With technology allowing greater access to art, personalisation and expression, how brands and artists work together to reach audiences is changing quickly. The Drum and HP brought together a panel of experts at Creative Cities Singapore to discuss how brands can be the best contributor to commercial creativity.
While fusing the, sometimes strict, commercial sides of a brand to an artist’s need for creative freedom can be a delicate balance to make, when the values align, the panel agreed it can be… magic.
Sat above Art from the Streets, the first major street art exhibition to grace the halls of Singapore’s Artscience Museum, the debate featured brand-side perspective from HP senior regional marketing manager Conrad Mendoza and former Unilever and Airbnb marketer Matthias Schuecking, now founder of Shuecking Consulting. On the agency-side, Joakim Borgström, BBH executive creative director, and Pat Law, Goodstuph founder offered their advice on brokering creative partnerships, while street artist Didier ‘Jaba’ Mathieu offered the artist viewpoint.
HP’s Mendoza, explained why linking art and brand was a popular strategy, particularly among the many FMCG brands HP works with to create personalised designs on its products.
“When it really works is when the ethos of the brand aligns with the ethos of the artist itself. A brand that says; this is where I stand, this is my opinion, and they would look for an artist that stands for the same thing in their individuality. When I look at that, they use it as a way to engage, it’s not all about money for brands. Of course, getting an ROI out of a campaign is important, but so is getting the right palate or extension of what the artist can do and not putting them in a box. This creates that magic that the brand would not want to stifle as well,” he explained.
An example of this was one of Coca-Cola’s first major bottle personalisation project in Israel, in which is used an artist to create 26 different designs and then, with the application of HP’s software and printing technology, it created 2 million different designs.
BBH’s Borgström said connecting to arts and culture was useful because most people don’t naturally want to interact with advertising. “What is happening, from my point of view and I work in advertising, is that I think all of us don’t really like advertising. We find it intrusive and it interrupts us, it can get in the way and it’s something that we don’t really want to see. I think that some brands think that a way to attract our attention it to attach themselves to pop culture and artists. I think that’s why we are so interested in bringing that conversation together with an artist but I think we need to do it in the right way so it doesn’t feel like an add on. We need to find some sort of connection or find a way to work together with partners and the artist. For me, a good way to do that is brands helping the artist fulfil dreams,” he said. An example he gave, from the musical side, was the band OK Go, who often work with brands to create innovative music videos. Sponsored by s7 airlines, the band once made a music video in zero gravity, something they wouldn’t have been able to do without the brand.
However, while handing over control to an artist can be tough for brands, Shuecking, referencing a campaign Airbnb did in Hong Kong, said it was important to do.
“When I was at Airbnb, we were entering the Hong Kong market and hardly anyone knew us then, we wanted to be part of the community. We booked a shophouse during Art Basel and we reached out to 12 artists globally on our theme of expressions, belonging and strangers meeting. It was a rebellious brand idea and the scary part was about giving the artists freedom to do whatever. I think as a brand it was a really brave thing, it was a really scary thing. We had this crew from LA - Artist Representative - who are a transgender couple and known for doing performance art that was known for improvisation and also nudity and defecation. Someone said ‘please make sure there’s no nudity because we don’t want to get in trouble’ and, as a brand, and I made the decision to say that we can’t stifle the artist. We weren’t paying them a lot of money to perform. We want them to come in and do what they do, which will attract people in to talk about the topics that we’ve presented and are related to the brand,” he explained.
However, not all brands play as nicely as HP and Airbnb, and street artist Jaba had a strong view on whether brands and artists should work together. He admitted that for the right brand, it was fine but said over-commercialised artists were not always looked at with respect in the graffiti scene.
He also discussed brands regularly using artists work without permission, noting the recent high profile case between H&M and Revok.
“I think it’s wrong to use creative work just for free, recently we had a case of H&M who was using the work of a street artist called Revok and he took them to court. The case for H&M was that he did the graffiti in the street, so it is for everyone and we can use it. But they knew that this was also done by a famous artist, so it wasn’t a coincidence. H&M wanted to use this specific piece of graffiti, his work is very recognisable, but H&M didn’t want to pay him anything. They started a fight but H&M didn’t know the power of the artist was actually his network, he has so many followers, so all the graffiti writers at the same time started saying ‘fuck H&M’ and so they ended up apologising. This now means that even if it’s illegal, if it is recognisably that artists then you have to give acknowledgement to that artist,” he explained.
“You have to have an exchange - if you work with a brand like HP and they are helping you to print on a huge canvas… ok, there is something happening there. But just by taking a piece of art from me and putting a model in front - what am I getting? I am not learning anything or doing anything,” he added.
For Law, who started off as an artist before launching social agency Goodstuph, she said that contrary to some of the graffiti culture being against brand-work, a lot of artists in Singapore specifically need to work with brands to do what they love. “Passion is not pigeon holed into something. Just because I like art doesn’t mean I can’t sell art, it doesn’t mean I can’t push it forward and make it advertising and recognise it’s no longer art, to some degree, in its pure form,” she said. “One of the best female street artists from Singapore that not many people know is called Sheryo. At one point she got way too many commercial projects and she just thought, I am getting way too comfortable, I have to leave the country. She’s only just come back for a bit. It’s a lot harder when you come from a place like Singapore to go all out, dropping everything, living month-by-month. You move out of that comfort zone and that comes with a lot of respect.” Linking it to how she now does business with the artists in Singapore, she says she makes sure the transaction is clear. “What really helps with me is being really unapologetic. I have a client, I have a brief, I need to get this done, if you want I can help you and if you don’t want it, that’s ok. It’s purely transactional - I would always defend not trying to change the style or personality, don’t treat them as a FA artist, just don’t do that. I think, though, if you live in Singapore and you don’t have a rich parent to go to, you still have bills to pay.” Also linking to the HP-supported street art exhibition, the panellists discussed what brands can learn from the ephemeral nature of street art. With digital’s increasing influence, the experts discussed how that was changing the way creativity was approached.
BBH’s Borgström, the increase in digital and tech into creative industries was a good thing. “We are having an amazing moment right now because there are so many tools to express ourselves right now,” he said, but added that he didn’t know where it was headed and what its impact on creativity would be. While Jaba, said the link to the physical world was still clear. “Whatever we can create now in a virtual space, we can turn into the physical - we have printers,” he added.
For Mendoza, the ‘magic’ again is in balancing these things. “A lot of people are very into digital and using it but the reality is also that print has become more and more vibrant, because you can use it as a way to differentiate yourself. What we see right now is a combination of both the digital and the physical being merged together into one experience. Even, for example, in activation, where brands create not just a very good product, an Instagram-worthy product, but it creates that medium wherein they can go back online. So they start online virtually to create the attention and awareness and then bring it back to the medium of print, on the pack or the product itself, and then bring it back to the online world. So it’s a physical merging of these things.”