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How Fader Magazine And Its Creative Agency Are “Bucking Traditions” To Shape Culture

Fader and Cornerstone were early pioneers of the magazine/agency model, but continue to evolve with new talent and a laser focus on creating culture.

For the past 18 years, it’s been an open secret that Fader magazine and creative agency Cornerstone have been operating under the same ownership. Former music executive Rob Stone founded Cornerstone in 1996, eventually bringing on his childhood friend and fellow former music exec Jon Cohen as a co-CEO. Together, they founded Fader in 1999, and the two companies have been kept relatively separate ever since.

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“In our early days, media companies and advertising agencies were very different businesses. As a brand-new editorial property, we wanted to ensure the purity of our editorial and make sure the integrity of our journalism was paramount,” Cohen says. “Over the years, media and advertising have truly converged. Both are now about storytelling.”

During the most tumultuous times for both print/digital media and the advertising industry, Fader and Cornerstone have actually managed to thrive in both areas. Exact figures weren’t disclosed but Cohen says both Fader and Cornerstone have maintained profitability, with 2017 being “our most successful year to date.” Knowing that each entity is strong enough to stand on its own has given Stone and Cohen the impetus to dismantle the barrier between the two companies in an effort to make better use of resources and to fortify the magazine/agency model they’ve pioneered–a model that has been duplicated by other outlets including Vice and its agency arm Virtue Worldwide, as well as Complex magazine’s aggressive branded content strategy.

To pull off bringing Fader and Cornerstone together, Stone and Cohen have doubled down on talent, primarily at the executive and C-suite levels, bringing on heavy hitters in the creative space including VP of strategy Grace Gordon, creative director Louis-Philippe Riel, executive creative director Steve Caputo, and chief creative officer Trevor Eld, whose primary task since he left R/GA about eight months ago to join the Fader and Cornerstone team has been to seamlessly merge the two.

“We’re talking about two different cultures with their own staffs, IP, client relationships–everything,” Eld says. “What excited me was to start to integrate those into one with a creative team being at the core, really the connective tissue between all of these different teams that have been kept pretty siloed from each other.”

A recent example of this creative synergy came about when Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn reached out to Cohen about the launch of their latest album, Humanz. Sonos was also in touch with Cornerstone about promoting the launch of a new product. Seeing the potential in merging an innovative band and a speaker company, Cornerstone created replicas of the Gorillaz’s Spirit House, the trippy focal point for the band’s VR music video “Saturnz Barz,” using projection mapping and featuring Sonos’s Playbase speakers. The activation spanned New York City, Berlin, and Amsterdam, and was the ideal blend between two entities that may not have crossed otherwise.

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Rob Stone

“We had two different teams launching products and what we brought to that was fitting those puzzle pieces together so that everyone wins, [including the people experiencing the activation],” Eld says. “When you walk through, it’s cool and exciting because we didn’t forget what they care about. Because of our experience with events and experiential, we knew what people would want.”

That ability to predict what will break through in culture comes from the fact that both Fader and Cornerstone have been actively creating culture. Stone and Cohen’s deep roots in music–specifically hip-hop/R&B and indie rock, respectively–have laid a solid foundation to develop culture through brand work for Nike, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Converse, and Levis; campaigns that have garnered Grammy and Emmy nominations; white-label partnerships with the likes of YouTube; events such as their festival within a festival Fader Fort at South by Southwest; and most recently this summer being one of Google’s first partners to help launch its virtual reality platform VR180.

“We live the culture. This company is based on the foundation that Rob and I grew up loving music,” Cohen says. “If you talk to our staff and get to know the people that have been here past and present, they live, eat, and breathe the culture of music. They go to shows, they read, they listen. They pride themselves on really studying what’s going on out there.”

Building a staff that’s on the same wavelength of passion has been only half of the equation for Fader and Cornerstone’s success. What’s been just as important has been Stone and Cohen’s commitment to maintaining that freeform way of thinking they had when they first launched both companies.

“When we started Cornerstone, we didn’t understand the agency game. Sprite was our first corporate client and they didn’t know what to make of us,” Stone says. “We’ve never played [the game] of ‘if these agencies are doing that, that must be what we should be doing.’ We don’t care what everybody else is doing and as long as we can deliver for our clients and have this connection to culture, that’s what’s paramount to everything we do.”

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Jon Cohen

“This company has always been built on bucking tradition,” Cohen continues. “When we started Fader, we printed on such a heavy paper stock that every traditional media person told us we were crazy and that we were going to be out of business the next year. But that was the reason that every great photographer wanted to work for us–that was the reason that artists started coveting being on our cover. When it comes to the ‘agency business,’ we like to refer to ourselves as the un-agency. We don’t want to do all of the traditional things. We want to create really compelling stories around the brands. So we’ve evolved by breaking the rules, and we’ll continue to do that throughout our history.”

Part of that history–and the company’s future–is already in Fader’s name. The magazine was named after the device on a DJ’s mixing board that blends different sounds together, a sentiment that can be applied to bringing the magazine and agency side together.

“For the people that come here from all these different backgrounds, we need leadership that can direct them and give them tasks that set them up for success,” Eld says. “And we need to set the artists and brands that we work with up for success, too. That way, we get these really interesting, uncommon ideas you wouldn’t get at a typical agency or at a typical media property.”

Trevor Eld

Under the new creative leadership, Eld says Fader and Cornerstone are diving deeper into consultancy work, as well as potentially taking Fader’s IP to Hollywood.

“What we’re hearing unanimously from production studios is Hollywood is bone dry on ideas. The production studios and the distribution networks are hungry for new thoughts and new ideas,” Eld says. “What we didn’t realize is whenever we would go out there for meetings, people would hear that we’re in the building and they wanted to meet with us. They want to know what out of our IP do we have the rights to option right away into a series, film, or documentary.”

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Maintaining their influence in culture and being able to spot new areas for growth are positioning Fader and Cornerstone to do what most media entities are struggling with: being in-step with those ever-desirable millennial and gen Z demos while simultaneously being commercial.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve hired great people and we let go of some of the habits that [could hold us back],” Stone says. “We see it all the time–these agencies [and media companies] that were great five years ago, they’ve kind of played themselves out because they’re still doing the same thing.”

“We’re learning by trial and error–we’re learning by experience,” Cohen continues. “That learning curve is the fun part of the job, and what makes this successful is that we’re constantly looking to what’s next instead of just resting on where we’ve been and what we’ve done. The world moves at such a fast pace that if you’re not aware of where things are going or not trying things, you’re going to find yourself falling behind very quickly.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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