THE GATHERING – Where the World’s Leading Marketing Minds Share Innovative Branding Ideas

By Angus Gillespie

For the past four years many of the world’s most established marketing brands and the people behind their successes have come together as part of a sensational three-day conference known as The Gathering to share their marketing strategies while establishing enhanced business networks. Held at the magnificent Fairmont Banff Springs in Banff, Alberta, nearly 1,000 people were in attendance for this year’s event in late February – which was completely sold out.

The Gathering is an annual coming together of the enlightened, influential illuminati behind the famous names that the public has become accustomed to knowing through various forms of media, such as television, radio, online and print. It’s all about customer engagement with a series of inspiring keynote addresses, smaller workshop environments and even a couple of well-attended late-night evening parties.

The Gathering is the brainchild of CEO Chris Kneeland and President Ryan Gill, who are the co-founders of Cult Collective, North America’s leading consumer engagement agency. The pair formed Cult in October, 2012 and its network includes North Carolina-based social media management firm Expion, Toronto-based creative shop Clean Sheet and New York City-based Fidelum Partners. Cult helps clients rethink pre-existing beliefs and take some risks to try something new. The economy, technology, demographics and competition have all changed, and they believe the industry must follow suit – or risk being left behind.

Kneeland is originally from the U.S. and had originally come to Canada to take over an advertising agency called Watermark, a company with 30 years of experience whose claim to fame was building the Mark’s Work Wearhouse brand from 40 stores to 400 stores. Kneeland spent more than a decade applying his marketing acumen to several Fortune 100 brands and has gained invaluable experience helping brands improve their relevance, CRM and loyalty marketing efforts.

It was around 2010 when a number of fundamental shifts were occurring within the agency service model and people figuring out post-recession mindsets including social media and mobile devices.

“We were really discouraged at how slowly the advertising business was adapting to the changes, clinging to old-world thinking and actions,” Kneeland tells us. “So we decided we didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore. I read an article on how the people that will change will not be the people from within the industry but rather from outside. It’s really similar to how Uber revolutionized taxi service from the outside or Apple with music from the outside.”

Kneeland wanted to be one of those open-minded outsiders who would represent change rather than be a victim of it. That’s when the journey began – when Ryan (Gill) and he met for the first time. Gill came equipped with the digital capability while Kneeland’s strengths were more along the lines of traditional storytelling capabilities. Both men primarily work out of the main office in Calgary, but the company also has offices in Vancouver, Kingston, Toronto and the U.S.

Kneeland and Gill quickly surmised that calling themselves an ad agency was part of the fundamental problem. For the most part, advertising agencies didn’t have the respect of the C-suite or a seat at the table.

“We came up with a new species of agency that we call an engagement agency. It’s more of a hybrid in that it’s more of a business consultant role with customer engagement,” says Kneeland.

In a nutshell, there is not a direct focus on supply-chain issues, financial management or forecasting; but rather about how can brands best create advocacy with their clients. To date, both leaders at the Cult have been extremely pleased with how the message has resonated. Consider also that The Gathering was originally intended as a one-time coming out party for The Cult and not a continuing business event.

“We wanted to create a platform where industry professionals don’t have to take my word for it, when we can bring the undeniably most awesome brands in the world and expose you to what they are doing and that should be more than enough to sell them on the philosophy,” notes Kneeland.

How do you let North America know there’s a new ‘thing’ in town called Cult – a new species of agency called an engagement agency? It wasn’t scientifically proven in whom the most cult brands were at the time, it was merely what brands would be identified as fans of customer engagement – and those willing to come.

About 300 eager and enthusiastic people attended that first event four years ago. It was brought back on an annual basis due to popular demand. From year two onwards it became much less about Cult and more about a gathering of many of the top marketing brands and the minds behind them to share ideas.

One concern for Kneeland is the noticeable difference in the strategies and philosophies between Canada and U.S. brands.

“I have been unpleasantly surprised at the differences particularly between western Canadian business and American business so much so that now 60% of our revenue comes from south of the border,” he frankly states. “Canadian businesses are far too conservative. They want to see someone else that’s already done it or have it proven to them what the new initiative will do. That’s old-school thinking because you cannot innovate if you’re copying.

In America, corporate brands embrace first-mover advantage. There is always a need to do something that the competition has never done before in order for a company to be noticed.

