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Agency Life

The Roadmap to Creating Strategy

The Roadmap to Creating Strategy

Natasha Smith

Natasha Smith

September 18, 2018

How to navigate data to create meaningful work.

"As for insights, specifically, it’s all about inquisitiveness..."

Mark Solotroff, VP of Insights & Strategy at Annex Experience, reveals how to tap into culture and discover info that’s super useful.

 

Many of us are familiar with the work from The Annex in Chicago and how it taps into millennial culture. But tell us more about Annex Experience.

Annex Experience is the experiential marketing division of the expanding Annex family. Our focus is on building meaningful brands through cultural relevance.

So how is Annex Experience different from other experiential agencies?

For our team members, one of the big differences in alignment with The Annex “creator not creative” platform is how few of us in leadership came up through the agency world. We have a number of teammates who are cultural practitioners. We have folks on staff who manage music artists or who were visualizing and building events before they did it for an agency.

For clients, we offer the rigor of strategically designed experiential marketing, innovative creative thinking, production, and operational excellence—and we offer the backbone of a leading global agency, along with actionable ties to the Vivendi family, including access to Universal Music Group’s labels and artists.

You’re an insights guy, obviously. How’d you get started in such a specific discipline?

I came to the agency world after a couple of other lifetimes. I majored in fine arts and worked as a Curatorial Assistant at The Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Prints and Drawings. I learned how to do comprehensive research on artists, their work, on art movements, on artwork provenance, on materials and techniques, and other things. I did all of this in a Fort Knox-esque storage vault and camped out in the stacks at the museum’s Ryerson & Burnham Archives, all before the internet was a thing.

From there, I pursued a life of visual art and music while supporting myself by working in nightclubs and bars both in Chicago and New York. It wasn’t long before I was creating and booking events, and getting involved in sponsorship opportunities with beer and spirit brands. That was my entry point into experiential marketing, and it was an easy, although unexpected transition over to the agency world.

As for insights, specifically, it’s all about inquisitiveness. I’d say that I have a couple of extra helpings of curiosity in my makeup. I want to know what makes people tick. Why do they make the choices they make? Why do they prefer certain brands or products? How and why do they develop brand loyalty?

"Cultural relevance should always be at the root of what we’re doing."

When someone who isn’t in the advertising business asks about your job, how do you explain what you do for a living?

My ultimate challenge is to find a unique human truth, an insight, that competitive brands haven’t yet uncovered or implemented. This is all part of the roadmap to creating a strategy.

When does it make sense for a brand to tap into a culture?

It depends on how you define culture. Is it based on the color of your skin? Your nationality? Your sexual orientation? Your political affiliation? Your passion points, like your favorite band or sports team? Your beliefs? Your values? All of the above? Cultural relevance should always be at the root of what we’re doing. Sometimes it’s connected to hip-hop or street art. Sometimes it’s skater or gamer culture. Sometimes it’s connecting with rabid fútbol fans. Sometimes it’s about tapping into what’s most important to a suburban mom or a stay-at-home dad, or grandparents.

Some of the most satisfying projects or accounts that I’ve worked on were focused on connecting with struggling families who have to adhere to rigid grocery budgets and seek solutions from trustworthy brands. Recognizing that a certain retailer was more than just a place to buy food and household goods, and that it was a social and cultural hub in rural communities, was an eye-opener. I learned that lesson by traveling to previously foreign-to-me parts of the country and joining people on their shopping trips. I can tell you that giving a financially challenged working mom a moment of escape through her love of game shows is as culturally relevant as tying a sneaker drop to an emerging hip-hop dance troupe.

Can brands create culture?

I believe that many successful brands have created culture or tapped into emerging culture at a critical early point, ultimately to be aligned with an aspect of culture, a cultural movement, or a subculture. It’s a bit of a nature-versus-nurture scenario. I’d point to Nike, Adidas, Apple, Red Bull, Facebook, Starbucks, and MTV, to name a few big brands that have done it. Factory Records, SST Records, Discord, FUBU, Vans, Supreme, A Bathing Ape, Obey/Shepard Fairey, to name just a few entities, have influenced a more underground culture and have grown up side by side with culture fans and cultural leaders.

How can brands use insights to help understand a specific culture?

Here’s where it gets interesting: Too many brands have blindly tried to dive into some subculture to cash in on a trend or a specific cliché demographic profile, but they’ve done so in an inauthentic way. It’s so painful to see. Brands need to take the time to understand the cultural group they’re hoping to market to. Better yet: Build a relationship. We’re in a post-demographic era, and we have to look a lot deeper than the latest report on millennial or Gen Z trends.

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

I believe it’s the root of loyalty and of building a richer, deeper, and longer life cycle with people. I started in experiential marketing, and I’ve worked on above-the line campaigns, consumer promotions, digital, social, and loyalty, but I keep coming back to experiential because I’ve witnessed the impact of making meaningful, face-to-face connections with people. There’s just nothing like it.

