Erik Lokkesmoe, Principal at Aspiration Studios (Nashville, TN), provides insights into how strong branding, a brand’s relational partners, and brand-based distribution systems are changing marketing; highlights how some of the “newer players” (NetFlix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) are tracking audiences’ viewing data to establish future project direction; and comments on how marketing metrics illustrates the critical alliance between marketing’s creative side and its service side. Aspiration specializes in distribution (theatrical through digital) and marketing (ideation through execution) for films, TV, and media programming.
In this interview, Erik explains the differences between and impacts of:
- Integrated, technology-driven marketing distribution vs. the more traditional functional siloing
- Relational partners (leaning in together) vs. transactional partners (breakdown potential)
- The “Blue ocean” strategy (uncontested market space) vs. “red oceans” where competitors fight for dominance
Erik spent 10 years in politics, where he learned about marketing . . . and that politics was not nearly as effective in shaping hearts, minds, behavior, and beliefs as was storytelling. Today, he is a “producer of marketing distribution” for “makers of content” (creatives). He identifies three issues driving marketing and content today:
- We have the “most cluttered” marketplace in history
- Audiences are “tribal”?more fragmented and segmented than ever
- Traditional systems and old ways of doing things are breaking down.
He also defines three ideals that motivate younger generations:
- Community (belonging to something)
- Craft (being good at something)
- Cause (believing in something)
Erik authored the book, Different Drummer. Theme? Intentional avoidance of “common knowledge” communications to facilitate independent thinking. Erik is available on Twitter at: @eriklokkesmoe and @AspirationHQ. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org and the company website is: https://aspiration.is/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am very excited to be joined today by Erik Lokkesmoe, Principal at Aspiration Studios and an author. He’s based in Nashville, Tennessee. Welcome, Erik.
ERIK: Rob, good to be with you.
ROB: Great to have you on here. Why don’t you tell us what Aspiration Studios is and what you’re great at? Go for it.
ERIK: That’s what my wife asks every day, like “What do you do all day?” [laughs] I get coffee and beer, basically with friends.
No, this is a long-term, long-time-coming type of work that I do. Just to go back a little bit, I started in politics out of college. Went to Washington, D.C., worked as a speechwriter and press secretary. About 10 years in, I was realizing I wanted to get out of this crazy world.
But it did teach me a lot about audiences, marketing. I had a real interest in the creative sector of Hollywood—arts, entertainment, media. Partly that was developed because we were seeing in politics that there was something upstream that was shaping hearts and minds and behavior and beliefs far more than political life.
You recognize quickly that it is really the storytellers, the creatives, the makers of society, of culture, of cultural goods that are far more powerful in shaping people than politics. We talked about that being politics is downstream from the creative, because as we all know, a song, a movie, fashion is much more interesting in how it shapes us and forms us internally than a bill passing on the floor. Both important.
But certainly I recognized that early on and got into entertainment, and really the last 12 years I’ve been trying to understand what’s happening with audience trends, technology, distribution, production. How do we, as a company, figure out 3 years ahead what is going to be the way audiences consume content? How do creators create better content? How do technology and distribution affirm that for an audience and for the maker?
ROB: Interesting. It seems to me largely there’s a promotional and marketing role to what you do, but there’s also production, there’s a broader storytelling piece. How does all that fit together, if someone’s saying, “I know what a marketing agency is”? What is the scope of what Aspiration does?
ERIK: We’re called producers of marketing distribution, and that is really a unique term and a new term. As more and more independent filmmakers have risen up and as the democratization of Hollywood has spread, more and more, as you know, makers of content (whether it’s books, music, film) have to take more and more on as their own roles and their own work.
A producer of marketing distribution is really sitting next to them and saying, “Okay, you’re making something, you’ve made something. Maybe you’re in the first days of development of your script. How do we begin to think of audience from Day 1? How do we begin to acquire an audience?”
How do we begin to understand who we’re talking to—and then let’s talk-about distribution, which is now wide open. It’s not a closed system anymore. It makes sense to people who are in marketing that, “Oh, audiences. Consumers. You should think about audience/consumers with your product Day 1.”
But most of Hollywood traditionally has been “investment in an idea.” Greenlight a project based upon a whim, a fancy, a talent, something that is really abstract, a comp, something that is trendy. Then, when they’re done with that production, they sit back and go, “Okay marketing team, who’s our audience?” and you’ve already invested upwards of tens of millions of dollars, potentially. That’s just, you’d think, completely insane, but that’s how it’s been run for so many years.
