Polymathic Audio No. 16: Alexis Gay

 

This conversation between Alexis Gay and myself was actually our second; it was equally fascinating. Gay and I talked everything but business just a few weeks back on her new creation: Non-Technical Podcast. The subject matter was slightly different for this one.

The passion and creator economies are here and they’re scaling fast. A key player in this trajectory is Patreon, where our guest worked as a director of creator partnerships and business operations. The conversation moves to the dynamics of companies the likes of Patreon, Substack, Memberful, and their role in the growth and autonomy of the multi-SKU creator.

The responsibility of brands, marketers, and entrepreneurs on social media during moments of national trauma is debated. Recently, Alexis left Patreon for a full-time pursuit of the creator economy and she explains the process of embracing and monetizing in the present climate. She is one of the first to pursue the uncharted waters of building a comedic portfolio, during a pandemic, in a largely still-unrefined creative landscape.

See her work on Youtube

Towards the end of our discussion, Alexis laid out the dichotomy between prioritizing who is in your audience (in other words: depth > width). And in the name of self-awareness, Alexis gives her purview of the TikTok zeitgeist and how to navigate the world of newly available content channels.

The RSS feed is here for those who prefer to listen on the go. Or you can find Polymathic Audio on Spotify.


AUDIO BY ALEXiS Gay AND WEB SMITH 
CO-PRODUCED BY JOE KLOKUS AND WEB SMITH
AUDIO DESIGN BY VINCENZO LANDINO
ENGINEERING BY JOE KLOKUS
POLYMATHIC AUDIO IS A PRODUCT OF 2PM INC.

Memo: The Great War

Robert Vann, publisher and editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote in awe about the newly minted international sports icon Jesse Owens in 1936. Owens had just won four gold medals at that year’s Olympics, held in Berlin.

I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw him greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.

A sprinter from the Jim Crow South and student at a then-segregated Ohio State University, Owens experienced racially-integrated life for the first time while sailing to Europe and living abroad for the Olympics. In a span of a week during the Olympic games, he challenged and diminished many of the ethnic and racial myths perpetuated by Adolf Hitler, the “Grand Chancellor” referenced by Vann, by dominating the Berlin Olympics and undermining Hitler’s claims of national and racial supremacy.

Berlin, on the verge of World War II, was bristling with Nazism, red-and-black swastikas flying everywhere. Brown-shirted Storm Troopers goose-stepped while Adolf Hitler postured, harangued, threatened. A montage of evil was played over the chillingly familiar Nazi anthem: “Deutschland Uber Alles.” This was the background for the 1936 Olympics. When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth. [1]

Owens returned to America after the Olympics, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt would not acknowledge his feat and, in failing to do so, spawned an historic missed opportunity to shift a global narrative. What could have been had Owens’ treatment at home matched his achievements abroad? Had America amplified and marketed his four Olympic gold medals as symbols of psychological defeat over Germany’s prevailing ideology, perhaps a tyrannical belief system could have been thwarted before words turned to actions. In reality, Kristallnacht would take place two years following the 1936 Olympics. Owens would go on to say:

Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.

Because he was an African-American man, major corporations would not employ him as a pitch man. His amateur status was revoked by the NCAA, and he was reduced to running against horses for compensation. During Owens’ career, the country was pioneering large-scale advertising and public relations campaigns, but we failed to use his historical wins to our advantage.

We must ask ourselves why.

The Great Invention of the 20th Century

Owens’ story becomes a lesson in foreshadowing and an important parable. Advertising is one of the most powerful forces in shaping opinion and influencing policy, but it’s much harder to advertise when a company, brand, or sovereign nation isn’t itself in support of the cause in question.

Just five years after Owens silenced Hitler with his speed, American advertising agencies and their brand partners mastered cause marketing when they needed it most: World War II. America was at war abroad and grappling with a vulnerable economy at home. The economic engine of war involved a never before seen form of consumer marketing. Advertising was used to promote consumerism as a patriotic duty and brands were intertwined with government initiatives to both supply our military industrial complex and support the domestic economy. WWII-era brands and media agencies were aligned in a forceful showing that ideas could be used no differently than physical weaponry.

Throughout history, brands have grown stronger during periods of societal unrest, but only when the dissonance between their ideas and their actions were at a minimum. Civil rights wasn’t an American corporate or policy priority when Owens stood above a saluting Nazi, laying waste to the host country’s agenda. Contrast this to the collective efforts that won a war after escalation required our participation.

