Mixing Board Studio Session: Digital Culture Expert Greg Swan on the Future of Creativity

Mixing Board community member Greg Swan is the Head of Creative Innovation at Fallon where he builds “never been done before” programs for brands like Nike, Verizon, State Farm and The Coca-Cola Company. Just as impressively, he coined the term #snowmageddon, tweeted as the voice of Punxsutawney Phil and launched the first Snapchat from outer space.

Greg also has a weekly Substack on the latest trends, viral videos and new technologies that we should be paying attention to. Sign up for his newsletter here.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Greg and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. Greg and Sean talk about why it’s important to always be a student of culture, generational divides and why everyone should go buy an NFT.

SG: So you tweeted as Punxsutawney Phil and launched the first Snapchat from space… how does one get to a place where they can do those things?

GS: I’m constantly seeking out bigger nerds than me — I say that in a loving way — who can help hack the phone and hook it to a weather balloon so that we can do the Snapchat from outer space. I’m going to sell the idea to the client. I’m going to merchandise the results and then juice it with Mashable and social, whatever else is the thing. If your job is in modern marketing, you have to be a lifelong student of where things are today and then have a sense of where they’re going to be around the corner. We have a responsibility to then innovate and actually direct where things are headed.

Even this morning, I built a Discord server and invited a small group of friends to see if we can break it (on purpose) or use it in a new way so that I can learn things that my clients will ask me about in 6–12 months.

SG: What’s the chicken and the egg? What’s the thing that drives you? Is it the medium, the technology, the Discord server, or is what you talk about on server?

GS: I enjoy marketing and advertising, but I love culture and the study of people. In working with brands, if their objective is to gain attention and awareness engagement, you have to be a student of culture. If you use emerging media, social media and technology first, you can gain an unfair value of attention compared to if you’re just posting on Facebook and running TV commercials.

The fun part about that too, is sometimes you’re teaching the platforms how it should be used. That’s why they come to us and they say, “Hey, could you do a pilot? Could you guys think on this new feature for us?” I stole this from Nick Law, but he said that Kodak didn’t go to Martin Scorsese and tell him how to make a good film. We’ll meet with Facebook, Snap and now TikTok, and they’ll tell us how to make good content. Thank you for that information. But as a creative soul, and if our job is to do things differently than any others have, we need to know where we’re at today so we can know where to go tomorrow.

SG: When you’re looking at what’s happening online, what do you think is today’s generational divide? Where are kids using their standing as the emerging generation and how are they separating themselves from us?

GS: If you think about where the generational divide existed 20–30 years ago, you would have to go to the mall to observe youth culture. You would change the channel to MTV and you could witness a window on it, but you couldn’t participate without actively going to the mall and dressing differently and participating. Today, when a ten-year-old’s primary medium of entertainment and social output is TikTok, there’s nothing preventing a gen X-er from registering a TikTok account and creating content. We’ve quickened the pace of some of the natural trend attrition that happens when an older generation comes into a trend that you care about. And brands are clearly always at fault for coming in and have a bad reputation for ruining everything.

We used to think, Friendster came and Friendster died, and then MySpace came and everyone killed it. Then they all went to Facebook… when is Facebook going to die? The truth is, and in part, because of the pandemic, we’ve had 15 years of technology adoption in 15 months. Think about the amount of older generations who are now active social users — they are also schooled in how to use video conferencing software. For better, and for worse, they are communicating with each other, and other generations. There’s a bit of a paradox here because while that’s true, they’re not necessarily welcomed into places where the zoomers are.

We have this combination of digital tools that really elevate niche cultures. And that means there’s speed, connection, love, global communities and awareness of what’s happening in the world unlike ever before. It has shined a spotlight on humans at their best and at their absolute worst. These are technological innovations that would shock our great-great-grandparents and some of the things that they would feel trepidation for, are valid. We ignored some of those more conservative signals when it comes to what could happen in culture. But it happened. So now, what are we going to do with that? That’s what we get to step into every day.

Modern marketers should be energized by that. If everyone has access to the same digital tools and communication vehicles, there’s even more of a focus on creativity and innovation to reinvent, or to think differently to stand out. In the same way, if a television commercial cost the same for every brand and every brand could afford it, you would see a lot more innovation when it comes to film advertising.

SG: You write about trends every week in your Substack. You talk about what the “kids” are doing, what they’re not doing and its ramifications on brands. The speed of what is cool and what becomes uncool overnight — how does a brand keep up with that? Should they even try?

