CXO

Bryan Rasch: GMR's Chief digital officer. Technology advocate. Car guy.

Technology's ever-changing nature has kept Bryan Rasch on his toes over the years. Rasch tells TechRepublic why he embraces it and why marketers in every industry should too.

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Image: Bryan Rasch

Bryan Rasch can mark the milestones in his career by the new technologies that not only swept the world, but pushed him onto a new leg of his professional life.

Rasch, who is the chief digital officer for GMR Marketing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, went to school in Milwaukee for design and marketing. It was the very early 90s, right around the time desktop publishing was taking off.

When he got out of school, the combination of his skill set and his turn toward desktop publishing led him to Gander Mountain, a catalog company. At the time, the idea of embracing full digital production and producing print catalogs in QuarkXPress was fairly novel, but embrace it they did.

A digital proofing system, Macintosh computers, a giant ink jet printer worth a few hundred thousands dollars — these were the technological tent poles of their all digital workflow, up to the actual engraving of the printing plates, Rasch said.

They also experimented with the idea of interactive digital kiosks in their retail stores — it was essentially a map of the store. No one exactly knew what to do with it, Rasch said, but you could get customers to engage with it — and it was fun.

In 1996, Rasch left Gander Mountain and moved over to an agency in Milwaukee called Hanson Dodge Creative. The agency was just starting to build an "emerging media" practice.

"It was 'emerging media' because the internet had come of age and we started to say 'What do we do with that?'" Rasch said.

The answer to that question came out a few different ways, including an e-commerce site for a cookware company.

"I still remember the day, probably three days later we got our first order. At the time our team was probably only 30 people overall in the agency, and how euphoric everybody was that we got an order online from a consumer because at the time, in 1996, it wasn't even thought of," Rasch said.

His 12 years at Hanson Dodge were peppered with other forays into the intersection of digital and branding, like helping create an early branded website for Trek Bicycle. By the time he left, digital was about three quarters of the agency's business.

At GMR, he got into custom products for brands like Burton Snowboards. They built a 3D car configurator for Volkswagen when the company launched the Jetta. Users could go online, design and build a car, and then get a custom video of a test drive.

The thread Rasch tries to keep running through these undertakings is adding value for the customer — if they recognize it, success follows.

These days, Rasch's responsibilities run the gamut, from helping interview new hires, to working on a last minute social media campaign for a client on a deadline just a few hours away.

"I was telling my wife, I go from forward to reverse about a hundred times a day. You go from one client in the CPG sector to another client that's selling cable, to a client who's selling cars. In one day I might touch six or seven industries with different business problems," he said.

And it's not just about merely managing the chaos. Rasch has to keep an eye out on what that next twist in technology might be that he needs to know as a marketer.

For example, he's run into some skepticism about wearables and where marketing might fit into that field.

"The reality is that every technology revolution that's happened, as long as it adds value to consumer's lives, marketers have to figure out how to interject themselves into that world," he said.

A caveat in this idea, though, is even despite all the big changes in the past several decades, very little has been completely replaced.

"I actually embrace it because I truly don't believe that any one thing is ever going to replace the old, it's just going to create a new ecosystem that's a lot more complicated," he said.

What really changes is consumer behavior — he thinks about this when he orders something off of Amazon while standing in a retail store.

"It still makes me remember that, every time I hit order, how simple and easy it's become. It's the vision we all thought of back then. Twenty years ago we were all like 'This is going to change the way people buy if they don't have to leave their house,'" he said.

Looking forward to what's next, Rasch is eyeing virtual reality and the prospect of immersing consumers in a digital world.

Though virtual reality has been hailed as the next big thing for literally decades, the technology seems to be caught up to a point where folks like Rasch see useage in the not too far off future.

At CES, Rasch tried out a demo of a Star Wars game. The game had sensors on the arm bands, and for the first time, Rasch got a sense of the potential physicality of VR. In other words, he could see his own (digital) hands pick up a light saber.

"Those are the moments in technology that I've experienced over the years — I remember taking the goggles off after playing this game for a while, and I realized that I didn't feel like I was playing a game, I felt I was there, and to me, that's just the cusp," he said.

He got that strong but familiar sense of seeing something for the first time that's going to make an indelible impact.

"As a marketer, I think a lot of people are like 'I don't know that's going to mean,' but for me I look at it and I go, 'What it means is that our whole world is going to be connected in a way that if it adds value, consumers are going to do it.' Marketers are going to have to work harder to be relevant," he said.

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"For me, the way I unplug is I've actually got a six-car garage and I'm restoring a car right now, and I have a woodworking shop. I do things that are physical. I like to rebuild cars, I built my daughter's bunk bed, I built my mantle in my house. What I end up doing to unplug for me is go the opposite of what I do every day. I live in this digital technology world and I leave that, and I get my hands greasy. I'm restoring an old Austin-Healey right now. It's like, get out of the digital world and get back into the physicality of things. So when I rebuild a motor and it runs for the first time, it's this accomplishment, but in a different way. And I spend time with my family. I've got five kids."

If you had a chance to try out a different profession, what would it be?

"If I could do something for a day, it would probably be a race car driver. The reason [for] that is, is because it's this ethereal connection to man and machine, pushing things to the limit and experiencing being an extension of something that's mechanical, and there's a little bit of that rush of adrenaline."

What's a social media account or website you read for fun?

"I read so much stuff online. I've got so many feeds. I have to admit that I love to go to College Humor or YouTube and watch Fallon videos. I read so much of the marketing tech blogs and that space that a lot of times I just unplug my brain by just going out and having some mindless entertainment. That comedic relief always seems to help unplug my brain."

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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