Film depictions of WWII feature the Lucky Strike brand of cigarettes as prominently as if the packages of rolled tobacco were leading characters of the story’s arc. Lucky Strike was omnipresent internationally throughout the war. But before the packs of branded cigarettes were included as C-rations for American soldiers, Edward Bernays, known as “the father of public relations”, helped the American subsidiary of the British tobacco company with its first mindshare coup. History’s first PR campaign was designed to convince American women to take up smoking. With the wind of suffrage at their backs and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution fueling a new wave of enfranchisement, women became a marketer’s new focal point. Lucky Strike cigarettes were their “torches of freedom.” Corporate America co-opted a social movement to further an economy. It would be the first time of many.

No Title

Modern marketing / PR was a byproduct of American war efforts in the Wilson administration (1917). Without Edward Bernays and his uncle (Freud), our consumer economy would not be the same.What he didn’t account for was our distributed media system. From 1928’s “Propaganda”: pic.twitter.com/9C7MIkYTAx

Alongside savvy marketing tactics, new brand innovations gained traction thanks to their contributions to wartime economies. Walt Disney manufactured morale for GIs shipped to different theaters of war. Jeeps were built for the American military. Mars invented M&Ms during the Spanish Civil War. Bausch & Lomb created Ray-Ban aviator anti-glare frames at the request of an Army Air Corps lieutenant general. Kotex began as a WWI-era gauze before being adapted by Army nurses to relieve menstrual bleeding. Super Glue was formulated in 1942 to serve as a manufacturing additive for military weapons. Silly Putty was designed after a war-production experiment to find an alternative for rubber went wrong. And Fanta was invented after a trade embargo prevented Coca-Cola syrup from being imported into Nazi Germany during World War II.

Overwhelmingly, at the dawn of the American advertising age, brands were a part of the war effort, liberation, and many cultural shifts of the times. There were exceptions, of course, just as there are exceptions today.

A Century Later, Lessons Forgotten

When outspoken Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong suggested in a September 2020 blog post that his company was better served by apathy, it was consistent with the culture within its walls.

Everyone is asking the question about how companies should engage in broader societal issues during these difficult times, while keeping their teams united and focused on the mission. Coinbase has had its own challenges here, including employee walkouts. I decided to share publicly how I’m addressing this in case it helps others navigate a path through these challenging times.

In short, I want Coinbase to be laser focused on achieving its mission, because I believe that this is the way that we can have the biggest impact on the world. [2]

An argument can be made that Armstrong’s assessment of the mood of his own workforce was accurate. Given Coinbase’s internal dynamics, running an advertisement akin to Beats By Dre’s “You Love Me” would not have worked for the same reason Cadillac could not have run an advertisement on behalf of Jesse Owens’ historic days abroad in 1936: The brand’s promotion of freedom would have clashed with Owens’ reality.

Commonplace in 1944, rare in 2021.

But the Coinbase culture eventually spoke for itself when a number of minority employees called out cultural schisms within company walls. In many ways, Armstrong was right: His company had no authority to take a public position on civil rights or equality.

Recent decisions at companies like Shopify, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Google to deplatform Donald Trump and his campaign can be interpreted as good-faith efforts to address current societal unrest, which has seen online words evolve into real-life actions. But like Coinbase, many of these companies are also laser-focused on their missions. The ideas of freedom, cooperation, and equality that are so critical to democracy are barely communicated or shared by today’s top advertisers.

I began to wonder why cause-based advertising wasn’t more prevalent given the issue’s thread throughout our society: economically, politically, socially, and otherwise.

During WWII-era advertising, nearly every major corporation was directly involved with the issue of its time. During that same era of advertising, Jim Crow bigotry and violence prevailed at home while racial and ethnic atrocities persisted abroad. Today, the corporations that are best positioned to promote the ideas that a threatened democracy requires to heal seem to be extraordinarily quiet right now, when it matters most. Beats by Dre’s ad in November 2020, Dove’s June 2020 ad placement, and the Nike’s September 2018 spot starring Colin Kaepernick are exceptions to the rule.

Overall, few corporations are prepared to champion the American ideals the way their predecessors did during past threats to American democracy. And perhaps it’s because, like Jesse Owens’ wins and the PR blitz that never was, there is a dissonance between the messages that today’s advertisers want to share and the reality of the dynamics within our own walls: our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our places of gather.

A timely lesson bound to reemerge

Eighty years ago, a war threatened democracy. And in the first month of 2021, democracy is again under siege. At the root of today’s unrest is the myth that an election was stolen – the same contest that saw historic levels of African-American voter turnout in swing states. The corollary is not a mistake. In the 1940s, corporations were proponents of the war’s resolution. They manufactured goods and used their associations with the war efforts to espouse American ideals. Where is today’s equivalent? One possible explanation is that media has never been more fractured and brands’ abilities to promote ideals has diminished over the decades. The explanation more difficult to hear is that perhaps we are more like the racially-segregated country that Owens came home to than we are willing to admit. Look no further than our own workspaces, virtual or otherwise.

