How did you get started in advertising?
Will: Music happened to me first. I studied electric bass through high school and college and then played professionally for another decade in Boston. I learned so much about the idea of Expression and not enough about the idea of Audience. Everything was “practice, practice, practice”. This was essential to the craft, but I saw a gap between what the supposed “best” artists create and what most people actually care about. Why do more people listen to Flea than do Jaco Pastorius?
Trying to answer that question led me to L.A. to work at a legacy music magazine going digital. Who better to understand what most people actually care about? Their whole value proposition is that they know what’s cool and more people -- or supposedly “bette”’ people -- trust their take than do the other magazines. That was the hustle, at least.
Through that experience, I found that my inner scales were tipping the other way. I was focusing too much on Audience and not enough on actual Expression. It left me asking, “How do you build an audience of people who are actually paying attention?”
Honestly, trying to answer that question created more frustration in me than it did inspiration. So I quit. I hit a big reset button and made time for myself to “figure it out”. That’s when I got the call from Reddit, which is funny because in a lot of ways Reddit was going through the same internal reckoning at that time. I suspect that’s how resonance operates.
A couple of years into Reddit, I’m feeling a harmony and things seem to just work. Reddit has been a place where I’ve found a balance between Expression and Audience, because it is a platform of communities built on the experience of shared expression. So now, I’m gathering the answers to hopefully someday share with others who may find themselves asking the same questions I did.
Matt: In 2010, I was focused on helping long-tail businesses (i.e., “mom and pop shops”) market directly to their customers via mobile phones. While at Cal Poly SLO, myself and five friends built a loyalty platform called Punchd, essentially digitizing buy-x-get-y-free physical punch cards. Groupon had come onto the scene a few years prior and demonstrated the potential of grassroots digital campaigns to drive foot traffic. The challenge was how a business could retain their new customers after a discount-driven surge in foot traffic.
The industry soon saw that daily deals were only a small piece of the online-to-offline commerce puzzle. Punchd served as a natural evolution and offered small business owners a simple tool to engage with their customers regularly. After moving up to the Bay and going through the first batch of an incubator called 500 Startups, we were acquired by Google. As a team, we continued to tackle similar challenges with an internal group called the Mobile Apps Lab.
After several years of working on Loyalty efforts and in-turn Google Wallet and Offers, I was encouraged by my mentors to make the jump to the Ads side of Google. Ads is the engine of Google, and the next two years served as my introduction to digital advertising. The work was split between partnering with brands and agencies across Google’s offerings: Search, Display, YouTube, and Mobile. Understanding multiple layers of the digital funnel, especially brand versus performance, taught me to always consider the big picture and how marketing fits into a larger strategy.
In 2015, a couple of my former colleagues from Google had joined Reddit to help rebuild the company (Reddit had been owned by Condé Nast for the nearly eight years prior). It was the sleeping giant of the internet, with nearly 300 million users and under 100 employees. I joined the team the following year to help launch our L.A. presence with Will, Ben (Miller), and Dante (Orpilla). The biggest questions we needed to answer at the time were, “What does L.A. mean to Reddit? And what does Reddit mean to L.A.?”( See below for their thoughts two years down the road.)
Why Reddit? Why L.A.?
Will: Reddit and Los Angeles are both grids with massive pockets of culture that often manage to shift culture entirely. The difference is, Reddit is where passions are shared and Los Angeles is where passions are made.
Now that we have this IRL presence in LA, we have opened up the connection between industry and the masses in a very exciting way. We’re making it happen through our partnerships with showrunners, tech companies, and advertisers alike.
This past month, Reddit’s Chief Technology Officer Chris Slowe moderated a conversation with Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the internet at the Google L.A. office. Chris sourced his questions directly from the r/LosAngeles subreddit community and the r/Technology community. These Angelenos and tech fans had their voices heard.
As more partners come to us, we’d like to explore how we can dip further into giving that megaphone to the staggeringly wide spread of communities hosting passionate conversation every day on Reddit. Redditors are not just techies; we’re also baseball fans, and makeup artists, and hypebeasts, and auto mechanics. Anything you love, we have a community for it. There’s even an r/Advertising.
What keeps you motivated? Do you have a personal motto?
Matt: Drive to do good work and make an impact. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of companies whose missions I truly believe in, that what we’re doing is worthwhile. It makes all the difference. The work will not always be inspiring, but the end goal still can be. With individual projects or campaigns, I gravitate towards those that I can be proud of once finished. Ultimately, I want to be able to sign my name on quality.
Will: What keeps me motivated is motivation itself. Giving a damn. It’s the one thing us humans can do that the robots can never take from us.
