The Bonfire Agency heats up, Part 2: Steve Rotterdam

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[Yesterday we chatted with one half of the Bonfire Agency, Ed Catto. Today we grill Steve Rotterdam on the nerd marketing equation, Bonfire's research and consulting activities, and whether Patton Oswalt was right about too much geek being a bad thing.

Steve Rotterdam served as partner and Chief Creative Officer at the East West Agency before joining DC Comics as Sr. VP Sales and Marketing for three years. His background gives his take on the comics industry and where it is going an informed and unique perspective.]

THE BEAT: Steve, I’ll ask you what I asked Ed: For those who are not as into the world of Madison Avenue, can you explain just what an agency like Bonfire does?

ROTTERDAM: Agencies – advertising, marketing, promotion, branding, digital…however they position themselves –are, fundamentally, in the service business. They exist to help brands create and deepen connections with customers. And those customers can be consumers, retailers, distributors, exhibitors, even press. When it comes to our collective corner of the multiverse – what the uninitiated might call geek or comic or fan culture – the brands that naturally play in this sandbox are comprised mostly of video game publishers, movie studios, home entertainment distributors and, often as a result of contractual obligations, licensees of intellectual properties ranging from Spider-Man and Green Lantern to Witchblade and Death Note. In most cases, these brands “get it” and get us, because we’re their core consumers.

Steve_Rotterdam-570x855.jpgBrands not already woven into the fabric of our culture – and that’s most of them – have a harder time. Remember, we’re a demographic that likes to read – for fun! While brands are blown away by our passion, they’re often frightened by our intellect. While they respect our power to set and influence cultural trends, they freak out when they fall short of our expectations and we tell everyone we know all about it – by every means available. Most brands and their traditional agency partners just don’t know how to talk to us. But they will try. And, more often than not, they will fail. Bonfire was created in part to service these brands – to build relevant bridges between them and an audience of consumers that just might become their most effective advocates, if they could only learn to swim in our pool without inadvertently peeing in it.

THE BEAT: You’re coming off a stint with a large comics publisher. What is the biggest lesson from that period that you are bringing to Bonfire?

ROTTERDAM: There are so many, Heidi. I think the biggest lesson, at least in relation to Bonfire and the ways in which we intend to work with clients and partners, is something that I thought I knew before I went to DC, but didn’t really appreciate until after I got there. And that’s the importance of talking with your customers and not at them. A conversation that begins with one party already knowing full well what they intend to do regardless of what another party might offer is not a conversation. It’s a decree. Within the comics community, particularly among fans and direct market retailers, I believe there’s real opportunity for automotive, beverage, snack, fashion, tech and other relevant brands to step away from the platitudes they rely upon to simultaneously talk to as many people as possible and, instead, establish meaningful dialogues that address what it is these passionate influencers really want and care about. I think smaller, independent publishers have a naturally keener understanding of this. They’ve built theirbusinesses on it. That’s one of the reasons why a number of them will be the cornerstones of Bonfire’s integrated ad network.

THE BEAT: You had a previous relationship with East West…what was your position there? What’s changed in the agency world since the last time you were there?

ROTTERDAM: I was a partner in the agency and its Chief Creative Officer. In the close to three and a half years since I left, the most obvious change in the agency world has been the rapid adoption of social engagement as not only a viable marketing strategy, but for many brands, the dominant strategy. That’s prompted (in some cases, forced) agencies of all size and specialty to get smarter, more experienced and more nimble a lot faster than many of them were prepared for. Because now consumers are setting the trends and managing their own relationships with brands. Agencies can facilitate those relationships on behalf of brands and their partners – that’s what Bonfire will be doing – but they’re no longer solely in charge. If Don Draper were starting out today, he would’ve quit the business and become a televangelist.

THE BEAT: One of the things we mentioned when we spoke about Bonfire originally was the importance of proper marketing to the “nerd world” — what are some of the mistakes you’ve seen? And what do you think are some of the success stories?

