Confessions of A Spotify Wrapped Fan: When Data Isn’t Creepy

Culture Hack

Confessions of A Spotify Wrapped Fan: When Data Isn’t Creepy

It may come across as trite to work in advertising and say you love data-derived insight, but no Christmas present is as exciting to my data-driven brain these days as Spotify Wrapped. My listens and likes, clicks and repeats, crowd pleasers and guiltiest pleasures over the 12 month period, to be perused and shared at my leisure. 

I remain in awe of the teams that can weave emotion and storytelling from these raw metrics. The first song I played at the dawn of the decade. My musical aura. The song playing during my intense training montage. My most personal data transformed into a personalized narrative of my year’s highlights and heartbreaks.

In an era of growing distrust of big tech and the data-derived algorithms it deploys, this isn’t an easy feat to pull off. Much has been made of Facebook’s algorithm intentionally pursuing platform engagement at the expense of promoting polarization and extremism. Many LGBTQ Netflix users have commented with suspicion on the platform’s seemingly different approach to serving them content, even accused of unwittingly nearly outing an LGBTQ teenager to his family.

From the ad campaigns it’s been deploying since 2016, Spotify’s approach (arguably along with Pornhub) to making the algorithm personable through storytelling is what’s helped them stand apart; humanizing their brands in an increasingly tech-skeptical climate. Knowing when and how to use data to build fandom and deeper connection to the platform. A knowing, culture-forward tone of voice. A recognition that music streaming data can be a form of self-expression that illuminates what makes you unique and what connects you to others. For me the “3,749 people who streamed “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” on the day of the Brexit vote” is one that stands out as using streaming data to speak to a moment with a deft touch and levity.

Here’s hoping they’ll apply that same deft touch and levity to my Anita Baker fueled March.

-Ed Hunt


The Importance of Protected Black Spaces

Culture Hack

The Importance of Protected Black Spaces

Growing up as a young Black woman in a predominantly white environment, I didn’t realize what I was missing until I became a part of an organization called Jack and Jill of America. In the beginning, I thought Jack and Jill was an organization that enabled me to meet and form friendships with other Black children in predominantly white environments, but I later learned the underlying importance and impact it had on Black culture. 

At face value, Jack and Jill is a leadership organization that was founded by African American mothers in 1983 with the idea of bringing together children in a social and cultural environment. Throughout my time in Jack and Jill, I was able to make solid friendships, hold leadership roles on the teen’s executive council, and had a fuller high school experience. One thing I can note is that Jack and Jill is filled with mothers and fathers who are at the top of the Black echelon and Black children and teens who go to the top school and later universities. This was reflected in the activities we held and events we attended.

Becoming a part of the organization has enabled me to understand another lens of culture, knowledge, and understanding of the Black community that I couldn’t have found in the white spaces I mostly participated in before joining the organization. It also revealed to me that protected Black spaces are more important than society realizes.

 Having protected Black spaces for children and families expresses two very important notions. The first is that Black children who are in protected spaces learn that they deserve to be protected and valued. The second is that Black children realize they might want to seek out more protected spaces where they feel welcome, for example, High school/college Black Student Unions and Historically Black Fraternities and Sororities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. 

Jack and Jill is just one example of a protected space that fosters the development and learning of children, teens, and young adults. Protected spaces for Black and Brown children are important because they instill vital community teachings, are cultural connectors, and enable children to navigate life. 

-Kimberly Heard


Celebrity-driven Spirit Brands are Engaging New Customers, but is it at the Expense of Culture and Craft?

Culture Hack

Celebrity-driven Spirit Brands are Engaging New Customers, but is it at the Expense of Culture and Craft?

Jason Derulo. Nick Jonas. Rita Ora. Just a few of the celebrities who have ventured into the world of celebrity spirits. Far from a new trend, but certainly one that continues to grow in popularity. And nowhere more so than tequila, where celebrity tequila brands have surged in popularity, accounting for US$1.9bn in global revenues during 2021 alone.

Kick-started in part by the pandemic, celebrity tequila brands have helped establish premium tequila as an approachable yet elevated drinking experience for a new generation of curious drinkers. Where celebrities have built authentic connections to their audiences online, a collaboration can garner a brand ‘instant’ authenticity, breaking through the clutter of traditional advertising with an inbuilt fandom ready to give it a try.  

But for many of these emerging brands, celebrity is increasingly predominating at the expense of culture and craft. Doing little to engender brand loyalty, with brand equity remaining heavily dependent on the person instead of the product.

With the launch of Kendall’s 818 brand, we’ve already seen the start of a backlash on social from consumers questioning the connection of celebrity to the culture of tequila.  Upon launch of the brand, Kendall faced widespread backlash from the Mexican community and beyond for alleged “Mexican face” in her ad, dawning long braids and riding horseback through agave fields. In this moment, the appropriation often just implied in celebrity tequila, a liquor that can only be produced in a specific region in Mexico, became explicit. Not only does this have a direct impact on representation of the Latino community, but also important are the conversations that are opening up around the harm these brands have on local Mexican producers. Here, the surge in demand has resulted in agave shortages across the region and pressure to reduce quality to keep up with market demand.

