Harry Bernstein, CCO of The 88

This month, the C-Suite features Harry Bernstein, founder and CCO of the well-regarded digital agency The 88.  After nearly 10 years in the traditional advertising industry working for the likes of O&M and Berlin Cameron and creative directing major campaigns for Coca-Cola, Ford, and Heineken Light—Harry did a brief stint on the brand side before realizing his own vision and starting The 88 in 2010.

The 88 and his team of 50 have amassed a stable of superstar clients. The digital agency’s sweet spot is helping brands build buzz, excitement, and foot traffic to their stores and online marketplaces while utilizing influencers to help frame brand narratives and engage consumers online. His team successfully walks the tightrope of balancing the vision of his clients with the vision of these individuals to create compelling campaigns. This year The 88 was selected as one of Snapchat’s Global Creative partners, a testament to the strength of their digital work.

Bm: What are the biggest branding challenges in today’s hypercompetitive environment?

harry-bernstein-headshotHarry Bernstein: I think that one of the bigger challenges that brands have is that they’ve lost their connection to themselves. And I think strong brands have, internally, hired people that share and understand the ethos of that brand, and they all kind of evolve it and grow it, in partnership with certain agencies.

[There are] some brands that have just lost their own ethos. I can only do as good of a job expressing your brand on social, as you can express your brand to the world. We have been fortunate to work with some brands that do have clear D&As and some brands that have their founders still floating around, and when we [work with them], clients always say that: “Wow, I really feel like you get us.” So, you need to get you, before I can get you. Then I can go off and create interesting and unique ways to express that to the rest of the world, with so many unique opportunities [that are available] now – Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, advertising, re-marketing, video, live-streaming — I mean all the tactics, even drones. I feel like, if anything, my job has gotten easier with the evolution of the ability to make video, film, and photos so quickly. I think the bigger challenge is for a brand to know itself, be true to itself, and understand itself.

Bm: Let me just piggy back on your answer. If a brand particularly has lost its ethos or lost its way, so to speak, what guidance or direction would you give to that brand to sort of re-direct it?

HB: I would say that this is a case for larger brands rather than smaller brands, because a lot of smaller brands, again still have their founders. So, let’s say I have a larger brand and it’s lost its way. First, you would look at what data information you have. Who is your consumer? Not who you want your consumer to be, but who is your consumer? You have a CRM and email list, use any kind of sales data. If you do have an existing audience, even if it’s small, let’s dig into your consumer first. Let’s look at who’s engaging, who knows you, and wants to be around you — what can they give us, and what can they tell us about you? You can tell a lot about someone based on who your friends are. I always compare, I always take it offline.

Next, look at the category. Every brand is within a category. It’s nice to say “Okay, if I can’t recognize myself, let’s recognize myself in the landscape of someone else.” So, compare yourself to your category and see what you actually hold in that world. What are the good things and the bad things? I always say that’s the beauty of social and the ability to turn quickly, we can learn from the mistakes. It’s easier to steer away from an iceberg than it is to find your way sometimes, right?

And then the last one is the people who work in the company. People who work there, work for a bunch of reasons. Obviously if you’re paying people, the first reason someone has a job is to get paid, but I do look around the company and the people that are seen as great workers, [who] have been there for a while to see what attracted them. So, I do pick up the hood and look underneath and see the people that are there—they are the brand now. If they’re still working there, the [brand is] doing something right.

I look at the consumer, I look at the category, and then I actually look internally in the company to see what is making it hum, and from those three things you can usually possess some point of view that I think can really get someone to really understand where they are right now. The question is whether they like that or not, and if they don’t like that, then it’s a whole another exercise to re-build it in a way they want to. But a lot of times, we could still find some really interesting stuff, and then we could start creating interesting ways to engage and build an audience.

Bm: We’re going to switch gears a tad bit here to Snapchat. Over the last couple of years, it’s been growing droves of support with high-school and college-aged students, and it’s forced brands to converse differently. Since the video disappears, how can brands tell stories like that?

