Headshot of Stuart Hodge holding a large umbrella
Image: Poppins

Stuart Hodge is SVP Automotive at Poppins, a digital creative agency with a focus on the automotive sector. Hodge was previously CEO and Founder at specialist automotive and change management agency Y2Change, which was acquired by Poppins in January.

He spoke to Econsultancy about the challenges of working in a sector that “moves faster than an F1 car on race day”, how Poppins has embraced generative AI for its proposal and ideation work, and the companies whose work inspires him.

Econsultancy: Looking at the state of automotive right now, what makes you excited? What worries you?

Stuart Hodge: The automotive sector has ‘new kids on the block’ like Carwow and Cinch turning the industry on its head, making traditional manufacturers and dealers scramble to embrace digital transformation like never before.

It’s a thrilling time to be right in the middle of it all, helping clients adapt and thrive in this ever-evolving landscape. But I’ll be honest and say that it’s also stressful at times, knowing that standing still, just for a moment too long, is not an option.

Someone once said to me: “change has never been faster and it will never be as slow again!” and it’s always stuck with me.

E: What has led Poppins to focus particularly on the automotive sector – to the point of recently acquiring specialist automotive agency Y2Change?

SH: The automotive industry moves faster than an F1 car on race day. If you don’t innovate and change strategy then you can’t stay ahead of the game. Pardon the pun but we want to drive the industry forward and that’s why bringing Y2Change into Poppins was such a no-brainer.

We’re now armed with a true end-to-end proposition that is underpinned by outstanding technical, digital and creative talent. As trends shift in the automotive sector, we will be well-placed to not just respond but stay ahead of the curve.

E: Who do you see as doing truly great work with brand and digital experience in automotive (present and past clients excepted)?

SH: Beyond our own clientele, several entities stand out for their pioneering work in brand and digital experience within the automotive realm. Companies like e-dynamix, RockarTech, and Blueprint Digital have demonstrated a knack for pushing boundaries and redefining industry standards.

I really appreciate their innovative spins on branding and digital experiences. Brands like these offer inspiration and showcase what’s possible when creativity and tech join forces in the pursuit of exceptional customer experiences.

E: When embarking on new work with automotive clients, what are the key things that you try to bear in mind?

SH: When it comes to working with our automotive clients, we’re all about being nimble and data-driven. We start by really getting under the bonnet of their goals, then map out a strategy that’s as comprehensive as it is flexible.

From there, it’s about crafting experiences that have an impact and using technology smartly to drive efficiency at every turn. Above all, we need to be adaptable and respond to each client’s circumstances, especially during the early stages of working together.

E: It’s the perhaps predictable question about generative AI: As a creative agency, has the arrival of generative AI impacted how Poppins carries out its work? Do you use it day-to-day?

SH: Around September 2023, we fully embraced AI technology as we delved into crafting innovative solutions for our clients. Each of us had long recognised its potential, and when the opportunity arose, integrating AI into our workflow felt like a natural fit.

We often found ourselves grappling with creative challenges, especially in refining proposals to meet our exacting standards. However, with limited resources, allocating staff to these tasks was a struggle. Moreover, relying solely on stock photography sites was proving to be a diminishing returns game, both in terms of cost and quality.

Our utilisation of AI predominantly centres around the proposal and ideation stages, particularly catering to our automotive and luxury clientele. It’s worth noting that much of our AI work remains behind the scenes, with little, if any, direct exposure to the public eye. Typically, we leverage AI for tasks such as enhancing background imagery and setting the scene. Our approach is grounded in authenticity, with minimal ‘trickery’ involved.

E: What does your typical day look like?

SH: Working at Poppins is like hopping on a rollercoaster – you never quite know what twists and turns your day will take! My job is a mix of juggling clients, wrangling projects, and diving headfirst into the nitty-gritty of delivering work for our portfolio of clients.

My mornings are largely reserved for meetings that set the agenda for the day and getting through emails. I find the afternoon is where I get the real work done. Working hand-in-hand with some amazing automotive companies on their brand strategy and helping them to problem solve is what I really enjoy doing.

Over the years I’ve learnt that you need to dedicate at least a small portion of your day for some reflection – you can’t provide good consultancy if you don’t leave time to think. Every now and then I’ll burn the midnight oil to tie up loose ends but I never aim to make that a habit.