McCann New York’s chief creative officer Pierre Lipton describes how a willingness to listen and the power of words gave the “Touch Card” initiative a touch of magic. The campaign was one of several that allowed McCann Worldgroup to grab the Network of the Year slot for the fifth time.
The industrial designer Marc Harrison believed that if you created products that solved problems for people with disabilities, they became better for everyone. His philosophy of “universal design” led to the 1979 Cuisinart food processor – among other things – a beautiful object with big bold buttons.
The “Touch Card” from Mastercard and McCann New York works the same way. The distinct notches in the side of the card allow blind and visually impaired people to tell their credit, debit and prepaid cards apart, by touch alone. An idea of simple genius that comes in handy for us all.
Of course, Mastercard and McCann New York have previous when it comes to innovation. Is there anyone who hasn’t praised the “True Name” initiative? As you’ll recall, it allowed Trans and Nonbinary people to display their chosen names – rather than their birth names – on their credit cards, resolving a potential source of pain and humiliation.
McCann New York’s chief creative officer Pierre Lipton (pictured) reiterates that “True Name” was triggered by the personal experience of a creative at the agency. The transgender man had popped out to the deli to pick up his lunch, only to find that the orders were being called out using the first names on credit cards.
As the name on his card was a woman’s, he suddenly panicked and asked a female colleague to pick up his order. “He later came to us and said, ‘Here’s a problem that I’m experiencing – what can we do about it?’”
This was the beginning of the journey that led to “True Name” – but it would never have happened if the client hadn’t championed the idea. Pierre emphasises that Mastercard has long been a purpose-driven company: one of its mantras is “Doing well by doing good.” In other words, there’s a business advantage to improving customers’ lives.
Nonetheless, he says, “True Name” was an inflection point in the way the agency works with Mastercard. “Part of that is what I call ‘barrier hunting.’ When you’re working with a client, you should always look for the barriers consumers face with the product or service. Because where those problems are, opportunities follow.”
“Touch Card” came about when Mastercard identified a problem facing part of its customer base. With cards now flat, blind and visually impaired people could no longer tell their cards apart by running their fingertips over the raised digits. So the company began liaising with the RNIB (Royal National Institute for the Blind) in the UK, as well as VISIONS and IDEMIA, to find a solution.
While Braille might spring to mind, Pierre points out that less than 10 percent of the blind and visually impaired population in the US can read it. The tactile notches – rounded for debit, squared for credit and triangular for prepaid – are universally practical.
Working with Joel was a masterclass in writing audio descriptions.
Pierre mentions that the RNIB also spoke about inclusivity by design – solving a problem for one group to make life better for many. “It’s not easy for any of us to pick the right card immediately, especially in an environment where the lighting is bad. And keep in mind that the notches also tell you which way to put the card into an ATM machine.”
As the innovation would be rolled out globally, the design had to be compatible with machines all over the world. And the notches had to be placed where they wouldn’t interfere with the card’s circuitry. “Creating the notches was more complex than it might seem.”
Having designed the card, Mastercard and McCann had to launch it. This required an audio solution. So the agency made a film – but with audio descriptions playing a central role in the story. As part of that process, McCann reached out to Joel Snyder, Ph.D, owner of Audio Description Associates and the audio description expert in the US.
Pierre says: “I’m a writer by trade – but working with Joel was a masterclass in writing audio descriptions that were the most crystallized way of giving the listener a clear indication of what was happening on the screen.”
For example, Joel drew attention to the word “walks” in the script. In fact, the listener wants to know how the person walked. Did they march? Did they stroll? Did they saunter? The idea is to paint a picture in the listener’s mind. “The back and forth with Joel on the script was a rich process.”
In addition, a radio spot used 3D directional sound to recreate the way blind or partially sighted people experience shopping. To help, one of the agency’s visually impaired advisors, Bree Klauser, showed the team how she navigates while grocery shopping. Pierre says: “She told us things like, ‘I know when I’m approaching the vegetable aisle because I can hear the hum of the refrigeration over there…’ We would never have learned these things if we hadn’t admitted our own ignorance and actively listened to people who experience life differently.”
Another breakthrough was a hack by the agency that allowed audio screen readers to read a banner ad from Mastercard – a first, as ads are normally inaudible. To be precise, the reader didn’t read out the actual text: the audio message was encoded in the banner. “It’s a smaller element of the campaign, but one that I’m very proud of,” says Pierre.
The “Touch Card” was the most successful of more than 20 prize-winning campaigns that led to McCann Worldgroup being named Network of the Year – for the fifth time. The network is well known for its ethos of “helping brands earn a meaningful role in people’s lives.” But Pierre also has some personal views about what makes the network shine.
Ultimately, he feels that McCann’s real secret is its culture. “The way I’ve experienced McCann is that it’s a culture of ‘doing.’ My wife is a labor and delivery nurse, and I always say that McCann is a place where everybody puts their scrubs on. The people who do well here generally have a deep level of craft in their specialty – whether it’s creative, strategy or client services. When you have a group of people who’ve gone up the ladder by making things, that passion remains.”
It's not a culture of egos. On his first week at McCann, Pierre was called in on a Sunday to write some scripts for Verizon. The CCO at the time joined him, more than willing to roll up his sleeves. “We value the idea – and we always work to grow and service the idea.”
The constant hunt for barriers, teamed with a passion for finding the most creative ways of overcoming them, may be the perfect formula for supercharging brands.