Now, more and more people like us are sitting there and saying we have to have a direct-to-consumer strategy. We have to know our audience. We can’t just ask them to buy a ticket or to swipe or to click; we have to involve them from Day 1, if we can.
ROB: How long do you think this separation of projects that are baked and built and then, “Hey, go market this”—how long is that divide going to last, with that on one side and then where you’re thinking about a project from the inception, from: “Who is this audience?” “What does that mean for distribution?” “What that means for how it will be brought to the audience?”
Do you think that most things will go to a more intentional approach, or do you think there’s always going to be this synthesized blockbuster model as well?
ERIK: That’s a great question. There’s two things going on. One is that traditional Hollywood structures—think about a studio—is literally physically built that way, where you have buildings for marketing, a building for digital, a building for production, a building for distribution, and they’re all siloed off and really transactional. They just get passed around with the property.
So that’s partly going to have to change, and it is changing. There’s many, many smart people that are thinking about integration of audience marketing distribution. That’s being driven by new technology, new platforms—like Netflix, like Amazon Prime and Hulu and so many others, cable—who are thinking about these platforms.
The first thing they’re seeing is data. What are these consumers clicking on? What are they watching? How long are they watching? What are they drawn to? How do we understand them first? That ecosystem is now self-contained, which is an incredible thing, and very insular and a closed wall. We don’t know the data that they have.
The other thing that’s happening is just the necessity of economics and the rise of the independent is going to force this to happen. The independent filmmaker in particular is having to wear many hats, as I said, but is understanding more and more and driving the change.
I’ve got to think about distribution as I’m raising funds for my production. I’ve got to think about my audience over the next couple years because I need to build a brand as a filmmaker, let’s say, that allows me to go back to my second project and my third project with an audience already in place.
We talk about this a lot in our company. There’s three things that are driving marketing these days and content. One is it’s the most cluttered marketplace in history. That’s a Seth Godin term. The second is audiences are more fragmented and segmented than ever. We’re all in our tribes. Thirdly is that the traditional systems and old ways of doing things that were once so reliable are now breaking down.
You put those three things into a cocktail, you mix that up and try to drink it, it’s going to be a poison for most content creators because the solution ends up being, “I need money or I need something, a studio, to take this on” when the answer really is—I think—it’s about brands.
It’s about building a brand that means something with an audience, that allows them to say, “I’m with you. I’m loyal to this filmmaker” or “I trust this curated platform because they know and serve me well.” Something’s going to have to provide the consumer a better way to understand what’s available and what’s good.
ROB: What are some of those brands that are coming up, whether those are people or companies or channels, that you think are communicating well with an audience right now?
ERIK: On the film side, I use the example of Pixar, Marvel, Fox Searchlight, and Disney. Think about it in that sense.
I have three kids, and if a Pixar film comes up—I don’t even know what it is, the title, may not have seen the trailer—I’m going. A family is going to go see a Pixar movie because it’s built a trust and we know the quality. We know that it’s good storytelling. That is a brand. That means something to a family.
Fox Searchlight. Smart, interesting, arthouse type of movies. Has a following, has a brand.
If I said Universal or Warner Brothers or Netflix, that’s mostly seen as a global company, a curated company, an entertainment company, a platform, but there’s not a distinct brand of, “I know what I’m getting when I go to see a Paramount movie.” I know I’m getting a big movie, and that’s good, but I’m not saying it’s thrillers or it’s horrors or it’s comedy. It’s everything.
Netflix, I think the challenge will be—what is Netflix’s brand beyond just being a household delivery system? You’re seeing what’s happening. The original content they’re building is trying to create a Netflix style of content.
But beyond that, I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to see anybody or any entity that has a following or has an audience is going to create its own delivery system. The OTT, SVOD (subscription-based VOD), all these terms and acronyms.
If I’m Under Armour, I’m doing that. Obviously you’ve seen the Red Bull and GoPro. If I’m Chipotle, I’m doing that. I have loyal consumers who are looking for content, so why wouldn’t I build something that delivers content to them?
ROB: You mentioned Disney, Pixar, Fox Searchlight. There’s a certain element where they’re still building on a lot of brand already underneath them. I’m sure you quite often work with people who are in an earlier stage of that as well. How do you talk to them about building—I’m sure it starts with the audience—but how to get from an unknown to a brand?
Thankfully they have the advantage of the traditional ways that are breaking down, but they don’t necessarily have strength there anyhow. But everybody’s fighting with cluttered and fragmented and even, “Do I put my content through Netflix? Do I do an OTT channel myself? Do I go through Amazon?”