HB: To me, I don’t think Snapchat is for every brand. Snapchat is less of a social media and more of a media platform. It’s like television at its core. If you post a photo on Instagram that maybe your audience doesn’t agree with, you can have people commenting, re-gramming it, taking a screenshot and re-gramming it on their [profile]—it can create this viral kind of effect. Snapchat is very one [moment], it happens and it disappears. It’s like a classic fifteen, thirty-second commercial. It happens in a moment and it’s gone. You digest it, understand it, and engage with it, and you have cooler ways of engagement like lenses and filters, but it kind of engages with an audience in a completely different way. You are putting a commercial moment between chosen content. That’s very one-directional, there’s no ability to comment, and you can’t affect that in any way. Even on an Instagram ad or a Facebook ad, there’s commenting, there are ways you can give your point of view. Again if you don’t know who you are and you don’t know who you’re talking to, it’s not worth it for you to engage in that platform. But if you know who you are engaging with and you know what you want to say is really clear, then the sky is the limit.

“If your brand has great equity — I want to put you in my world. I want to say I’m in Bloomingdales. I want to say I stopped at Coachella. I want to say these things. I want to tell all my friends. Can you help me, please? Brand, work with me! Brand me, please!”

The other interesting part about Snapchat is filters and lenses. From a brand perspective, you have this very engaging moment that is close to a TV commercial, where you can engage someone directly within their stories or other media they’re digesting. Or everyone is their own media, everyone has their own reality TV show —and you can be a character in their reality show. Whether it’ll be a lens when they’re taking a selfie, or a filter where you are either becoming a landmark along their trip, or enhancing their reality show, you’re a commercial break in someone else’s reality TV show and that just blows my mind. And people want it — people want brands. Brands are a part of their show. If your brand has great equity — I want to put you in my world. I want to say I’m in Bloomingdales. I want to say I stopped at Coachella. I want to say these things. I want to tell all my friends. Can you help me, please? Brand, work with me! Brand me, please!

Bm: So, you think that brands need to know who they are? The most effective use of Snapchat is for the brands who know most who they are, who know their ethos the most. Is that what you’re saying?

HB: Yeah, I think that on any kind of paid [social], especially Instagram, make sure you know who you’re talking to and that you’re creating something that expresses that. And as for [Snapchat’s] lenses and filters, when [a brand] becomes a part of someone else’s story, you need to understand your brand equity. You need to understand what you’re bringing to this person as a brand. If it’s your fashion brand during Fashion Week, and it’s cool to be at Fashion Week, then it’s really important that you understand that and make a filter that helps give them this bragging right.

It’s so funny, when I worked in advertising, you would fight the client tooth-and-nail to shrink the logo. “Oh that’s too big.” “Make it bigger.” “Make it smaller!” And now it’s the opposite. If you have strong brand equity and if you’re say Adidas right now and you have the hottest shoe, I want to put Adidas’ logo on my photo. Make it bigger!

Bm: Let’s switch to a little bit of personal insight: first, let’s discuss how the use of personal insights makes brand messaging more effective. And second, what are some of the pitfalls as it relates to the use of personal insights with brand?

HB: We’re in a really challenging time where things happen very fast. An ad used to take nine months … Now I’ll do a Snap ad, in which they’ll give me a brief on Monday, and it’s due Friday, and we concept and shoot an ad in like … five days.

As for being a communicator, I need to find moments to digest everything that happens. When I made a TV ad as an art director, I didn’t need to know how to direct. I didn’t need to understand film. I didn’t need to understand how to edit. To make a print ad, I didn’t need to know how to be a photographer. But I do think to be able to create an engaging content-made platform, it’s the complete opposite. I don’t think it’s about having a huge audience, like this whole influencer-advertising-agency thing where someone has to have a lot of followers. But I think you, as a creative, a marketer, a brander, need to be on these platforms as they evolve, and engage with and understand them. I’m not saying that you need to be as frequent as maybe a Gen Z where you’re pulsing every moment, every day. But if I don’t use Snapchat, if I’m not active on the channel, if I’m not watching content on it, I’m not engaging with it — if I’m not in the game, I’m definitely at a disadvantage to other people.

“… if you go in and you just want to cut your beautiful TV commercial to fit this platform, and you’re so psyched about it …  I’m not going to say it’s never going to work, but I promise you that you’re already tackling the platform in the wrong way.”

The second part is, finding case studies aren’t as easy as they used to be. Right now, if I want to find out what the Superbowl commercials were from this past Superbowl, I go on YouTube and they’re there. If I ask you to tell me the last three filters on Snapchat, they’re not documented anywhere. The marketing is happening so quickly, the ad trade publications can’t even track it fast enough. And also it disappears in 24 hours, so something like Snapchat, if you didn’t use it, its gone; it’s done; you missed it; it’s not in your vernacular, and you are already behind. Everyday you’re a week behind, if you’re not using the platform is my point of view.

