I had acquired at my previous jobs to the very specific domain of software quality assurance. I was brought into an entry level QA position at YML about four years ago, and through a combination of stellar on-the-job training and self teaching, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some amazing experts to create impactful products.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever built? Whether at YML, a different job or in your personal life. Why does that resonate with you?

The craziest thing I’ve ever had the absolute pleasure of being on a team for was a hackathon project done by the Indianapolis office in 2016. It was…ahem… “MOST EXTREME UX CHALLENGE!” - a satirical game app which was a set of mini-games exaggerating notable pitfalls in app design and UX. I helped coordinate between team members and our designer, who came up with some really amazing designs from the ideas we gave. This project was a blast from start to finish. That’s my voice in the trailer!

This project resonated with me because I find humor to be one of life’s biggest outlets for frustration. This project really encapsulates that - it allowed us to take this big subset of frustrations in app design and make something humorous out of it.

Why did you choose to come to YML?

I came to YML because YML gave me an opportunity! Even just four years ago when I joined the company, remote work wasn’t nearly as prevalent as it is today, and jobs in tech aren’t prevalent in Indiana where my roots are. YML blew me away from minute one with their company culture and approach to product design and execution. I continue to feel thankful every day for getting to collaborate with such experts from around the world in first class software engineering.

What’s your favorite project / client you’ve ever worked on? Why?

My favorite project was my first. As I mentioned, I worked with Cook, a medical device manufacturer, as one of my first jobs. Starting at YML, my first project was on a very lean team of two developers and myself as QA, developing an app for internal use by Cook Sales Representatives. Having this fortuitous opportunity to work with a client I was familiar with allowed me to develop my QA chops, get started with automation, and generally become immensely more comfortable to tackle the larger projects I would eventually be a part of.

What about this industry are you most passionate about?

Growth!  Both within the industry and personally. Despite existing for decades, I still consider the tech industry to be in its infancy, and I’m not sure how far it has to go before I won’t think that anymore. I see so much potential everywhere. There are so many problems yet to be solved, with more to do than we can fathom yet. 

For me personally, I have a long way to go in my career, and YML has given me the room to get started. I’ve been on one of the smallest projects at the company (me and two developers for a healthcare client) and one of the largest projects in the company (a giant team for a major Fintech client). I don’t see a point at which I’m going to feel like I’ve learned or experienced enough to be satisfied. There’s always something more to accomplish.

What are some companies you admire and why?

Hello Games is a small British game development studio who released No Man’s Sky in 2016. Leading up to the game’s release, an enormous wave of hype surrounded the game, and the developer had signed on with Sony for publishing, which increased the public excitement even more. Publicity efforts leading up to the game’s release had Sean Murray out on the interview trail. He was so passionate about his game, but he had a difficult time managing expectations during his interviews. When the game finally released, public reception was pretty abysmal to put it mildly. Hello Games did not take the money and run.

Hello Games went dark for months and got to work. Later that year they put out the first of many updates which would bring many of the expected features that were missing from the initial release, and quite a few others that nobody was expecting. I have deep respect for a company owning their mistakes and working to increase the scope and quality of their product.

What’s something you’ve learned — a skill or about yourself — during quarantine?

I’m not nearly as bad at home DIY projects as I thought. We’ve recently moved from a rental home to our own. In the rental home I’d learned how to repair and install PVC, as it was pretty difficult to get anybody in to work on anything that wasn’t an absolute emergency. In our new home I’ve had to hang TVs, install curtains, paint, hang shelves, and all kinds of things that I was pretty scared of before. Don’t make fun of me.

How do you spend your spare time?

I have two kids. I spend a lot of my time savoring every moment I can watching them grow up. We play a lot of video games together during social distancing, and we hang out in our back yard playing in the sprinklers.
I also do a lot of video gaming on my own, which has been invaluable for staying close to some of the others in the YML Indy office who play games as well.

Currently, several members of the team are playing Space Engineers together on some evenings and weekends. Please enjoy my greatest creation on our server - the Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, complete with spinning sign and drive-thru homing missiles for defense.

Gaming has also been great way for the office to give back to our community. Every year the team gets together to participate in a nation-wide fundraising event called Extra Life ( We play video games for 24 hours, and take donations during that time for our local children’s hospital.


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