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Agency Life

Committed to Culture

Committed to Culture

Natasha Smith

Natasha Smith

May 21, 2018

You can’t fake it—either you get it, or you don’t.

"We believe we are at a tipping point where true collaboration, community participation, and co-creation define the future."

Paul Fitzpatrick, President at the Annex Experience, dives into all things culture, shares how his team stands out from the other agencies, and tells us what it’s like working with culture-defining brand Adidas.

So tell us: What is the Annex?

The Annex is part cultural hub, part content factory, and part community center. To me, it’s a fairly profound concept—essentially building an agency with the same cultural creators that brands are targeting, as opposed to hiring advertising people. It’s a dynamic and living entity that’s constantly creating content and experiences, whether or not a brand is participating. This is who they are, not what they do for a living.

In addition to having a direct pipeline into the communities and passion points that brands want (and need), The Annex also provides a career track for young people who might not be able to, or perhaps don’t want to, get a job at a traditional agency. So there’s a broader social context, which I think is powerful.

And what’s the Annex Experience?

We are the experiential agency that functions, in part, as a conduit to the Annex. We guide brands into the agency and then architect authentic experiences for them because they are co-created with the cultural communities themselves.

Our industry has always been a us-and-them scenario, where brands—and moreover, agencies—try to mimic the behaviors of their target consumers and end up looking like the creepy dude at the party. Or, they’re simply ignored.

We believe we are at a tipping point where true collaboration, community participation, and co-creation define the future. People are tired of one-way, brand-only messaging and experiences. They want to have a say in the role that a brand plays in their lives. We facilitate that collaboration.

How’s it different from other experiential agencies?

First and foremost, our entire focus is to make brands meaningful and relevant—not just sell product, or increase awareness and positive sentiment. To make a brand culturally relevant, it requires a certain sensibility of what that means and the know-how to accomplish it. Brand loyalty is fleeting. People say that they wouldn’t care if 75% of brands disappeared tomorrow. We focus on making brands meaningful in people’s lives.

Second, an agency needs to invest in these communities, and be active participants in creating culture. So many agencies just keep modifying their taglines to incorporate the current buzzwords— culture, authenticity, etcetera—yet, there is little investment in making that happen. We hire people, take over buildings, execute community and cultural events—on our dime. We feel this is the true differentiator between talk and action. We take action.

"Culture is an accumulation of all things that matter to a community in a real-time, macro level."

What’s your day-to-day role at the Annex Experience?

As with any leader, my role is to set a clear and inspiring vision, create a culture that people connect with, hire great people, and then encourage and empower them to do amazing things.  

Bringing a new model—and new way of thinking—to the marketplace requires tireless evangelizing and education, as well as working real hard to make sure we are always dialed into the communities, creators, and makers that are shaping the future, so I spend a good amount of time on my soapbox communicating the vision and implications of our point of view.

Also, I’m focused on facilitating growth. Growing the agency, growing people, growing opportunities. The best way to do that is to do amazing, innovative work for clients. That’s our ultimate goal.

Plus, I’m funny as sh*t, so I add lots of levity to the environment.

What is culture?

Well, Dictionary.com defines culture as “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” We would add to that the social and political context that brands are operating in. So if you are a beer company, not only do you need to understand how people view the category, your competitors, and your brand, but you need to understand how people feel about your water consumption and how that impacts the environment, and what political causes your CEO supports. Culture is an accumulation of all things that matter to a community in a real-time, macro level.

How important is it for brand marketers to understand the current culture?

I think it’s everything, or at least the most important thing. We see the obvious examples of a brand being out of touch, whether it’s the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner debacle or Dove’s body lotion campaign that many pegged as racially insensitive.

But what can be even more deadly is ambivalence. It’s like the silent killer. More often consumers are making purchase decisions based on shared beliefs and less about pure product attributes. So being intimately in tune with culture is critical, and the only way to be that in tune is to be active participants and practitioners. You can’t fake it.

What’s the most effective way for a brand to tap into a culture?

You have to commit and invest. The worst thing a brand can do is to try to mimic, or co-opt culture.  We see this to some degree with influencer marketing. People are aware of the ways of brands and agencies. They know the difference between an unprompted share of an experience and a sponsored post. So for us it’s about being active in culture. Tracking, participating, and creating.

"The key is to be naturally woven into the experience, and not feel like an outsider."

Can you tell us about the Adidas refresh with the Annex?

