Emeka Patrick, creative director at Anchor Worldwide, considers how social media raised the bar for brands and shares his advice for a creative life in NYC
Emeka Patrick, creative director at Anchor Worldwide and strategist at AREA4, had some years of self-directed creative work under his belt—having begun a career in advertising and started a fashion company—before he decided to broaden his knowledge of branding. For our series in partnership with the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Masters in Branding program, PSFK spoke to the native New Yorker about the new demands for brands in the wake of always-on social media, collaboration and drawing inspiration from the city’s populace.
SVA’s Masters in Branding program allows students to create frameworks to guide brand, design and business development, critically evaluate brand, business, marketing and design strategies and master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity.
Where did your interest in branding begin, and what led you to choose SVA’s Masters in Branding program?
I’m tempted to say during my later high school years when I first started interning in the ad world, but I’d probably have to more accurately say a few years after graduating college and starting my advertising career. It was a while back and branding hadn’t become nearly what it is today. Yes, people created visual identities and they did naming. Yes, they understood the idea and the import of how people felt about a particular company, product or service, and what it meant to them and their lives, and in turn how those perceptions drove profits, created tribes and contributed to success or failure, but things were very, very, different.
Not only were there vastly fewer touchpoints across which brands needed to have a presence, mainly due to the technology that existed at that time, but also the world moved a lot slower. Brands were still speaking to customers, but not engaging with them on anywhere near the scale that is seen, or expected, today. Not to totally date myself, but we didn’t have Twitter or Instagram and, depending upon exactly what year we’re talking about, Facebook was either just getting off the ground for the wider world or was just a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye.
At that time I was functioning as a planner/creative, or just planner depending upon which of the positions or years we’re talking about. Then, as now, I often saw disconnects, discontent, and also connections and opportunities that weren’t being exploited. These mainly surfaced when doing research and running focus groups, which gave us a chance to uncover insights that allowed us to create better, more relevant work. However, we simply were not able to connect with customers like we can today.
Now we’re in a new reality where brands have less control over their identities than ever before. The advent of smartphones and social media have created an always-on situation where anything or anyone can engender sweeping changes in brand sentiment in a single moment. This is due not just to their experience, but the ability to document and disseminate that experience.
Almost all of us can remember the United Airlines incidents last year where first two young girls wearing leggings weren’t permitted to board due to “inappropriate dress” and then only a few weeks later a video of a bloodied passenger being dragged from one of their planes went viral. While within the airline’s rights, these actions were definitely not in line with their slogan of “fly the friendly skies” and the brand suffered from them. The poor responses on the part of the company did nothing to remedy the situation, which in turn ruined brand perception, which in turn translated into the loss of hundreds of millions in stock value.
On the other hand, these times also allow for people to share their brand love, reinterpreting and translating visual identities and brand assets making them their own while still paying homage to the source. Some brands—for example, Gucci—have really come to embrace this these days. Where once cease and desist letters and lawsuits would have ensued, now these homages and their creators, like the legendary designer Dapper Dan and the artist Gucci Ghost, have been invited into their worlds to collaborate and create.
All that being said, times have changed, and having left the ad world to move on to work on other ventures I felt I sorely needed to refresh my skills and increase my body of knowledge. The Masters in Branding program presented me with not just a unique, but a perfect opportunity to do just this. It also gave me the chance to learn from my peers and from our professors, who were practicing branding professionals who were out there every day actively working and changing the way things are done. My initial attraction to the program was validated when I was lucky enough to connect with a former coworker, Willy Wong, who introduced me to two alumni, Randy Gregory and Andrew Miller, who really sold me on the value and efficacy of the program. Add that all to the fact that it was a one-year degree that was amenable to those who wanted to work during the program and we had a winning proposition.
You had a wide range of experience before attending SVA, from video to interior design and founding a fashion startup. How did this background inform your approach to branding projects in the program and beyond?
This wide range of experience provided me with richer perspectives, informed not by theory or conjecture, but real life experiences. This then led to a better ability to spot opportunities. Having dabbled in or inhabited these different worlds really helped in allowing me to make some interesting connections between disparate pieces of information, which in turn could then be applied to identifying potential white spaces for brands and businesses.
You’re currently working as Creative Director at Anchor Worldwide and as a creative strategist at AREA4. What skills and lessons from the program are you finding most valuable in these roles?
Other than the great knowledge gained and the understanding of the deeper responsibilities that someone who works on or manages a brand has to undertake, I’d say one of the big things was working with different groups of people. Before deciding to apply and then commit to the program I was in a situation where most of my work over the past five to seven years was independent and self-directed. Getting thrust into an environment where I was forced to work collaboratively with those older and younger, from vastly different backgrounds and with vastly different viewpoints, gave me invaluable and often humbling experiences that enriched me and helped to prepare me for my return to the more typical working world.
In addition, my background was primarily in strategy and writing, and though I had a good design sensibility, the program really helped me to further develop and refine it, especially when it came to graphic design. This has given me a broader skillset, making me more versatile and better able to work with and be respected by designers and art directors.
What’s something you wish more people understood about branding?
I’m sure you’ve heard it before and I’m sure you’ll probably hear this again, but it’s not just creating visual identities or logos. It’s not just a one-off thing you do and are then done. It’s not a beautiful book you create, store on a shelf and occasionally dust off. It’s a living, ever-evolving job that necessitates understanding consumers, the market in general, and how a product, service or company fits within all that. It’s also about why a brand connects with some and not others and what can be done to better deliver on brand promises in order to deepen those connections.
You were born and raised in Manhattan, so you’re a true New Yorker. How did the surrounding city come into play during your time at SVA? How does it inspire your creative pursuits today?
The city, though vastly changed from my years growing up here, has always provided a constant source of inspiration. NYC is just an incredibly special place to me and while I do feel it’s definitely become less interesting, as well as more homogenized, it’s still amazing and will always hold a special place in my heart. Here you never know what’s going to happen or who you’re going to meet when you turn a corner. As well, while many people say it’s finance, banking or what have you that drives New York, when you really think about it, it’s culture and creativity. Without the cultural institutions and cultural cache that New York has you simply wouldn’t be able to attract the people this city does and have them stay in love with the city for as long as most do. And the fact is the rich cultural tradition that exists in here in NYC is driven by people whether they’re creating or they’re consuming culture.
That being said, it’s not so much the city itself that inspires many of my creative pursuits, but the people who inhabit it and help to shape it. And within that larger group, it’s really my friends and friends of friends that help to keep me inspired. Being able to connect and engage with such a wide variety of people, all doing different things, living different lives and quite often crushing it lets me see a myriad of paths and opportunities and keeps me exposed to interesting information, new technology and all-around general amazingness that I simply would not be able to engage with anywhere else or stumble across on my own.
In fact, if I had to make a recommendation for finding fuel for your own creative pursuits—and this is something I aim to do more of this year—I’d say get out, see the sights, interact with people, get out of your comfort zone and do weird stuff, take classes and keep learning, go to events and honestly just live as fully as you possibly can. There is no point in being here in this city if you just beeline it from home to work and back again. Sad to say, but that’s just existing here, it’s not truly living here. As far as I know, we only get one turn around and nothing helps to make that turn a beautiful one like rich experiences, random connections and inspiring, enlightening relationships.
This article is paid for and presented by the SVA Masters in Branding program