Cashmere EVP Ryan Ford Shares The Secrets To Building A Cultural Lifestyle Agency
The convergence of media, marketing and technology has redefined the mechanics of building brands in the modern world.
In a digital era dominated by social media and short-form video, brands express their viewpoint through storytelling, making content the language brands use to communicate. As a result, the most impactful brands of today understand that content is more than a marketing strategy, but a tool to shape culture and build communities.
From top tech powers, to leading lifestyle brands and consumer product giants, engaging consumers begins with understanding the nuances that drive a generation. Companies that identify these shared values and interests unlock the ability to create, control and advance conversations that matter to their audience.
As the advertising industry transitions into an entertainment business and music evolves into a digital media game, the role of agencies is shifting significantly. Instead of creating a catchy tagline or clever campaign – agencies that thrive in today’s climate bridge the gap between culture and commerce.
Founded in 2003 by longtime industry executive Ted Chung and Seung Chung, Cashmere Agency has steadily grown to become a leading cultural lifestyle company, operating at the intersection of entertainment, advertising and digital media. Known for being the branding architects behind the expansive career of Grammy Award-winning rap icon Snoop Dogg, Cashmere now carries a client roster of Fortune 500 companies that includes Disney, Netflix, Adidas, GE, Cisco, and Diageo among others.
Leveraging a longstanding relationship with top athletes and entertainers across industries, the agency has also solidified itself as a sought-after influencer marketing force that activates award-winning experiential campaigns and events. Comprised of a cross-disciplinary collective of content creators, strategists, seasoned marketers and social stars — Cashmere prides itself on designing an innovative template for helping brands effectively engage multicultural millennials.
I spoke with Cashmere EVP Ryan Ford about the vision behind the agency, the changing trends shaping modern marketing, and his blueprint for building brands that effectively engage the culture.
Considering the different elements of your business, people may classify the company as a cultural marketing firm or lifestyle agency — How would you describe Cashmere Agency and the work that you do?
Ryan Ford: Cashmere is definitely a cultural agency, but not because we set out with the intention of being such. We’re a cultural agency because our work is organically rooted in culture, and we didn’t adopt the traditional model of an advertising agency when we started. Instead, we followed our instincts and did work based on what we knew would connect culturally. More so, each member of our team comes from a cultural background with a diverse perspective. For example, our Founder Ted Chung spent years in the music industry, and he has been Snoop’s manager for years. He has been the Executive Producer of every project Snoop Dogg has done, from television to film. Ted also ran DoggyStyle Records with Snoop from the beginning and has always deeply understood the connection between music, media and marketing. With Cashmere Agency, the vision has evolved into an entire team of multitalented experts who each bring a unique value to all of these different aspects of the business.
You mentioned how long Cashmere has been the branding force behind Snoop Dogg, helping to continuously elevate his brand — How has working with a cultural icon like him provided an advantage or shaped the approach to designing your business model?
Ryan Ford: You’re fortunate and blessed if you can build a name alongside a superstar like Snoop Dogg, but also be able to create a name and lane of your own at the same time. Over the last five years, we’ve really stood on our own and developed a business model that makes us not only self-sufficient but has positioned us as a full-service agency that services other brands, artists and cultural figures alike. We’re still heavily involved in everything Snoop does, but as we’ve been able to grow alongside that, we’re now able to benefit Snoop in ways that can seamlessly take his brand to the next level. I’ve been at Cashmere for 10 years now, and our steady growth has been incredible. We’ve created so many unique brand partnerships, and been able to introduce top companies to the culture in a very authentic and effective way. I think we’ve been able to master a template for how brands communicate with the culture.
Explain the thinking behind Cashmere’s business model and how it relates to your viewpoint on how the cultural landscape is changing?
Ryan Ford: What we’ve been able to do at Cashmere is take the culture that we understand within our world and connect it to a broader, traditional world. That’s the true definition of a global agency — taking the core elements of sub-cultures and translating them in a way that engages an international audience. We take the spirit and values of people who look like us, from all over the world, and create content or campaigns that reflect the real diversity that exists today. By the year 2042, the US Census Bureau says that the current minorities will undoubtedly become the majority. When you start thinking about that, you begin seeing the push and pull of these changing dynamics. For example, we see it with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump as President, and how that impacts the culture and shapes the conversations we’re having. You also see it in Hollywood, with the shift from #OscarsSoWhite to “Moonlight” winning an Oscar in one year. From there, you see an explosion of multicultural content. More so, you see an explosion of brands on a mission to tap into these cultural shifts. You have the super cool brands like Red Bull, Adidas and Nike that have always played in the culture space. Now, we’re seeing brands that don’t normally step into this cultural space doubling and tripling down on it.
Cultural capital is becoming more valuable than a dollar, which is changing the power dynamic between brands and creators — How would you describe this shift and the way it impacts how brands are built and marketed?
