Why talent is the next-generation creative partner

Those in the new generation of front-of-screen talent are no longer content to be a hired face for adland and have instead pitched themselves as full creative partners. Mark Eaves, founder of Gravity Road, unravels the rise of this phenomenon and what agencies can learn from it.

In 1866 music hall legend George Leybourne wrote a song that took London by storm. Dressed in the height of "fast" fashion – bow tie and velvet tails – he became the archetypal suave man-about-town. That is why Moët & Chandon paid him extraordinary amounts to make sure the chorus was adapted to glorify its brand of fizz ("Champagne Charlie was my name/Champagne drinking gain’d my fame/So, as of old when on the spree/Moët & Chandon’s the wine for me"). The power of a famous face in entertainment to shift units has been advertising 101 for the Champagne market for generations. 

"Global talent has constructed operations for generating intellectual property that is streets ahead of most agencies"

And so it was ever thus. But the past five years have brought a dramatic shift in the role of talent in the world of brands, which is re-framing behaviour away from "hired face" toward full creative partner, which can span beyond communications all the way to brand development, creative and, crucially, media distribution. 

These days "Champagne Charlie" has transformed into a different, dapper man – David Beckham – and this time he has developed his very own Diageo whisky from scratch: Haig Club. Global A-list talent, from Cristiano Ronaldo to will.i.am, James Corden to Beyoncé – they are the next-generation creators of intellectual property who are changing the rules not just for the entertainment industry, but for consumer brands with the commercial ambition to create culture. All of which asks fundamentally different questions of the ad industry and the role it wants to play. Once upon a time talent was introduced to a brand by a creative agency in the context of a specific campaign. But now the talent is at the top table themselves, with strategic commercial partnerships brokered directly. Their strategic power is becoming substantial. The question is how, and why, did the ad industry lose its centrality in this dynamic? 

David Beckham's Extended Haig Club™ Ad

Just as the social platforms are switching back toward A-list talent partnerships as they try to become mature entertainment providers, so global talent has constructed sophisticated operations for generating intellectual property that is streets ahead of most agencies.

Vanity Fair recently observed how the cult of the "celebrity shingle" – a vanity production company created to satisfy personal creative projects – had transformed from industry joke to box office gold. This year at the Oscars, when Moonlight took to the stage to collect Best Picture, it crowned an astonishing run for Brad Pitt’s entertainment outfit Plan B, that began four years ago with 12 Years a Slave, and offered up Selma and The Big Short along the way. This phenomenal creative and commercial success was a world away from the typical vanity shingle (the nadir of which are mischievously easy to enjoy – remember Demi Moore’s GI Jane?).  

Is your last piece of work something the world genuinely wants to spend time with?

A new wave of talent-driven entertainment outfit is emerging, beyond the traditional Hollywood shingle, that understands entertainment in incredibly progressive ways and knows how to work with brands. Take Fulwell 73, the UK production company of which comedian Corden is a partner. Aside from its theatrical output – which includes the recent feature documentaries  I Am Bolt and The Class of ’92 – it also provides a production vehicle for Corden’s more progressive commercial work with brands, such as Apple Music and Cadbury (the latter via Gravity Road). Fulwell 73 was also behind Jack Whitehall’s "School of Rio" work for Samsung (via BBH) and you can tell. It is proper entertainment. Stuff you want to show your mates. Work that is confident enough to give talent the space to perform on the brand’s behalf, not the other way around. 

David Golding, founder and chief strategy officer of Adam & Eve/DDB, recently highlighted the difference between agencies that create culture versus collateral. Adam & Eve’s confidence in letting Beckham and US com-edian Kevin Hart play an ad out as a piece of pure comedy entertainment for H&M is a prime example of where it sits on the spectrum. 

But it is not only front-of-screen talent that makes Fulwell 73 interesting. Its creation and packaging of Carpool Karaoke is, for me, a lesson in entertainment-format creation that is bang on the money when thinking about how audiences behave around content. It is no surprise that YouTube has claimed it as a lesson in the power of its platform. 

