If you visit The Advance Guard’s New York office, the first thing you’ll notice through the glass walls of the conference room is a large oil painting hanging on the wall.
Reminiscent of a Chinese communist propaganda poster, it features a flag-waving group of workers, among scenes of technological progress (including rockets, satellite dishes and - strangely - atomic explosions) and, floating above the procession, the disembodied faces of The Advance Guard’s founders C.C. Chapman and Steve Coulson. It’s an image printed on most of The Advance Guard’s marketing materials, and it usually leads to the same question.
“No, that doesn’t make us communists - and we’ve been asked that several times ” says Coulson with a grin. “But it’s an iconic symbol of a radical change in the way brands connect with their audiences. There’s a people’s revolution going on, empowered through emerging technology and social networks, and we’re helping Companies embrace that change. And besides, it’s kind of a cool illustration”.
Although only just over a year old, The Advance Guard has already made an impressive mark on the emerging social media marketing industry, conducting programs for Coca-Cola, Verizon, American Eagle Outfitters, HBO, Warner Brothers and St Martin’s Press. The case studies on their site detail work using Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, bloggers, podcasters, and run a range from simple PR and buzz building campaigns to involvement in complex Alternate Reality Games. They’ve also worked with startups eager to try alternative marketing methods to gain a foothold, and have even advised government analysts on methods for tracking viral propaganda and conversation monitoring.
But working with major brand names is nothing unusual for Coulson, an award-winning Creative Director who has spent the last 12 years working his way up at two of the largest advertising agencies in the world (McCann-Erickson and JWT). His portfolio includes work on well-known campaigns including De Beer’s A Diamond Is Forever, Ford, Jet Blue, The Wall Street Journal and Unilever.
“My most memorable moment was working as part of a pitch team for a new client” he relates. “We’d immersed ourselves in strategy and competitive analysis for a couple of weeks, and then one morning, the ECD came into the room and said “I had this idea while I was in the shower - how does this sound? There are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s Mastercard.” It was one of those ‘hairs on the back or your neck’ moments. Of course, I was just the web guy sitting at the back of the room. But it was still great to be a part of that team. First and last time I ever saw a client tear up during a pitch.”
Always more interested in the bleeding edge than the mainstream, Coulson found the ideas he brought to the table were often hard to understand for creatives who made their living in TV, and so - after a brief stint as Chief Creative Officer at crayon - he decided it was time to set up a company where he could create programs he really believed in.
Yet while he had a wealth of production experience for Fortune 100 clients, and had even created a successful pop culture site (YesButNoButYes, which regularly gets up to 1 million readers every month) he still was missing a vital component.
“When it comes to social media, I had the media part down pat, but the social side, not so much” he says with a laugh. “I needed a partner who not only knew the conversation marketing space as well as I did, but was the consummate connector. Someone with very deep connections to the blogging and podcasting world.”
From his desk in Milford MA, C.C. Chapman has just finished an appearance on CNN. It’s Inauguration Day, and he’s been interviewed for comment on the experimental CNN/Facebook integration that’s happened during the event.
Being called on to offer public comment is not unusual for Chapman - he’s a prolific and seasoned public speaker and commentator, with 10,000 twitter followers, 3000 Facebook friends and countless subscribers to his growing cadre of blogs, podcasts and videocasts. He’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe, has seen his photographs published in Rolling Stone and has recently been featured as an “American Storyteller” on The Smithsonian Channel . But his excitement is still infectious. “Being on CNN because I happened to videoblog about them this morning? Now that shows the power of social media.”
It’s this infectious enthusiasm that has served him well as a pioneer of podcasting and new media. His early passion for independent music led to multiple awards for his Accident Hash independent music show, and becoming one of the first producers signed to Adam Curry’s PodShow Network (now Mevio) and the Project Manager behind the PodSafe Music Network. While attending an advertising conference, he realized that he knew more about the changing market then most of the people in the room and decided to share that knowledge with his weekly Managing the Gray podcast which helps educate people in how to best leverage the social media landscape. And it was while overseeing a program for Coke in the virtual world of Second Life that he met Coulson. “I knew his avatar long before I met him in the flesh. And so it goes.”
Now, although the partners sit 200 miles apart, meeting face-to-face only once or twice a month, it’s a working relationship closer than most. “We start each day with a Skype video conference and usually end it with a chat session.” Sometimes, I actually forget that we don’t work in the same office”.
Virtual work environments are just a part of what makes The Advance Guard a unique and cutting edge company. On any given day, tasks can range from sending out vials of fake blood, to planting locked suitcases in dead drop locations, persuading complete strangers to send virtual kisses, or making childhood toys Twitter. Quite a diverse portfolio for a company so young.
After forming in October 2007, The Advance Guard quickly landed one of their largest clients, American Eagle Outfitters, for whom they have created innovative blogger outreach programs, designed Spring Break microsites, built Facebook applications, sent Mommy bloggers to launch events (featuring the Jonas Brothers no less), and contributed to an ongoing strategy that has seen over 300,000 customers become fans on Facebook.
“I don’t think the enormity of how quickly we’d established ourselves dawned on me until about 10 months later” says Chapman. ” I was standing in the pit in front of the stage at NAMU, overseeing the bloggers and podcasters we’d invited to cover the concert, and I looked up to see Anthony Keidis, Jack White and Bob Dylan through the viewfinder of my camera. It was pretty amazing.”
Midway through the year, they were joined by Head of Production Victoria Fishel, who brings over 12 years of web development and project management experience to the team, on clients such as LG Electronics, AT&T, AIG, Akamai, and Goldman Sachs. Now supplemented by a team of art directors, programmers, strategists and writers, The Advance Guard is still redefining their offering on weekly basis.
“The really interesting thing for me” says Coulson, “is that we don’t have a defined process, or manual. Each and every marketing program is customized from the ground up, doing things that probably haven’t been done before.”
“I remember, our first planning meeting at a diner in New Jersey.” recalls Chapman”. We talked a lot about blazing new trails, of being on the vanguard of new marketing. There was a wireless connection in there so we were using Google to get inspiration for a company name, and we came across a quote by Herman Melville, who wrote Moby Dick. He said ‘We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a new path in the New World that is ours.’ And right there and then, the company was born.”
Coulson adds “Now that quote is on the back of all our business cards. And with a very cool propaganda poster on the front!”