Interrogation Hub’s Matthew Swinnerton sits down with Eight Eighteen’s very own CEO, Jed Wexler for an interview about content, commerce, and what it means to be an entrepreneur.
Swinnerton: Jed, after reading your bio and doing my own research it’s obvious that you are doing something right. What do you attribute to your success?
Wexler: First of all, thank you! That’s definitely a loaded question – in a great way. Once of the reasons is that I really never get that complacent feeling that I am ‘successful.’
One of the others is that I have come to view ‘failure’ as merely an entrepreneur’s daily bread. What I used to view as abject failure, I now just look at as ‘testing’ and learning experiences to make something better. You have to test a lot of things in order to see what’s working. And constantly fine-tune.
Passion & Collaboration:
Passion and collaboration are so important. The main reason I am ‘successful’ is because I work with and pursue relationships with incredibly smart, diverse, adaptable, passionate, good people – they amplify what I do in a big way. And if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, it just won’t work.
This involves a lot of taking in information and honest feedback from people I trust, everyone regardless of level of experience, age, etc. – and combining all of the feedback and intel with a gut feeling about what to do. This also leads to a necessity synthesize a lot of information into a clear narrative line and clearly communicate a vision.
Great Writing and Design Generate Trust: Authenticity
Believing in great writing and great design. Great writing and great design generate trust, whether it’s a website, app, blog, or any project. Great writing and authentic storytelling leads to being able to communicate your vision clearly to a lot of people – and lead them in a direction. People can gain or lose trust almost instantly – being real with what you say will make them stick with you, or if you are disingenuous, they’ll move on. On the client side it’s being open, honest, transparent taking in a lot of information and points of view so you can create a sort of a truth, creative vision, or clean narrative line from it.
Be an Insatiable Learner – Read Everything You Can. Everything.
Develop and nurture relationships inside and outside of your industry. In my experience most of the great opportunities are not advertised – they come from someone you know. As long as they have a clear understanding about what it is you do. Also the amount of important information, advice, and inspiration you just get from talking other people is incalculable. The really great opportunities are not made public first. Talking to people also can take you and your business great places you never thought you would go.
Being a Predictive Leader:
Leadership is being predictive and thoughtful about taking companies into the future to stay ahead. Especially today. You have to be insatiable, passionate, and clear about leading your company and clients to the next thing, the next way, while maintaining your core business.
Encourage others to do the search beyond the current boundaries of your business and to seek patterns in multiple sources of data, information, etc.
And when you have the right people all headed in the right direction at the same time, solving problems together along the way, it’s really not very stressful, or shouldn’t be.
Swinnerton: Can you give us a rundown of your career up until Eight-Eighteen Strategies?
Wexler: It all started for me in mid-1990’s as an editor/marketer and first hire at a start-up alternative fashion magazine on the West Coast. My first advertiser was Airwalk, and was part of a groundbreaking influencer campaign (led by famous west coast agency, Lambesis) soon-to-be immortalized by Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal work, “The Tipping Point.” Independent fashion brands exploded on to the scene on the west coast, which absolutely fascinated me. To me this was original startup culture that we have now become so used to – but back then this was really, really disruptive and unsettling to global brands. It was thrilling to be part of documenting a nascent movement, and to see the global impact of this small group firsthand.
Speaking engagements on the topic soon followed for me, along with co-founding a successful dot-com era agency helping companies like Levi’s, Earthlink, Artist Direct, OP, Motorola, Listen.com (remember them?), MAGIC, and scores of fashion brands use first-wave digital, PR, and cutting-edge event experiences to connect with their target audience. The late 1990’s and early aughts ushered in a fascinating new era of web technology that we also used to help global brands connect to people they had immense trouble reaching – influencers. The artists gained exposure and the brands gained traction. We also created the first ‘Edge’ show for MAGIC in 1998 – this was a an indie show within a show that helped high-end street brands from all over the world launch into the marketplace, in a cool curated environment.
Throughout all of this we were always telling stories – the nature of alternative creative culture, whether it was fashion, music, or art required telling the right, authentic stories in order to put what this was all about into a mainstream context. I would write these proposals, press releases, and promotional materials so these lesser known artists that we were passionate about would resonate with mainstream culture – a bridge. Longer stories as to why these people were important seemed to work best. Language was so important. But I had a feeling this would all get very big.
After the dot-com collapse I went to work in-house for fashion trade show MAGIC (100,000 attendees) to develop new show concepts and to implement digital into everything we did. Brand culture had gone global and the technology to promote it had finally started to mature. There was a need.
In 2004 started Eight-Eighteen strategies with the goal of helping fashion and consumer brands enter the digital age.
I was essentially immersed in the west coast brand/media scene for about 15 years and moved the company back to NYC (my hometown) in 2010.
Swinnerton: Can you tell us a bit about how you started Eight-Eighteen Strategies?