We work with the Adidas Originals flagship store here in Chicago. We are partners with them for in-store merchandising, in-store events, and off-premise cultural activities. For adicolor, we supported the campaign by creating a launch event at the Annex.

We transformed our multi-purpose space into an immersive sensorial environment, bringing to life the colorful essence of the brand. We worked with a Chicago-based hip-hop troop who were finalists on World of Dance and have a significant social following. Hyper-local with international reach. They provided the cultural anchor, the attendee draw, and the social amplification to turn a single, local event into a nationally and internationally reaching content play. This one event, because of it’s grounding in relevant cultural passion points, generated more than 2500 RSVPs and more than three million social impressions.

And we’re not just talking about throwing cool parties; we had smart drive-to-retail tie-ins that incentivized attendees to head to the Adidas store the next day. So our experience delivered our 4 Cs: culture, content, conversation, and commerce.

The feedback so far?

It’s been positive, although we are still in the evangelizing phase in the context of the overall industry evolution. So there’s some fear of, say, losing control—something brands don’t really have anyway, so we need to walk clients through the entire philosophy and execution. This is a strategic marketing decision, philosophy, and a full lifecycle play—not a point solution.

It’s interesting because when we talk to brand teams, what we often don’t see is the enthusiasm and excitement in the very work that they are putting out. We believe the reason for that is these marketers are experienced, digital and social natives, and they simply aren’t connecting with the brand tactics as consumers. They are not buying into their own work. So there’s a gut-level understanding that something’s broken. We address that.

What’s the benefit of having experiences with a brand versus just becoming a customer?

Experiences stick. They can be meaningful, impactful, and have profound impression on our lives. Most of us can immediately recall our first concert, (Bruce Springsteen at The Garden, 1978) or our first pro-sports game. Experiences are multi-sensory, often involving people that we care about or relate to. And they allow us to play a role in the narrative of that experience. The key is to be naturally woven into the experience, and not feel like an outsider.

There’s an enormous amount of stimuli competing for our attention every minute of every day.  Many marketers talk about breaking through and disrupting. But it’s actually the opposite. It’s about coming alongside people, adding value to them in stride, and peeling off, adding value to their lives at a particular place and time. When our work, experience design, is done right, we see people chasing the brand versus the other way around.

"We believe we are at a tipping point where true collaboration, community participation, and co-creation define the future."

Paul Fitzpatrick, President at the Annex Experience, dives into all things culture, shares how his team stands out from the other agencies, and tells us what it’s like working with culture-defining brand Adidas.

So tell us: What is the Annex?

The Annex is part cultural hub, part content factory, and part community center. To me, it’s a fairly profound concept—essentially building an agency with the same cultural creators that brands are targeting, as opposed to hiring advertising people. It’s a dynamic and living entity that’s constantly creating content and experiences, whether or not a brand is participating. This is who they are, not what they do for a living.

In addition to having a direct pipeline into the communities and passion points that brands want (and need), The Annex also provides a career track for young people who might not be able to, or perhaps don’t want to, get a job at a traditional agency. So there’s a broader social context, which I think is powerful.

And what’s the Annex Experience?

We are the experiential agency that functions, in part, as a conduit to the Annex. We guide brands into the agency and then architect authentic experiences for them because they are co-created with the cultural communities themselves.

Our industry has always been a us-and-them scenario, where brands—and moreover, agencies—try to mimic the behaviors of their target consumers and end up looking like the creepy dude at the party. Or, they’re simply ignored.

We believe we are at a tipping point where true collaboration, community participation, and co-creation define the future. People are tired of one-way, brand-only messaging and experiences. They want to have a say in the role that a brand plays in their lives. We facilitate that collaboration.

How’s it different from other experiential agencies?

First and foremost, our entire focus is to make brands meaningful and relevant—not just sell product, or increase awareness and positive sentiment. To make a brand culturally relevant, it requires a certain sensibility of what that means and the know-how to accomplish it. Brand loyalty is fleeting. People say that they wouldn’t care if 75% of brands disappeared tomorrow. We focus on making brands meaningful in people’s lives.

Second, an agency needs to invest in these communities, and be active participants in creating culture. So many agencies just keep modifying their taglines to incorporate the current buzzwords— culture, authenticity, etcetera—yet, there is little investment in making that happen. We hire people, take over buildings, execute community and cultural events—on our dime. We feel this is the true differentiator between talk and action. We take action.