Back then, we needed Cadillac to build engines for fighter planes. Today, we need brands to internally reflect the ideals of America that they so desperately want to espouse in marketing: from workplace equity to representation in leadership. This past week, many Americans have found that we are not what we thought we were. Today’s primary mission is to heal a deep-seated division. The resolution is found within the walls of our homes, our places of gather, the workforces that we build alongside, and our nation. Maybe and only then can the marketing and advertising of today reflect who we as Americans believe ourselves to be. As of now, there aren’t many examples at which to point.

The refrain seems to grow louder by the day from people who look like me. You love my culture but do you love me? Corporate America never answered that question for Owens and the many other pioneers of his day. In doing so, we missed an opportunity to beat down evil in its idea stage. Perhaps today’s corporations will see the need to be more dynamic in how they respond. First, with action, and then, through the amplification of messaging that has been proven to impact the hearts and minds of the people.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM 

Memo: The Roaring Twenties

Chronocentrism is the misconception that the period in which someone is living is paramount, while historical periods pale in comparison. By suggesting an historical importance of the present, it slights the past at the expense of potential lessons derived from it. But a chronocentric mindset overlooks what can be learned from the past, and where we sit now, there is much to be derived from the historical period that precedes our present by exactly one century. It can be summarized with one simple phrase.

The Roaring Twenties weren’t everyone’s. The Roaring Twenties will not be everyone’s.

Despite a booming economy, swift urbanization, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s imagery of old money’s clash with ascendant wealth, the 1920s did not belong to everyone. The upper 10% of society provided the period’s reputation of grandeur. The next 20% prescribed to the aspiration of it all. And the following 70% watched from afar, resenting the careless consumerism and hedonism of the time. They remained in ruin as a result of global conflict, pandemic, inflation, and post traumatic stress. The two global catastrophes influenced a bifurcation of America’s wealth that resembled the Gilded Age that preceded it 60 years prior.

In Fitzgerald’s 1931 essay Echoes of the Jazz Age, he spoke of the time as “a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure”:

The whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of choir girls. […] Even when you were broke, you didn’t worry about money, because it was in such profusion around you.

Though 1918 and 1919 are marked by the plague that killed 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide, it was a relatively stable economic period for the United States. The wartime economy was to thank for both. The influenza outbreak of 1918 coincided with the final year of The Great War, one of the first times in recorded history that soldiers were shipped en masse to other countries. First recorded at Fort Riley, Kansas in March of 1918, 24 countries marked cases by October of that year. Global conflict exacerbated the transmission of the virus and the lack of care that many received due to shortages in available medical professionals. Like an accelerant, the free flow of soldiers contributed to the epidemic. [2PM, 1]

The 1920s penchant for consumption, the economic policies that rewarded it, and the political alliances that encouraged that penchant laid the groundwork for a kindred present.

The same war supplied a meaningful boost to an idling manufacturing economy. And despite a depression that gutted that economy in 1920, the next nine years would see an unprecedented period of prosperity. When the slump ended, Americans welcomed change. Manufacturers pivoted away from wartime wares to market goods to a thriving upper-strata of an economic base that welcomed convenience and the novelty of consumerism. Social events thrived, both legally and illegally. And thanks to newer technologies like the automobile, travel reached its zenith.

Fast forward 100 years and the desire to rebuild, consume, and socialize has already begun to embolden an unlikely economy.

Once pandemics end, often there is a period in which people seek out extensive social interaction, and which [Dr Nicholas] Christakis predicts will be a second “roaring twenties” just as after the 1918 flu pandemic. [2]

Three vaccinations (AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer) have buoyed hope for normalcy. Air travel reached a daily peak on December 27 with nearly 1.3 million people traveling in a single day according to the TSA. It’s no longer war that is greasing the wheels of manufacturing machinery and large scale distribution. Today’s engine is the discretionary income of the haves and a Parasite economy powered by millions of underemployed have-nots. The 1920s penchant for consumption, the economic policies that rewarded it, and the political alliances that encouraged it laid the groundwork for a kindred present. According to Mastercard’s recent SpendingPulse report:

Holiday retail sales excluding automotive and gasoline increased 3% this expanded holiday season, running from October 11 through December 24. Notably, online sales grew 49% compared to 2019, the preliminary insights show. [3]

The direct-to-consumer industry has served as a leading indicator for how the greater economy will change. For instance, the surge in online shopping has been a boon to retailers.

