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Deconstructing Boundaries

Hip-Hop Media Co. Goes Old School With New Creative Agency

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88-Keys
Photo: Bryan Bedder
88-Keys at Decon's creative agency launch party.
"Synergy" is one of those words that's been chewed on and discarded so frequently that we only pay attention when we find it stuck to our loafers. So you won't hear Peter Bittenbender, president and co-founder of Decon Records, use that word to describe his new creative agency, which promises to wrap together a footing in multimedia production, hip-hop record label expertise and new-media design. With a staff of 15 full-timers -- and a cadre of "permalancers" -- his nimble operation doesn't have time for that kind of baggage.

Mr. Bittenbender prefers words like "fresh" to describe the output of his company, which he co-founded with Executive Creative Director Jason Goldwatch in 2000. At a CMJ-sponsored party Tuesday night themed "Never Not Fresh," featuring Decon Records artists such as Evidence and Aceylone and a smattering of the company's video pieces, the skills harnessed in a single Soho loft were as good a pitch as any for the soft-launch of the new creative agency.

"Our whole model now is to figure out how to incorporate what we've developed with our music and entertainment relationships and apply it to branded content to connect with the youth market," Mr. Bittenbender says. "We want to use brands as a launching pad for our talent and vice versa."

In the past year, agencies and record labels have gotten cozier; in April, lifestyle marketing firm Cornerstone partnered with ad-supported digital label RCRD LBL, and in July Euro RSCG Worldwide grabbed a majority stake in The:Hours. In April, Sony BMG (soon to be Sony Music Entertainment) performed a move similar to Decon's (but on a much larger scale) when it formed an in-house agency, Arcade Creative Group, which has since landed general-market campaigns and utilized its parent company's music catalog in creative executions.

Decon has been involved in commercial production for years; it's most recent projects include a full-length film feature for Netflix, video production for Sony Ericsson's fall TV campaign and soundtracks for Take Two's 2K Sports video-game franchise.

Most of Decon's projects, explains Mr. Goldwatch -- who admits he shuddered when the company introduced the word "brand" into its vocabulary -- tend to begin as creative endeavors, not ad campaigns. "We want to do the projects we think would be great and try to attract a brand to them," he says. "I want to make new media weird alchemist shit, and whatever brand is savvy enough to be like 'That's killer,' we'll work with them."

Mr. Bittenbender says Decon's track record as a hip-hop label makes the shop more authentic than other agencies or labels when it comes to engaging younger audiences. "Myself and others in the company are in the age demo to know what's happening," he says. "Were not 50-year-old guys trying to telling how to market to 25-year-old guys. The record label side gives us insight and credibility into what's happening. If you can sell records, you can touch an audience, and that's pretty important."

From the start, Decon has been committed to a multimedia experience of hip-hop. Its first project was a music tour documentary, "One Big Trip," and two years later, they began an indie record label that now includes rappers such as Dilated Peoples and Aceyalone. At the moment, the artist driving the most buzz is 88-Keys, an influential producer who's taking his first MC turn on his debut solo album dropping later this month, "The Death of Adam," which is executive-produced by Kanye West.

At the same time, Mr. Bittenbender says, having working relationships with marketers makes his label more attractive to extraordinary musical talent. He wouldn't name names, but he says that artists on his roster picked Decon over major labels with bigger pockets because of the insight and diverse creative talent he can offer. These resources allow Decon to offer what it calls "DCN360," an approach that provides support for a musician in almost every stage of his or her career.

"DCN360 is something we can do that's absolutely a dug-in, hands-on approach," says Mr. Goldwatch. "Sign to our label, we do all your videos and design work, we take out ads, put together your tour, and then put you in the middle."

And, although they'd like to remain small, Decon has expanded its staff in order to fulfill its new role as a full-service creative shop. It's brought in VP-Strategy Sebastian Eldridge, who hails from traditional agencies such as Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners and Translation, in order to complete a full-service slate with strategy and account services.

"We blew down some walls a couple years ago in a mild prep for this thing," says Mr. Goldwatch, who explained that he'd rather be choosy than enormous. "It's gonna be more of a question of what work we want to take and who we want to play with. I can think of five to 10 occurrences where we've been working in the offices where it's like, 'Dude, I can't go any harder.'"

"We have huge clients already," says Mr. Bittenbender. "It's just a matter of hiring more salespeople."

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