How do people start becoming that brand? I think that applies more broadly, and not just in content, even.
ERIK: It’s a great question. I think it always starts with this question of what is different about what you’re doing. If you’re trying to replicate and chase the current market, I think you’re going to be frustrated from Day 1 and all the way through your project because there’s so much that’s changing by the moment.
So I think you’ve got to be different. You’ve got to think ahead. You have to create something that has an existing audience. It scares me when I see projects that have maybe a beautiful script or they made the film, and you just don’t know who it’s even for.
You can spend time and money and strategy and build an audience—it’s happened in the past, and there’s a lot of success with that—but I’d much rather have a project that begins to think, what are the nonprofit partners? Maybe it’s regional partners.
A friend of mine is doing a film with the University of Georgia—I know it’s probably a curse word to you, Rob, because of your background. [laughs] But he’s doing a film about mascots, and the University of Georgia, I believe, is completely involved in it. So he’s already starting with this base of alumni and loyal fans and students.
To me, you have to start from a perspective of: “Do I have a great story? What is different and fresh about it? What’s the grit it’s going to take? It’s going to clearly take a lot of work to begin building small communities, one by one fans.
And then—I think overall, this is the challenge for anybody making content—how do you find the relational partners that are going to be with you for the long haul? So many things we see that break down are transactional deals. They’re trying to do a transactional deal with a distributor or with a foreign sales agency or a publicist. It’s all just very much transactional, and really the best projects are those that have communities of friends, of allies that are leaning in together.
One of our investors says this well. He says “You want partners that share the champagne . . . and share the aspirin.” You want a partner who shares with your victory and celebrates, but also feels the pain. If you lose or you don’t do well, you want partners who feel that as well.
That’s one challenge in marketing agencies. I say this as an experience of this—if a project goes south, do I get paid still? I’m disappointed for them, but I’m still winning. How do you have alignment with your project and your partners so that everyone is pointed the same direction and feels the same pain and the same celebration?
ROB: I appreciate that. There’s an intentionality and an empathy there.
If I zoom out a little bit from your path, it seems that you have quite often taken an intentional path. I could certainly imagine a world where you just continued following the train of politics to some logical conclusion where you’re the congressman from Orange County or something, I don’t know.
Or within film, you could certainly seize on very large marketing budgets and coast and have that disconnection from the outcome. Even where you choose to be business-wise, I would imagine that the default choice in entertainment is not Nashville, Tennessee. There’s strength there, but it’s not the same. It’s not the #1 place you go.
Tell me a little bit about some of those choices that weren’t necessarily the obvious choice, and what drives you in that.
ERIK: I love that question, Rob. I don’t get asked that a lot because I think most of the time it looks like I’m jumping from thing to thing. But it has been intentional, as much as I can control.
I wrote a book called Different Drummer, which was a company I started that was successful in the alternative marketing space. In that book, I talk about when I was a press secretary, how I would never go to the official press secretary meetings where they hand out the talking points and the agenda for the week. I think I went to one. I didn’t want to conform to the party line, literally. I didn’t want to conform to what others were doing.
In the same way, look at Nashville—a city that, in the next 5 to 10 years, will be a dominant story center. It is Storyville here, from music to healthcare and technology and eventually film. You have storytellers here. Publishing as well.
In entertainment and politics, I’ve always seen things as, what does it mean to be a different drummer? I don’t want to play the game out to have a lifestyle company that I feel makes a good salary. I’m willing to take the risk to see what else is possible.
That blue ocean idea, blue ocean and blue collar, really defines the company for us. There’s so much red ocean. There’s so many competitors lowering the costs of their services or trying to squeeze more value for their clients. I’m much more interested in asking—I see all these little various fragments of opportunity; how do you assemble something that changes distribution or changes the way audiences engage with content?
I’ll just tell you a quick story, if I can. What troubles me about what’s happening with the industry as it relates to artist and maker—this is part of my bent, has been how do you shepherd and care for the artist and the maker? I really do believe they’re essential to what the future society looks like. They’re often disregarded or not seen as a utility that’s helpful and useful to society, but they are. There’s such a power there.
There’s a story of the Gold Rush period, which was the greatest migration of Americans across the current history of America. It’s people leaving family farms and businesses from the East Coast/Midwest and traveling West because at Sutter’s Mill, someone had discovered gold in the river.
