In what appears to be an industry first, earlier this month Taco Bell announced it was bringing on a culture agency of record, Los Angeles-based Cashmere, to work alongside the Yum Brands chain’s creative agency Deutsch LA and PR shop Edelman. Given the newness of the relationship, the scope of Cashmere’s duties and whether it will impact work done by the other agencies at this point is unclear. But it does beg the question: What is a culture agency, anyway?
Just as a changing media landscape gave rise to digital shops more than two decades ago, culture agencies are a response to an agency ecosystem that too often finds itself behind the times, whether that’s a new social media craze or consumer demands that their favorite companies take a stand on racial justice issues.
“Culture is knowing what is going to trend before it trends and is the undercurrent that moves people and society forward,” says Taco Bell CEO Mark King. “It’s what sets the standard, and it’s run by the new general market.” King is already using lingo coined by his new agency: "Multicultural is the new general market."
"You have to find out what's important to your audience. It could be Black Lives Matter. In fact, it probably is, if they’re younger. It could be Stop Asian Hate. It could be how Black creatives are getting treated on an TikTok,” says Ryan Ford, president and chief creative officer at Cashmere. “And it's not just important to Black people. Those things are important to culture. Rewind to last summer, we saw those protests in the streets. That wasn’t just a bunch of Black people out there. That was everybody, young people especially.”
Currently, there are only a handful of self-described “culture agencies” (like most industry appellations, it’s voluntary), but more and more shops are building out internal divisions for cultural insights or include “culture-forward” offerings in their pitches to clients. Definitions of what that means, of course, vary widely.
“Our job as a culturally-focused agency is to connect the dots that move too fast for others to connect,” says Evan Horowitz, CEO of Movers+Shakers, a New York-based shop with a dedicated “Culture Squad” that looks for timely ways to insert clients into cultural conversations. It specializes in TikTok campaigns for brands including Amazon, e.l.f. Cosmetics and Unilever.
“Cultural trends move at different speeds. All agencies see the long-term trends, for example, the different behaviors of Gen Z vs. millennials. Only a few agencies see the hyper-short trends, for example, what Gen Z fitness enthusiasts are talking about today vs. yesterday,” Horowitz adds.
Operating at speed is of particular importance to culture agencies, because of how quickly conversations shift. Ryan Reynolds’ agency Maximum Effort bases its campaigns almost entirely on pop-culture insights, and on a recent podcast with Majority founder Omid Farhang, he attributed its success to quick turnaround on ideas.