From Ciroc to Casamigos, celebrity-driven spirits can work best when the brand and celebrity are natural extensions of each other, but the culture surrounding the drinks and the craft behind their production remain front and center. Ultimately, building brands that become synonymous with their values and personality, beyond the actual person.

And with that I’m off to pour myself a glass of the (very good) Kylie Minogue rosé…

-Ed Hunt


Putting the "me" in Meta

Culture Hack

Putting the "me" in Meta

Meta’s major layoff announcements for the first time since its inception has many wondering if David has finally tackled Goliath. 

Now I know you’re thinking, “not another reference of the small man wins against the corporate giant,” because let’s face it, the internet has enough of those. But Meta’s (formally known as Facebook’s) recent news does beg the question: Has the social network’s monopoly finally gotten too big and mainstream to engage authentically with consumers?

This has become the rising question for both creative beings and brands who want to tap into meaningful exchanges (particularly with those who fall within the Gen-Z demographic). However, the concept of the “metaverse” is not new, and, put simplistically, is just cyberspace; tech platforms like Microsoft and Meta have built virtual worlds that, although they mimic reality, are, in fact, an escape from it.

And with the world increasingly on fire and safe spaces becoming less and less, this escape is attracting the most creative generations yet.

So, if Millennial and Gen Z audiences are going into the metaverse to escape reality, is there space for brands to have a meaningful exchange if the whole concept of a “metaverse” is to escape the world around them? Probably not. 

Meta’s story may be a case study of ‘brand want not meeting a consumer need.’ But, as we all know, sales keep these platforms alive. However, it does ignore the fact that the underlying concept of a metaverse is to build a world that gives the user comfort and allows them to create the utopia they deserve and not be bombarded by the things that may not bring them joy.

As an introvert, I’m thrilled by the concept of a forever utopia; as a strategist, I’m aware that’s not reality (pun intended) and cannot go on forever. In fact, most users of virtual environments are only partaking in small doses, leaving little room for authentic engagements that could lead brand loyalty.

So, what’s the solution? Who knows? That’s for Meta to solve, for us to experience. But in the meantime, it sure is fun to think about.

-W. Sky Downing


When it All Falls Down

Culture Hack

When it All Falls Down: A commentary on the allowance for Black men’s mental health

We have all been witness to the very public canceling of Kanye “Ye” West over the past month. He’s made disparaging comments about Black people, George Floyd, and received the most outrage over his anti-Semitic statements. His behavior is obviously that of someone suffering through a very public mental health crisis, but his treatment and the public backlash is that of a truly horrible person operating under sound mind. 

It all begs the question: Why is there so little support, concern, or even commentary, around the mental health of Black men? In this instance society has been quick to crucify Ye for his behavior, strip him of his success, and celebrate his downfall. Similar to more common instances the public seems much less interested in unpacking the implications of Black boy trauma or reflecting on the societal norms that lay the foundation for sustained mental illness. 

The fact that only 26% of Black men seek mental support services when they feel anxiety or depression, compared to 45% of non-Hispanic Whites could seem like a motivation problem for Black men to solve on their own. But, when coupled with deep-seeded trauma around masculinity, the historical failures in the healthcare system for Black people, and the stigma around asking for help, the cultural and systematic barriers form a network of oppression and doubt keep Black men locked in their own mental health prisons. 

The groundswell of mental health advocacy seems to have willfully disregarded Black men; neglecting to meet them where they stand with culturally nuanced treatment, representative physicians, or accessible programs. Instead they are content to let it “all fall down” and assume the weight of the Black man’s mental health is not an issue and certainly not one for everyone to care about.

-Myia Thompkins


Collage of people's heads shot from the back, accentuating vibrance of different Black hairstyles

Our Hair Tale

Culture Hack

Collage of people's heads shot from the back, accentuating vibrance of different Black hairstyles

Our Hair Tale

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend Culture Con 2022 in New York. I can say with confidence it was one of the best conferences I’ve been to because of the culturally relevant conversations, radical brave spaces, and creative expression of the attendees, specifically their hair. I have always had a special relationship with my hair and the profession of cosmetology. I have been fascinated by how Black hair has transcended culture, creativity, and expression. While at Culture Con I had a row seat on how beautiful Black hair can be expressed, manipulated, and presented. 

During the conference, I had the pleasure of attending a conversation with Tracee Ellis Ross, CEO, and Founder of Pattern, a Black hair care product company. While on stage she spoke about “The Hair Tales” a docuseries about Black hair and the journeys Black women go through involving their hair. As an avid documentary lover, I could barely contain myself with excitement. Tracee spoke to “Finding the joy and celebration in who we are and using hair as a metaphor for our humanity.”  I was thrilled the topic was being discussed because for so long this story has not been highlighted, and now Black women are leading the narrative and having a discussion about the intricately complex relationships of Black hair. Executive producers, Oprah Winfrey, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Michaela Angela Davis truly captured the nuanced realities, radical transparency, and liberating elixir that is rooted in the stories of Black women and their hair. I hope “The Hair Tales” inspires more Black women to foster, nurture and protect the relationship of their hair and the legacy and history that it holds. 

