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The Modern-Day Mad Men: Ian Schafer, Deep Focus

In honor of Mad Men’s valiant return, Kempt is proud to present the second in a series of profiles of some of the most thought-provoking individuals working in the ad game today—real-life Drapers, if you will (minus the brown booze and nooners.)

“When’s everything going to go back to normal?” So asks a defeated Roger Sterling in the final moments of last night’s episode of Mad Men, realizing that the industry he helped create has morphed into one he no longer understands. Modern-day Roger Sterlings likely feel the same way after meeting guys like Ian Schafer, founder and CEO of Deep Focus, a digital marketing and social media agency enlisted by dozens of iconic brands from Pepsi to Purina to help them engage a radically different consumer in a world riddled with uncertainty.

And Ian Schafer wouldn’t have it any other way...

What would you say to the Roger Sterling of today, who is fearful of change? Everything is being disrupted and you have to embrace it.

So disruption doesn’t disrupt you? Not at all. We just rearranged our entire office and probably will do so again next month. Chaos is creativity. The quicker the rate of change in the industry, the more our vision is fulfilled.

What is that vision? We see ourselves as the artists, scientists and sociologists of digital media and social networking. And we have lots of fun doing it. We’re kids at heart and alchemists at work.

Some of your employees actually look like kids. The average age here is about 27. Innovating is a youthful endeavor.

Was there a moment when you realized the marketing potential of social networks? I lived across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. For weeks, cell phones weren’t working. You could send an email, but you didn’t know if or when someone would be able to check it. So people relied on a survivor registry to stay connected to each other, to tell stories about what had happened to them, both good and bad. After that, I began thinking that people likely had interesting things to say about a lot of things. And so did brands.

Weren’t brands already saying lots of things to the consumer? Kind of. They’d been telling them stories—and had gotten really good at it. So good that they could tell a great story in 15 seconds. But the consumer was in story overload—the traditional way of advertising was contributing to the noise rather than creating an effective signal, which is what it used to do. And what it needs to do.

How did that mind-set lead to Deep Focus? Once we determined that one-way storytelling was shifting to more of a collective dialogue, it was clear that traditional agencies weren’t going to be able to communicate this way, right away. So we created an agency that could listen to (and more importantly, learn from) consumers as opposed to just shouting at them.

What’s the biggest difference between what Deep Focus does and what Sterling Cooper does? In the Mad Men era, brands told a consistent story through four mediums: radio, television, print, and outdoor. It was all about consistency. Now it’s all about versatility and flexibility. Sterling Cooper optimized for the impression, or how efficiently a marketing message could be shown to as many of the right people as possible. Deep Focus is about tapping into interests, and getting as many of the right people to share a message with somebody else.

Like “Check out this cool Nike commercial”? Sort of. But Nike doesn’t do a lot of TV ads anymore, if you can believe it. Instead, they tell their stories across all different forms of media. They’ll release a commercial online that will be seen so many times that it won’t have to run on TV. Every NFL game is an ad for Nike because every player has a swoosh on their uniform. FuelBands turn the consumer into the storyteller. Half of the NCAA bracket is covered in Nike gear. And all of these messages are being delivered over every medium at their disposal.

Has the message itself changed? Yes and no. The fundamental goal of every brand remains the same: forge an emotional connection with the consumer.

How does Deep Focus do that? Patiently and over a long a series of events, like Lemony Snicket.

What’s the most common misunderstanding companies have about social media? A lot of companies say, “We need to grow our Facebook page to as many people as possible.” Then you ask them why, and there’s a moment of silence because they don’t know why.

Does anyone get it? Pepsi has realized the value of building an engaged audience—not just an audience, but an engaged audience.

How has Pepsi engaged so successfully? By being relevant. Instead of talking about Pepsi all the time, we curate content that’s important to people who like Pepsi. Marketing is a responsibility now, whereas it used to just be an expense.

And how does a brand stay relevant? By knowing what the consumer is going to be talking about tomorrow, and next week, and next month. We’ll post something about the Country Music Awards or the Final Four—things the consumer cares about and wants to talk about—so that when we post “It’s 7am and not too early for a diet Pepsi!” as many people will see it as possible. Social media is the behavioral nerve of a brand. People need to know what that brand stands for and how it’s different than the competition so that, over time, they can make a lifestyle choice.

Has the new Facebook timeline changed how you cultivate brands’ online communities? Facebook isn’t a community.

Okay, explain. That’s one of the most common misunderstandings about Facebook, which is essentially a robust news feed to which users react. Everything a brand does on Facebook needs to be geared to getting its message into that news feed. If you’re trying to build a Facebook community, you’re fighting the wrong battle. But I think the timeline switch is more significant to individuals than brands.

What are you most excited about this week? I’m hooking up Apple TV to all the TVs in our office. AirPlay is awesome. Innovation is awesome.

Has America lost its innovative spirit? In 1963, innovation was born out of competition. We put a man on the moon because we didn’t want the Russians to get there first. This continued through the 1980s, which is why Microsoft’s culture is all about innovation through competition. But now innovation is the result of collaboration. That’s what Deep Focus is all about, collaborative innovation. That’s what makes it fun.

And just in case you missed it, here's our inaugural chat with the legendary Otto Bell.