"As for insights, specifically, it’s all about inquisitiveness..."

Mark Solotroff, VP of Insights & Strategy at Annex Experience, reveals how to tap into culture and discover info that’s super useful.

 

Many of us are familiar with the work from The Annex in Chicago and how it taps into millennial culture. But tell us more about Annex Experience.

Annex Experience is the experiential marketing division of the expanding Annex family. Our focus is on building meaningful brands through cultural relevance.

So how is Annex Experience different from other experiential agencies?

For our team members, one of the big differences in alignment with The Annex “creator not creative” platform is how few of us in leadership came up through the agency world. We have a number of teammates who are cultural practitioners. We have folks on staff who manage music artists or who were visualizing and building events before they did it for an agency.

For clients, we offer the rigor of strategically designed experiential marketing, innovative creative thinking, production, and operational excellence—and we offer the backbone of a leading global agency, along with actionable ties to the Vivendi family, including access to Universal Music Group’s labels and artists.

You’re an insights guy, obviously. How’d you get started in such a specific discipline?

I came to the agency world after a couple of other lifetimes. I majored in fine arts and worked as a Curatorial Assistant at The Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Prints and Drawings. I learned how to do comprehensive research on artists, their work, on art movements, on artwork provenance, on materials and techniques, and other things. I did all of this in a Fort Knox-esque storage vault and camped out in the stacks at the museum’s Ryerson & Burnham Archives, all before the internet was a thing.

From there, I pursued a life of visual art and music while supporting myself by working in nightclubs and bars both in Chicago and New York. It wasn’t long before I was creating and booking events, and getting involved in sponsorship opportunities with beer and spirit brands. That was my entry point into experiential marketing, and it was an easy, although unexpected transition over to the agency world.

As for insights, specifically, it’s all about inquisitiveness. I’d say that I have a couple of extra helpings of curiosity in my makeup. I want to know what makes people tick. Why do they make the choices they make? Why do they prefer certain brands or products? How and why do they develop brand loyalty?

"Cultural relevance should always be at the root of what we’re doing."

When someone who isn’t in the advertising business asks about your job, how do you explain what you do for a living?

My ultimate challenge is to find a unique human truth, an insight, that competitive brands haven’t yet uncovered or implemented. This is all part of the roadmap to creating a strategy.

When does it make sense for a brand to tap into a culture?

It depends on how you define culture. Is it based on the color of your skin? Your nationality? Your sexual orientation? Your political affiliation? Your passion points, like your favorite band or sports team? Your beliefs? Your values? All of the above? Cultural relevance should always be at the root of what we’re doing. Sometimes it’s connected to hip-hop or street art. Sometimes it’s skater or gamer culture. Sometimes it’s connecting with rabid fútbol fans. Sometimes it’s about tapping into what’s most important to a suburban mom or a stay-at-home dad, or grandparents.

Some of the most satisfying projects or accounts that I’ve worked on were focused on connecting with struggling families who have to adhere to rigid grocery budgets and seek solutions from trustworthy brands. Recognizing that a certain retailer was more than just a place to buy food and household goods, and that it was a social and cultural hub in rural communities, was an eye-opener. I learned that lesson by traveling to previously foreign-to-me parts of the country and joining people on their shopping trips. I can tell you that giving a financially challenged working mom a moment of escape through her love of game shows is as culturally relevant as tying a sneaker drop to an emerging hip-hop dance troupe.

Can brands create culture?

I believe that many successful brands have created culture or tapped into emerging culture at a critical early point, ultimately to be aligned with an aspect of culture, a cultural movement, or a subculture. It’s a bit of a nature-versus-nurture scenario. I’d point to Nike, Adidas, Apple, Red Bull, Facebook, Starbucks, and MTV, to name a few big brands that have done it. Factory Records, SST Records, Discord, FUBU, Vans, Supreme, A Bathing Ape, Obey/Shepard Fairey, to name just a few entities, have influenced a more underground culture and have grown up side by side with culture fans and cultural leaders.

How can brands use insights to help understand a specific culture?

Here’s where it gets interesting: Too many brands have blindly tried to dive into some subculture to cash in on a trend or a specific cliché demographic profile, but they’ve done so in an inauthentic way. It’s so painful to see. Brands need to take the time to understand the cultural group they’re hoping to market to. Better yet: Build a relationship. We’re in a post-demographic era, and we have to look a lot deeper than the latest report on millennial or Gen Z trends.

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

I believe it’s the root of loyalty and of building a richer, deeper, and longer life cycle with people. I started in experiential marketing, and I’ve worked on above-the line campaigns, consumer promotions, digital, social, and loyalty, but I keep coming back to experiential because I’ve witnessed the impact of making meaningful, face-to-face connections with people. There’s just nothing like it.

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

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