Brendan Gahan is Partner & Chief Social Officer at independent creative agency Mekanism, leading the agency’s social division. Gahan has been at the forefront of the social & influencer marketing space since 2006, creating disruptive campaigns for brands such as Mountain Dew, Unilever, MillerCoors, and The Olympics. Brendan has been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and his agency was recognized as Digiday’s Digital Video Agency of the year in 2017.
The SMSsummit team had the chance to pick his brain about some of the great work he’s done at his agency as well as some of the themes he’ll be diving into at his upcoming talk.
SMSsummit: Your talk at the upcoming Social Media Strategies Summit will explore why a willingness to take risks (and the inevitability of some failures) is one of the best ways to achieve big wins on social media. The fear of failure is a pretty daunting one! How have you created a culture of embracing the idea of “risk as opportunity” at Epic Signal and Mekanism?
Brendan: Fearlessness is a core value of the agency. We know that avoiding risks only leads to avoiding opportunity; no one wins by playing it safe. We’d rather do something new and learn from our mistakes than trying the same thing over and over. We’re willing to tread into unknown waters — trying new emerging platforms, new video formats, etc. We accomplish this with our brand partners by fostering a team-mentality of “all hands on deck.” We believe in collaboration, staying on top of emerging trends and technologies, and always using our best judgment.
SMSsummit: Expanding on that question – do you have any tips for readers struggling with sharing this social media long-game strategy with risk-averse leadership or other teams within the organization?
Brendan: You need to start small to get bigger. I think there’s a very real fear by brands (and individuals) to post that first piece of content – which is understandable, there’s a lot of insecurity. What if it gets one view? What will people think? As a result, we overcompensate. We go too far in the opposite direction and put a lot of pressure on each individual asset. We can’t let anything ‘fail’.
Let’s be real. If you have enough media dollars you can make almost anything look like a success. But, was it really a success, or are you deluding yourself? Did it get a million views because it was great or because there was an absurd amount of money pushing it? This approach and mode of thinking deny us the ability to experiment. As a result, we never get to learn what actually works.
Trial and error is the way creators go from zero to millions of fans with zero media budget. I’d challenge more brands to take the same approach.
SMSsummit: Your agency Epic Signal is a social-first agency. What trends were you seeing at the time that prompted you to launch this business (2013)? Why is it so important for brands to consider social as part of the planning process vs. after the content or campaign has been created?
Brendan: Epic Signal is now a division of Mekanism. When I first started Epic Signal, there were a lot of social media agencies — but there weren’t many with a deep knowledge and understanding of influencer marketing. I saw an opportunity to leverage my years of experience in the space. I’d always been the ‘Youtube / Influencer Guy’ throughout my career. I figured I’d lean into that expertise as a point of differentiation. It filled a need at a time when everyone was just starting to take influencer marketing seriously.
With regards to social media, if you’re not integrating it into your strategy from the beginning, you’re flying blind. This is why Epic Signal makes sense as a division of Mekanism – we’re brought into the larger campaign planning from the beginning, which leads to a more holistic approach.
Where else but on social media are consumers telling you exactly what they think and feel about your brand or category? Where else can you get these insights for free and in real-time? This 1:1 relationship gives brands the opportunity to learn and understand what’s actually happening.
SMSsummit: What’s been your favorite campaign you worked on at Epic Signal/Mekanism and why?
Brendan: I’m a big believer in developing long-term, strategic partnerships with creators. I think that influencers should be treated like an athlete endorsement. Become a real partner and integrate them into multiple campaign touchpoints.
One campaign where this approach really paid off was our MTN Dew Green-Label Influencer Network.
In order to reach young guys in a credible way on behalf of the brand, we did multi-year deals with a handful of creators. They became true partners — they did event appearances, were integrated into TV ads, and we even integrated one into a VR game that Dew sponsored. They, in turn, created their own content for their channels to support the brand.
The hardest part of influencer marketing is often the upfront work (identifying, negotiating, onboarding, and the first activation). The longer you work together, the process gets more efficient. You can move fast and you can be really experimental. We got to that place with MTN Dew, and as a result, we did a lot of innovative work with incredible results for the brand.
SMSsummit: The pandemic has taken a toll on the influencer marketing industry. What are some of the biggest shifts in consumer behavior or expectations that you’ve seen take shape over the last few months, and where do you see opportunities for growth moving forward?
Brendan: It’s true that, along with all forms of advertising, influencer marketing has taken a hit. However, what’s notable is how quickly it has rebounded to pre-COVID levels.
Data from eMarketer shows that in the US, total media spends are expected to decline by 6.8%. Traditional media ad spending is expected to decline by 17%. According to Forrester, influencer marketing spend has almost completely rebounded. As of July, it was only down 3% from the start of the pandemic.
With the pandemic, so many brands were forced to be resourceful (with many other production methods out of the question) and many chose to work with influencers. After the pandemic, influencer marketing will be at a new, higher, baseline. Influencer marketing works. It’s fast and comparatively inexpensive. What’s not to like in an era when budgets are being slashed and every dollar matters more than ever?
SMSsummit: With the ongoing pandemic and civil unrest, social media often serves as a brand’s frontline channel for communications. Consumers are putting a higher than ever premium on brand trust and authenticity. Where do the tenets of “social first” come in to play here – especially in crisis comms mode?
Brendan: A brand’s social channel is, many times, the first touchpoint for consumers. It’s often the only place consumers see the brand outside of the product itself. What they see and hear on social media informs their perceptions.
Given the state of the world, people are spending more time than ever online and they will vote with their wallets. People want brands that align with their personal values. As a result, they’re looking closely at what brands are saying and how they’re responding in times of crisis. Social has become the tip of the spear, which means prioritizing and investing in it is more important than ever.
SMSsummit: What are some of your favorite resources (newsletters, social accounts, blogs, publications) to stay up to date on what’s happening?
Brendan: There’s a ton of brilliant people in the space that I admire and love talking to, but ironically they don’t share as much of their own thoughts on social media — as the saying goes, the cobbler’s children have no shoes.
Here are some people and resources that generously share their knowledge with the world:
- Tubefilter – It is to the influencer space what Variety is to Hollywood
- Planet Upload Podcast – Run by Josh Cohen (co-founder of Tubefilter) & Lauren Schnipper (Former Facebook/Instagram Exec,) these two know the space inside and out
- Carlos Pacheco & his Video Insiders Podcast
- Phil Ranta – Former Facebook/Current COO at Wormhole Labs
- Ricky Ray Butler – The CEO of BEN has been an innovator in the space since the beginning
- Andrew Kamphey’s Newsletter – Andrew always has great insights and his newsletter is solid
- Taylor Lorenz – She’s always early in reporting any influencer or meme or trend
- Amanda Perelli & her influencer newsletter (which is part of Business Insider)
- Also, I’ve got my own blog if you want to follow me!