According to Kneeland, it’s not about sophistication, it’s about risk tolerance. Unfortunately the Canadian market is still far too risk averse and far too media dependent. Even when you look at The Gathering, 90% of the honorees are American companies.

Virtually all marketing experts would agree that it’s not that Canadian companies aren’t capable. There are ones that put themselves out there, such as Molson, Lululemon and Big Rock Brewery but those are the exceptions – not the rule. The markets are blending with the number of American companies operating here in Canada and vice versa.

“Any Canadian brand that has aspirations to be relevant outside of their own immediate geography is going to have to embrace these changes. It is how the world is operating elsewhere,” continues Kneeland.

The Gathering has managed to attract a tremendous lineup in just four years with marketing experts from the likes of Guy Kawasaki (formerly of Apple), Nick Woodhouse of Authentic Brands, Jackie Poriadjian-Asch of Canada Goose, Joe Belliotti from Coca-Cola, Ryan Collis of Mountain Dew and Matt O’Neil from the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL among some of the impressive names to lend their experiences with those in attendance.

“We reached out to these people and I think it’s a combination of asking them to come and having something that is different that makes them want to attend,” says Kneeland. “This is not a celebration of creativity but is more like a lifetime achievement award of brands that have built amazing cult engagement.”

The right kinds of brand leaders realize there’s never really been a forum for them to be recognized and so it was the feeling of Cult that something such as this event would resonate well with many of them. It’s an event that takes a tremendous amount of planning.

“It takes a village to raise an event. This is the first year that Greg Damus has been the managing director. He had been a Cult employee for six or seven years and this is his first time captaining the ship and he’s exceeded all of our expectations content wise, profitability wise and attendee wise. He, along with Ciera Jones, spearheaded this year’s initiative,” says Kneeland.

The event also had about 40 volunteers, many of whom have full-time jobs who take their own time off of work because they want to be a part of it all. Kneeland and Gill want the event better not bigger and are looking to keep the number of attendees under 1,000.

“We’ve been told by our board of advisors to keep the event small and intimate because that’s part of the secret sauce that makes it special,” says Kneeland.

Kneeland expects Banff will always be the cornerstone hub for the event but will look to expand with additional satellite conferences, smaller venues and online content available 24/7. “Too often we put these amazing brands on pedestals and we don’t shoot far enough. As the famous quote states ‘90% of the people you read about in history books are just ordinary people who didn’t want to be ordinary’.”

Seven featured cult brands and six emerging brands make up the 2017 honourees, including Fender, ChapStick, Levi’s, Canada Goose and the annual charity honouree, Make A Wish Foundation.

Confident Approach

Having a great deal of confidence is at the very core of a successful marketer. You won’t find an individual with more confidence than Matt O’Neil, Chief Marketing Officer with the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. But in speaking with O’Neil, he says his style is something he had to grow into throughout the years and is not something he had when he was younger.

“I grew into this personality,” he begins. “A big chunk of my career time was spent as a screenwriter. You put something out there and everyone criticizes your work. I had a hard time embracing that feedback, which is ultimately why I got out of screenwriting and got into business. I took a more aggressive stance in making myself better and it made me pay super close attention to detail, which I hadn’t done before.”

O’Neil says the major change in his persona took place when he joined the New York Red Bull of Major League Soccer and it really blossomed by the time he got to the Cowboys. In sports marketing, it’s all about making the absolute best event for the fans to enjoy.

“You try to make each individual fan at our games feel like they are special,” says O’Neil. “There are a lot of people in this world who are not Dallas Cowboys fans, and will never be, but those who are fans deserve to have an amazing experience.”

The U.S. is the largest marketing machine in the world. Much like Chris Kneeland, O’Neil also believes Canadians are too conservative in the way we approach marketing efforts.

“My particular style is certainly not conservative and it’s served me very well. It takes a lot to be confident. You need to know a lot and I see no reason to be conservative,” he remarks. “There’s not a disproportionate amount of conservatism with Canadian sports teams. Many of them do amazing things. Everybody has a different style and you have to do what works best for you.”

The message is that it’s always important to have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on in this world and if you don’t then you shouldn’t be a marketer. “We have an incredible team with the Dallas Cowboys – all with their eyes and ears open, starting from the Jones family on down,” says O’Neil.

O’Neil’s successful tenure with the Cowboys actually just came to an end as of March 1. He is now starting his own agency in New York City where he plans to work with other teams and other brands inside and outside of sports.

“I will still be doing work with the Dallas Cowboys. They’ve been incredibly good to me,” says O’Neil.

