Jon Cropper is Young & Rubicam’s creative content channel strategist, responsible for understanding new technologies and developing innovative advertising strategies. Before joining Y&R last year, he was already well known for unusual campaigns that make use of new formats to reach young people and out-of-the-mainstream demographic groups. He founded the boutique consulting firm IdeaSpa, which specialized in repositioning brands such as BMW and Playboy to appeal to younger consumers. Then he went to Nissan, where his 2003 campaign received a lot of attention for its controversial appropriation of anticorporate “culture jamming” techniques to sell cars. Nissan wrote graffitti on its own ad posters and created radio spots that appeared to have been “hacked” or interrupted by pirate broadcasters. Advertising Age called the Nissan effort one of the best nontraditional campaigns of the year, and Brandweek has named Cropper one of the best marketers under 40. He has also worked for MTV and Quincy Jones/Entertainment. Last but not least, he’s a gadget hound known for his personal style, particularly his trademark look of wearing two dress shirts at once.
WWD: Tell us a little bit about what you do.
Jon Cropper: My responsibility here is about injecting new energy and new ideas into this agency and looking at the world through kind of a different filter, that filter being storytelling as a tool to help brands connect with people with a greater degree of intimacy. And the way that you connect with people these days is really more of a whisper than it is shouting across a room, which is what some of the more traditional media tools are. I look at the modes we use to communicate and help our clients understand them better.
WWD: Tell us about “media splicing.”
J.C.: Basically, what’s so exciting is that there are about 19 different kinds of media that exist today: theater and events, live media, movies, satellite TV, broadcast TV, cable TV, terrestrial radio, satellite radio, terrestrial telephone, cell telephone, Internet telephone, magazines, book publishing, newspapers, audio CDs, DVD, outdoor TVs — giant plasma TVs — billboards and product packaging. There are also buildings, houses, sidewalks, digital radio and Internet radio. Do you know about Firefly [a natural herbal juice drink]? You submit photographs and if they like it, they’ll put it on the bottle. Media splicing is if you take two or more channels and combine them, it creates a new emotion point. You can get a radio signal through a phone today. You can have an outdoor video billboard receive a signal from a laptop and do video projecting in 18 cities at once. Or you can combine billboard, cell phone and video. So someone can call into a billboard and hear the audio that goes with the images. Now you have another sense that engages with that.
WWD: And you’ve created an event out of it.
J.C.: The consumption of that media becomes more mobile. Now the challenge is to create elegant ways of bringing experiences together so people remember them, and they pick up the phone and they tell their friends you gotta go down to the corner. That’s how legends and mythologies get seeded and planted.
WWD: What was your campaign for Nissan about?
J.C.: We had a car at Nissan, the Nissan Ultima. It’s the volume vehicle, we sell more of those than anything else. My job was to help figure out how to make that car more appealing to younger people. And I basically determined one of the ways we were going to make Nissan as a brand and Ultima under that brand more relevant was to connect it to content that meant something to the audience. So we decided to take the car and turn it into a mobile studio. We put, like, $100,000 of customization into that vehicle. We had audio recording in there, with a DAT machine that could record, video cameras inside the cabinet, turntables that could lift out of the trunk on a hydraulic and these speakers built into the lid on the trunk so you open the trunk and the deck had these speakers that could power a party for a thousand people. So it was a mobile entertainment center. And we found this girl [Sypher1] who was this amazing poet and we made her the voice of this campaign. She drove the car in 10 cities around the country and we scheduled her to go to events and concerts and clubs and pull up in this car. And we would have people like Alicia Keys and important artists from the music world who would come into the car and have an interview with her, almost like a talk show, and then we’d broadcast those interviews on the radio. We also repurposed those interviews into radio ads that sounded like the poet had hacked into the radio station. So you’re listening to the radio and it would cut to static and then it would say, “Hey I’ve broken into the system but I’ve only got 34 seconds before the signal cuts out. I’m here with whomever in my Ultima,” and then they’d have a little conversation, and we’d produce the spots where they’d fade in and out a little bit, so it sounded like the system was fading in and out. We called it “pirate media.”
