“This is a summit about the future,” Background co-founder Margaret Zhang stated in her welcome address. “We believe you all play a role in moving the needle, and we want to generate a conversation that will continue to lead change in diversity, technology, art, science, corporate governance and branding.” The list of Forefront speakers was as diverse as Zhang promised, including YouTube global head of artist marketing Jake O’Leary, Adidas brand consultant and founder of Adidas Spezial Gary Aspden, ASX board director Marina Go and jet propulsion engineer for NASA, Elizabeth Jens.
Together they broached topics from sustainability, how to build communities online and offline, to fostering gender equality in the workplace and challenging the corporate machine. Zhang, a New York-based stylist, photographer, consultant and influencer, kicked things off by challenging the audience to take the long view regarding branding and culture and to develop original ideas and content rather than pandering to likes and clicks. “How do you find that narrative that people want to buy into and how do you build that community over the longer term? It’s all about storytelling.”
Just what that storytelling constituted, and what platforms were best to expound it depended on who was speaking, so for Gary Aspden, who arguably invented entertainment marketing and reinvigorated Adidas in the 90s by connecting the footwear brand with Britpop musicians and the club scene, it began internally within the company itself.
“The battle with big companies, a lot of the time, is not just the external battle, it’s the internal battle, and so a lot of what I did was about educating people internally, educating people who come from a very different set of reference points than I came from personally,” he said. He added that mass-production and mass-marketing had changed the landscape radically since Oasis and the Spice Girls first donned Adidas, meaning the future for true brand connections lay in tapping into micro cultures and tribes. To this end, Aspden launched the (highly successful) line Spezial in 2013 based on the Adidas archives and tuned specifically to the revival of the UK’s “casual” culture of the late 70s and early 80s. “Adidas was trying to sell some of their globally successful third party collaborations in the UK and they weren’t working,” said Aspden. “I said ‘look there’s a culture that’s very localised that we should try and tap into instead.’”
That idea of focusing on one thing, rather than trying to be everything to everyone, is employed by Sydney fashion house Song for the Mute, which has presented collections in Paris since 2010 and has over 50 stockists worldwide. “Every season we create our own fabrics and we create stories around these fabrics,” says Song for the Mute co-founder Melvin Tanaya. He shared the way his brand used communication platform WeChat to amplify those stories on the Chinese social media behemoth, discussing all manner of topics from food to music to foster connections with customers. “It has evolved to storytelling and community-building,” says Tanaya. “It deepens the value of the garments that they [customers] eventually will be investing in.”
The topic of online versus offline communities was much debated. The musical artist Acyde sharing his experience of co-creating the roving collective No Vacancy Inn, which blends both realms and has collaborated with the likes of Off-White founder and artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear Virgil Abloh and artists Kanye West and A$AP Rocky. Just as record shops and clubs were hubs for creatives in the pre-Internet era, No Vacancy Inn has positioned itself as a destination for outliers of the digital age, that on any given day, anywhere around the world, can take the form of a podcast, pop-up, or streetwear line.
As one of the world’s largest digital platforms, O’Leary said the democracy of YouTube now enables users to promote their passions globally without requiring the support of a large institution or company. “For a long time it was very expensive to make anything and put it out there, whereas now you can do it without any economic consideration, so you start to see what was once niche become mainstream,” he said. “These communities exist and evolve because there’s 1.8 billion people logged in every month.” His views were vehemently opposed by Stuart Holt, the founding director of Birmingham, UK’s Javelin Block development company that reanimates derelict buildings through residential and retail developments with a strong community focus. “As you’re the main man at YouTube can you change that word community ‘cause to me that sounds nonsense,” he told O’Leary. “I want physical community because the most important thing is to get people to actually talk to each other. There’s no way you’re going to form a community on your phone, it’s not going to happen.” For Charlotte Rey of creative consultancy Campbell-Rey, engaging communities is about filling their needs, “It’s not about what brands want from culture anymore, it’s about what they can provide. And I think that speaks to society as a whole. People feel a greater need to engage, provide and educate.”
Holt emphasised this need for reciprocity further when he spoke to the responsibility developers have to their local populations. He outlined that rather than discarding the heritage of places or their preexisting uses, he instead draws upon it to inform all future decisions at Javelin Block, inviting people in to experience and create the spaces together. From the homeless to permanent residents and those just passing through, Holt calls on the entire surrounding community to determine what the next use of these spaces will be and what they could become.
As to the biggest question on the agenda – the future of the planet –the overarching feeling is that brands and individuals have a responsibility to use their power for good to address a problem that impacts us all. "I want to see us harness that power of cool to sell ideas and products that don't do unnecessary harm to the environment," said Vogue Australia sustainability editor (the first of its kind) Clare Press, who is also author of the book Wardrobe Crisis. To this end, it was clear that being a truly sustainable organisation requires thinking holistically about 'social good,' and considering how this can be lived in every output and initiative. It also means empowering a team to create change and ensuring this is measurable. Mark Wiedermann, Marketing Director of Frucor Suntory, raised the point that we should remove the concept of 'responsibility' from corporate social responsibility initiatives, because it's better to create, rather than simply respond to or mitigate change.
Towards the end of the night, the overarching message was that it's no longer about what brands want from culture, but rather about what they can provide to enrich our lives. If there was a key takeaway, it was how crucial building communities is to creating brands with authenticity. After sharing ideas and listening to each other's opinions on a wide range of areas impacting their industries, attendees were urged to leave empowered to transform their lives, and the lives of others. "A big premise of today is about starting something new," said Background co-founder Si Philby. "We've heard some amazing conversations and we encourage you to make new connection points and that there's something here that will inspire you to continue growing."