Strategically Hip

Image: Gill Linton (left) and Rupert Newton (right) co-founders of The Joneses.

I am an addict when it comes to media consumption. I read a wide range of everything and the Internet has only further enabled my addiction. But, I’m also fascinated by how marketers use media as the messenger or environment for their messages and how they evaluate media.

There is a quantitative aspect to media that is very apparent at agencies and not so much with many content creators. So rather than use this space for my thoughts on the more strategic side of media and marketing, I talked to an expert who I met during my time within the Russell Simmons empire. Gill Linton from the Joneses.

John Pasmore: Would you consider yourself an advertising expert?

Gill Llinton: My friend is an expert advertising witness in a court case at the moment - I could do that.

JP: You’re British, that’s apparent with your accent, how did you end up in New York?

GL: I was approached to be the head of planning at dRush, the agency created by Russell Simmons and Donny Deutsch to merge authentic pop culture with the ad business - hard to say no to that, or New York for that matter. I wanted to do more than develop advertising and at the time the concept behind dRush was a rare opportunity for me to do that.

JP: Was dRush focused on just urban efforts or was the goal to produce work facing a general market audience as well?

We created work based on people's attitude regardless of their demographic.

Did you feel that not having a background in "urban" culture was any type of hindrance in speaking to brands?

We were more focused on creating popular culture than any distinction between 'urban' and 'general market'. I don't think Russell would have given me the job if I didn't have a good understanding of brands and how to make them a credible part of culture. Having said that, I was surrounded by a great team of people originally from Def Jam who kept me in check.

JP: Your current company, The Joneses, focuses on strategy. Traditionally advertising happens in silos where strategy is separate from creative, which is separate from media buying, etc. With The Joneses you ideally want to be integrated in the entire process. Am I getting that right? Or perhaps you can explain how The Joneses works with a brand or agency in a perfect world.

The single biggest communications challenge today is creating a brand idea that can be brought to life in new ways. The ad industry has spent decades creating one-dimensional brand ideas with a linear strategic process, and that has to change. It’s why we combine brand strategy and communication strategy into one function, where both disciplines work together, like a creative team, to produce a Creative Strategy. We call it the ‘new creative team’ because it’s a new way of working - instead of separating strategy out by discipline, department or agency - we merge the two skills into one simultaneous creative process.

When The Joneses work on a brief we decide what the brand stands for and how that should come to life before creative development, whether that's digital, point of purchase innovations, content, the role of PR, revenue generating ideas, paid for advertising, and exactly how it all works together.The conventional linear process starts with the brand strategist working out a space for the brand, then typically creatives will express this as a tag line, the communications planner will then be given the creative work and tasked with figuring out how to distribute it and then PR and promotions get briefed. The traditional advertising idea is basically baton-passed down the line, which the industry has always done. The difference now is that the process as been re-framed with new buzzwords. In our experience you can’t break the habit with ad-hoc, loose collaborations between different agencies; the brand strategist and communication strategist have to tangibly work on the brief as a permanent team, where the client sees development of their Creative Strategy as one function, not two competing voices.

JP: Over the past seven or eight years here in the United States what do you see as the most striking change in the advertising landscape – outside of the development of the Internet which is kind of obvious.

Advertising used to be a unique way for telling a brand story very quickly in a restricted space, now that it’s unrestricted, every aspect of a business becomes about the brand narrative, not just the ads. Brands have started using their packaging more creatively to tell a story creating their own media, not just design it to function well and look good on the shelf. Otherwise, I don't think things have changed enough beyond the Internet. The industry has spent a lot of time repositioning itself and creating buzzwords to describe new approaches to marketing beyond advertising, than it has actually doing it.

There's a lot of talk about integration, communications planning, aka connections planning aka engagement planning. But, aside from a few exceptions, I don't think the industry has moved significantly beyond amplification of advertising ideas, where the media is just another place to stick the ad message rather than creating new media ideas that bring the brand message to life in a unique way. Virals, pop up stores, stunts and street teams isn’t anything new these days. Having said that, it's a quality argument at the end of the day - how you do something is more important that what you do. It’s the tactical amplification of ad ideas that frustrates us.

JP: Do you think print is dead?

Alvin Toffler in 1962 declared (in a book) that the practice of printing ink on dead trees was "the last smokestack industry" and would die. But I’d argue that an industry that issued 14,000 news titles in 1927 that has reached 120,000 today and rising is a phenomenal success.The decline of newspaper sales is well documented and the business model of their web sites is replacing dollars with pennies, at the moment, but these are incredibly powerful brands with serious international news gathering infrastructures and real gravitas. So it's not dead, it's evolving. The Guardian now has more readers online in the US than it has in the UK, and you just have to look at the amount of video on most newspaper websites to see how they are starting to compete with broadcasters like CNN and network news programs.

JP: How do you see hip-hop evolving from where it is today?

There are two hip-hop worlds, the culture and the marketing machine that exploits it. I think most of the unrelated brands that exploit it rather than being inspired by it, (and some related brands for that matter), reinforce the clichés instead of its creativity. I know sales of hip-hop music have been in decline, what I don’t know is if it’s just been dispersed into other genres. Now that Timbaland produces for everyone from Madonna to Duran Duran, do their raps count as hip-hop too? If it did, sales would probably be doing better than ever. So my point is that hip-hop is appropriated everywhere and the marketing machine is still quick to cash in on its popularity. My personal hope is that it will regain some of that organic creativity that Russell lead, before we knew what hip-hop was. I’d love to have been part of that.