Wexler: While I was at MAGIC at I had the opportunity to talk to hundreds of brands – the distribution model at the time was mostly an old-school mix of trade shows, fashion shows, events and retailers only.
The fashion industry at the time was mostly resistant to any kind of technology, anything digital. This was back when most brands were even resistant to having a website.
Here you had an industry that was obsessed with trends, the ‘future’ thing but in the dark ages re: tech. But great storytelling was always at the core of what they did, and were always cutting edge when it came to brand story and creating excitement around what they were doing. In speaking to my clients at my previous agency and at MAGIC there definitely seemed to be an incredible opportunity to help take these brands into the future via digital. And there weren’t many other companies were doing it. “Content + Community = Commerce” became our mantra early on (and a big driver of our process).
We set about to be an authority on digital for fashion brands while helping to build their stories, digital infrastructure and strategize their PR campaigns. Our goal was to take these brands into digital while keeping their brand stories intact. Once we convinced these companies they actually needed a website (!), digital, email, digital PR, et. al, things, it just took off from there. The space was so dynamic that more and more top-level strategy was required to make things work. Just creating the digital bits and pieces became less effective. Over time we realized these brands almost required a Chief Marketing Officer or Digital Strategy Chief functionality from us – market forces and tech platforms were just changing so rapidly, that it became difficult for executives to stay ahead without outsourcing some of their ‘forward-thinking’ bandwidth. That’s where things stand today.
Over time we have evolved into a digital and content strategy agency that combines storytelling with data. We have essentially taken what we have always done into the data and digital age.
Swinnerton: What challenges did you undergo?
Wexler: It’s interesting, the last two companies I started just took off from the beginning (the first in the dot-com boom and then Eight-Eighteen pre-2009 recession) and for a while it just flowed. That said, the first few ‘sales’ were always the most difficult. As I mentioned earlier, we also had to overcome some resistance from fashion brands, which up to that point, were mostly, actively adverse to any kind of digital/tech innovation. The old-school garment tradeshow-only approach was still very much entrenched.
This was also before the blogger-verse exploded and democratized information, which thankfully compelled the large luxury and global brand gatekeepers to be less insistent on controlling their message without also involving their customers in a transparent way. Consumer involvement and user engagement is something we definitely take for granted today.
Once we convinced these companies they actually needed a website, digital, email marketing, digital PR etc, things grew fairly quickly until the space exploded. Now you can arguably say that Fashion brands are now at the forefront of tech, social media, data, and E-commerce. Also when a fashion brand does something innovative digitally it conveys to the consumer that the brand is forward-thinking, which is essential fashion brand positioning. There are also hundreds of great fashion-tech-E-commerce startups out there.
The real challenges come once a field becomes overcrowded. You need to constantly tweak the formula, re-position yourself, and innovate again.
Our other challenge was getting clients and partners to think of strategy as you would design, programming, screenwriting, ad buying, or any other creative endeavor – and not a vague thing that is baked in to every project. Without a lean, mean, on-trend strategy, companies and projects fail. Strategy (and innovation) is unique in that it is enormously creative, requires a special expertise, a special form of critical thinking, and exposure to an enormous amount of information. It’s a collaborative problem-solving endeavor that combines art & science to achieve commerce.
We also started to see that new web platforms and tech platforms in general were becoming available at such a low cost to anyone starting a company. I was thrilled that tech had become democratized and readily available but realized we had to transition into becoming a strategy & innovation group rather than a builder of tech things. Therein lies the ongoing challenge that I think every business has – constantly moving forward, reinventing, re-packaging, repositioning. And taking your customers (and media) along with you on that journey.
There is still a way to go but we’ve come a lot further.
Just the other day even Marc Jacobs was quoted as saying he doesn’t like shopping online – so this persists. There are still a lot of executives who think in only binary terms; offline or online, when it reality it’s both. Just look at what Warby Parker, BaubleBar have done integrating the retail store and E-commerce experience.
Swinnerton: For our readers that don’t know, what is Eight-Eighteen Strategies?
Wexler: Since 2004 we have been helping fashion, tech, and e-commerce brands transform their digital efforts based around the right content and storytelling.
At our core, we are a team of strategists with diverse expertise – a strategy agency providing guidance, innovation, and execution as it pertains to digital, content, market research, and online influence in this space. We work closely with CEOs, CMOs, and Creative Directors to mesh business, creative, and tech teams.
Our process revolves around doing a complete digital brand assessment and trying to answer the following questions; What story are we telling? What tech platforms/tactics do we want to use? How are we measuring the results?
This year we also launched a data-driven index of the top 5000 Fashion & Beauty bloggers in the world which is a product designed to help brands identify and engage with key online influencers based on content engagement metrics. And just last week we launched a new index for the food vertical. It’s our way of using data to properly evaluate digital influence.
We have guided and positioned brands such as Bluefly.com, Levi’s, AT&T Wireless, Smashbox Cosmetics, Howe/Tony Hawk Brands, Kenneth Cole, Vestal, MAGIC, and the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
Swinnerton: Can you tell us about The Fashion Marketing Group (FMG) and what role you engage in?
