More than a brand fling: inside the creative marriage of Gilles Peterson and WeTransfer
It’s been more than three years since DJ Gilles Peterson was named creative director of WeTransfer and, so far, the two have bucked all celebrity relationship trends by sticking together. As the brand turns 10, The Drum explores how such a partnership has reconfigured its approach to content creation.
In a decade where Will.i.am could be named Intel’s director of creative innovation and Major Lazer's Jillionaire could step up as Bacardi’s minister of rum, WeTransfer’s 2016 hire of DJ Gilles Peterson as creative director was filed by many under ‘another vacuous celebrity stunt’.
But it wasn’t. Three years later his input into the tech brand’s creative strategy has remained consistent. He’s flown around the world for WeTransfer filming and interviewing under-the-radar musicians, exploring ‘the Psychology of DJing’ in podcast form and producing an event series marking the brand’s physical foray into the LA tech scene.
Meanwhile WeTransfer continues as a supporting partner of his international radio station, Worldwide FM.
Peterson is no less than the brand’s cultural curator: a creative director without a client to placate. Instead he has a partner in Damian Bradfield, WeTransfer’s chief creative officer, who keeps him on a long leash, to say the least.
“Gilles is on the go pretty much all the time and my team is spread between LA, New York, Seattle, London and Amsterdam, so it's nearly impossible to get everyone in the same room,” says Bradfield.
“But I think if ideas are good, you can explain them really easily. And he doesn't really need a long time to sell them. Gilles writes the briefest emails you could ever imagine. There's only then [the considerations of]: ‘Can we afford to do it?’ and ‘Would it be useful?’ and ‘Would our audience appreciate it?’ And those decisions can be made pretty quickly, too."
Bradfield and Peterson never had a typical celebrity-meets-brand relationship to begin with. They met years back through a mutual friend and first chatted about collaborating over Dutch krokets in Amsterdam.
Peterson needed brand support for Worldwide FM and Bradfield needed someone to plant WeTransfer into the heart of the creative industries. And so, as the bombshell of Brexit reverberated around the hotel corridors of Cannes Lions in 2016, the two took to the stage to announce a formal partnership.
After Alicia Keys for Blackberry, Gwen Stefani for Intel, and Swizz Beatz for Reebok (and Lotus Cars, and Bacardi, and New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation), some commentators were exasperated or at least perplexed (Hypebeast said it didn’t “seem to make a lot of sense on first blush” at the time). But the majority came to appreciate the link between sharing files and sharing culture: one strategist dubbed the appointment “new world thinking”.
“Lady Gaga was creative director of Polaroid at one stage ... none of that kind of thing makes sense to me,” admits Bradfield.
He does later muster up empathy for the marketer behind those sorts of appointments, however, imagining that if a CMO’s lifespan does indeed last 18 months then "they're going to spend all their money on someone like Will.i.am to get some attention, to make some noise before you disappear".
“I think if our team disappeared, the likelihood is there wouldn't be the same reason or the same relationship between Gilles and WeTransfer, because the relationship is very human. It's not about a relationship with a brand, it's a relationship with people in a radio station or in a label and in a company. It's so fundamental, but I'm not sure that many companies get that.”
Perhaps the key to the enduring relationship is the symbiosis that still exists between the two creatives. Neither need each other per se but Peterson benefits from the relationship as much as WeTransfer does.
He gets to nerd out on subjects and projects he’s cyclically passionate about under the guise of work, conscious that the music industry – still traumatized from the death of record sales – cannot feasibly bankroll months of research, filming and editing for a subject as broad as “the art of A&R”.
As he puts it: “[WeTransfer] gives me the ideas to go a little bit deeper on subjects that I'm really interested in.”
Additionally, the DJ may have “the energy and enthusiasm for new music of a 20-year-old” (Bradfield’s words) but Peterson is, admittedly, a 55-year-old that’s spent his life plugged into decks. He’s an outsider (his words this time) to the world of tech.
“I'm very focused on what I do and that's why I think I'm good at what I do, which is basically music and connections,” he says. “But if you don't understand how technology's moving forward then you're obviously closing a lot of doors. [Bradfield’s] given me a window into this world.”
Three years in, nothing much has changed about the duo’s ways of working. Only occasionally do Peterson’s ideas get spiked and the two both have the same approach to risk taking and the place of content.
So do Bradfield’s bosses, who set him KPIs but understand the true reason behind WeTranfer’s hub of original editorial content, WePresent. It's there to slowly influence the creative industries from the inside out, to act as a veritable magazine designed for browsing and inspiration.
"It's not about money and it's not about a game plan to try to get a million new users to use the service," says Bradfield. "It's a long game where we're in the tech space and we have no physical product. We have no physical retail space.
"So our ability to be able to connect with you and build a relationship with you just through pure tech is super hard. There is no touch point. There's nothing that's tactile. But I think a lot of people come back and go, 'fucking hell, WePresent does some very good work'."
What has changed is the confidence WeTransfer now has in WePresent, Worldwide FM and every other culturally useful or entertaining thing it creates. When the company began life 10 years ago there was, according to Bradfield, no investment in the long play, no investment in simply telling stories to make customers like your brand a bit more.
He “doubled down” on the opposite approach with the help of Peterson and now WePresent is looking less like a marketing channel and more as a publisher in itself.
WeTransfer's dedicated advertising team has made a name for itself in creating engaging, sometimes beautiful ads that are distributed throughout the service; the next step is taking that quality and transferring it into branded content.
The company recently wrapped a WePresent campaign with SquareSpace, and now plans to bring in more of those deals. After all, at 3 million readers and production standards high enough to impress the likes of Chanel and Balenciaga, the brand can afford to call its content hub a monetizable publication.
With such growth on the horizon, the question is whether WeTransfer will hire another Peterson. Could a revered designer join the creative directors’ WhatsApp chat? Could a lauded director be hired to make films about film for filmmakers using the platform?
“We have talked about it,” Bradfield admits. “We've definitely talked about whether we should get more people on board in a similar sort of position.
“But .... it's quite unique to find somebody that doesn't have an agenda, that isn't trying to milk a brand for everything he's got. It's hard to find people that are generally motivated by the opportunity – how big our reach is and what it can do for them and their audience.
“Quite honestly, there are not many people like that out there.”