Ryan Ford: The reason we’re seeing this power shift between brands and creators happening now on a more progressive level is because we didn’t have a voice before. Black people have always created culture — whether we’re just looking at Rock & Roll, Disco, Reggae, Hip Hop, and so forth. While we were creating the culture, we didn’t own the channels, which means we didn’t have control. Once social media emerged, which allows us to have our own channels that we can use to talk to each other as much as we want, the rules changed. Since we’re the most active on social platforms, and we come from different cultures that are communal by nature, that translate into us having more of a voice. Today, if a brand isn’t authentic, we call them out immediately, and they quickly become a hashtag. That hashtag turns into a movement, from which we directly impact a brand’s image, credibility and bottom-line. Consequently, instead of the brand giving more content that resonates with their target audience, they are actually losing money and losing ground. When we meet with brands, we ask a simple question — Do you want to be Netflix, or do you want to be Blockbuster? They both had the same opportunity at the same time, so there’s seemingly no reason for them to be in completely opposite positions. ‘Netflix and Chill’ was just like ‘Make It a Blockbuster Night’ — they were from the same cultural lexicon. Tides change, and when they change, it’s not about who the giants let in, it’s about who is already leading the shift. These brands, studios and networks need solutions that don’t exist within the traditional way of doing business. As a result, they have to come to an agency like Cashmere.
You’ve been at Cashmere for 10 years and experience different evolutions of the company — What has been the constant philosophy or set of principles the agency operates under to remain ahead in a changing industry?
Ryan Ford: In one respect, our strength is being able to move and adapt quickly. If Instagram Stories blows up out of nowhere, and your entire model is built around Facebook, then you’re dead in the water. We see this happen in the industry all the time, especially with technology advancing things so rapidly. Our philosophy is change at the speed of light. Embrace the renaissance. Do the right thing. That’s our philosophy, but it’s not necessarily based on a proprietary method, it’s based on an understanding of culture. More so, it’s based on an understanding of our place within culture. When I started my career with the company, Cashmere was just evolving out of a street team. You have to really understand culture to have an effective street team. It’s also very hard, and it takes a lot of manpower. You can go to college and seek formal training, but real success comes down to having a cultural understanding that you can’t buy. No matter how much money you pour into something, without that understanding, you can’t be effective or generate any real cultural currency. When you look at the traditional model used in Hollywood and advertising, it was about spreading ads everywhere — pay and spray. Not only is that extremely expensive, it rarely every works like you expect. You can’t tell me that you really know how many people looked at a billboard or commercial. Yes, there are analytics and services that provide very granular data, but you never really know. With social media, you really know how many people viewed a post, shared it, and responded to it. You know how many people decided they were going to like or comment on a video. That makes social media so much more cost effective, but if not executed carefully or correctly, the ramifications can be severe for your brand.
You said that the real key to success is having an unteachable understanding of culture, yet many in the space argue it’s about technical aspects like big data and market research — What would you say are the real keys to being a leader in the industry today?
Ryan Ford: We’re not the best design agency in the world. We’re not the best influencer agency in the world. We’re not the best PR agency in the world. But, we know culture and lifestyle better than anyone, and the proof of that shows through the work that we do. With that truth as the foundation, we’ve been able to build out teams around these different verticals. We’ve built an influencer marketing team, a full strategy team, a full creative team, and an in-house PR team. We didn’t do this because 10 years ago we decided it would be best to build out these teams. We did it because we’ve always understood that things naturally grow and evolve. Based on our collective experiences, expertise and relationships — these different elements of our business naturally evolved into their own departments and we’ve built a sustainable business out of it. As culture grows and changes, your business model has to evolve as well. At the core, you must be able to adapt and embrace the renaissance. When things are changing, embrace it. Yes, brands are still saying that they need traditional methods, like bus benches and billboards, but more dollars are being poured into content creators, influencers, and experiential activations. The old methods are still effective in their own respect, but you have to be ahead of the next trend. That’s why I view Cashmere as a lifestyle agency, because a lifestyle is not solely defined by your skin color, age, or sexuality.Lifestyle is more so defined by shared interests, like saying you’re a foodie, sneakerhead and a skateboarder.
Brands are no longer the clear dictators of what’s cool or relevant to consumers — How does this change the relationship between brands and consumers?
Ryan Ford: We’ve moved away from a time where brands influence the people. Now, people are influencing people. How many Netflix shows have you checked out simply because someone told you to watch it? All that does is solidify every point of contact you had with that show, because now you start looking at the billboards differently, you want to stop and watch the commercial, and so forth. We stayed consistent and ahead of this trend, and as companies are catching on, we’re seen as an authority. We’re getting inbound calls every day about working with the biggest movies, TV shows, and brands to do what we do best. We’re in that space now, and as we’re here, our focus is on shifting the space. We live in the golden era of content. There’s more content than ever, so people need more marketing than ever.
Multicultural is a term many agencies and brands alike reference, but it is often perceived by the ad world as a black or brown segment instead of a global demographic — Explain your definition of the multicultural market and how do you avoid being boxed in as a company?
Ryan Ford: For us, as a company, multicultural means being truly multicultural. Multicultural is not merely a euphemism for black or African-American. We’re not a mixed minority as the industry can make it seem — we are the mainstream. If you look at the top 10 cities in America, they are predominantly made up of minorities and multicultural people by nature. The real world already looks like that, it’s not a reality we’re waiting to catch up to. Multicultural is the new general market, because this is America right now — The face of America is multicultural. The whole world is changing. Millennials get a lot of the credit for it, but you have to consider Gen Z and beyond. This shift has been happening consistently for years, and more aggressively over the past 5-6 years. Media, marketing and entertainment are the perfect spaces to show this multicultural reality and tell those stories. When you look at Donald Glover and Atlanta, that’s not a black show — it’s a show about real people in Atlanta and the different sides of their lives that other people can relate to it. Our stories are broad, as as people of color, our stories are the story of America.