“I was a kid who grew up writing code and then sort of fell into the record business.”
It was “the roaring 90’s,” the heyday of the music industry, and James Andrews was an executive at Columbia Records, working with little-name artists like Destiny’s Child, Nas, and Lauryn Hill. With a deep understanding of grassroots marketing, he learned how to make people famous the old fashioned way, before discovering “this thing called the Internet.”
In 1998, James jumped head-first into the world of Web 1.0, launching a publication, selling it to a dot com, and then building a media company from the ground up. After the company burned through its $40 million, he turned to agency life. “At the time,” James remembers, “no one knew what to do with a guy who had entertainment and startup experience. So I ended up working in advertising because I thought it was the best place to gain credibility.”
Throughout his career, James has lived at the crossroads of marketing, tech, and culture. Earlier this year, that unconventional path brought him to a casual meeting with his friend Troy Carter, the founder and CEO of Atom Factory. Over breakfast in Beverly Hills, Troy told James about his joint venture with Havas Group—and asked him if he’d like to run it.
That venture? The SMASHD Group, a brand innovation consultancy that comprises an editorial platform (Smashd.com), a startup accelerator (Smashd Labs), and a growth consultancy (Smashd Brand Innovations). Below, James tell us how his team of “Green Berets” are helping brands future-proof their businesses. We also talk about the new breed of celebrity, where VR is headed, and the best places to launch a startup today.
JA: Well, first of all, I’m thrilled and humbled to be a part of it because it’s really the full-circle of everything I’ve done in my career. Right now, I feel like I’m working partly for a venture firm, partly for an advertising agency, and partly for the new record business, thanks to Troy Carter’s day job at Spotify as global head of creator services. We’re really in the center of what I think is the new version of content, entertainment, and culture all coming together.
SMASHD is a premium consulting practice. We help brands future-proof their business through our unique understanding of culture and our access to innovation. Our goal is to help brands unlock value and open up new markets. It’s all about helping clients build against trends in culture.
The Mag: Why is it important for brands to stay on top of cultural trends?
JA: The rate of change in how people are getting information, making purchase decisions, and making something trendy is now so fast. And the decisions are happening on platforms that marketers don’t necessarily live in every day.
So in order to survive, brands have to actually live in the culture. They have to hang out with consumers. And they have to be current with how people are talking to each other. Today’s language is fast, social, and dynamic. It allows for mistakes.
Is it better that you’re using Facebook Live and it feels like you were really there, or is it better to get five cameras, do something pretty, and edit it? By then, your story has been told 50 times. I’m not saying there’s not a place for commercials. But there’s a potential conversation—and a potential relationship—happening every second. Are you waiting to make something pretty, or are you creating something that’s low tech and high value?
The Mag: What does a typical day look like for you?
JA: I’m often mentoring the startups in our portfolio. That means I have a sense of where investments are being made, what’s happening in different verticals, and new technologies. My last meeting, for instance, was with a friend of mine who runs this company that’s killing it in Musical.ly right now. We sat down and plotted the business behind owning influencers there and what’s unique about the platform.
We can often be found hacking together on an idea. Maybe we spend four weeks with Nike, and because the next World Cup is in a certain part of the world, we help them figure out how to best impact that community. So, essentially, much of my job is spent thinking about the things we’ve been doing in the early stage startup space and then bringing that to our clients.
The Mag: How do you go about scouting trends?
JA: My professional pursuits have been about spending time in places to find out what makes things tick. I’m the guy who goes to Tel Aviv to find out why startup culture did so well there. And this kind of cultural anthropologist approach is imbedded in the types of folks we’re bringing onto the team at SMASHD. We know the streets, whether it’s in Atlanta or Dubai. We know who to call because our network is filled with the individuals that make things happen. It’s just like breaking a hip-hop record. When you make someone famous, you start from the ground up.
I also think I have an unfair advantage being the father of a fourteen-year-old. I know way more about things than I should. I feel like I’m the baddest marketer in the game.
The Mag: What will be the hottest job in the next few years?
JA: A real-time, data-driven storyteller. The ability to shoot, edit, push out content, and manage communities at the same time. As VR becomes more prominent, sound and architectural assets will be important, too. Pixar is actually snapping up folks from architecture schools.
The Mag: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
JA: It’s critical to have digital and cultural wanderlust. And to always be curious. Throughout my career, curiosity has really helped both myself and my clients unlock new value.
The Mag: How can businesses best foster that sense of curiosity among their employees?
JA: You have to build it in. It’s start from the top. All of the great clients I’ve worked with have instituted playtime. And playtime could be working with an agency that takes them into the future and shows them a new thing. But it’s also about hands-on practice. All of my most successful clients have committed to utilizing innovative platforms and tools themselves.
The Mag: Entrepreneurship and innovation used to be locked into certain cities such as San Francisco and New York. Is it safe to say that it’s spread far beyond these locations, and if so, where?
JA: I’m obsessed with Atlanta first and foremost. I think it’s incredible and has everything you need. If you’re a startup right now, it would be silly not to move to Atlanta. Then there’s Nashville, where healthcare is driving the market. It also has a really well supported state ecosystem for entrepreneurs. Other emerging cities that I think will do well are Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Chattanooga—a lot of people don’t realize that Chattanooga actually has one of the fastest WiFis in the country. Globally, I love Tel Aviv, which has incredible culture and is ripe for innovation. I’m excited about Kenya. I also love the South American spirit behind innovation, so Chile and Brazil are interesting to me. And then, of course, there’s China.
The Mag: What key things should businesses look for when establishing partnerships?
JA: First, it’s critical that you can genuinely articulate the shared value. Then you have to actually deliver it—and go beyond it.
Next, you have to think about the people who are involved in the day-to-day. Are they honoring the value proposition? Are they constantly looking at the future and pushing for the opportunity?
And finally, have fun. My best client relationships have been when we’ve gotten to know each other as people and really enjoyed working together. There’s a lot of fun in being innovative.
The Mag: What does the future of celebrity endorsements look like?
JA: It’s at a critical point. It’s definitely gone through an exhaustion period. We’re heading toward celebrity driven products that are honestly built by the fans. We’re going to see more things like The Honest Company. We’re going to see more celebrity-centered products as consumers push for more authenticity. After decades of corny associations, there’s a desire for realness.
And then there’s the question of: What is a celebrity? There’s definitely a “new famous” happening. Sometimes when I walk through Los Angeles, I don’t know anyone, but my daughter recognizes 20 people from YouTube or Instagram.
The Mag: What entertainers speak to you the loudest right now?
JA: Oh, that’s tough. Probably Kendrick Lamar. I think he’s a voice for a generation. There’s a kid name Raury. He’s a friend of ours at The SMASHD Group, and he’s really true to millennials. And then Sophia Bush. She’s more than an actress; she has her finger on the pulse of causes.
The Mag: What cultural trends on the horizon are you particularly excited about? And what bets should brands be making right now?
JA: The future of VR is promising. It’s not necessarily a trend yet. A “Raury” has yet to touch it. The creators have yet to play with it and create a new medium out of it. So I hesitate to say that it’s here, but as soon as there are some interesting collaborations, it will be. We’re definitely watching it and playing in the space. A lot of it is happening here in Los Angeles, which is cool to see.
I’m also really interested in the concept of “Third Culture Kids,” in which you’re assimilated into the local culture while also holding onto your native culture, becoming a sort of new hybrid. It’s an updated way to talk about ethnicity and race that’s really starting to pick up steam. It will be exciting to see how that plays out globally.