Few marketers would argue with 2010's characterization as an unprecedented year of difficulty and change. But amidst the turmoil, innovation was to be found on many fronts -- mobile, technology, and social strategy, just to name a few. Many of these advances were driven by dynamic industry personalities who found ways to forge ahead even as the economy receded.
At the beginning of last year, Dave Knox held a prominent post as the brand manager for global branded entertainment at Procter & Gamble. But as we moved into 2011, he left the company to tap into his roots as an entrepreneur, and to share his expertise through two new ventures. He recently chatted with iMedia about his experience and his views on the future of branding.
iMedia Connection: You cut your teeth in brand marketing by working with one of the strongest brands in existence: Procter & Gamble. How did your experience prepare you for your shift to the agency side last year? And why was it the right time for you to make this change?
Dave Knox: The experience I gained at P&G is actually a thread that is common throughout Rockfish. One of the more interesting things about our company is that the majority of our people spent time outside of the agency world before they joined Rockfish. This gives us a great perspective when working with partners because we really understand what it's like to be in their shoes. As for me, it was the right time to make the move largely because of the great opportunity that Rockfish presented. I had the chance to join an entrepreneurial culture, at a company filled with incredibly smart people, all while starting an office in a city that I love. It was frankly something I couldn't pass up.
iMedia Connection: What was the most difficult adjustment you've had to make in moving from a huge brand to a (comparatively) small agency? What has been the most rewarding part of making the switch?
Knox: It might sound odd, but the adjustment really hasn't been that difficult. While P&G is a massive company, it is really composed of a bunch of smaller divisions that all fit together. For instance, the team in P&G Productions was under 10 people, and even the office for the P&G Wal-Mart customer team was under 300. On the flip side, the rewarding parts of the switch are too numerous to count. However, at the top of the list would have to be the speed and variety in the job. One day it's sitting down with a multi-billion dollar retailer to talk strategy; the next its brainstorming the latest start-up in Rockfish Labs; and the next its meeting with city officials regarding office space. This variety and pace makes every day a great adventure.
iMedia Connection: In addition to your move to Rockfish last year, you also founded The Brandery, a non-profit start-up accelerator. What drove you to start this venture?
Knox: I started The Brandery along with three co-founders (JB Kropp, Rob McDonald, and Bryan Radtke). All of us wear Cincinnati on our sleeves and have a real passion for the potential of a start-up culture to impact a city. After working with accelerators like TechStars, we realized that Cincinnati was a catalyst for mentorship and attracting outside capital. The Brandery was started to build an environment of support that fosters innovation and entrepreneurial success in Cincinnati.
iMedia Connection: What's the process for working with The Brandery? What can a venture expect when working with a business incubator? What type of support will they receive, and what are they expected to offer in return?
Knox: The Brandery defines itself as a "venture accelerator," which is distinct from a traditional incubator. Our program has a set length at 12 weeks, which concludes with a Demo Day, where our companies have a chance to present to an audience of over 150 investors. Each company that goes through The Brandery receives a $20,000 investment, is paired with 5 to 7 mentors, and receives free office space during the program. Additionally, they have the chance to hear from a wide variety of speakers and are paired with a local agency in Cincinnati that assists them with their brand identity/marketing. In exchange for all of this, The Brandery receives 6 percent equity in the form of warrants in each company.
iMedia Connection: That's an encouraging business model. And I'm sure you are getting a lot of applicants. What would be a great elevator pitch for a prospective client to deliver in order to work with The Brandery and convince you that they have a strong chance of being successful? Are there any companies that have launched that you can discuss as an example?
Knox: For a company that wants to participate in The Brandery, we are looking for a few things. First, the team behind the company/idea matters more than anything. We are looking for a well-rounded, dedicated team (2 or 3 founders) that has the "entrepreneurial drive" to throw themselves into the program. Second, we are looking for an idea that has "legs" -- one that is highly innovative with the potential to create a sizable business. Finally, we are looking for a company where we can make a meaningful difference in the 12 weeks of the program leading up to Demo Day. As for an example of a company, I think you could look at all six companies that went through our inaugural class, including Gifiki.com, VenturePax, TurboBOTZ, VenueAgent, Idea Rally, and LifeBlinx.
iMedia Connection: Let's switch gears a bit and talk about the trends you are seeing take shape. What do you see coming up for the digital marketing industry this year?
Knox: Of course mobile is on the mind of many marketers, but I think the biggest trend in 2011 will continue to be the rise of brand utility. For many years, marketing has been about interruption, and the same held true in the early years of digital marketing. But over the past few years, marketers have started to see the potential of brand utility; of offering a tool or resource that helps a consumer rather than just interrupts them with a message. Nike Plus is still one of the best examples out there of the potential for brand utility to be both a marketing vehicle and a new source of revenue. I would consider the trend of brands as publishers as an example of brand utility as well (such as P&G's Man of the House).
iMedia Connection: Are there any words of caution you would like to offer as brands and agencies are tasked with developing sustainable strategic plans in the face of mobile mania?
Knox: The biggest caution is one that holds true for all digital marketing: Start with your consumer in mind. It's easy to get seduced by the shiny-object syndrome and rush to develop the next iPad app, Foursquare integration, or any other new innovation in digital. But the first question that any marketer should ask is how their consumer is using the technology currently, and how will they be using it in the months or years to come. It is too easy for marketers and agencies alike to get stuck in their own "echo chamber" and start believing that everyone is like them. Mobile is just the latest example where marketers need to take a step back and really understand the behavior of their consumers.
iMedia Connection: In your opinion, are there clues for recognizing game-changing companies or ideas in the world of digital marketing? Do certain qualities or characteristics help them stand out from the competition, or weather the storms of a very volatile (and fickle) industry?
Knox: Recognizing game-changing companies in digital marketing is very similar to recognizing great advertising creative when it is nothing more than a storyboard. That doesn't mean the skills are the same, but instead that both take "gut" that is developed over time. Friends of mine in venture capital call it "pattern recognition," where you start develop a gut that gives you a good (or bad) feeling about the potential of a company or idea. There isn't a moneyball solution for recognizing the next generation of great companies. Instead, brand marketers need to start developing their own gut through their immersion and experience... or by finding the right partners who have "seen this movie before."
iMedia Connection: You were recognized last year as an iMedia25 marketing innovator, where you were described as a "marketing technopologist". In your mind, what does this term represent, and how closely do you feel you meet the criteria?
Knox: A marketing technopologist will bring together the strengths of marketing, technology, and social interaction. They are people who combine the skills of marketer, technologist, and social anthropologist to study how digital advances are changing culture and media. This doesn't mean that we need a generation of marketers who know how to code (though that isn't a bad thing). But we do need marketers who can talk technology at a high level, connecting trends in that space with the potential impact on culture and business. It's a skill that you won't learn by sitting in the halls of your corporation, but instead by immersing yourself into the worlds of Silicon Valley, Sand Hill Road, and start-ups everywhere.
iMedia Connection: You will be on the judging committee at the iMedia Breakthrough Summit's latest programming innovation, The Sneak Peak. What information are you hoping the audience will come away with it from this exercise?
Knox: The Sneak Peak is a great chance for brand marketers to see first-hand the companies that will be transforming the marketing landscape in the year to come. One of the most difficult tasks for a brand manager is keeping up with the stream of new companies that are launching every week, much like picking the ones that might be the next Facebook or Twitter. The Sneak Peak will hopefully be a cheat sheet for the companies that we think brand marketers should pay attention to.
Jodi Harris is senior editor at iMedia Connection.