JP: We tend to think of the British influence as being generally highbrow with the BBC and Tina Brown, although "Maxim" is a UK export and that’s not so highbrow, but do you see British media and advertising as having any significant impact on the current state of media or advertising in the US?

I think America is much more open to British creative talent, who then become part of American culture - from writers to comedians - than the other way round. Britain tends to import American culture, repackage it and then sell it back. Of course we practically invented reality TV that's had a huge impact (sorry about that). And I guess we'll always be the go to country for the Hollywood bad guy. That should make up for reality TV.

JP: Do you think that going "Green" is a still good strategy for brands or have so many companies tried that path that it’s becoming a cliché?

It only feels like a cliché because it's new and brands are adapting to the shift in culture. Green is going to become - and should become - standard business operating procedure. As for marketing ‘green’, it reminds me of that Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry and Ted Danson both donated a large amount of money to a good cause - Larry bragged about it, Ted didn't, and people thought more highly of Ted because he didn't brag about it - it seemed more sincere. Brand sincerity, or rather the lack of it, is an obvious issue. For me the problem is that brands aren't thinking about what green means uniquely to them now, or in the near future when every brand is also 'green' - but frankly that's a problem for brands in general, green or otherwise, their strategies are never unique enough - that's just my opinion.What we are seeing at the moment is, thankfully, the last throes of bad marketers cynical, superficial adoption of an emerging trend - it's one of the least inspiring things about working in marketing, a lack of imagination and honesty.

JP: Who do you think is doing the best work in the US advertising business?

There's a reason, three years on that Dove still gets the credit for having one of the best strategies. When the product isn't entirely unique, there are few brands that have established a bigger cultural role for themselves. In our experience, most strategies actually limit the potential of the brand and in general, marketing isn’t held to the same quality standards as the product it’s selling.

JP: Who’s executing the smartest strategy?

It’s equally telling that Apple still has that title. Their strategy is to make products that don't require an instruction booklet and they deliver on it every time. ‘Inside Steve’s Brain’, is a great read. It explains how Apple’s success isn’t based on rigid process or consumer research but creative freedom, (and because Jobs is a perfectionist). How many times have we all been asked by clients to make them the Apple of their category, and what’s our ‘process’ to get them there and do consumers think it’s right. The brands that are successful either financially or culturally (or both) aren't always the ones with a great brand strategy but a great product - Wholefoods, Zipcar, Apple - their marketing is driven by the product. I'm not suggesting that’s a bad thing it obviously works. I do foresee a time when resting on the laurels of products or visual identity won't be enough and innovator brands will need to stand for something much more in culture beyond the product itself.I have to give a nod to Opening Ceremony, they know with who and how to do collaboration really well at all levels, from Top Shop to Acne Jeans to Chloe Sevigny and artists and musicians too. As arbiters of style and culture they get the balance of art and commerce exactly right every time.

JP: Do you think the efforts to integrate brands into hip-hop or music generally damaged the credibility of the music?

Hip-hop is so mass market that I don't think the average music fan, where the volume comes from, really cares. Do they think Jay Z is a sell out for singing about Nike, or consider the business of branded music when they buy into an artist and their music? I doubt it. It's when brands hire an artist to write a hip-hop track, or any style of music for that matter, about their product that damages everyone’s credibility. For the brand it's the equivalent of watching your dad dance - some brands and agencies just have a credibility chip missing. The reason 'Pass the Courvoisier' became a hit record was because Busta discovered the story we created behind the brand and wrote the song without outside influence, not for a paycheck.People place a value on art and music being commercial free for good reason, Art and music is supposed to be an uninhibited, personal look at the way we live. To be truthful that has to be free of outside influence.

JP: Will music be free to consumers by subsidizing the cost with advertising?

Off the top of my head I don't know how people like RCRD LBL are doing, whether it's scalable and whether the ad revenue replaces the retail revenue. I read somewhere that Radiohead said they won't be doing a repeat of In Rainbows, so you'd have to assume that model doesn’t work, even for one of the biggest bands in the world. You know, there is a whole industry trying to figure this one out, and I do believe that at some point the culture will shift and people's attitude and acceptance of downloading stuff without paying and file sharing will become a bit like smoking, it was kinda cool now it's not. I personally hope music won’t be free. I think creativity should be respected and people take things for granted when it's free; also I don’t think the ad industry are the right people to make it happen credibly. Dad will be dancing at that party too. (p.s. I just bought the new Portishead album on vinyl. It *does* sounds better)

JP: What’s the most common mistake you see in advertising strategy?

Strategy has its fashions just like anything else, right now it's ‘Your Brand Your Way’ and the current obsession with putting the consumer in control. There’s a big difference between involving consumers and saying, ‘here we are, we have no point of view, do what you want with us’. A powerful, long lasting brand has it's own point of view, is polarizing and charismatic - which the brand is in control of. I think a lot of the stuff you see out there at the moment is strategically insipid.

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