The post originally appeared on Forbes.com on March 16, 2015.
As culture becomes more important to marketers, it stands that there will be an increasing number of people who focus on it fulltime. Given that, I thought it would be useful to chat with these culture practitioners to get a sense of how this space is evolving. First up is Matthew Gardner, Droga5’s Director of Brand Influence, and a recent Forbes 2015 Marketing & Advertising 30 Under 30 honoree. In addition to work on Hennessey, Spotify and Newcastle Brown Ale, Matthew is working on an upcoming brand platform for Dwayne Johnson called “Project Rock,” which launches later this month. What follows is a version of our conversation that’s been condensed and edited for clarity.
Where do you sit in the agency?
I’m in strategy. I use that spot to try to anticipate where culture’s heading and help us embrace emerging values in culture, rather than chase fading or trendy ones. I was a traditional brand strategist, and came to the agency from a music journalism and a music business background. I started 5 years ago, and I think I started right at a time when this new era of using culture as a media platform really got started.
So when the WME partnership happened (William Morris Endeavor acquired a 49% minority stake in the agency in 2013), we saw that as an opportunity to better leverage culture more. There’s a close integration with WME-IMG and I get to work on ideas that they bring us and tap into them for the ideas I’m working on. I’m that link between Droga5, WME-IMG, and culture.
Have you seen a shift in your clients’ thinking about the relative importance of culture?
The shift I’ve seen is that they’ve shifted a lot more attention and energy to culture as a media platform. But the thing is, you have to be careful because brands can overstep their mark big time. [Author note: See Toyota’s “Swagger Wagon 2”]. It’s so easy for brands to enter culture in a way that falls really flat or pisses people off. What is happening, the shift that we’ve seeing, we are now taking a bigger role for clients as this valuable source of learning and of cultural expertise. They need to use culture as much as they can. There’s just no where else to go. If you’re a brand like Newcastle with so little money to spend to break through, you have to use culture. They’re looking to us to tell them what’s a credible way for the brand to enter culture. That’s the important question, and the problem we set out to solve.
The effectiveness question is real — Is this going to sell cases of beer?—but we’re not going to sell them an idea that’s not going to achieve their business goals. If you’re a brand manager, if you’re not hitting your goals, you’re not going to waste money in this climate. At the same time, with the fracturing of people’s attention, the landscape as it is with social media, the importance of culture as a way to carry your message is paramount. Culture is more important than ever in a post-crisis world and, if you enter culture credibly as a brand you can have a massive impact. Newcastle is a perfect example of that.
As you see cultural trends develop, how do you take them back to your clients?
Even though my title sounds a bit silly, because I was a strategist, we’ve managed to sell-in the idea up front to clients [of the importance of culture] and they’ve bought into it. In fact, it’s part of the the strategy process for every brand we work on. Being one who just focuses on creating culturally leading opportunities and insuring that our ideas are future-facing, I know my strategy credentials help with the upfront sell-in.
So for your clients, culture isn’t siloed, but part and parcel of the strategy and activations you guys bring to the table?
They’re not looking at it in a siloed way. They’re using cultural values, emerging cultural values—insights if you want to call them—upfront in their thinking. It’s not like, “Oh, we need a ‘culture’ thing.” It’s more like, How can we embody the values of culture so that everything we do is credible going forward. Because what we’re giving them is so values-based, they’re using it to shape their brand fundamentally. First with the brand purpose, but it also guides content, it guides product innovation, retail and more. They’re using the cultural insights that we give them to ensure that the whole brand is really future-facing and credible.
Droga5 is pretty smart about culture. Has it always been this way? If not, do you know what that turning point for the agency was?
If you look at the Bing/Decode Jay-Z work, Marc Ecko’s Still Free and the New Museum’s Recalling 1993 program, as examples–I’m not going to speak for David (Droga, Creative Chairman) and Andrew (Essex,Vice Chairman)–but I feel like those are the types of ideas this agency made its name on. These were breakthrough, authentic, culturally influential ideas that transcend what you think of as traditional advertising.
Culture was built into the DNA of the company from the beginning, and that’s what draw the individuals who work here. Everyone who works here wants to make beautiful pieces of culture. They don’t want to make a disposable ad. We treat our product like world-class cultural content on par with anything we see on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Vice, etc. The people who work here feel like they came from that primordial soup of emerging culture—internet culture, music culture, visual arts, writers, comedians, etc. We make pieces of culture we’d want to engage with whether or not we worked at Droga5.
You can follow Matthew on Twitter at @gardnerz.