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Breaking the bank |

Young Star

Breaking the bank

Raymond Ang - The Philippine Star
Breaking the bank

Turn and face the strange: In MasterCard’s New York tech hub in Fifth Avenue, the company’s eye to the future is well observed. “For us, the business we’re in, it’s not really anymore having products that are based on technology,” MasterCard chief information officer Ed McLaughlin says. “The technology itself is — and I would argue always has been — our business.”

MANILA, Philippines - It’s going to be an interesting four years,” says Nancy O’ Malley, welcoming a roomful of Asian journalists into MasterCard’s New York headquarters, a day after Donald Trump won the presidency. The room erupts in weary laughter.

Just one day before, the group of Asian journalists was in St. Louis, Missouri to visit MasterCard’s St Louis headquarters. Battling jetlag and powered by suspense and dread, most of the group had stayed up the night of the election count to join the rest of the world in watching one of the most shocking elections in modern political history unfold — businessman, reality television star and political newcomer Donald Trump had defeated political powerhouse and perceived frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. Riding a campaign characterized by misogyny and racism, the Trump victory had proven our worst assumptions about human nature right, and suddenly, the world felt changed forever.

If anything, what O’Malley, MasterCard’s executive vice president for payment system integrity, said was an understatement — times were changing in front of our very eyes.

An uncertain future was the unexpected premise of our visit to MasterCard’s St. Louis and New York headquarters. Without meaning to, discussions about the future of banking, safety and security had instantly become more poignant. Living in a world driven by rapid technological developments and those developments’ resulting upheavals, disruption had long ago become the norm, instead of the exception. That world of disruption was now compounded by our uncertain political futures.

The Millennial Effect

“We’ve always provided a platform,” Ed McLaughlin, MasterCard chief information officer, says. All the major “disruptions” of the last few years, he notes — from transportation (Uber) to retail (Amazon) — rely on services that companies like MasterCard provide. “You build capabilities that are transcendent,” he says.

MasterCard is a company well aware of changing times and has kept abreast during periods of disruption — helping drive change instead of merely riding it. It’s a company that has increasingly offered more than traditional banking, taking long-held notions of financial service and proving itself unbound by them, pushing initiatives in technology and staying at the forefront of change.

This positions MasterCard as an ideal partner for a generation that has distinguished itself in the world of finance for its atypical habits. “Since World War II, new cars and suburban houses have powered the economy and propelled recoveries,” a September 2012 report in The Atlantic titled “The Cheapest Generation” said. “Millennials may have lost interest in both… The emergence of the ‘sharing economy’ — services that use the Web to let companies and families share otherwise idle goods — is headlined by Zipcar, but it also involves companies such as Airbnb, a shared marketplace for bedrooms and other accommodations for travelers; and thred­UP, a site where parents can buy and sell kids’ used clothing.”

A July 2016 report by Mashable titled “Millennials to banks: More mobile, please” noted that millennials are “three times as likely as Baby Boomers to use their mobile phones to access their accounts, and they are 30 percent less likely to visit a bank branch or use a branch drive-thru.” This is a generation that’s grown accustomed to services like Uber and Airbnb, a generation that’s learned to make the bulk of its transactions online and value the convenience of clicking rather than the old brick-and-mortar store experience.

In MasterCard’s New York tech hub in Fifth Avenue, that eye to the future is well on display. In the very definition of #officegoals, big, wide windows provide natural light and an airy environment that one can surmise inspires MasterCard’s team of developers and designers to think of the ideas and projects that have planted the company firmly at the forefront of the digital revolution.





But in a floor full of innovators and disruptors, the person that makes the strongest impression isn’t exactly a person. Pepper the Robot proved a true scene-stealer at the tech hub tour, at one point bobbing its head and shaking its hips in a performance cheered on by members of the press. “We need to get her attention sometimes. She’s like a little kid,” her handler says at one point.

“Pepper, introduce yourself,” she prods.

