At the end of November, 14 companies that are part of R/GA Ventures made their way to Portland, Oregon to pitch both the market’s agencies and brands. While the big prize included a full day of pitching to Nike executives at their WHQ in Beaverton, Oregon, all were on hand to address, in some way, shape or form, serious marketing and brand pain points, and find new solutions.
The companies on hand were from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia and represented the individual cohorts of the R/GA program, including the LA Dodgers accelerator, the connected commerce program with Westfield Labs, the marketing tech venture studio with IPG and Snap (which presented at the event) and the R/GA Media Tech Venture Studio in partnership with Verizon.
The disciplines of those involved in the pitch ran the gamut from e-commerce to staff training, VR to content and everywhere brands, especially chief marketing officers, are possibly struggling.
“There’s no question that consumer engagement and relevance is the biggest fear,” said Brian Matakis, R/GA Portland managing director of client services. “That is because the influence of top-down messaging has waned substantially and [consumers] are looking for authenticity and experiences — and are voting with their wallets, not by what they see in a top-down way.”
The specter of top-down marketing erosion is daunting, but, to Matakis, the true impact of culture is what can create the success that marketers seek.
We talk a lot about the interplay between top-down messaging and bottom-up culture,” he said. “The best work sits at the intersection, and you can’t be an effective brand if you don’t find a way to combine the two artfully. There’s still a place for big, anthemic, inspiring messaging [but its] staying power is defined by where it sits in bottom-up culture. Campaigns are time-limited. Experiences are more enduring (than traditional advertising) — so working in that intersection is where the best brands are having success.”
Finding and soothing the pain points for marketers
The companies that were part of the pitch are already well-versed in brands. The list of their partnerships would be the envy of any business with the likes of Lenovo, Nike, Unilever, Nestlé, Comcast, IBM, American Express, Disney, Mercedes Benz, Dyson, Starbucks, Google, Ikea, and Ford gracing this group.
They’re also fluent in understanding brand pain points. Speed, agility, and authenticity are a few words used to illustrate where a CMO's head is at this moment.
“I think CMOs are looking for an exponential leap, and you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” said Elizabeth Robillard, head of partnerships and operations at Lytics. “You get a CMO who’s got more budget to spend on shiny new objects, but really what they’re going for is a transformational moment for their brand with consumers. There’s not a right answer for that.”
Aneri Shah, co-founder of Sightworthy, a company that takes unused raw video content for brands and turns it into agile, branded social content, sees how the traditional ad process can hamper a business.
“These big companies are continuing to produce commercials, and they're like, ‘We're scared because every time we spend four billion dollars on a commercial, the night before, we're just praying that something happens.’” she said. “I think large companies in general, they have this process with their agency that necessitates a long review process. What's happened is the process by which commercials got approved and on the air has just been transitioned to social video, and I think that that's going to have to change.”
Added Hookway: “I always feel bad for the big brand marketers. There’s this massive, complicated ecosystem of stuff. But I think the thing I find fascinating is that the people who use data and are going to exploit it, they don't think in data terms, they think in quite abstract terms. So quite often, they'll say, ‘How is my brand discussed on social media?’ What they want to really know is, ‘We've just spent 10 million dollars trying to reposition our brand to millennials away from Generation Z, and I want to know if it's worked, can you give me the data to prove or disprove that?’ That's what they actually mean. But the problem with a lot of the marketing tools which are out there right now is it just pukes a bunch of data out, and it doesn't answer an abstract question. And that's how they think.”
Making better connections to build business
At its core, the R/GA Ventures program is a powerful asset and represents a relevant and consistent quid pro quo between R/GA, the brands that it works with (and sometimes doesn’t work with) and the startups and companies that are part of the program and individual cohorts.
For R/GA, one benefit is the ability to tap into talent to help grow their client business. Additionally, it’s an opportunity to accelerate a startup’s business development, technology and, in some cases, take a product from idea to reality.
“Working with the startups who’ve participated in R/GA’s ventures program has made the agency better in two ways. It’s made us better as coaches and mentors. It’s also provided for us a new way of seeing how to solve problems — to use technology in ways that are different and that provide a way to re-create,” stated Matakis.
For the startups themselves, they tap into the global R/GA network to not only learn, but to take direct advantage of the agency’s talent to help put them into a much better light.
“The biggest advantage for us is simply learning from R/GA,” said Jacques Kotze, president of Adludio, a programmatic sensory advertising platform that marries high levels of design and technology, including haptics, in their work. “They’re incredibly professional, open and collaborative — and help elevate the level at which we understand our brand — making it beautiful, making it speak the message that we’re trying to get across for brands and the companies we are seeking to meet.”
Noted Elizabeth Robillard, vice president of partnerships at Portland-based Lytics, a customer data platform designed to connect all users’ marketing data to create user segments: “This accelerator is really different than the others, and one of the huge differentiators is the creative services team. We’ve got access to world-class creative talent for free. I saw all these pitches in the first week, and then I saw all these pitches in the last week, and they were dramatically more beautiful and a better story. They remake your storytelling of your brand — and no startup can afford that.”
Additionally, the opportunity to get in front of brands is a critical benefit that most startups don’t necessarily enjoy.
“I’d say 75% of corporate startup engagement initiatives are awful,” said Ben Hookway, chief executive officer of Relative Insight, an interesting audience research tool that uses comparative language analysis. “R/GA has been exceptional because of their sector knowledge and how willing they are to let [us] talk directly to their customers.”
Helping to make a better startup
Building consistent business is key to a startup’s success, and nobody knows that better than Dylan Boyd, director of R/GA Ventures. Boyd is a long-time Portland startup and tech leader, and he espouses a gospel of reality but in a way that helps assuage the inherent cacophony and sheer volume of things on an entrepreneur's worry list.
“We do unnatural and ungodly things to see our dream come to light,” he said. “I always try to give them a filter of, ‘Are you making the right decision? Is your time being used today to actually look at a positive outcome, as opposed to worrying or chasing a problem that may or may not exist?’”
Remaining focused on what one can control — at the moment and on a day to day basis — and eschewing hubris is what, ultimately, can be make-or-break for a startup.
“A lot of founders are pretty egotistical and pretty self-centered, and that's how entrepreneurs are in many cases,” said Boyd. “But I think the best ones I've found are the ones who are benevolent — the ones that are looking at the health of their company and the health of their team.”
To the ever-optimistic Boyd, it’s not about building the next unicorn (a startup valued at $1bn) but rather getting into a position of sustainability.
“Not everyone is throwing venture money around trying to scale and get as big as they can, as fast as they can. The companies that we’re trying to support, [we hope] are all just good, healthy, successful businesses. I'd rather all of our companies that we're funding now, raise from a position of strength. I want all of the companies we're looking at to have a solid product (and) market fit, have solid, proven revenue structures and be able to help them by opening doors and thinking about how they deal with corporations to be in a position of strength, controlling their destiny.”
Wowing the Nike C-suite
While working with startups is key to the Ventures program success, Boyd’s excitement about pitching to Nike showed the power of R/GA’s program — especially in front of Nike executives.
The big upside was that deals with both the Portland and Nike pitches began to emerge, illustrating that the startups’ stories resonated.
“I got a lot of emails over the weekend from founders saying, ‘Wow, this is amazing, I've already got three opportunities…I got an order coming from this company next week.’ Very, very, very positive, said Boyd, who is planning to build quarterly events in different verticals to further showcase the talent sitting right under brands’ noses.
“The outcome of [this is] great visibility, great awareness [and] great opportunities for the founders, [bringing] the outside in [to brands].”