GS: Maybe 10 years ago there was an article in The New York Times that talked about ‘success theater’. I love that term. When you and I share content online, we’re going to be very careful of what that photo is and that there are no dirty dishes in the sink and my bed is made and all that. When Instagram came into its own, almost 10 years ago now, that became the aesthetic. The youth, it’s always the youth who set the big macro trends, we saw them really push that. Then we saw other generations adopt that. Today, there is an acceptance that that’s not real. There’s a rise of this thing called a Finsta, a fake Instagram account where you can be you, that the young people have invented. In the last couple of weeks, we’re noticing a trend where people are starting to post more raw photos in a dump of photos. That will change, week to week, that will change quickly — those surface level trends.

If you’re a brand or a marketer, your brand voice still informs who you are and how you show up. The best brands have a brand voice that is strong and differentiated. That means they’re not chasing the week to week trends. They’re being themselves, using modern tools, but they’re not pandering. Sometimes brands who are chasing the real time trend, trying to go viral every week, trying to be clever or satirical or sarcastic, that’s a hard brand voice to maintain for a decade.

No matter what generation, consumers will respond to authenticity and to being who you are. What I don’t think will change week to week, definitely not year over year, is that we want brands to stand for something. We have seen our global, national and local civic leaders let us down in the last couple of years. No matter what side of the political divide you’re on, you can tell that there are decisions and hard things not being done. So we looked to brands for that. In the same way that we look to leaders with a steady voice, we now look to brands to tell us what they stand for that we can identify with.

We tend to think a little more of liberal brands that are a little more outspoken like Patagonia or REI. But even when Walmart dropped automatic ammunition out of all their stores after nationally there wasn’t gun control legislation passed. These are massive decisions that impact all of us, that brands are standing up and doing. A lot of times it gets boiled down to pride month, and it’s really easy to change your logo to a rainbow. But if you haven’t done the work in-house from a recruiting and retention and a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, you’re going to get called out for that.

SG: Does it make it easier for brands to lead in that arena and to be more in tune with culture where it’s going, if they’re always online? Or is it actually harder because they’re seeing conflicting signals and they see the division that happens online? Are you almost better off ignoring what’s happening online versus constantly being plugged into it?

GS: Totally. When Arby’s says, “We have the meats,” they know that they are separating themselves from certain audiences. When Patagonia says, “We don’t want finance bros at Goldman Sachs wearing our vests in Wall Street,” they’re actively not equipping certain audiences to continue to buy them. If you believe that your competition today is not your category competitor, your competition is anything that takes away attention from you — you have a very active and reactionary brand ethos. And that will not be successful.

You have to look back to yourself and say, “Who are we?” That doesn’t mean you need to be civically active. You don’t have to be a social activism brand. Those are just some of the easiest examples to cite. There are grocery chains that have values based on paying livable wages. That’s fantastic. There are brands that will mail you packaging so that you can recycle the filters and things that go with them. It doesn’t have to be activism to stand for something. That makes me feel better about buying your brand versus another brand.

SG: What fissures do you see emerging between Millennials and Gen Z?

GS: I think a lot of the generational conflict that we read about in the media is a bit of horse race journalism, and a little manufactured. A lot of it is produced or consumed by Gen X who feels completely ignored yet again.

SG: I feel like you’re targeting me.

GS: We look to the translators and the translators are the cuspers. For me, that’s between Millennial and Gen X, for our 10-year-old daughters, that’s between Zoomers and Alpha, or whatever we’re going to call them. They’re able to chameleon themselves up and down and say, “This is how they think, and this is how they think. Here’s where they’re connected.” And it’s interesting for me from a recruiting perspective and when working with clients who are not cuspers, how sometimes it’s not intuitive to them to be able to shape shift a little bit.

That’s only going to increase because there is a generational turnover right now. If Facebook just turned 15, TikTok is turning three this year. These are not new and emerging platforms. But NFTs being popularized is less than a year old. The idea of teenage Bitcoin millionaires is only six months old. Twitch is now valued at an ungodly number. There are new tools and things coming that, to be honest, aren’t as intuitive to me as social platforms were. I’m having to actively work to get my head into Fortnite and the metaverse and NFTs and Discord so that I can help translate — not just the generational use, but the technology use.

One of the first text messages that a lot of Baby Boomers got was the text message from Barack Obama announcing who his vice presidential candidate was. It was widely criticized because social media and CNN breaking news beat the text message at sharing that. However, it taught Baby Boomers how to sign up for a text message when maybe they didn’t have a plan for that. Maybe they had so many a month or it cost them 25 cents a text. When we think of that technology tool as a service to get news or information from a brand or a public figure today, that’s kind of accepted. For Baby Boomers, it’s absolutely Facebook. And for gen Z, it’s absolutely TikTok.

The next move, especially with the rise of dark social media or social media that’s not public and trackable, is going to be on these private servers and these chat apps where there’s no such thing as social listening. There’s no such thing as taking a temperature check. You can’t see it. You’re going to have to be there. In the same way Coca Cola built an experience in Decentraland last week in a metaverse where people could come and participate. Yes, that’s still a little bit on the early adopter and geeky side. But the forthcoming generation, they are decentralized social natives. How fast have we gone from saying digital natives to social natives to decentralized social natives?