"Culture is an accumulation of all things that matter to a community in a real-time, macro level."

What’s your day-to-day role at the Annex Experience?

As with any leader, my role is to set a clear and inspiring vision, create a culture that people connect with, hire great people, and then encourage and empower them to do amazing things.  

Bringing a new model—and new way of thinking—to the marketplace requires tireless evangelizing and education, as well as working real hard to make sure we are always dialed into the communities, creators, and makers that are shaping the future, so I spend a good amount of time on my soapbox communicating the vision and implications of our point of view.

Also, I’m focused on facilitating growth. Growing the agency, growing people, growing opportunities. The best way to do that is to do amazing, innovative work for clients. That’s our ultimate goal.

Plus, I’m funny as sh*t, so I add lots of levity to the environment.

What is culture?

Well, Dictionary.com defines culture as “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” We would add to that the social and political context that brands are operating in. So if you are a beer company, not only do you need to understand how people view the category, your competitors, and your brand, but you need to understand how people feel about your water consumption and how that impacts the environment, and what political causes your CEO supports. Culture is an accumulation of all things that matter to a community in a real-time, macro level.

How important is it for brand marketers to understand the current culture?

I think it’s everything, or at least the most important thing. We see the obvious examples of a brand being out of touch, whether it’s the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner debacle or Dove’s body lotion campaign that many pegged as racially insensitive.

But what can be even more deadly is ambivalence. It’s like the silent killer. More often consumers are making purchase decisions based on shared beliefs and less about pure product attributes. So being intimately in tune with culture is critical, and the only way to be that in tune is to be active participants and practitioners. You can’t fake it.

What’s the most effective way for a brand to tap into a culture?

You have to commit and invest. The worst thing a brand can do is to try to mimic, or co-opt culture.  We see this to some degree with influencer marketing. People are aware of the ways of brands and agencies. They know the difference between an unprompted share of an experience and a sponsored post. So for us it’s about being active in culture. Tracking, participating, and creating.

"The key is to be naturally woven into the experience, and not feel like an outsider."

Can you tell us about the Adidas refresh with the Annex?

We work with the Adidas Originals flagship store here in Chicago. We are partners with them for in-store merchandising, in-store events, and off-premise cultural activities. For adicolor, we supported the campaign by creating a launch event at the Annex.

We transformed our multi-purpose space into an immersive sensorial environment, bringing to life the colorful essence of the brand. We worked with a Chicago-based hip-hop troop who were finalists on World of Dance and have a significant social following. Hyper-local with international reach. They provided the cultural anchor, the attendee draw, and the social amplification to turn a single, local event into a nationally and internationally reaching content play. This one event, because of it’s grounding in relevant cultural passion points, generated more than 2500 RSVPs and more than three million social impressions.

And we’re not just talking about throwing cool parties; we had smart drive-to-retail tie-ins that incentivized attendees to head to the Adidas store the next day. So our experience delivered our 4 Cs: culture, content, conversation, and commerce.

The feedback so far?

It’s been positive, although we are still in the evangelizing phase in the context of the overall industry evolution. So there’s some fear of, say, losing control—something brands don’t really have anyway, so we need to walk clients through the entire philosophy and execution. This is a strategic marketing decision, philosophy, and a full lifecycle play—not a point solution.

It’s interesting because when we talk to brand teams, what we often don’t see is the enthusiasm and excitement in the very work that they are putting out. We believe the reason for that is these marketers are experienced, digital and social natives, and they simply aren’t connecting with the brand tactics as consumers. They are not buying into their own work. So there’s a gut-level understanding that something’s broken. We address that.

What’s the benefit of having experiences with a brand versus just becoming a customer?

Experiences stick. They can be meaningful, impactful, and have profound impression on our lives. Most of us can immediately recall our first concert, (Bruce Springsteen at The Garden, 1978) or our first pro-sports game. Experiences are multi-sensory, often involving people that we care about or relate to. And they allow us to play a role in the narrative of that experience. The key is to be naturally woven into the experience, and not feel like an outsider.

There’s an enormous amount of stimuli competing for our attention every minute of every day.  Many marketers talk about breaking through and disrupting. But it’s actually the opposite. It’s about coming alongside people, adding value to them in stride, and peeling off, adding value to their lives at a particular place and time. When our work, experience design, is done right, we see people chasing the brand versus the other way around.

Natasha Smith is the strategic communications manager for Havas Group. She happily represents 404 in the 212.

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