Most young creatives want to be the center of attention. That isn't to say that all millennials have narcissistic qualities, but rather, the age in which they've matured has made the possibility for stardom all the more real. But for every superstar in music, arts, and media, there must also be a machine behind these creative forces who are of equal importance. Yet, most of these entities have been rooted in old-world thinking. As a result, this has created a disconnect between a finished product on the artist/brand side, and what is then packaged for public consumption.
Enter, Superimpose, an upstart UK creative agency who has landed prominent accounts with notable clients like adidas and Burberry despite having only existed for four years. The brainchild of Ollie Olanipekun — who cut his teeth as Channel 4, and as a brand consultant for youth-oriented companies — and Toby Evans who handled art direction for brands like Palace, Boiler Room, and adidas Originals in the past, their campaigns feel not only original, but also have a 360-degree scope which feels particularly useful when trying to engage today's audience.
For example, when adidas wanted to redefine the NBA All-Star Game experience this year, the team at Superimpose developed a new visual direction with a "no rules" approach. This meant eschewing traditional brand guidelines by allowing individuals in attendance to create their own merch and apparel which Superimpose felt met the desires of an audience who today is typified by a different set of behaviors.
As the 15-person team at Superimpose readies an expansion into the American marketplace in Los Angeles, we caught up with Strategy Director, Jenny Zhang, to discuss the power of advertising, what adidas gets that Nike doesn't, and the power of youth.
First and foremost, what do you say to people who think that advertising "doesn't work?"
For us, advertising is an interesting term. It has its positive and negative connotations with a whole industry built to cater to and push forward the beast that is consumer culture. The primary function is to draw attention and be recognized. We reject the label "advertising" in the traditional sense because we’re in the business of creating conversation, and contributing to consumer culture that isn’t necessarily always about drawing attention to a product first and foremost.
Obviously, brands who are approaching Superimpose want to tap into something they haven't been able to achieve with more traditional and conservative agencies. What are brands trying to achieve, and more importantly, how is Superimpose meeting those needs without simply trumpeting consumerism?
What brands once fought for - reach on TV, engagement and impressions with digital real estate - they're now turning their heads to social platforms where most of the conversation is happening. Traditional agencies cater to a specific need: unification, organization, process, and standardization. We’re not that agency, and brands who need to be challenged and have the appetite to explore their creative boundaries come to us.
Previously where the division was always brands vs consumers, we now see the rise of brands acting as influential cultural profiles, a part of this entire ecosystem. Them, us, you, we all feed into each other and consumerism is just a word to reflect our human desire to want. This isn’t limited to product, it can be the want to instigate change, or the want to become better. Our job is finding the sweet spot to connect supply and demand.
Why did you opt for Los Angeles over New York City when it came time for global expansion?
Historically LA has had a certain reputation, but recently we’ve felt an energy rising, something hard to pinpoint but it’s been bubbling away under the surface for some time. Music, fashion, art. There’re exciting projects, platforms, and people coming through that we respect.
As a followup, will the work change at all to cater to an American audience?
Our agency model and SERVICES UNKNOWN will remain the same structurally but our creative output, our cultural influence and our communications will adapt to cater for the needs and preferences of our US clients and US audiences.
We have an internationally diverse team which fuses our DNA and is the core of what we are about, therefore our outlook overall is always global in mindset, yet locally relevant, particularly with our SERVICES UNKNOWN projects.
What can you tell me about Services Unknown?
Services Unknown is an open-ended Superimpose Studio project that facilitates new ideas, discussion, events, and product. We draw on talent from a broader scene to spark conversations that are vital, diverse, and new for the creative community.
It’s about education, conversation, and flipping the traditional notion of the "publisher." We’re not documenting consumer culture (like a traditional editorial platform), but actively contributing and sparking meaningful discussion through various formats.
It isn't often you hear a creative agency mention "community." How do you view the relationship between the agency, and those you're trying to target on a brand's behalf?
There are no divisions for us. Who we are, the people we’re connecting to via brand work, and our own platform are essentially the same person. Community is essentially "us." Like any community, we’re driven by intuition, taste, and doing "right" by what we believe in. If we don't buy it, then no one else will. This mentality drives our standard of work and it’s a double-edged sword.
Many brands suffered after Facebook changed its algorithm and aimed to get back to its original intention of connecting people. How does Superimpose view social media, and more importantly, how has the agency landed such big clients without a massive social following?
One thing we have to learn from Facebook is how sensitive people are. Once you break trust or people become disenchanted, it’s hard to regain. Brands should view this as an opportunity to try different avenues and explore new ways of communicating.
Social media is our shop window in one way, and like any other shop window it’s not about the passersby but those who come in.
Merchandise seems to be a key attribute for activations these days. How does that attribute fit into what you guys have done, and what you will do in the future?
Merch is a way for people to stand for something they believe in — an indicator and vehicle for brand power. Merch has been part of what we do from the very beginning. We’ve released biannual drops of branded Superimpose and SERVICES UNKNOWN merch for free, and have some big ambitions for the future.
GIFS and Burberry seem like unlikely bedfellows. Are luxury brands reluctant to change, or do you get the sense that they understand that they can't rely solely on "heritage" forever?
Luxury brands have to balance their art and vision with the cultural landscape. If they lack the initiative to step outside of their worlds — at least once in awhile — they’re going to lose out. Those who do it well are able to find new energy and a new perspective while retaining their brand integrity. It’s not easy but that’s why we exist.
adidas is a recurring partner for Superimpose. That brand has excelled in the lifestyle space thanks to tastemakers like Kanye West and Pharrell Williams who can seemingly sell anything. Besides these celebrities, what has adidas recognized that perhaps Nike hasn’t?
There’s an accessibility in adidas’ language that feels more democratic and plural. Our world isn’t glossy, polished, and hyper-focused, so it’s more in tune with the current zeitgeist that is about realness, authenticity, and community. Culture is their north star, and culture for adidas is the ability to bind global people together and be part of a conversation - one that twists, turns, changes, and morphs.
I get the sense that everyone is fairly young at Superimpose. While everyone likes to talk about the power of youth, has the lack of seasoning ever been detrimental?
We’ve come from some of the world’s most respected agencies, publishers, and brands despite our collective age...i-D, Inditex, Conde Nast, Goodhood, and Channel 4 to name a few and joined forces in order to build something that departs from what we’ve experienced. How we are perceived depends which territory we’re playing in - across fashion and lifestyle space, youth is a commodity and celebrated. In the traditional "advertising" landscape, we are much younger but it means we stand out.
When I look at Superimpose's work, I'm reminded of the Don Draper quote: "If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation." Did you guys aim to disrupt the industry, or did it just happen as a result of the work you guys all felt proud to put out into the world?
Both. Superimpose is a positive outlet for improving on what we experienced before and the frustrations we felt. Hierarchical, more talk than action, and playing it safe. Who wants to be comfortable all the time?
We have a vision for the company, and challenging the industry is very much part of our manifesto. Our work abides by our tagline "doing things differently" in every sense...our client output, how we’re set up as a new-world creative agency, who we hire.