Robert M. Pirsig died one year ago this month. He wrote a book called Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance and in it he describes an idea of quality that’s as refreshingly practical as it is abstract. The idea is that only as much quality can be extracted from a creation as was put in it. So a motorcycle will only have has many miles in it as the manufacturer cares about the thing when they make it; and beyond that how much its owner cares to fix it.
You’ve got to give a damn if you want the things in your life to be good.
Looking at advertising specifically, I’ve found this to be the most useful standard to hold for my own process of developing creative content and campaigns for partners. If it’s engagement we’re looking for from people, then we need to be engaged ourselves when making whatever we’re putting in front of them.
Funny enough, giving a damn is also about 70% of the formula for getting to the front page on Reddit. That’s why it’s always good.
What excites you most about this industry?
Matt: We are living through a unique time of information availability and proliferation. There is societal awareness of the power of influence and attention like we’ve never seen. The next generation was born into this connectedness and has just started to realize its power. The March for Science rewrote the rulebook on advocacy and demonstrating what true digital influence looks like. Their movement has a cause and ethos behind it that resonates on its own. At the same time, brands are being asked to take a stance in how, where, and what they stand for. While it’s a precarious place to play from, it’s also a huge opportunity and will define the successful brands of tomorrow.
Will: The evolution of Creative’s role in advertising over just these past few years has been exciting for me. Now that we effectively have the ability to reach anyone, anywhere, anytime, the question we’re left with is, “What do we say?”
That shift has moved creative from a supporting role in advertising into a driving one. At its highest expression, you see brands functioning as patrons of the arts in a manner that used to be reserved only for royalty and the church.
Most encouraging of all, is that in order for this approach to work at all, these brands have to actually add value and move a creative field forward – and when they do, it absolutely soars. Look at Apple’s “Shot on an iPhone” campaign. Look at Vans’ Warped Tour.
Photos: Don Lupo
What advice do you have for those just starting in advertising?
Listen to what everyone is saying and figure out how to say it better. The best ideas are self-apparent, so learn how to express them in a way that moves conversation forward faster and further, whatever the medium.
I find words to be especially important. It’s vital to not only recognize which words have become empty language, but to also make an effort to replace those words with richer language. That’s how we evolve. I’ve learned this from watching how Reddit fosters healthy conversation. Our users refuse to let language, whether it’s words or memes, go stale.
Applying that to advertising right now, I’d say we should talk less about being “authentic” and talk more about being “human”. “Authentic” is a great example of a term I habitually say and hear in discussions quite a bit, oftentimes with a wince or a caveat. So let’s ditch it! I’ve started to replace it with “human”; to me, that’s a more precise, rich term for the same root idea while being a supposedly less sophisticated piece of vocabulary. That’s the good stuff.
Also, read Marshall McLuhan.
What’s next for Reddit?
Will: Reddit is waking up and finding that it is strong. The platform is modernized at long last and now the rest of the world can access the big secret. Our job (on my team anyway) is now to communicate that we’re open for business - and that our business is to drive Reddit’s larger mission to bring community and belonging to everyone.
We’ve gained a clearer vision on what makes this Reddit thing such a unique beast and now we know how to run with it. For instance, I’ve learned that unlike other social media platforms, Reddit is defined more by the spaces our users occupy than by the users’ identities themselves. How cool!
Where we are defines who we are. Whether it’s the place we call home, the event we bought tickets for, or the bar we’re dancing in. The spaces we inhabit affect our identity deeper than we may have yet considered. That’s not only a useful insight for Reddit, but it’s also a meaningful, refreshing way to look at the world. Reddit is a treasure trove of truth like that. Ultimately, that’s what we’ll be building our business on.
Matt: I’m focused on building out Reddit’s global agency practice. Reddit’s brand partnerships team has already done a lot of quality work with agencies over the past two years. And we’ve done a really good job of showing what’s possible with some of the biggest brands in the world: Coca-Cola, Toyota, McDonald’s, Amazon, etc. Now we’re at a point where we can be more intentional with our agency relationships and start forming longer-term partnerships. That means bringing additional resources to the table and exploring ways that agencies can leverage our data/insights, creative teams, trainings, etc. We are ultimately in the business of connecting brands with our communities in a meaningful and healthy manner. Agencies will often be the vehicle to drive those engagements.
Any closing thoughts?
Matt: As the industry continues to evolve, we will need more folks willing and able to grasp concepts from different angles, levels, and perspectives. I believe that the industry will increasingly seek out people from a wide variety of backgrounds. As the delivery and creative executions become more democratized, it boils value down to its simplest form: storytelling. More than ever, advertising will need diverse experiences, contextual awareness, value establishment, and a deep understanding of human nature. For me, that’s an exciting future.
Will: It’s vital for us to remember to focus on the end, not the means. Advertising is the means through which we send our messages. What is your message?
My message at Reddit is clear to me. It’s one of the company’s core values: “Remember The Human”.