Marketing Evangelism

Guy Kawasaki is an accomplished author and venture capitalist and was one of the Apple employees originally responsible for marketing their Macintosh computer line in 1984 along with co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The 62-year-old Kawasaki popularized the word ‘evangelist’ in marketing the Macintosh computer and its technologies.

As a marketing revolutionary at Apple in the 1980s, Kawasaki’s job title was ‘software evangelist’. In other words, it was his responsibility to evangelize Macintosh to software developers. Later he became ‘chief evangelist’, and his responsibility was to evangelize Macintosh to anyone who wanted to increase productivity and creativity.

After leaving Apple, Kawasaki branched out in many directions, becoming an author, speaker, entrepreneur, venture capitalist and advisor. His clients include Apple, Nike, Gartner, Audi, Google, Microsoft, and Breitling as well as dozens of trade associations.

“You need to learn to accept others and always default to ‘yes’ as in how can I help you?” he says. “You always need to tell a compelling story. I have seen too many companies launched who do it in the most un-enchanting way.”

One of the keys to success is to always know your audience. There is no such thing as a canned speech that can be used everywhere. Each discussion must be tailored to the audience that you are addressing.

“I love hockey. But I am not going to talk about hockey if I am making a speech in South America. Here, I can talk about hockey,” jokes Kawasaki.

It is also the belief of Kawasaki that you need to be an executive who leads by example. It’s important to show others that you are willing to get down and do the dirty jobs. If you do that, employees are far more likely to follow suit.

“Don’t ask your employees to do something you wouldn’t do – suck it up,” says Kawasaki.

Music Marketing

Joe Belliotti is Head of Global Music Marketing for The Coca-Cola Company. Belliotti’s role is to create global music content, platforms, partnerships and strategies for brands across the company’s portfolio. He began his career with the music publishing arm of Maverick and spent time supervising music for film & TV projects for Warner Bros TV, ABC and Miramax.

The Coca-Cola Company is in 200 countries around the world with more than 500 products that are consumed more than 1.9 billion times per day.

“Coming from the music business this was eye-opening to say the least,” says Belliotti, in referring to those staggering figures. “I went to Berkeley College of Music and then went into music publishing. Ours is a very simple business – we sell drinks. But it’s complicated because the way we sell drinks around the world has to do with a franchise of bottlers and distribute them to various outlets, and then ultimately the consumers.”

Belliotti says he always looks to add music touch points to add value to the brand. The more people that understand the music business and the branding business the stronger the partnership is going to be.

“The challenge for us as marketers is simple: to grow you need to connect in more relevant ways with more audiences, more often,” says Belliotti.

What is known is that the music industry is poised for growth. Goldman Sachs predicts the industry will double in size by 2030, which has a lot to do with an increase in live streaming and business models. Fan passion for music has never been stronger.

Belliotti says it’s critical to not just think about the creative side of music but how to mature the music and the brand. “If you think about sports marketing for brands that’s where they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars because they can get the return on investment. As music marketers we need to think about how we can track and quantify the value and that’s the next frontier.”

It’s about connecting the right people with the right platforms. It’s not about being disruptive. The goal is to be additive and part of the ecosystem in the most relevant way.

“We’re aligning ourselves with people that love and drink our products. I think that’s the key for the starting point in any good brand and music relationship,” notes Belliotti. “Live streaming is the only format that gives you real time interaction between the viewer and the broadcaster. There is also direct engagement, which is really cool.”

There is a sizable uptick in the great work happening in the music marketing space and very rarely is the word ‘sellout’ used at this point. It’s become a beneficial business relationship for all parties involved.

“Back in the day we were always trying to make it feel not like a sell-out. There needs to be a level of passion behind any successful working relationship from the artists’ side and the brand’s side,” remarks Belliotti.

The Authentic Approach

With almost three decades of experience in the retail industry, Nick Woodhouse has experienced first-hand the challenges and rewards of growing a Canadian sporting goods retail icon – Forzani Group Ltd, from $55 million to $1.7 billion in annual sales.

Woodhouse is President and Chief Marketing Officer at Authentic Brands Group, a New York-based brand development and licensing company. Woodhouse oversees the company’s global sales, marketing and digital media strategies, as well as ABG’s strategic planning and execution. ABG is always in search of global brands that resonate across widespread consumer markets. The aim is to forge long-term partnerships with industry and category experts and operators who share ABG’s vision and approach towards expanding brand presence and driving revenue through acquiring, managing and building long-term value in prominent consumer brands.

