“A product with an audience is the Holy Grail the brands are seeking…” – Nathaniel Hill, McCann, talks working with brands

In our final interview with panelists at The Pixel Market Finance Forum, Nathaniel Hill, planning partner at creative agency McCann London, gives advice on working with brands.

Words by Melanie Goodfellow

Nathaniel Hill has been devising digital communication strategies for household brands such as Foster’s Lager, Virgin Atlantic, Nokia and Whiskas, since the late 1990s.

“I started out helping brands adapt to the digital age and that morphed into helping brands exist in a totally digital world” says Hill, who is responsible for the Microsoft and Cereal Partners accounts at McCann London.

“Brands have been entirely cross-media for the last 10 years, to one degree or another. Some might argue they’ve always been cross-media. David Ogilvy coined the term ‘360 Degree Brand Stewardship’ long before the Internet existed,” he adds, referring to the late advertising guru.

“What that meant at the time was that direct mail, the point of sale and television and press advertising didn’t necessarily give the same message but worked in harmony. Cross-media is not necessarily a new thing – digital has just upped the ante.”

Prior to joining McCann in August, Hill was head of strategy at Naked where he worked on campaigns such as Nokia Push, an open source, cross-media development platform aimed at hackers and makers, and Foster’s Funny (http://fostersfunny.co.uk/), a branded revival of the 90s Fast Show comedy series.

Hill notes one of the striking things about the above examples is that they are “relatively old”, dating back to 2011 and 2012 respectively.

“There’s been a lull in investment in innovation over the last two years,” he says.

“Brands work to tight margins and marketing budgets are often lean. They monitor Return On Investment (ROI) and traditional channels have more proof of ROI. In tight times, the industry tends to resort to more traditional channels. But confidence seems to be reappearing — partly due to more evidence of ROI for innovative campaigns and partly because people are more willing to take risks.”

Despite the more adventurous mood, Hill notes that brands are unlikely to take a punt on an untested project or product.

“There’s a tendency to view brands as angel investors, prepared to come in at the beginning of a project, but if you only have an idea and nothing to show for it, it’s unlikely to go anywhere. Brands aren’t short on ideas,” he says.

“But if you can say, ‘I have an idea, I’ve made it and proven it works’ and got it to the point where it has an audience, that’s immensely interesting. A product with an audience is the Holy Grail the brands are seeking,” he continues.

Hill cites dance music-streaming platform the Boiler Room as a textbook example of a cross-media operation with humble beginnings and a grassroots following, which now has brands knocking at its door.

“Brands look to projects that bolster the sort of credentials they’re looking to bolster – be it in innovation, style, technology, trust, music… there are many different ways of doing it,” he explains.

Launched in 2010 by a group of dance music enthusiasts, the Boiler Room grew out of a series of streamed DJ sessions in the disused boiler room of a dance magazine’s offices in East London.

Now dubbed the world’s leading underground music platform, it has satellite operations across the world and reaches more than five million people-a-month across its own website, You Tube and SoundCloud. Ray Ban and Adidas are just some of the brands to have worked with the platform.

According to the platform’s Wikipedia entry it has continued not to charge for its content and remain independent through partnerships with “selected brands who seek access to the Boiler Room audience and association with its perceived culture”.

“I think it’s telling that they started out duct taping a camera to the wall and now they cherry-pick ‘selected brands’,” says Hill.

Hear more from Nathaniel and other media experts at The Pixel Market Finance Forum (8 Oct) – ticket here.