Add to this the recent surprise news that Apple Music has stepped in to buy a dedicated spin-off series and there are not many boxes left to tick in the "future of entertainment" exam paper. 

Apple Music — Carpool Karaoke: The Series — Trailer

This shape of entertainment intellectual property – talent-led, ambitious, geared for social distribution – is precisely where progressive brands want to be playing. 

The world’s biggest talent is fast becoming a substantial media operation, too. Talent gets media distribution in ways that media agencies just do not – they make audience leaps that no dataset would ever point at. It is a mindset that is closer to publishing – understanding what audiences want and building rich editorial platforms to turn them into fans (I still maintain that, having worked with him and his group, Jamie Oliver knows more about digital distribution than most agencyland "digerati").  

Take the owner of the biggest Facebook fan page in the world, Ronaldo – 170,254,428. Our work with him for Pokerstars has forgone the classic agency temptation to make a set-piece ad, instead drawing on the Real Madrid star’s phenomenal Facebook audience to help launch a bigger "social-duelling" format that dramatises the competitive aspects of poker. 

Launch of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ROC headphones drew on his phenomenal social reach.

We work with the talent to devise playful stunts and capture the whole thing for real, posting the video from Ronaldo’s Facebook account in near real-time at other celebrity names. The format has pitted the footballer against people such as US basketball legend Dwayne Wade. It has been the brand’s most successful and effective work ever. 

In a similar way, the launch of ROC headphones – a collaboration between Ronaldo and Monster – actively drew on his phenomenal social reach with a launch that placed entertainment creation designed for social audiences front and centre rather than as a bolt-on to a typical campaign. 

This is all leads to bigger questions about what role the ad industry wants to play in this new dynamic, while brand owners need to better flow with the creative direction of talent, rather than have it dance to their tune (or the TV script that their agency thinks is a killer piece of entertainment – but which is probably not). 

Elsewhere, most agency groups with content and intellectual property arms continue to be wide of the mark. Either they are down-and-dirty production studios pumping out volumes of assets for clients as a way of capturing more value, or they have been indulgences – chances for bored executive creative directors to pursue passion projects. Which is not to condemn it, but these are not well-honed operations that can marry creative and commercial smarts and pull off mass moments of entertainment. 

But more than anything it is a mindset shift. Something deceptively simple but hardwired out of the advertising industry: respect for audiences. Look at the last piece of work you created and ask yourself this: is it something the world genuinely wants to spend time with?   

Are you over-influenced by influencers?

When global talent is getting bigger and more ambitious, how did agency thinking get so small? Right now we need to regain some perspective on the nature of talent and the scale (and share) of influence it can possess. Wander round too many agencies right now and it will not be long until the term "influencer" pops up. If you are (un)lucky it might be prefixed with "micro". (Personally, I think this is far too broad a brushstroke, so I am spearheading a new wave of "nano influencer" networks consisting of people with one close but trusted friend and limited appetite for social platforms. It’s going to be killer.) How did it get to this? How did "working with an influencer" become the idea?

The obsession with the term influencer, inflated and driven by the revenue ambitions of Silicon Valley media companies has taken the industry’s eye off the prize. Yes, a new generation of super-connected talent has emerged that grew itself ground-up, but this is often pursued as a panacea, skewering what could be more powerful culture-defining brand plays. 

We have hit peak-influencer; and the failed attempts by brands to translate "social influencer" success into commercial success are lessons to be quickly learned, or else mistakes to be repeated. 

For instance, rewind to 2013 when YouTube star Michelle Phan, poster-girl of a new generation, signed an exclusive deal with L’Oréal to launch Em, her own make-up line. This was announced with breathless claims about the future of beauty: "We believe very strongly that this is a new business model." By late 2015, Pham had left the building. "We are proud to have worked with Michelle to help bring her vision to life," went the elegant statement as L’Oréal sold off the business to a small online subscription firm. 

In the same way that our industry has too often wrongly confused television with the past and social with the future, talent has been through a period whereby if it was not "influencer"-flavoured (ergo, ground-up; ergo, the future) as far as agency-land was concerned it was, by default, the past when it came to working with brands. It is simply not this binary. 

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