There were those that traveled across the plains, went over the Rockies and Sierras into the foothills of the Sierras. There’s others who traveled by boat, went down and across Panama—which was pre-canal, so they hiked 30 miles on mosquito-infested mud trails with their belongings to board a boat that went up the coast to San Francisco.
I was telling this story today, that much of San Francisco, the reason it’s unsettling ground, literally, it’s because the boats that were abandoned by the sailors is how they built the city. They moved dirt over those boats and built the city on top of it, part of it. The sailors were rushing up to the foothills as well, because tens of thousands of people are coming into the rivers there.
It’s total chaos, and yet you have all these dreamers. You have all these people who are just a pan or a shovel away from making it rich. That was the first time in history you could literally put your shovel in the water, in the soil, and you could be rich. That never happened in human history, certainly American history.
So what happened? Over years, gold started drying up, people get disillusioned. There’s violence, there’s people who are desperate. They leave. The question is, who profited the most out of the Gold Rush? It was those selling whiskey and shovels.
The whole of California is still built upon, and much of America is built upon, the idea of—“I’m only one project away.” In Silicon Valley, “I’m only one app away from being rich and famous.” “I’m only one movie away from this or that.” That’s still in the soil of California.
But it concerns me that much of the industry is built upon feeding off of false hopes and aspirations of dreamers. I really want to see the alignment between the creative and the support side.
Much of what you do I think is fascinating because you’re providing measurables to clients and customers to see what’s real. There’s no more of this false numbers and exaggeration that swirls around projects. It’s like, “This is working, this is not.” That’s the beautiful thing about that alignment between creative and the service side.
ROB: I definitely appreciate that. Erik, I think it would be helpful to get a real sense of what you do and where your heart is. If you could share a couple of the projects that you have worked on or that are coming up for you that are meaningful, I think that will help us fill in a little bit of the color and shape of what Aspiration really is. What’s been meaningful?
ERIK: We’ve had the benefit of working on 100+ projects and networks, shows, movies that mostly fit this aspirational audience—which is a very interesting conversation for a later time, the surge of aspirational-minded audiences.
But really, from Disney projects—Frozen, which is a big one obviously, but also much more of the arthouses like Tree of Life, Calgary. We produced a movie called Last Days in the Desert with Ewan McGregor that came to Sundance in 2015, premiered there.
Right now we’re working on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mister Rogers film which comes to theatres this summer, June 8th. It’s a doc, but we’re helping the studio market this because really it’s such a transcendent theme.
We’ve seen audiences come away very emotional about not just nostalgia for him as an amazing figure—a consistent, authentic figure in the history of television—but also because there’s this longing for kindness. There’s a crisis of kindness. People realize, “Who is Mister Rogers?” A need for having him and his voice sweeps over the audience.
So that one is a special film. Focus Features is doing a marvelous job with Morgan Neville, who’s the director. A beautiful, beautiful story.
We have several in production, several that we’re marketing. We work with Nat Geo channel on many of their projects. There’s just so many projects that are coming that have this bent toward legacy for the creator. The filmmakers want to leave an impact, they want to leave a legacy. It’s not just about the dollar. And there’s an audience that’s shifting into this, “if I’m going to give you 2 hours of my time, it’d better well be worth it.”
That’s where we feel our sweet spot is—not just entertainment. There’s many companies that do that well, and that’s great. But there’s something about this screen-forward view of entertainment where something happens on the screen, big or small, that helps me think, “What else?” and moves me in a way that I’m haunted by it. After the credits roll, I’m haunted by something I can’t explain, but I want to do something. I want to aspire to do something. That’s really the sweet spot for us as a company.
ROB: I think that really does help. You talk about Mister Rogers; there’s a familiarity, there’s a built-in audience, as you said, but it seems like the film is a fresh take on that. It’s not something that simply takes the audience for granted. It’s not a bunch of Mister Rogers clips.
When you talk about Last Days in the Desert, it has a familiar religious bent to it. It’s about Jesus. But it’s actually, in a way, about a white space in Scripture, a fill-in-the-blank conversation. But it doesn’t take the audience for granted.
I think that’s such a challenging slot to fit in, but I’m glad that you’re able to find these projects and help get them in. I want to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? now.
ERIK: You’re right, there’s a slot. We call it the middle space between—we describe it in a very simplistic way—there’s this “mass & crass” content and there’s this ideological “teach & preach,” very agenda-driven content, political/ideological, could be faith, whatever.