“My name is Pepper and I’m a humanoid robot and I’m 1.20 meters tall,” the robot responds. “I was born in Paris.”

Pepper is the first commerce application for MasterCard’s engagement with Softbank Robotics. Already, some territories in Asia are interacting with Pepper in restaurants — a major first step forward in bringing conversation commerce experiences to consumers. Pizza Hut is MasterCard’s partner in Asia.

Another scene-stealer is Groceries by MasterCard, a grocery-shopping app integrated into Samsung refrigerators. The first of its kind, the app allows consumers to shop and select the items they need from leading online grocer FreshDirect and American supermarket cooperative ShopRite. Orders are delivered directly by merchants and are not dependent on a third-party or concierge service. In the future, the Groceries shopping cart can also learn a family’s shopping habits, eventually making personalized recommendations.

Groceries, according to MasterCard, is about “taking control of the entire commerce experience, versus just the payment experience. When people today take an Uber, they don’t really think, oh, I have to make a payment. They just want the experience. The whole strategy for (MasterCard’s) Labs is to make sure that we are embedded in more and more experiences.”

Finally, while not as attention-grabbing as its neighbors, Qkr is a commerce platform that allows customers to order ahead or customize retail experience. In the UK, for example, Qkr is being used in a lot of restaurants, helping big groups split the bill easier. In Latin America, Qkr is being used in gas pumps, to purchase gasoline ahead of arrival. And in Australia, Qkr is being used in schools. Parents can order school supplies, settle fees, sometimes even give permission for students to go on excursions through the app. The app has taken the place of reply slips and hard copy confirmations. Qkr is already being used in schools in Singapore. “Instead of giving cash to little kids, the parents can just order through the mobile app and the kids can go to the vending machine to scan their student IDs and get their school supplies.”


According to MasterCard’s studies, 85 percent of the world is still spending in cash. That number is bound to change as more and more territories get connected and banking becomes more globalized, not to mention the generations that are increasingly reliant on online transactions.

Ed McLaughlin sees the change as something comprehensive, as seismic as a world shift. “What we’re now doing is we’re shifting from being in the physical world to being connected through our devices, and being connected at all times; and that’s incredibly powerful,” he says. “But it’s not a separation, it’s a blurring of what happens in the physical world and what happens in the online world.”

“And years ago, we’d have conversations with media reporters trying to cover the space, and I think a lot of us got it wrong, where you had this physical world and then a magical, digital place over here. Consumers are a little smarter than that. They know they’re on their mobile in the store; they know they’re connected at home, to a delivery service that’s going to bring them food; they know their car is becoming a computer on wheels, which is always online, always connected. So what we see is that the No. 1 consumer desire is to make all of this work together, as the physical and digital worlds become combined.”

McLaughlin sees three phases in the world of banking — the first wave was the purely physical transaction (“charge plates and Zipzap machines” and “thinking about what’s happening at the counter with the merchant”); the second wave was the move to electronic (“putting a mag stripe or a machine-readable card in everyone’s pocket, giving that box terminal in every merchant’s desk”); and the third wave is digital (“where commerce is being given a new platform from that physical world”). “And this connectivity has transformed how we educate ourselves, how we interact with each other, how we interact with society and government,” he says. “Our belief is, all these changes in how we interact will permanently and irrevocably change how we transact. And that’s the platform we have.

“We believe that every device a consumer has will be used for commerce, and commerce will become much more contextual. So it’s like taking what you can do with a card and saying I can do it with a phone. It’s saying, I will have a mobile, my house is getting smaller, my car is getting connected — what and how am I gonna interact with those environments? And what are the right platforms and services that support it?”

Future-proofing is said to be the process of anticipating future events and developing methods of minimizing the unwanted effects of shocks of those events. Along that line of thinking, MasterCard has long looked ahead instead of backward and found a way to evolve. “That’s why we say, for us, the business we’re in, it’s not really anymore having products that are based on technology,” McLaughlin says. “The technology itself is — and I would argue always has been — our business.”

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