Bm: Emily Culp (from our previous C-Suite) talked about “micro-moments” and so I thought personal insights and micro-moments are in the same sort of vein, like how do you tell a story over a period of time and add your feeling to it? By the way, congratulations on being one of Snapchat’s creative partners — what do you think are the most important elements in creating powerful video content and what are some of the common mistakes that brands make when they try to create this content? 

HB: Understand the channel you’re working on, so you have to be channel native. On Snapchat, it has to be portrait, that’s the cut of the frame, and if you go in and you just want to cut your beautiful TV commercial to fit this platform, and you’re so psyched about it …  I’m not going to say it’s never going to work, but I promise you that you’re already tackling the platform in the wrong way. You need to understand the platform you’re editing for. If it’s a 10 second ad, [Snapchat] recommends it be 8 seconds, you have to have a branding moment within the first 2 seconds … otherwise they can opt out. This is not like a pre-roll on YouTube where you have to wait. This is not even Instagram, where you can kind of scroll past it.

And to be honest, it’s a fun platform. People go to Snapchat because they think it’s fun, right? So I’m not saying the ad has to be fun, but you should have knowledge of it, so if you’re going contradict the fun with something serious, you better get there pretty quickly. You can’t have a long drawn out moment, Snapchat isn’t about epic build. You got to hit ‘em—boom! You’re stopping a train. When you’re digesting content on Snapchat, it’s tap tap tap tap tap … okay wait stop … tap tap tap. If you watch someone using Snapchat, they’re tapping — that’s like a train. Even the swiping of Instagram and Facebook is slower than a tap. So if you’re going to do something serious, it better be pretty impactful and show that impactfulness in the first moment you capture their eye.

Bm: My next question is more macro-based — I really believe branding is about storytelling. What do you think are the essential parts of telling a story?

HB: When I was working in product and lifestyle, we always looked at a brand with those two lenses. Say Sarah Jessica Parker launches a new shoe: you have SJP, you have a shoe, you have the actual product, colors, the silhouette of the shoe, maybe there is some bedazzle or embellishment on it—you have the product story. And there is the value in, sometimes, just showing a product. I call it product fetishization. Apple, they just fetishize their products. They take a beautiful product shot, the product is beautiful, and it’s fetishized. You’re like “I just want that product.” That’s the first part.

The following is that I think a powerful Snapchat moment is a fetishized product, mixed with a narrative. That narrative is where the product lives, and I always say never — unless your concept is really weird — never put a product in a place it doesn’t belong. So back to the SJP shoe, give the narrative of going out. It’s a high heel, it’s a stilletto, you’re going out, it’s a sexy moment, it’s New York City, it’s a night on the town, and it’s going on a date, it’s going to a nightclub. It’s like give that narrative in hand, and embellish a natural narrative with the shoe as a character or the product as a character. But make sure to never not fetishize it, and that’s where I think people get caught up in this DIY or do the user-generated content. I always say the product has to sparkle in the end. People don’t want to see a product that doesn’t look good ever. Unless it’s some really funny or humorous or weird thing where the whole point is to somehow f*** up the product, that’s a different conversation. I’m saying that rule of thumb is fetishization with an embellished narrative is going to make a great story for a brand.

Bm: Interesting, because a lot of brands have gone counter to that philosophy, but I have to agree with you. I think that you definitely want to see the brand in the environment that you want to feed it. It’s interesting how certain brands want to go counter to that — it’s a lot of competition.

HB: There can be a little peer-to-peer there, but I still think that people come to a brand for more. They don’t want to be fooled. People are very intuitive about authenticity. If you’re trying to fake them out by making it feel like less production, you’re never going to win that battle. If you really want to feel peer-to-peer, get an influencer. I love to leverage influencers, not as media outlets, but as content creators. If you want to get that true peer-to-peer feel, and you want that content to feel very Snapchat, find someone who tells amazing stories on Snapchat. Don’t give them the product to put on their feed, have them work with you to create a physical contact.

Suno Instagram Page

Suno Instagram Page

Bm: And to your point, what I always say too is that the consumer is becoming smarter and smarter everyday. Long gone are the days when the consumer would know exactly what’s going on. I always think it’s better to be authentic because I think the consumer reads that better.

“…people connect with brands to paint their own point of view of themselves to the world. We’re already part of the vernacular.”