SG: Back in my day we just used Second Life.

GS: Building brand experiences on Second Life is not actually different than having a Discord server or building something in the metaverse. What is different, is that those test and learn pilot platforms back in the days of Second Life, really didn’t have a lot of upside. It was more about testing and learning than it was having a massive success or building anything permanent. These pilot areas are way more permanent. NFT and blockchain is forever.

SG: If you were advising people who look at culture and try to figure this out, where would you spend most of your time? If I only had so many hours in the day, and I want to spend my time investigating each one of these trends, which one is worth spending a lot of time on?

GS: NFTs were the ones that that very smart, early adopter, long-term technologists and marketers and communications people were like, “I just don’t get it.” And blockchain, as a theory, has just been really tough. We’ve known that for years, but it didn’t matter before. So my theory is, you have to get your hands dirty. It doesn’t matter what your job is. The way you can actually understand it is to get your hands dirty.

The idea of me explaining an NFT to you, is that famous quote, is like dancing about architecture. I highly recommend everyone buy an NFT. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you’re going to learn so many different combinations of how the blockchain works and how crypto works. Then you will physically own a token that you now have. Even if you don’t fully understand it, in the next 10 years, you will always own that, unless you sell it. That is key. TikTok is absolutely a place. My advice is just register an account, don’t add any friends, just surf the algorithm for 20 minutes. If at the end of 20 minutes, you haven’t forwarded a video to someone you know, I’ll be shocked. You’ve now learned how much modern algorithms work based on the signals you’re giving it, to give you value that then you share with someone else.

Those are really the big two. The other one is, with holidays coming up, depending on people’s comfort level with traveling, I love to say, grab your niece and nephew at the holidays, and ask if you can watch over their shoulder while they’re on Roblox or Fortnite, or watch a concert with them. Don’t judge them. Don’t shame them. Just genuinely ask. Watch them interact with their friends. The exponential creativity between those three things, NFTs, TikTok, and social metaverses like Fortnite and Roblox are really unearthing a brand new social behavior that we’ve never seen.

SG: There’s been influencers as long as there’s been an internet. And they existed before that. But now that we have this currency between brands and users on these different platforms. So where do you see that going? What is the ramification? What is the influencer influence?

GS: When boy bands first came on the scene, or you think about The Monkees, a manufactured band is different from a musician. In the same way an influencer is different from a “Creator”. Gen Z and young Millennials, when we say influencer, they think of that as a brand or an identity, a personality manufactured to work with advertising and reach communities. Versus a creator is in it for the art itself, it’s their job.

They usually have a creative agenda, which is different than, “Hey guys, I’m going to unbox this thing, this swag I got sent. And maybe you could win some swag if you leave a comment below.” It really changed last year when Taylor Lorenz with The New York Times wrote about it — we have a better sense, from a brand perspective, of someone who has authenticity and stands for something versus someone who will just do whatever, because it’s trendy and they need the money.

The ability to reach mid-tier influencers is impossible right now because they’re drowning in brand money. They don’t have emails listed, they don’t respond to your emails, they’re getting choosier. And good for them. The creators have always been a little hesitant to work with brands. They need to pay their bills, but they’re more interested in telling a story or trying something no one’s ever tried before. In a way that I hope all generations give them some respect in the same way we would review a musician who wants to play an instrument in a new way, or invent a new type of music, or when Taylor Swift reboots her musical career by switching genres.

What’s the future of that? If you look at the push of entertainment dollars moving to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu from the networks, you can also look at those dollars moving to the creators because they have the eyeballs. Even when we think about briefing brands, we talk about creators and influencers differently. An influencer is going to do some posts. For a creator we’re going to collaborate with them. We might even give them a creative brief, and they’re going to tell us what they want to do.

BTS is the world’s most famous current manufactured band. But they’re more aware of that than my generation was with Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. You kind of knew it was a machine, but you didn’t really understand how created it was, how manufactured it was. Lil Miquela is a manufactured digital influencer and it’s fun to watch what her creators have done. It’s not even a real person. But how is she going to pose and what products is she going to flex?

This is anecdotal, but you watch your kids, you watch your friend’s kids and you see how they behave and as they’re thinking of their first day of school outfits and how their personal wellbeing can be tied to social signals they get from other people. Knowing that we’re participants, we’re responsible for that but we also get to set the future of that. That’s something that the community that you’ve built and the people in our circles, we sometimes lose track of. We feel like we’re at the mercy of where culture is going, and we forget that we have a unique opportunity to help direct aspects of culture for the better.

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