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(Interview) Selling Subculture Without Selling Out

Jeff Newelt, Molly Crabapple and Gala Darling share their views on effective ways to connect with niche groups.

Robin Sinhababu
Robin Sinhababu on May 5, 2010.

l-r Jeff Newelt, Molly Crabapple, Gala Darling. Photo by Sean Captain.

This year’s SXSWi produced interesting dialogue on the future of ideas, technology and innovation.  We were able to talk to some smart speakers there and glean insights on several topics.

We had the opportunity to speak with members of the panel, “Selling Subculture Without Selling Out.” Among the speakers were Jeff Newelt, a PR professional, comics editor and musician; Molly Crabapple, an award-winning artist, author, and the founder of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School; and Gala Darling, a writer and curator based in New York.

Shortly after Newelt, Crabapple, and Darling spoke at the panel, we discussed how they felt about the conversation and the conference in general.

How’d the panel go?

Jeff Newelt: I think the panel went really well, and one of the ways you can judge that is the Tweet effect afterwards – the day after Tweets.  So we had a hash tag, which was #sxsellout, and I noticed a lot of stimulated tweets about it, a couple ruffled feathers as well, which is cool.

Who got ruffled?

JN: It seemed as if some of the more traditional advertising types who were inside for some reason misinterpreted what we were saying as either being elitist or accusing them of being irrelevant, which we didn’t do.

What reasons do you think particularly offended them?

JN: One of the points we made is just that traditional advertising is not nearly as potent anymore because the people in different subcultures look to their own subcultures as a source of news, their own blogs, their own this and that, they’re all on these interconnected islands getting information, and traditional advertising is used to broadcasting so much that they’re liable to miss a lot of these niches.  They’re gradually learning how not to do that.  We spoke of ways of going into social media and listening to what all the various niche communities and subcultures are doing.

Do you think less and less of the audience could be considered the mainstream, and more and more we can divide people into subcultures?

Molly Crabapple: I think that’s absolutely true; the audience is increasingly fractured.  The internet allows people to create community based on affinity groups, and the mainstream is a rapidly shrinking demographic.

So is it increasingly necessary for advertisers to make multiple advertising campaigns that each target a particular subculture, instead of one campaign for universal use?

MC: I think – okay, this is probably why they’re angry at us.  Advertising – putting ads in a magazine – is a little bit dead.  I think it’s much more interesting to create culture, to create interesting art, and patronize it and brand it with your company’s logo.

Gala Darling: I think supporting art is the best way that companies can work with subculture, and I don’t think you can appeal to every subculture. Obviously, that’s not going to work.  You have to pick one or two that you think are really relevant, and go with that.  I think that’s much more potent.  If you spread your message around too thin, you run the risk of making it totally unappealing to everybody.  So you really need to pick and choose very carefully.

JN: There’s an obscene amount of dollars that go into creating these various ad campaigns, and if a huge portion of those dollars were now spent toward programs actually nurturing and teaming with the subcultures that they’re trying to infiltrate and market to, I think that’s a lot more of a win-win, because then that’s better marketing and more beneficial to those that they’re marketing to.

How exactly are you going to convince those with ruffled feathers of that, that the strategy you propose will be as profitable as what they’ve been doing before?

JN: Because there has to be some way to reach the audience that they want to.  People are starting to put up blinders to traditional advertising.  You’re watching things on Tivo, and you’re skimming past the TV commercials.  You see an ad in a magazine, you’re flipping right past it.  Nobody’s clicking on banner advertisements ever, pretty much. I’ve never clicked on one in my entire life.  So it’s going to be these more integrated sponsorships and patronages that are really going to be a good thing.

Can you give me a couple examples of these more artistic and culturally informed ad campaigns, that you think have been artistically and monetarily successful?

JN: I worked on a campaign at the recent Comicon.  Coke Zero wanted to reach the comic book fans, the kids who go to Comicon.  And instead of – what they did was, they teamed up with this artist Paul Pope, who is very big there, and they actually spent money on creating these gorgeous screenprints, and they collaborated with the artist instead of controlling him.  He still made a beautiful print, but he worked with them and made sure it was in their colors.  It was in their black and red.  Everybody won because everyone walked home with a print, they got a gift, the artist got paid, the company got branding.  Every time you see a big corporation put some dollars toward something that actually gives meaning and content and something positive to their audience, I think that’s a good thing.

MC: It’s like the Medicis commissioning Da Vinci.  They’re the power brokers of our time.  Gala and I have worked with ChinaShop, which is an online magazine sponsored by Red Bull, where they get incredibly interesting artists and photographers in their cities, they don’t censor it, and it’s awesome.

GD: Yeah, it’s very cool, it’s very genuine and authentic, and the people they’ve chosen to work on the project, they are real tastemakers or leaders of their field.  They have a film guy who’s brilliant, music people who are fantastic, and it’s being done in a really good way.  It’s as if it  – it’s a real magazine, not just a corporate sponsored slap-on edition.  It’s a real thing, and they’ve done it really well.