ROTTERDAM: I can think of two recent instances where well-intentioned initiatives went off the rails. The first I believe was an honest mistake. A car company and their event marketing firm decided to extend their test drive tour to potential buyers attending one of the major pop culture conventions. Seeking to relate to these consumers in an authentic way, as well as capture data and email addresses, they decided to stage a drawing for a copy of a well known and well reviewed graphic novel signed by one of its creators. Nice and simple, right? Unfortunately, they misspelled the name of the graphic novel on their signage – a minor oversight, to be sure, but one that reverberated in the sensibilities of their intended consumer target. While they eventually corrected the mistake, it took them two days to do so. Oops!

The other was put into play by a national candy brand that had developed a campaign that, on paper, had a lot of things going for it. It reinforced a long established slogan and brand positioning. It borrowed the concept of a “super team” in an attempt to entertain consumers. And it featured lots of ways for those consumers to interact with the brand – and each other – via social networks. But when the brand decided to take what was obviously a mainstream campaign meant for a general market and redeploy it unchanged against the comics fanbase, it came off as cliché and somewhat insulting. Instead of engaging fans, it enflamed them. Opportunity blown, marketing dollars wasted.

Contrast that failure with the work that Neal Adams and Continuity spearheaded on behalf of Taco Bell – the “Super Delicious Ingredient Force.” Here was another instance of a brand taking a page from comics culture and having a field day with it. But because the spots were created with such wit and style, as well as authenticity, it performed brilliantly and delivered an unexpected success dividend via blog postings, Facebook dialogues and Twitter feeds among a market segment that Taco Bell really values.

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Another example that I like to cite is that of Oakley. They recently launched a direct mail campaign that had at its centerpiece a brochure featuring two-page stories showcasing a “legion” of well known ski and snowboard competitors signed to the brand and highlighting Oakley clothing and eyewear. The credited stories were all written by IDW’s Chris Ryall accompanied by stunning art from Simon Bisley, Sam Kieth, Amy Reeder, Whilce Portacio, M.K. Perker and Alvin Lee. The brochure also directed the recipient to an Oakley website featuring choreographed mini motion comics based on each story and profiling each creator with as bright a spotlight as that used for the athletes themselves. It was an awesome effort and a brilliant example of a brand embracing the medium, respecting the audience and expanding their consumer base.

THE BEAT: You seem at this point to be a bit of a clearing house for research and information on a lot of different fronts. You’re working with retailers at ComicsPRO — what aspects of the business do you think you can give them guidance on? What’s the message you think they need to hear right now?

ROTTERDAM: At February’s ComicsPRO meeting in Dallas, we’ll be leading a workshop to help retailers exert greater mastery over their local advertising and promotional media options. We’ll also be recruiting select retailers from across the country to facilitate – and be monetarily compensated for – periodic store events sponsored by brands either as standalones or as part of media buys through the aforementioned integrated ad network.

As to the second question, I’m not sure if there is any message retailers need to hear from Ed or myself right now. In my former position at DC, I tried to listen as closely as I could to the messages they thought I needed to hear from them. I welcomed those conversations – and I’m gratified that through Bonfire, I’ll have many more opportunities to keep them going and, more importantly, act on them. Right now, we’re just a couple of guys with feet in a couple of worlds, supported by a network of professional resources that may not always be as relevant to an individual retailer’s situation as we’d like. But that will change. We will grow. And we will remain steadfast in our commitment to helping the direct market not merely survive, but thrive. Whatever we can do, we will do.

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THE BEAT: Likewise, you are starting a “Fan Pan” which is a sort of test marketing group. I’ve long said that comics needed a little bit of market research to give them an idea of what appeals to people outside the hardcore demographic. How will the Fan Pan work?

ROTTERDAM: In addition to reaching out via social networks, we’ll be working with ReedPop, regional conventions and local retailers to recruit a broad spectrum of 350 incentivized consumers representative of the demographic, psychographic and geographic diversity of our universe, and we’ll be rotating new members in and out every six months or so.  Through surveys, focus groups, online communities and the like, we intend for the panel to be of service to brands (whether they’re advertising clients or not), publishers, retailers, event organizers, advocates and, of course, ourselves. Working with ICv2, we also plan to use the FanPan to uncover additional information about the industry, buying habits, preferences and other insights that will help strengthen the industry.
THE BEAT: There is some discussion in the multiverse these days over whether the mainstreaming of geek culture is a good or bad thing for geeks. Your thoughts?

