Imagine you’re hired as the chief creative officer of an organization with an unmistakable brand voice in an industry you haven’t worked in. Your remit is change; to shake things up.
That’s the challenge that Landis Smithers faced when he joined Standard International, parent company of The Standard and Bunkhouse hotels, at the beginning of this year. Not having a background in hospitality may have seemed like an obstacle, but it wasn’t an issue at all. In fact, the company’s goal was for Landis to bring the moxie – and success – he had previously brought to Grindr, Pepsi, and Playboy Enterprises.
In a conversation with The Drum, Smithers talks about how sometimes a less-obvious choice of creative can be the best decision.
You’re boldly known to say that you’re typically not the obvious choice, but have been “the best decision.” Why is that?
The offer from The Standard had come in very quickly, and it wasn’t something I had been looking for or anticipating.
I said to my husband: "I'm so excited. This is an amazing opportunity. And I’m a little nervous because I've never worked in hospitality and it is a beast of a field that touches everything that I've done in the past, but in a much more concrete way."
He laughed and said to me: "Just take the names out of the mix. You started your career in advertising, and then moved to a retail giant, and then worked in film, and then at a publishing icon, and then to a giant packaged goods company, and then into tech, and now you're going into hospitality. The only thing consistent thing about your career is that you've never worked in the fields that you've moved into."
I thought that was funny because I've never looked at the industry before; I looked at the brand. I've always thought of myself as someone who moved to especially creative or iconic brands, or ones that had histories of cultural disruption. What I love is taking their DNA and doing new things with it; tipping over people's expectations.
So, how I position myself is, basically, I'm good at looking at how a brand has related to culture and how it's currently standing in culture. I use the Working Girl analogy. It's Melanie Griffith on the elevator, making the connection between Trask Industries and something she saw in a gossip column, and coming up with the idea that saves the day.
That's where I think any great creative does the heavy lifting – when they're able to take that stuff on paper and make it feel like it's coming to life. So, when it comes to career choices, it's always been thrilling to move this aggressively between mediums while still doing what I think I do well.
How do you help make brand stories come to life?
It's a combination of doing your homework and balancing it out with your gut. Every brand that I've come into, I've done a fairly heavy amount of what we call grandmother research, where you talk to people in the company and to your friends.
You can quickly get a high-level read on a brand's real DNA by speaking to consumers and to people who are running the brand, because there's generally a decent overlap [of opinions]. Those pulse points, those things that everyone brings up, are what have the longevity and matter.
The second step is to create, in living document form, a brand guide – [one that says] "This is what we stand for. This is our ethos. This is what we believe in." Often, that is the most important tool as you're embarking on any form of change.
For us, when you're going from five properties, all of which have individual personalities, up to 20 properties in the course of five years, you have to start looking at things that are consistent versus things that are different to keep that connection steady.
Next is to determine how you’re going to operate across three things — content, product, and experiences — to get people to feel like you're relevant.
Those three things shouldn't be your core business; they should align with but are unexpected to your brand. And then you can provide experiences in the real world, in real life, that make your brand more engaging and more persistent in people's consciousness.
Sounds like risk taking is a must.
Look at most brands out there today. Everyone struggles with the same problems. Unless you can look at those problems as actually something exciting, you're never going to solve them.
I love the fact that The Standard has been one of the first brands to do content in the hospitality industry. Now everybody does it, and our challenge is, how are we going do that in a 2.0 way? Having that challenge is fine. That's what makes creative life interesting.
What have you launched at The Standard recently that you're most excited about?
We've actually had a really big month this past month.
We launched a new app at the High Line Hotel called The Lobby, which is a chat app for just the hotel and is completely anonymous. It's meant to get people to connect in the real world by offering them chat rooms and the ability to regain some of those old-style passing glances in the lobby and conversations in the elevator that we all miss these days when we're on Instagram.
It's already been incredibly amusing and successful because it’s fun, so people are on it and talking to each other. They're meeting up at the bar or they're finding out about something going on over at The Standard. It's not surprising to me that people are adopting it, but in this industry, it's a new way of looking at connections.
We also launched a collaboration with Lord Jones, a high-end CBD company, to create a CBD gumdrop. It’s at the very edge of the changes going on around weed and acceptance and legalization, and it's offered in the minibars. We sold them online at the launch briefly, too, and it was wildly successfully.
We also had a huge Get Out the Vote campaign that included a collaborated with the ACLU. We actually had phone banks on property and made more than 23,000 calls – and of the six issues that the ACLU was most focused on, five of them passed, which was really a great feeling.
It's nice to be a brand where there's very little fear around being at the forefront of culture.
What does it take to embrace, and not fear, being a brand at the forefront of culture?
It's a combination of things. It's that blend of having a leadership team aligned in their point of view and how you're going act around certain things, a brand that has a footprint in the history of culture, and some comfort level for it.
We're very clear about the fact that we actually don't want to dictate anyone's views. We just want people to be active. For example, we did Ring Your Rep all year, where you can go to one of the phone booths we've installed on property and it connects you directly to Congress.
We encourage people to use it not to change their views, but to make their views heard to their congressmen.
Our CEO put it this way (and I love this): "We are a hospitality brand. That means we invite everyone in. We may not be for everyone, but we do invite everyone in." That's a good feeling, because it allows you to have a point of view and a perspective. We have Dreamers on our staff, we have trans people on the staff, we have single mothers on the staff. It's a no-brainer to support their rights and their safety, as well as those of our guests. It is part of what we do every day.
How do you, personally, act as a change agent at work?
As in any career, once you find your sweet spot, look back and figure out how you got there. I took the first leap in this direction when I moved from traditional advertising to Old Navy.
I was thrown into the deep end of a $6bn retailer that had a certain way of doing everything. I was given carte blanche to do whatever was needed to change that. It was a great education and started my hunger for both the speed at which you can effect change, and the impact you can have not just on the brand, but also on people’s lives.
It's an unusual role to have, and it's a wonderful one if you take advantage of it. At Playboy, for instance, I called people I've admired in different fields and offered them opportunities to do things that they probably would never have thought of. When I was at Grindr, I got JW Anderson's livestream show on the app. It was thrill to be able to expose a talent I love to a much broader audience. That's a rush you don't ever really get used to it. You always seek it, and then you want more of it.
At this point in my career, I've been looking at how to share knowledge and help the next generation of creatives navigate and know that you can have a career in creative. When I grew up, there were MBAs for business and there were clear career paths when you wanted to be an account manager or someone in media – you knew the steps. But as a creative, you pretty much had to make it up.
The path for a creative career isn't necessarily codified yet, and I think that may be the next challenge that I look toward: How do we help people stay in the industry and keep bringing their ideas to the table?