Business Interviews Marketing & PR

Q&A: James Swindells, Powster

By | Published on Tuesday 23 December 2014

James Swindells

This interview from the recent M For Montreal conference appeared in the December 2014 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium

Not only has digital become the primary way many consumers buy or listen to music, digital channels are now also key to the music industry’s marketing campaigns, and just as new technologies mean digital music consumption is constantly evolving, the same is true of digital marketing.

James Swindells works for Powster, a London-based creative agency that works with entertainment companies on innovative content-led marketing campaigns based around social media and other digital platforms. The company grew out founder Ste Thompson’s innovative work in creating banner advertising for music and clubbing clients, with the business now combining it team’s skills in design, animation, film and social media technologies to create marketing campaigns that grab consumer attention and get people talking.

Swindells uses one of his company’s earliest projects to explain how a combination of creative ideas and understanding how social media platforms work can make an artist or album really stand out. “In 2010, we got a call from Warner UK to pitch a campaign for the release of Pendulum’s track ‘Witchcraft’. It had a massive eye on its pack shot, which we felt had a witch-doctor feel about it, and we started playing with ideas around witch-doctors and voodoo and one-person exerting control over another. Which led us to think about how that could be achieved in a digital sense, giving the impression of your computer being taken over”.

“What we came up with was the idea of replicating the user’s Facebook profile” he goes on, “so that they thought they were on that site, but actually it was on our server, so we could do odd and spooky things with it. Warner loved the idea, so we had to start working out how to make it happen. In the end, we had a countdown to the single release, via which users could opt in, giving us the Facebook access permissions we needed, though at this point they didn’t now why. The countdown then continued for a couple of weeks, which was great because by the time the experience occurred most people had forgotten they had signed up”.

“When the countdown was zero, next time the user logged on they could load what we called the Witchcraft experiment. It would load but at 99% would say ‘error, redirecting to profile’. It took the user back onto what looked like their Facebook profile – we had pulled in the content dynamically – but it would look a bit weird. And what was weird about it was that all their friends were posting things like ‘where have you been, you need to get out of here’. And by the time you’ve clocked that as a user, your status starts typing ‘you’ve got to get out of here’, and your profile picture gets static interference, and then the eye from the cover appears, the track plays, ink seems to splurge out onto the profile and the video appears”.

“The point is” Swindells explains, “Facebook is fairly untouchable, you can’t do anything with their design and branding, so the very idea that your Facebook profile has behaved in this way is quite sensational. The response was great, it was the first ever Facebook takeover. Of course Facebook forced it down, but that gave the campaign – and therefore the single release – legendary status”.

It’s a great creative idea for a marketing campaign, though the conclusion of the story – Facebook intervening, and subsequently making it impossible to stage such a takeover again – demonstrates how the kind of marketing Powster does has two levels to it: the need to innovate creatively, as with any marketing campaign, but also the need to keep very up to date with what is and isn’t possible in the ever changing world of social media and other digital channels. Though, whereas those managing Facebook profiles or social media advertising might find the constant changes on the social networks irritating, for Swindells it’s invigorating.

“Changes in social media, in video technologies, and other digital platforms, it actually helps us, because as we learn what is possible with each new development, it inspires new ideas of what we can do with clients. Sometimes in a major way sometimes in a relatively small simple way”.

“To give an example of the latter, a couple of years ago Facebook started putting the five most recent tagged photos at the top of your profile. We noticed that some people were exploiting this, for example taking a panoramic image and then uploading it in bits and tagging each picture sequentially, so they would appear cut across the five photo boxes at the top. It was fun, and we pitched something similar into a few clients. We did it for Justin Bieber, for example, so his fans could create a message to a friend using different words contained within images. It’s a simple example of how something changes and opens up a new possibility. So we are constantly looking at new features and changes in the rules”.

Much of Powster’s work with the major music companies has been about getting people talking – usually starting with existing connected fans, getting them excited again, encouraging them to share with their own networks, and ultimately getting press coverage. There will be the usual ‘click to buy’ buttons at the end of the experience, though it seems the mission is more about grabbing attention.

Though the firm does also look at ways that technological developments can enhance the sell-through too. “On the film side of our business, we have developed apps that pull in show times for screenings at cinemas around you, and then offer an invite function. These apps are built around the movie being promoted, with the artwork and trailer and other content, but by using APIs we pull in listings and booking info local to you. They can then click through to the point of purchase at the cinema. It makes the process of getting excited about a film to finding out about screening times to buying tickets much more seamless”.

While those developments are mainly occurring in the film space, what works for movies could be translated over to music, especially as labels, who tend to be Powster’s main clients, start to take an interest – both commercially and in marketing terms – in the output of their artists beyond download and streams. Meaning that even in the digital marketing space, technological developments are changing the business, creatively and, ultimately, commercially.

This report from the recent M For Montreal conference appeared in the December 2014 edition of the CMU Trends Report. Buy our reports from the CMU Shop or get every edition by signing up for CMU Premium