JN: Going back to another point we talked about in our panel, and one of the reasons why that Coke Zero thing worked: if you’re trying to reach a subculture, don’t imitate them, hire them.  Don’t imitate the graffiti artists in your advertising campaign, hire graffiti artists!

You’re probably going to be bad at it if you do it yourself, right?

JN: The problem is that you won’t be bad at it, but you won’t be good enough.  You’ll do a passable imitation; you’re in-house art department can probably do almost anything, because they got a good job in an advertising agency art department, but if you’re going to be doing a comic books style advertisement, hire someone who’s actually in that subculture making comic books.  If you’re going to do a graffiti-style ad, hire someone who does graffiti.  If you’re going to do hip-hop music in a TV commercial, why don’t you hire someone who’s actually making hip-hop music as opposed to someone who’s imitating it?

What do y’all think could be improved at Interactive?

GD: I would love more maps and stuff.  I can never find my way around anywhere.  They need a smaller booklet of what’s going on; the thing is huge, and I can’t carry it around all day.

MC: I love Interactive.  I’ve had a great time with it.  I think they should be slightly more rigorous with the panels, but I love it.

JN:  I think they do a pretty good job.  I go to a lot of different trade shows – I used to go to CES, I go to Comicon – I think they do a pretty amazing job here.  I can’t think of anything that I’d improve.  I’m sure there is, but I’m more amazed by it at this point than thinking of something they could improve.

In what ways would you like to see more rigor?

MC: I just think people should prepare as much as for their panels as they possibly could, but that’s not SXSW’s problem.

JN: We treated our panel as a jam session; we were almost like an ad hoc band.  We talked about it beforehand, didn’t plan it down to a “T,” but when you do a panel, you’re also doing a performance, and you’ve got to deliver.  Yeah, you can get up there and say smart things off the cuff, but you’ve got to combine that with a little bit of preparation.  That’s why we all got together a couple of times and just talked over the issues, so at least once we’re talking in front of other people, some of these things were thought out already and gave us a little bit of a head start.  So we could cram in a lot of useful information into that hour.

GD: Especially when people pay a lot of money, or companies pay a lot of money for people to come here, it’s a privilege to be up on the stage, so you might as well really deliver something of value to the audience.

Do y’all find Interactive male dominated?

GD: It seems like there are a lot more women here this year, and there’s women on a lot of the panels, which is really nice to see.  I feel like it used to be a bit of a sausage fest, and it’s less like that now.  It’s nice to see women in the halls. It’s actually surprising, but it’s a good surprise.

JN: I agree.

MC: You would.  I work in the comics industry, which is the ultimate sausage fest, so to me, Interactive is filled with women everywhere.

I get the sense that many companies are perpetually playing catch-up with social media, struggling to exist meaningfully in these environments.  Is there a way for such companies, which maybe aren’t run by tech-savvy folks, to stay ahead of the game instead of lagging?

MC: One change that I think the new technologies require is showing the humans that lie behind your organization.

JN: Transparency.

MC: Transparency.  I hate the TSA like everyone hates the TSA.  But one of the few public relations things they did was they had a blog with real bloggers, who had names, who were like, “I work for the TSA, and I play guitar, and I’m a human being.”  And it really made you hate them a lot less!  I think companies could learn a lot from that.

JN: Each big company should have people not just doing focus groups, not just doing minimal research.  If you want to “infiltrate” a subculture, or market to them, have someone whose job it is to really know about them.  Not just have a cursory knowledge, but to have the words “brand ambassador” actually mean that.  Which is possible.  Hire someone who’s interested in the subculture you’re trying to market to become an expert on your behalf, and it’s that expert on the inside that will help engender a relationship that’s mutual respect, as opposed to exploitation.  If you listen, you’re less likely to exploit.

Another one of the ways in which new social media technologies are nurturing subcultures in general is that a subculture should be very concerned with not only preaching to the choir.  I think the comics that comics freaks love could be loved by everyone.  And I’ve done some work with Harvey Pekar from American Splendor; we’re putting his webcomics online.  So by dropping a link on Facebook, I’m noticing friends of mine from high school that have never read a comic book in their entire life adoring some of the links I throw up that they’ve never heard of.  So what social media’s doing for subcultures is, it’s showing an audience that may not want to swim in your pool the whole time, but take a dip every once in a while.  So instead of limiting yourself to your potential audience of 20,000, because of social media you can wind up with a couple million people who take a look at what you’re doing once in a while, and that adds up, if you are able to monetize that somehow.

Thanks to Jeff, Molly and Gala!

Jeff Newelt

Molly Crabapple

Gala Darling

Harvey Pekar’s comics on SMITH

Thinking...