Ran Craycraft of Wildebeest Explores Where Tech and Marketing Intersect

By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on September 30, 2021

The convergence of tech, artificial intelligence, and marketing is, if not complete, certainly well advanced. There is no better example than Wildebeest, which bills itself as “a tactical interactive agency helping creative brands innovate faster.’’

That description is vague, or perhaps you could more generously call it broad. We asked Ran Craycraft, managing partner and co-founder of Wildebeest, about the firm’s work, which runs the gamut from pure marketing with very clever tech that has no practical use, such as the “cheetle” detector it developed for a funny Super Bowl commercial featuring MC Hammer and his ‘90s hit, Can’t Touch This, to developing a very useful AI system for using a photo of body damage on a car to estimate the cost of repairs.

We asked Ran Craycraft about how tech is changing advertising and marketing, including how it is changing the sort of work that advertising and marketing agencies do.

Advertising has historically been a one-directional enterprise. Creative people think of ads, use the available mediums to present the ads, and hope someone is paying attention. How is digital marketing different?

Advertising is just a facet of digital marketing. Sure, on the surface, brands have to get more creative now that they can’t just bark at you from the (fill in the blank) box. People are hyper-aware and, in many cases, comatose to traditional advertising – that’s why we’ve seen sponsored content become a major focus for brands. But if traditional advertising wasn’t working, brands would stop spending money on it, and that’s not happening.

It’s become a generational thing, you know? The medium dictates the audience which dictates the ads. Boomers are watching cable news, Gen X listens to podcasts and web publishers, Millennials are consumed by social media, and Gen Z seeks out bite-sized, relatable conversations.

Marketing is the culmination of all of this research and creativity you see in Advertising. It requires a lot more ingenuity to discover and target audiences, but in the same breath, we have a lot more data available now. Marketers today require an omnichannel approach to speak to their customers when, where, and how they’re ready to hear it. This constant evolution is what makes Marketing so interesting.

Your team at Wildebeest developed an augmented reality app for use in that funny MC Hammer commercial for Cheeto popcorn during the Super Bowl. What were the challenges to developing tech to detect “Cheetle”, or Cheeto residue, on hands of various shapes and colors?

That was a wild project with a gnarly timeline. While all the focus was on shooting the television commercial, there wasn’t a whole lot of time planned to bring the digital activation to life. We teamed up with Google and Frito-Lay to find a way to make “sure” the user was eating Cheetos. Sure, we could scan the Cheetos bag’s barcode or even use computer vision to recognize the bag, but where’s the fun in that, right?

In a little over 30 days, we designed the concept and started training the machine learning model. We ate nine billion Cheetos and captured photos of hands in every size, color, and shape you can imagine. Then once we had enough photos (with and without Cheetle), we trained a TensorFlow machine learning model to identify hands and then to recognize if Cheetle was detected. The last phase was to detect and reject Cheetle hands making crude gestures and other body parts that weren’t fingers that somehow got covered in cheese dust.

Could that same technology be used for more serious purposes, such as detecting fingerprints at a crime scene, or something similar?

I’d like to believe our Cheetle iD work could somehow make the world a better place, but I’m not sure about that. The product was really good at exactly one thing–detecting delicious Cheetle on human fingers. It sucked at pretty much everything else. But you know, smartphone cameras are so sophisticated now. Combine that with 5G bandwidth and incredible processing power and you have yourself a pocket supercomputer capable of some pretty amazing mobile computing feats – detecting fingerprints could absolutely be one of them.

This is a great question, though, that opens the door to so many other conversations about artificial intelligence and Turing tests. Custom software can be created to do ONE thing exceptionally well. When you start daisy-chaining multiple human processes together, it gets exponentially more difficult to best a human.

Your team developed the Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book AR Vehicle Damage Detection, which can be used to estimate how much the bodywork would cost to repair. Personally, I think that is remarkable, having been involved in my share of insurance claims for various fender benders. What do you believe will be ordinary uses of AR in the near future?

Even in the last five years, we’ve seen a massive progression of AR moving from concept to consumer product. Five years ago, any AR work was really barebones and prototype-y due to challenges hitting us from many different angles. Training a model early-on was really expensive – but if you skimp on training data, then your model fails. When we just had IBM’s Watson to work with, it was price prohibitive for some clients. Then it came to the handsets and their computing power, battery life, and camera resolution – all of these things made innovation more difficult. Couple that with operating systems and browsers that weren’t sure how much access to make available to developers and you’ve got yourself a relatively slow-progressing platform experience.

Now that the tech is catching up with the pioneers and AR (as well as VR) is becoming more mainstream, I think we’re going to see a lot more in the very near future. Snap Spectacles were a really innovative product, as was Google Glass, but neither got the consumer traction they were looking for. Now Ray-Ban and Facebook have teamed up to try their hand at turning humans into walking operating systems. I think we’re getting closer – to me, it’s now a design problem, no longer a tech problem. We need to design a physical product with a virtual interface that actually enhances the real-life experience, without hindering it, before AR can truly go mainstream.

Wildebeest seems to be both a digital advertising firm and a tech development company. How do you describe the company, and what do your clients have in common?

Did I write this question? I love it! We’re a hands-on digital agency that helps creative brands innovate and grow. This means we combine Strategy with Design and Innovation to imagine big solutions and then build them.

My partner, Kevin, and I love keeping our agency small so we’re able to work on every project with every client we take on. It’s really important to us that we become better and better at our jobs so we can keep giving our clients the competitive advantage they need to succeed. Most digital agencies are entirely driven by the creative team and measure their success by the number of design awards hanging in their conference room. We’re different in that we ensure Business, Technology, and Creative have equal seats at the table when we’re exploring solutions with our clients.

Our clients are a combination of global brands, large advertising agencies, and inventive entrepreneurs. The common thread here is that each of our clients has a business challenge for which they’re looking for a creative solution that will give them an unfair advantage. We have a lot of fun with our clients and the products we bring to life.

Wildebeest migrations in East Africa face extinction. What must be done
Wildebeest migration in East Africa

Last question. Where did the name Wildebeest come from?

It came from a long list of other options we assembled and then narrowed down! As we were narrowing, we realized the common theme of the remaining options were all words that sparked life. We wanted to build a close team and we felt a name that conveyed family and camaraderie was moving in the right direction.

As we ruled out various invertebrates, we knew we wanted something warm-blooded, and then went all-in with the metaphor. We landed on Wildebeest because they’re peaceful animals that always stick together. They’re insanely fast, beautiful, and – most importantly – use swarm intelligence to overcome tricky situations. Not to mention, they just look cool – I mean, like, really cool. Have you ever seen a wildebeest?! They are magnificent creatures.

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By Peter Page Peter Page has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Peter Page is the Contributions Editor at Grit Daily. Formerly at Entrepreneur.com, he began his journalism career as a newspaper reporter long before print journalism had even heard of the internet, much less realized it would demolish the industry. The years he worked a police reporter are a big influence on his world view to this day. Page has some degree of expertise in environmental policy, the energy economy, ecosystem dynamics, the anthropology of urban gangs, the workings of civil and criminal courts, politics, the machinations of government, and the art of crystallizing thought in writing.

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