WWD: I noticed the campaign got flak on the Web and in the media from people who didn’t think it was OK to use culture-jamming techniques to sell cars. What would you say to these critics?
J.C.: On some of the underground Web sites we definitely got some pushback from people who felt it was inappropriate for a corporate brand to kind of co-opt their art form for commercial means. Our response was that it’s just broadening the awareness of this art form to a broader audience. We welcomed that and are glad we started that kind of dialogue. [From] the target we were trying to reach, we got enormously positive feedback. And I would just end that thought by saying that really good marketing doesn’t speak to everyone and it can’t be all things to all people. It’s important to be respectful but don’t be afraid to take an intelligent risk. Have respect for the community you’re putting that message into, but recognize that you can’t be all things to all people. When you’re doing something progressive there will always be some group that won’t be happy with what you’ve done. That’s how Calvin Klein became a good brand.
WWD: Do you work on specific accounts at Young & Rubicam?
J.C.: I work across the agency. Right now I’ve got five or six different brands that I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about Vodaphone, the largest mobile phone operator in the world and one of our clients; luxury cars, Jaguar and Land Rover, Lincoln as well; Telefonica, a Latin phone operator. They control most of South America and Spain. I’m thinking about Cadbury-Schweppes, which is Dr Pepper and 7-Up, and the soft drink world.
WWD: What do fashion and technology have in common, if anything?
J.C.: Oh, there’s so much in common. I think of them as cultural movements that are always looking forward. A lot of industries are looking backward.
WWD: Which ones?
J.C.: I do think that some of the alcohol brands are always borrowing clichés from the past. A lot of those large-scale packaged goods companies are looking to the past. Fashion and technology are always looking forward, it’s always about constant innovation. Intel’s founder George Moore founded Moore’s Law, and Moore’s Law talks about the fact that processing speed doubles every 18 months. The innovative spirit that’s inherent in the fashion world is a similar kind of phenomenon. Although, actually, innovation occurs every quarter. Every season, it’s time for something new. So I think that “new” is the concept that leads through those two industries. I think that fashion and technology, in addition to both being forward-looking industries, are also industries that borrow from all kinds of cultural wells to find ideas and inspiration. And finally I think that fashion and technology are both very much linked to the identity systems of individuals. The kind of clothes you wear and your style is linked to what kind of technology you have that helps to enable or empower your lifestyle. And I include cars as technology, I include flying the Concorde as technology as much as some new watch that can do something really cool and track your heartbeat while you’re running.
WWD: What new technologies are the most exciting?
J.C.: I’m completely obsessed with the power of the mobile phone. As a creative tool, it can do image capture. My phone holds 45 seconds of video, and I’ve seen some that hold up to 18 minutes, and that chip is expanding at a rapid rate. It also holds numerous still images and can capture audio messages. Well, in storytelling all you need are a series of images in sequence and the right sonic energy over those images, and you’re making movies. You’re into storytelling, microcinema and all that. The phone is a production tool.
WWD: Are you sending other people any social message about yourself concerning your use of technology? And what would the message be if you could choose it?
J.C.: Having technology on your person and in your home that’s forward and new, that sends a really strong signal that you’re someone who cares about what’s coming and you actually live in the future. The future is already here, but most people don’t see it. You have to dig a little deeper to get into the developing curve. When I worked for Nissan I was able to go to Akihabura [the Tokyo neighborhood where some of the world’s most advanced consumer electronics first appear].
WWD: I would love to see it.
J.C.: That was an amazing thing [in Tokyo] when I saw a really high-quality projection from across the street onto the side of another building and it was as crisp as a high-quality large-format LCD screen that you might see in Times Square or something. That was a significant statement. I’m obsessed with projection media. There was this play that just opened in London, “The Woman in White” by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and this entire play is projected. There are no physical sets. The entire environment is all different projections. Theater is the business that we’re in. Everything is theater. And it just comes to what degree of personal humanity are you able to produce yours with. I think there’s such amazing power to be able to use these technologies to tell better stories.
WWD: Where did you get the idea to wear two shirts at once?