ROTTERDAM: I read Patton Oswalt’s piece on Wired’s site. I’m a big fan of his comedy, acting and writing, and I have been for quite some time. He gives voice to a lot of things I think only to myself – and I’m a guy who has very few filters in place. Given what I do for a living and given the mission of my agency, I’m certainly biased, but I came away from reading the article thinking that I had just witnessed a kind of temper tantrum.

Look, I know how important and vital this culture is. Does part of me want to keep it all to myself and people who think like me? Yeah. Sure. The part of me that remembers how cool it was to take the F train from southeastern Queens into the city with my three closest friends to attend Phil Seuling’s Second Sunday shows at the McAlpin Hotel. But I’ve grown up – sorta. And the culture has grown up – kinda. My geek references in conversations with friends, family, colleagues, the guys I sit next to at CitiField lamenting the latest boneheaded move of Mets management are no longer as obscure to them as they once were. We’ve been ready for our close-up for years – and we’re getting it. And that’s a good thing. We’ve got to stop shunning the sunlight. We need to let – nay, welcome – new people in. Even vampires need infusions of new blood. Without it, they – and we – will die. And so will everything we love – including Doritos.

THE BEAT: Another client is ReedPOP– what do you think of the absolute explosion of comics-themed conventions and expos this year? They are sort of like the circus and everyone wants to go. Do you think this will last?

ROTTERDAM: We’re counting on it. I mean the fact that Reed Exhibitions formed ReedPOP in the first place is testament to the vitality of this aspect of our culture. The growth and expansion of comics conventions throughout North America – and globally – is further proof of concept. But what excites me most when I think about shows like WonderCon, C2E2, Emerald City, Baltimore, MegaCon, HeroesCon, even small press expos like APE and MoCCA, is the diversity on display at the booths and in the aisles. Attendees of all ages, ethnicities, backgrounds, political leanings, degrees of passion for varying aspects of pop culture are all proudly labeling themselves “fans.” That’s good for all of us and bodes well for our collective future.

THE BEAT: What are some of the other projects that Bonfire has that you are most excited about?

ROTTERDAM: One of the projects we’ve undertaken on behalf of Diamond is to identify and secure a national sponsor brand for Free Comic Book Day. That’s been a personal mission of mine since before joining DC and we’re getting close. Also, our work for the retro candy brand Bonomo Turkish Taffy will, we believe, surprise some folks and have a positive impact on things important to our core consumers. And we’re in discussions right now with a couple of consumer brands that are very excited to play in this space because they know that this is where they can take risks and put their edgiest, most non-traditional campaigns into play, especially as “geek culture” does indeed become more the mainstream.

[We end this look at Bonfire with a couple of questions for both Ed and Steve.}
 
THE BEAT: It’s been a bit more than a week since Bonfire went live; what has been the response?

BONFIRE: We’ve received way more positive response than we expected – from all corners and constituencies within and outside of the industry. Publishers, creators, fans, retailers, press, other agencies, former colleagues, old high school girlfriends – they’ve all been very encouraging and supportive. A lot of “it’s about time.”

We’ve also gotten a ton of résumés – mostly from people who see Bonfire as an opportunity to combine personal and professional and passions.

THE BEAT: Where do you want to be in six months? A year?

BONFIRE:
In six months, we plan to be on our way to San Diego with a couple of brand campaigns in market, our ad and retailer network fully staffed and operational, and a number of new-to-our-universe clients walking the aisles with us and fighting with each other to get seats in Hall H.

A year from now? We’ll be toasting 2012 with an actual bonfire in the company of our families, colleagues and veteran members of the FanPan. One of us will be explaining to the police why we’ve started a fire in the middle of 37th Street.

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