American consumers turned the holiday season on its head, redefining ‘home for the holidays’ in a uniquely 2020 way. They shopped from home for the home, leading to record e-commerce growth. [3]
But this growth comes at a price, which will be paid in the cost of reverse logistics. The operations that encompass the return or reuse of products is a growing expense for retailers. The National Retail Federation anticipated that holiday sales would increase as much as 5.2% to $766.7 billion in seasonal sales. But the trade group is also anticipating up to $101 billion worth of goods sold during the holiday season to be returned in January. This represents 13% of merchandise.

According to Narvar, shoppers are due to return twice as many items when compared to this same season in 2019. This presents the first true market opportunity for the Roaring Twenties to course correct for an ailing industry. The first roar, which I’ll unpack here, is a resurgent suburban retail real estate market.

The Roaring Twenties of the 20th Century was a boom period in new construction, new infrastructure, deferred spending, and new forms of art. The Roaring Twenties of this century will see a similar boom in new construction, high speed internet and commerce adoption, deferred spending, and creator-driven dynamism.

 

The upper 10% of 1920, as written about by Fitzgerald, resembles the upper 30% of society in 2020: an expanded subset of America that climbed beyond the middle-class by a mixture of well-paying  salaries, deferred compensation, and savvy investments. Despite a pandemic, cities like Houston, Miami, Dallas, and Austin feature the region’s top malls surrounded by luxury cars. Customers carry shopping bags bearing the marks of many of the finest brands in retail. Nearby, four- and five-star hotels bustle with first-floor dining. And just next door, the valet lines of top restaurants look like car shows. The Twenties won’t belong to everyone. But for the fortunate, the boom will resemble the past.

But for many of America’s malls, even a number of the “Class A” facilities peppered throughout America’s upper-class suburbs, there is a vulnerability that did not exist until recently. Retailers are shuttering and commercial vacancies are accumulating. And with those vacancies a current problem is met with a new solution. Simon Property Group has long courted Amazon as a potential suitor for a growing number of shuttered retail stores and movie theaters.

Amazon’s growth and healthy balance sheet would make it a reliable tenant at a time when most retail business has been waylaid by the pandemic. Simon, which owns 204 properties in the US, has had to contend with a ramp-up in retail tenant closures in recent years that has accelerated during Covid-19. [4]

As of April of 2020, there was close to 10 billion square feet of industrial space dedicated to warehousing logistics, according to data from research firm Statista. Historically, close to 30% of eCommerce orders are returned, a number that rises during the holiday rush. In comparison, only 8-10% of in-store purchases are returned.

As malls become desperate for new business, reverse logistics providers are due to fill the demand. According to CBRE, 400 million square feet will be needed over the next five years to account for the surging demand of online returns. This all leads to resurgent interest in suburban retail real estate.

Earlier this month, Amazon announced customers can return items at 500 Whole Foods Market stores without a box or shipping label. Amazon already had a returns partnership with Kohl’s. Amazon shoppers also can return items at UPS locations, in some cases without packing them up. Returns service Happy Returns partnered with FedEx this fall to let shoppers return items from brands like Everlane, Rothy’s and Steve Madden at 2,000 FedEx locations with no box or shipping label. Happy Returns previously had about 600 locations, which were mostly at malls and retailers like Paper Source and Cost Plus World Market. [5]

The apprehension that once faced mall developers like Simon, Macerich, and Brookfield would be eased by the presence of reverse logistics companies like Happy Returns, Loop, and existing marketplaces like Amazon who currently process returns through industrial warehouse leases. Not only would a reverse logistics presence provide new foot traffic in resurgent developments and urban centers, it may begin to account for the shortfall in physical space required to accept the volume of returns that will break yearly records from here on out.

January’s “Returnageddon” will reveal that returning products through a Whole Foods or FedEx kiosks may overrun those locations in ways that are difficult to project. Eventually, market leaders like Amazon and Ebay will look to malls for the newest two-way outposts. This isn’t exclusively an enterprise problem. Even the reverse logistics software solutions like Happy Returns and Loop will require dedicated space – by the millions of square feet – to account for a volume that few in the industry were prepared for.

There is precedent for a post pandemic boom for the higher strata of income and wealth. When you visit a mall five years from now, they won’t be for everyone. The developments that last will combine luxury retail with dedicated experiences for reverse logistics tailored to invite high-value eCommerce customers. For a technology that once penalized the mall retail industry, eCommerce benefiting these spaces would be a welcomed change. If history is any indication, the following years will see a period of advancement. For a nation of impassioned consumers, we may finally see two factions of industry finally begin to benefit the other after years of opposition. It wouldn’t be the first time that a consumer economy roared after a pandemic. The French called it “Années Folles” or “The Crazy Years.”

Report by Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy | About 2PM