Wexler: The Fashion Marketing Group is a fashion/digital professional community with about 50,000 members worldwide. We deliver industry-specific content to our members across the social web. We’ve been really fortunate to have interviewed C-level executives from Google, Shopzilla, Polyvore and others. Our goal is to have 100,000 members by next year and to initiate some offline programming.
As co-chairman and editor-in-chief I manage our writers that create our content, evaluate FMG’s incoming partnership opportunities, and help drive strategic vision for the group.
Swinnerton: Now getting back to Eight-Eighteen Strategies, what are your future goals for the company?
Wexler: Christopher Bailey, Creative Director of Burberry was recently quoted in Fast Company as saying, “The company [Burberry] is now just as much a content generator as it is a design house.”
This pretty much says it all about where we’re headed, where we’re all headed actually. This is really a defining moment in that the importance of blending E-commerce, social, and editorial direction has never been more important. Good brands can only rely on good products for so long. Lasting brands distribute impressive content – you have to put products into an editorial context in order to be successful especially with fashion, which is so personal.
#1. Specifically the first goal is to grow the strategy side of the business and position us a place where great storytelling meets compelling data. And to continue to build a new-school digital strategy team of great writers and critical thinkers comfortable with both creative culture and big brand culture (and the unique requirements of brand stakeholders that go along with that.)
In the process we hope to further legitimize just how important it is to create and implement a lean-and-mean strategy before you do anything else. Everything is so dynamic today, changing so quickly that you need great strategy that you can act on quickly to keep your company, your life, and your brand moving forward. Things have changed so much from when we started because the tactical environment is so incredibly dynamic. Brands should take a tech approach and test a lot of different things at once and go deeper into things that are working.
#2. Since Malcolm Gladwell wrote “The Tipping Point” in 2000 there has always been a high demand for influencer marketing, but you could never really measure the results. Now you can. So we’ll continue to leverage our data product to help companies strategize their influencer marketing. As a strategy agency we can now offer a more data-driven solution to go along with our ‘human’ expertise.
#3. We want to continue to align with more top-level creative partners, content creators, writers, and strategists. Honestly, sometimes I feel like a head writer on a comedy/TV show sitting in a room with all of these talented strategists and thinkers from diverse backgrounds, with even more diverse interests. We already have the ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ re: content so it’s not a far cry for us to actually help create great content as well.
#4. We want to push further into social good via efforts into improving youth literacy, which is a cause we have championed since we started the company. We encourage people to support www.826nyc.org among others. It’s run by talented writers and satirists.
I think a lot of people and companies inadvertently over-complicate digital. At the end of the day, it’s really about creating incredible content, telling great stories, and using the platform(s) of the day to distribute them. Add engagement and commerce and you’re on your way.
Swinnerton: What kind of companies / clients do you like to work with?
Wexler: We tend to get really excited about companies/clients going through a transformative period where we can help drive momentum of new projects, initiatives, refresh a brand, and make a serious impact. We also enjoy working with startups that we feel have potential. Global brands, startups, and everything in-between.
Fashion, Tech, and E-Commerce is definitely our sweet spot but we just started getting into providing market research in this space for private equity firms.
This is an especially exciting time because brands have finally come around to the fact that they need to do more storytelling and less selling. Great content beats advertising every time. We love how technology has empowered the consumer and democratized information related fashion, consumer brands, et al. Can we be passionate about what we are doing? Do we believe in it? Is there a real story there? Can we do something authentic? Can we add value to the company we are working with? Do we like each other? If the answer is yes to these, then that is our ideal match.
Swinnerton: What drives you personally and professionally?
Wexler: For me these have always been intertwined.
Collaborating with creative, smart, good people. Do I feel the creative fire in something I am doing and am I excited about the people I am working with? Is there great, open communication? If I don’t, then I start to question things. Relationships drive me as well. I have established some great friendships that started out as only ‘work.’ My ongoing ideal is to always to work and collaborate with incredibly smart (and smarter than me), versatile, sociable, creative, talented, trustworthy, hard-working people that can build into friendships over time. A sense of humor is also key. Taking a genuine interest in people’s lives you work with combined with an insatiable intellectual curiosity and a thirst to learn new things. Helping other people succeed.
I regularly try to be mindful and assess where I am in my business relationships and my personal relationships. Are these positive and supportive? Are we growing? Having the right people around you amplifies everything you do. The old-school ‘command-and-control’ vertical business hierarchies are steadily crumbling into flat collaborative company structures built on doing great work, with great people.
How do I continue to blend art and commerce? How do I balance passion and practicality? Why am I doing what I’m doing? How do I keep moving this thing forward?
Constantly seeking answers to these questions is what drives me. Sometimes the dots connect and you just know you’re about to work on something great.
Photo Credits: Joe Ferrucci