First it was Def Jam, and then it was Phat Farm. Now, Russell Simmons is launching his latest venture in the advertising world.
Mr. Simmons, who founded the pioneering hip-hop label Def Jam records and clothing label Phat Farm, among other things, has launched Narrative, a digital marketing, entertainment and technology company, with longtime business partner Tricia Clarke-Stone.
But both Ms. Clarke-Stone and Mr. Simmons are quick to avoid labeling their venture as an agency. "We want to make sure agencies don't view us as a competitor," said Ms. Clarke-Stone. "We're not trying to be agency of record for different brands and clients. We believe we have a level of expertise that's really rooted in creating immersive brand experiences across platforms."
"We work for agencies, we're not an agency," said Mr. Simmons. "We're a digital solutions [company]. We think our future is working for agencies, not working around them." Narrative is launching with about 9 employees, and by end of year Mr. Simmons and Ms. Clarke-Stone expect to have close to 20, mostly based in New York, with some key people in Los Angeles.
Narrative touts itself as a company that provides marketing solutions for publishers, agencies and brands. Its purpose is to create digital campaigns that are rooted in social media, branded entertainment and celebrity-driven content, using techniques such as crowd-sourcing, gamification and rewards. Campaigns are distributed through pop-culture, entertainment, music and lifestyle websites, bolstered by behavioral-data analytics and a custom ad-serving platform, among other technologies.
"We're creating unique experiences that we're producing, and then we have the technology to be able to scale it across platforms and then deliver really highly robust analytics," said Ms. Clarke-Stone. Narrative's founding clients are Sprint's Boost Mobile and GlobalGrind.com, Mr. Simmons' pop-culture, lifestyle and entertainment website he founded in 2008, of which the marketing, sales and business development have been overseen by Ms. Clarke-Stone. GlobalGrind.com is currently handling a campaign for Boost Mobile that features hip-hop artist Meek Mill, and is an example of the type of campaigns that Narrative will handle.
Under Ms. Clarke-Stone's leadership, GlobalGrind.com created campaigns for Universal Pictures, Toyota, Pantene, Boost Mobile, Pepsi and Tide. With Narrative, campaigns will run on sites and platforms outside of GlobalGrind.com, though they will likely run on there as well. Narrative's campaigns will likely also include content on ADD, an acronym for All Def Digital, a YouTube channel Mr. Simmons will be launching later this spring.
Narrative will focus on the so-called new American mainstream, because in Mr. Simmons' view, American pop culture has changed to the point where urban culture is the mainstream, and urban is not just about African-American culture anymore. "It's urban because it's integrated... I've been integrating since the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. ... I don't want it to be limited to 10% of the population, because nothing I ever did was, and I think our solutions will come across as that."
Of course, Mr. Simmons isn't the first hip-hop mogul to invest in an ad firm. Jay-Z is well known for his involvement in Translation, an agency that started out as a multicultural shop and has since morphed into a general market ad agency, working with Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's and State Farm, among others.
Though others like Jay-Z have blazed the trail before him, Mr. Simmons is getting into the ad world because he sees "a great hole in the market" and he's often drawn to the things that no one else is doing. As an entrepreneur, "I like to find new experiences." He said that he invested in Narrative because "these creative campaigns are fun to participate in," adding that Ms. Clarke-Stone "understands clients so well and ... gives a business plan where the potential is so obvious. It fills a hole."
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