, Partner & Chief Social Officer at Mekanism
, has been at the forefront of social & influencer marketing since 2006, developing social campaigns for brands such as Mountain Dew, Unilever, Amazon, 20th Century Fox, and The Olympics. Brendan was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2012 and his agency was recognized as Digiday’s Digital Video Agency of the year in 2017.
Gahan is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The Guardian, Ad Age, and CNBC for his expertise in social media and influencer marketing expertise.
Have a sense of humor. Recognize that advertising is not life or death. We’re selling products and not working on an operating table.
MEDIA 7: What inspired you to get into advertising? Please take us through your journey.
BRENDAN GRAHAN: As an 80’s kid, I grew up in the era of Air Jordan. To me, those commercials were as cool as the movies or TV shows I was watching at that time (oftentimes even more so). From the outside, it looked exciting and glamorous. Lucky for me, after graduating from college, I got the opportunity to intern at a boutique agency in San Francisco. I remember the first time I walked into that office. It reaffirmed all those ideas I’d had about advertising being a ‘cool’, creative career.
I got started in 2005. Social media was just taking off. Facebook, YouTube, and Myspace started getting real traction. I was really fortunate in that I was tapped to provide insight into this newly emerging landscape. I loved it and I latched onto it. Eventually, I did my first influencer marketing deal in 2006. From there I never looked back.
After my first job, I joined Mekanism. They were at the forefront of digital and social. We were among the first to use influencers. We did a ton of "viral" content and being innovative, continuously breaking new ground. We were building up an influencer marketing and social media team years before anyone else.
From there I joined the startup in LA before striking it out on my own and starting an influencer marketing agency. I ended up selling that to Mekanism (that’s a whole other story), and have been overseeing the social media team within Mekanism for the last 6 years.
M7: Congratulations on becoming a part of history! Since 2015, Joe Biden has been associated with Mekanism and the logos for his presidential campaigns have been designed by your team. How was the experience like and what were your takeaways from it?
BG: The Mekanism team did an incredible job on the Biden for President brand identity and logo. I can't take any credit for working on that campaign (unfortunately). But, I’m super proud of the work that the team did.
Mekanism’s relationship with the president dates back to 2015 when we began work on It’s On Us, a campaign to stop sexual assault on college campuses. A project I was fortunate enough to have worked on with then-Vice President Biden and team. Our efforts helped drive over half a million pledges on the site. It was rewarding to work on a project for such a great cause.
YouTube is really the gold standard. There’s a real relationship between viewer and creator that is tough to beat.
M7: You have been at the forefront of social & influencer marketing since 2006, developing social campaigns for brands like Mountain Dew, Unilever, Amazon, 20th Century Fox, and The Olympics. What is your approach to research and ideating these campaigns?
BG: The future of influencer marketing is going to look more like athlete endorsements. The Nike + Jordan model applied to influencers is the way to go. It helps build credibility (for both the brand and creator). The era of paying for shoutouts and leveraging influencers purely as media outlets are dying.
As a result, our approach is to work with brands that buy into this philosophy. We like to get hands-on immerse creators in the brand. We love it when we can have the influencers go to a brand’s headquarters, meet the team, etc. Where possible we integrate influencers across campaign touchpoints and integrate them into the advertising. Anything to make it more meaningful.
Too often brands give influencers a brief and leave it at that. We do not buy into that approach.
M7: What social channels do you use for effective brand promotion and which ones do you see as the most promising, given your target audience?
BG: Every campaign is unique. Ultimately, you need to customize your approach based on the audience and objective. However, I personally feel that YouTube is really the gold standard. Audiences tend to be far more rabid there than on other platforms. There’s a real relationship between viewer and creator that is tough to beat. If done well, YouTube is generally the most effective channel.
I think there’s a huge opportunity with any emerging platform. You have the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond. If you’re early and you build a following, you generally grow at a disproportionate rate of later adopters who are facing more content as competition. At this moment, I’d point to TikTok, Clubhouse, and Dispo as being great places to build audiences. Generally, if you’re early to a platform you can garner a disproportionate amount of value.
For example, on YouTube median views per video in 2006 was 10,262. By 2016 it had declined to 89! That’s a multiple of 115! You look and see the same thing happening on Facebook, Instagram, etc. On Facebook, organic reach has plummeted from 16% in 2012 to low single digits today. Right now is always the time to strike with emerging platforms. There’s a lot of change happening right now and with change comes opportunity.
Right now is always the time to strike with emerging platforms. There’s a lot of change happening right now and with change comes opportunity.
M7: What do you believe are the top three advertising challenges in the post COVID-19 era?
BG: Covid just accelerated most of what was already happening in the industry. Last year, e-commerce advertising grew 30X faster than the wider online ad market. There was an 11% increase in e-commerce (as a share of total U.S retail sales). Brands spent $58.5bn advertising across e-commerce platforms, omnichannel retailers, and social commerce.
It’s clear the future is social + commerce. The industry has had to adapt to that from a content development/creative perspective, media buying, as well as measurement. All these challenges really intersect.
At this stage, there’s no going back. A new way of shopping and a foundational shift in content consumption has occurred.
M7: How do you target content to your audience, and what are your best practices to produce effective content?
BG: There is no one size fits all answer. Ultimately, the best way to come up with the answer is to start with the solution you want and work backward. Our creative approach at Mekanism is best described as "The Soul and Science of Storytelling": Communicating a brand's purpose with ideas informed by data and rooted in human truths. You leverage the data and insights you have to inform amazing creativity.
M7: Words of wisdom for advertising professionals?
BG: I’ve found that those who look for inspiration beyond advertising tend to have more inspiring careers. So, for anyone just starting out, it would really work to develop a perspective and skillset beyond just advertising. Zero in on something in culture or technology that is growing and invest in that (in addition to advertising) this helps differentiate yourself.
Also, have a sense of humor. Recognize that advertising is not life or death. We’re selling products and not working on an operating table.
Mekanism is an award-winning, independent, full-service advertising agency made up of creative entrepreneurs. With offices in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Seattle, we serve as collaborative business partners to some of the world’s greatest brands, including Ben & Jerry’s, Peloton, Jose Cuervo, OkCupid, Charles Schwab and Alaska Airlines.
In 2020, The Effie Index named Mekanism as the #6 Most Effective Independent Agency in the United States. Mekanism has also been named to Ad Age’s Agency A List and twice to their Best Places to Work. Our work hasalso been profiled by The New York Times, Fast Company and ABC’s Nightline and studied by Harvard Business School.