“My partner Jamie Salter (Chairman & CEO) and I have begun to change the paradigm of branding and storytelling,” begins Woodhouse.

Authentic Brands owns a controlling interest in 24 major brands and manages another large one. A number of those brands were struggling, but thanks to the work of Salter, Woodhouse and the rest of the team at Authentic, each is now thriving across three main pillars: entertainment, fashion and sports.

Elvis Presley, Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal, Frederick’s of Hollywood and Tap Out are just some of the mainstream brands controlled by Authentic Brands.

“We own the state of Marilyn Monroe,” says Woodhouse “I am the president of the estate of Marilyn Monroe. If you’ve ever seen a movie about Marilyn Monroe like the Harvey Weinstein one that just came out, or gone to Winners and bought Marilyn Monroe items, that’s all us. Every time you see the name, image or likeness of Marilyn Monroe, they have to come through us to make that happen, whether it’s merchandise, movies, TV or social media.”

Woodhouse says that a company can have an unbelievable strong product but if the public is unaware of its existence, then it’s all for naught.

“I’m an ex-retailer. It isn’t just about the selling but rather how did it sell and is the consumer happy,” says Woodhouse.

Pre- ABG there were really licensors or digital marketing. There was only a domestic presence with no retailer interaction. It was label-slapping as Woodhouse describes it. You’d put something on a t-shirt and pay someone a royalty.

Now there are brand guidelines and a very succinct approval process. “We now hit the consumer and the licensee and bring them together to ensure the product sells at the end. Between us and our partners we will spend just north of USD$70 million in marketing our brands.”

It’s projected that Authentic Brands’ volume by the end of 2017 will be approaching USD$5 billion. But Woodhouse says one thing he has learned is that you need to eat like a bird and relieve yourself like an elephant.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had some amazing mentors in my life: including John Forzani and Jamie Salter, who is my partner now,” says Woodhouse.

Several factors go into the decision as to whether Authentic Brands will pursue a brand name. The first factor for Woodhouse is whether or not it’s global in scope. “For example, do people in China know about the brand? Is it socially relevant, including millennials?”

Success for a brand is most often largely tied in with its scale and platform.

Canada Goose Flying High

Jackie Poriadjian-Asch is the Chief Marketing Officer at Canada Goose Inc., a successful Canadian manufacturer of Arctic luxury apparel for the past 60 years. The jackets have received celebrity attention having been worn in several Hollywood films, including being worn by Nicolas Cage (National Treasure), Jessica Alba (Good Luck Chuck) and Kate Beckinsale (Whiteout).

Poriadjian-Asch oversees an integrated marketing team and is responsible for developing a business intelligence practice to provide insights that helps shape strategy across all aspects of the business.

“The authenticity of the brand for us is really staying connected to our influencers,” says Poriadjian-Asch. “The cool thing isn’t that celebrities are wearing it – it’s because they discovered it – not because we’ve paid them to wear it.

“We do have a marketing budget and are lucky to be able to sponsor things like Sundance to enhance relationships more than anything,” adds Poriadjian-Asch.

As it happens The Fairmont was one of Canada Goose’s first hotel partners, where the jackets were used by the valets. Those are the type of organizations who realize how difficult it can be for staff members to have to work outdoors in adverse weather conditions for eight to 10 hours a day.

“It’s a bonus that they happen to be front and centre in front of our target audience,” notes Poriadjian-Asch.
Canada Goose is seeking to raise as much as $320 million (USD$240 million) in its upcoming initial public offering. Canada Goose is backed by Bain Capital, which will continue to own a controlling interest in the company following the IPO. CIBC, Credit Suisse Group, Goldman Sachs and RBC Capital Markets will be leading Canada Goose’s IPO. The company plans to list its shares under the symbol GOOS.

These are just a few of the major brands and executives who attended The Gathering. Other notables included Jonathan Mildenhall of Airbnb and Ryan Collis of Mountain Dew. In fact Collis was the man who was front and centre in being responsible for the ‘Puppy, Monkey, Baby’ Super Bowl ad. You may have found it exceedingly perplexing, if not outright annoying, but Collis bets you didn’t forget it.

This year’s attendees of The Gathering have already marked Feb.21-23, 2018 on their calendars for the fifth annual event at Banff Springs, which is certain to be another sold-out extravaganza.