Then there’s a middle, where it’s “heart & smart.” It’s really an audience that wants to be moved intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
I think there’s a lot of artists in there that are always leaving the tension of what is, what could be, how do they wrestle with their own demons and their own angels—just what does life look like, what it could be for themselves and others. That’s not a great logline for movies because the audience is not clearly moved by a new TV ad. It’s moved by other things: meaning, purpose, beauty.
I think, as marketers, that’s the tension we all feel as well. There’s things that we love to market. We love feeling the audience or the consumer moved by something with meaning. There’s also stuff we have to market because it’s just being a good steward of our clients and of the product we’re asked to serve on.
But I think we’re all bent toward, ultimately at the end of the day, end of our career, to say, “I worked on these five things that moved the needle, moved people, and is contributing to society’s overall good.”
ROB: Erik, what are some things that you’ve learned building Different Drummer and now Aspiration Studios that you would think about doing differently if you were starting fresh?
ERIK: Oh gosh. [laughs] I love that hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I love that I’m not at the point where I can’t take those learnings and figure things out.
I do think much of what we’ve been asked to work on is not just giving solutions, but also telling people, “There’s a bunch of hazards and potholes and cars in a ditch back there, so watch where you’re going.” [laughs] It’s a bit of warnings and learnings from all of our own challenges and mistakes.
I think for me, if the question is what would I look back and do differently or think about, it would be the importance of staying true to your purpose, your mission, your calling, your vocation. As much as we are drawn to be professional plate spinners—we’re interested, we’re curious and want to work on a lot of different things—the way the world is going is be really good at something.
A friend of mine was talking to us the other day and he said there’s three things driving younger generations, motivating them. It’s community, craft, and cause. It’s belonging to something, being good at something, and believing in something.
To me, that’s where I always feel like if I just stick to that and if I always try to stick to that—that’s where I get off the rails; I think that I should be doing something else or different. If I’m with the people that I care about, I’m doing things that matter, and I’m doing something that I’m good at, those three C’s (craft, community, and cause), when they align I do feel like we are doing great work for great projects.
ROB: That makes a ton of sense. I think that’s a recipe also for a deeper contentment than some people find sometimes in their work. We can get caught up trying to be the one best person at this thing, but when we look at how we’re gifted and what matters to us and how we do it—particularly with a faith perspective that we’re not valued-based on just what we do, that we have intrinsic value—it seems like a healthier recipe than just trying to chase the stars.
ERIK: Yes, exactly. That’s the great thing about the creative space, entertainment in particular. It has to be collaborative. It’s impossible to do it all yourself, and it’s impossible to think you have all the answers.
I’ve had the benefit of living in cities that are highly collaborative, and I’ve also lived in cities that are highly selfish. I’ve lived in D.C. People tend to not be there for the money, but there for the cause. They’re locking arms with people who are likeminded.
I’ve lived in L.A., which has this sense of “If you’re winning, I’m losing.” It’s like, you’re an actor. I’m not even in your space. I’m glad you’re doing well. But there’s a sense of envy if someone else is advancing. I’m generalizing of course, but it just feels like you’re losing if someone’s winning.
Then I lived in New York for 4 years and there’s this tribe and unity of New Yorkers, like “we’re in it together.”
I feel like Nashville has a sense of all those in many ways combined. The creative community here is very collaborative. They’re looking out for each other, they want each other to win—at least on the surface. It’s a good Southern hospitality side of it. [laughs] But there’s a sense of, we celebrate with each other and we’re in it together.
I meet filmmakers all the time who are like, “How can we make Nashville a great filmmaking center?” It’s going to take more than just one company or one person or one project.
ROB: Super wise. Very good, Erik. When someone wants to get in touch with you and Aspiration, how should they find you?
ERIK: There’s a couple ways. I’m always either spouting off on Twitter or just watching my friends spout off on Twitter. I’m @eriklokkesmoe there and @AspirationHQ. I’m also fine with getting emails: email@example.com.
Check us out on our socials too. We’re oftentimes traveling with films, we’re oftentimes doing public events, so we’d love to connect with people that you’re connected with.
And of course, we’d love people to read the book that we have. I’m giving a lot of those away, so if you have someone who really wants it for free, I’ll send it to them. As a starving artist author that I am on that side, it’s fine.
ROB: [laughs] That’s fantastic, Erik. For sure, if you’re listening and you see a project that Aspiration is working on and it connects with something that matters to you, I definitely encourage you to check it out. It’s thoughtful, it’s high quality, and I’m so glad it’s on my radar. Thank you, Erik, for sharing today.
ERIK: Thank you, Rob. Pleasure.
ROB: Take care.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.