J.C.: I used to wear two shirts in high school. At that time it was a preppy thing. But it was more about trying to create your own little point of view. And I decided I would bring that back. And it’s funny because I see the point about individuality and expressing yourself any which way you want to, I see that increasing. As technology and media and all this stuff start to expand, we start to see that we have a greater desire to create an individual voice for ourselves. You know the democratization of the luxury movement that everyone’s talking about? I see the opposite trend starting to manifest itself, which is the one-of-a-kind, superlimited edition. As more things become more accessible, there seems to be a greater need to not just be another one of those who has the same look, the same ideas, the same energy.
WWD: Information is more readily available thanks to the Web. So if you’re into some particular kind of obscure music, for example, it’s much easier to find it than it used to be. In the fashion world you definitely see styles fragmenting. You can choose and mix and match styles a little more than in the past.
J.C.: I think customization and personalization are definitely big trends that we all have talked about but I’m seeing it manifest itself now in major ways. [When] Nokia [made it possible to change] the color of the face of your phone, that was a brilliant stroke. More colors are available for your car. There are more features and option packages than ever before. The speed at which most of these brands are producing new objects is accelerating. Because it used to be that something was so-called new longer. Now we don’t do new as long as we used to.
WWD: New has a shorter shelf life.
J.C.: The cycle of new is accelerating. And I think it’s even in relationships.
WWD: New technology is helping companies manufacture a wider variety of goods faster.
J.C.: It used to take a lot longer to build a house. Look at how quickly these skyscrapers are going up in Korea. Forty years ago something like 80 percent of the society was agrarian. And now it’s urban. I read somewhere that there’s something like 300 new skyscrapers going up in Shanghai.
WWD: Movies come and go so quickly it’s easy to miss them.
J.C.: I’d rather have fewer things of higher quality. I’d rather see fewer movies of higher quality, I’d rather have fewer things that I’d want to pass on to my children one day. [Patek Philippe’s] campaign for some time has been “You never really own one, you’re just a caretaker of this object.” I think that’s a powerful idea. As things become more disposable, value and durability is the countertrend. I really see that in a major way. That’s why classic, beautiful heritage brands like Jaguar will always be relevant.
WWD: By the way, getting back to your shirts. Is it still a preppy statement?
J.C.: No, not at all. Now it’s a basic statement of my inability to figure out what to wear in the morning coupled with — it’s more about confidence. What we wear is a signal to others. I think my particular message revolves around I appreciate and celebrate my uniqueness. My uniqueness and individuality is my contribution to society.
WWD: I’ve noticed that a lot of people who like technology don’t like fashion and vice versa.
J.C.: Really? That surprises me. I’m a student of this stuff. I look at a Tom Ford, Miuccia Prada, Yohji Yamamoto. Those are all technophiles, people who love architecture, who appreciate the analytical aspect of what they do and of the creative process. When you look at a Chanel jacket and the precision involved in that — and that’s why they retain their value. Those jackets have the little weights at the bottom so it hangs just properly. The stitching: that’s military precision. That’s the goal, if you’re going to play in any of these games, to be the [Michael] Jordan in your game. Jordan became the best in his field with an obsession with precision.
WWD: Do you have any ideas about how the fashion industry can make use of what’s happening in the world of technology?
J.C.: I think anyone in the world of fashion could really benefit pretty dramatically from hanging out in an advanced laboratory of some of the best consumer electronics companies in the world. You’re going to see in those labs angles and visions of how the human-tech interface works that definitely could influence the direction of a collection.
WWD: You know how you were talking about both technology and fashion being related to identity? Do you see that also as being connected to brands?
J.C.: All brands are striving to connect to people in one way or another. All good brands have a clear point of view that help people define their identities. The Toyota Prius in my mind is a brand that has an extremely clear point of view. I think if you show up in a Toyota Prius, you’re making a statement about yourself that you care about the environment, you’re probably a left-leaning person. So that’s a technology that’s become a fashion statement and has helped to define that brand. I think that a really great marketing strategy is a technology that should have or be almost like a fashion kind of thing. I think that really powerful elegant strategic ideas have to embrace those worlds and four to five other key elements to have the potential to become iconic and almost cultlike, where a brand transcends commercialism and becomes almost like a religion.