HB: Here’s the thing, I’m going to actually politely disagree and say consumers are actually dumb. Reality TV is dumb, right? Because they’re not connecting with people of any intellectual power. But their intuition, which is their gut that connects them to authentic moments, has actually been strengthened. So the problem happens when you’re a brand and you try to fool them. Their intellect might be fooled, but their intuition, their gut isn’t. And what happens then is you have an angry dumb person, and nothing is scarier than an angry dumb person. That’s where you get internet trolls, and people going on brand channels and complaining. That’s my problem. You know with bright colors and great production and special effects and celebrity endorsements —if you think you’ve fooled them, the gut will never be fooled. And the gut is like a connection with people and brands. Like I said, people connect with brands to paint their own point of view of themselves to the world. We’re already part of the vernacular.

Bm: I definitely agree with the perspective around reality TV. There’s a certain subset of people that want authenticity when it comes to brand, so maybe they haven’t become smarter, but they definitely want… I guess it’s your intuition, your gut, they feel when it’s not authentic.

HB: And back to the whole challenges as a brander, as a person in the marketing world, as a creative, I’m inundated with messaging, I’m being overstimulated, I’m being … you’re checking Twitter, you’re checking Snapchat, you’re checking Instagram, you’re checking Facebook, you’re checking email, you’re checking text messages, you’re watching the newest shows on Netflix, you’re watching the newest shows on HBO — you’re inundated, on-demand.

As a marketer, I try to instill for the people that work for me, that you need to find your moments where you absorb, and as much as you need to engage, you also need to step away. If you’re not stepping away and digesting and absorbing on your own; if you’re not reading books anymore, you’re just on social media — you’re brain will be fried and you’re not going to know what to do next. You’re not going to pick up those authentic moments, because you’re burnt out.

Bm: Let me move to the last question — in your opinion, what do you think is the next big challenge facing brands?

HB: You need to have a group of people that really understand and get your brand to scale with the moment, because you can hire a tech agency, an Instagram agency, a media agency, a PR agency … it went from the integrated agency idea to all of these agencies. It’s impossible to have an integrated agency anymore, because no one create everything. The problem with all of these agencies is being able to digest all the work that needs to get approved. Instead of me doing ten ads and two 30 [second ads], and three 60 [second ads] to be approved over six months, I’m giving you sixty Instagram [ads], we’re trying to get five Snap ads out, a filter every month, twenty tweets, customer service, we have UGC coming in, we’re working with an influencer, and we’re developing an influencer program. On the brand side, smart investing on smart people [who] understand your brand first, who prove to work quickly and responsibly to understand and digest what you’re brand is about.

“We match our passions here, so our clients, they’re our passion. And believing in that passion — that’s an authentic moment.”

On the flip side, as an agency, I always say I want to build an army of unicorns, like people that are multi-talented, but good at one thing at the same time. They can’t be good at a bunch of things … they need to be good at a bunch of things, and great at one thing. That’s where it’s not always easy to find those people. I feel like more and more you have people who are good at a lot of things, but not great at anything.

I meet these people that come to me and say “I was a social media director at this great brand.” And I was like “How long did you work there? How long was the position?” “Six months.” And I’m like … you’re 24. Six months of experience?! But the thing is who else is here? To me, it’s going back to same experience in platforms, and then it goes back to the clients too, where I continuously get hired for things that I’m unqualified for, meaning how can I be an expert on Snapchat, and Snapchat is just a couple of years old?

We match our passions here, so our clients, they’re our passion. And believing in that passion — that’s an authentic moment. I’m like “Guys, this Snapchat thing is amazing. Look at what you can do. Let me show you what I did.” “Wow, Harry, I believe it.” If I believe, Harry believes, the team believes, and we make something great. I have to understand a lot of things, but be great at one thing to still do that. When it comes to execution, I can’t have someone okay executing it. You need someone who understands storytelling, you need a good writer, you need a good filmmakers, you need these things. You can’t just have that one person doing it all, because it’ll never come out great.

The problem is we’re always going back … what technology has done now, it’s taken away from the physical. It’s taken away, in America at least, the physical production of objects, but now we have the creative, intellectual process of content, and we’re the leaders in that. You can’t be outsourcing Instagram ads; you can’t be outsourcing a content factory. The people in this generation … and I have to be honest, it’s hard to find those unicorns. On the client side and the agency [side], we’re sharing the same challenges. And it’s going to come down to people for me, and that’s where we’re going.