“It’s the way you wear your identity, It’s the way you wear your history, 

It’s the way you wear your culture, It’s the way you wear you your legacy” 

                                              -Tracee Ellis Ross 

-Kimberly Heard


Group of trendy Black adults hanging out on a fire escape

The Business of Belonging

Culture Hack

Group of trendy Black adults hanging out on a fire escape

The Business of Belonging

Ideas and actions around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have continued to evolve nearly two years after widespread civil unrest and protest transitioned from the streets to the boardroom. This year, attention has shifted to the “I” in DE&I, with inclusion taking center stage as companies look to expand what is encompassed in their efforts along with the scope of their impact. 

At the same time, inclusion is evolving to make way for the latest buzz idea…BELONGING. Belonging challenges companies to think in terms of “part of” vs. “apart from,” creating space for each employee to know themselves so they can be accepted and included as themselves.     

It’s an obvious area for companies to focus on, considering 40% of people say they feel isolated at work (exacerbated by the current state of work from home). When coupled with research that shows that increasing belonging (or reducing isolation) leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover, it’s easy to see why belonging is not only good for people, it’s good for business too. 

But, the corporatization of belonging is problematic at best, diluting and distracting from what it truly means to create a culture of belonging. A one-size-fits-all approach sits at the heart of many inclusion/belonging efforts, inherently forcing people into siloes of self-understanding, and rarely providing clear and appropriate paths back to acceptance and relationship as they are encouraged to become “part of”. Employees are often left with increased awareness of their need for connection, but few means of achieving. How do we get to a place where isolation isn’t an unintended consequence of belonging?

Myia Thompkins


A group of people of color, three women and two men, gather at a trail head

Blackness Unboxed: Exploring the Unconventional

Culture Hack

A group of people of color, three women and two men, gather at a trail head

Blackness Unboxed: Exploring the Unconventional

lt goes without saying that Black Gen Z are blazing a new trail for themselves, fueled by the momentum of BLM protests in 2020 that has ignited our current era of Black Renaissance. Driving the culture towards unsuspected areas of interest, hobbies, and activities.

 According to Paramount insights: More than half of Black Gen Z say they have hobbies or interests they’re passionate about, and almost half have expertise in things that some people consider “nerdy”. It is clear Black Gen Z are unboxing more than what is typically associated with Black culture. They are unboxing what it means to be authentically Black. 

As someone whose primary friend group is a majority of Black men and women, I realized that we are unconventionally adventurous. Without shame, we have been underground caving for birthdays, hiking for sport, camping for connection, and going on an annual ski trip. When I look back at the activities we have done, I realized never once did we let Black cultural parameters influence what we could or couldn’t do. 

I believe the “Blackness Unboxed” mentality is continuing to spread and give more young Black people more agency and liberation over what they can be interested in. Take @_asipoftee_ a young Black hiking and outdoors influencer. She does group hikes and camping in Georgia and the southeast regions of the country. Her mission is to encourage diversity in the outdoors. 

Tee is just one example of how Black influencers are becoming the gateway to more Black Gen Zers unboxing their Blackness. With the younger generation acutely aware of self-discovery, let’s join in on unboxing and celebrating our hobbies and passions. You might like what you discover. 

-Kimberly Heard


Black and white, two black men embrace, photo cropped to just show heads and shoulders with one man staring in to camera

The Monkeypox Vaccine Rollout Leaves Many Wondering How Much We've Learned from the Past

Culture Hack

Black and white, two black men embrace, photo cropped to just show heads and shoulders with one man staring in to camera

The Monkeypox Vaccine Rollout Leaves Many Wondering How Much We've Learned from the Past

I, like many other New Yorkers before me, have just received my jab of JYNNEOS. A bit lumpy and sore for a few days, but a very small price to pay for protection against a severe, life-threatening pox..

Fortunately, after over 25,000 people have been infected in the USA this year, we’re starting to see a decline in cases, largely due to vaccines and what is being euphemistically described as ‘behavioral change among populations at risk’.

From fear of being slutshamed in the vaccine lines to those asking “why do they get priority”, the communications rollout of these vaccines and behavioral changes have brought old tensions to light within the LGBTQ community. On one hand, many are nervous that the concepts of ‘being at risk’ and targeted messaging could be weaponized on social media as fodder for homophobes and a pathologizing of sexuality. On the other, are those claiming a reticence from public health and community leaders to talk ‘straight’ is leaving many gay men unwarned, underprepared and subject to severe illness that could have been prevented.

But we’ve been here before. It’s worth remembering the fraught tensions of the early 1980s. When Larry Kramer called for the closure of bathhouses in the midst of the AIDS crisis he was labelled a pariah by many in the community who were pushing for emancipation and sexual liberation. The term ‘safe sex’ had only just been coined by queer activists; before the concept took on new meaning as the AIDS crisis raged on. By the end of the decade, many in the community had come to realize that Silence = Death and reticence was getting in the way of saving lives; but four decades later we are still living in the shadows of the homophobia and stereotyping of HIV as synonymous with the LGBTQ community.

Even if there are lessons to be learned from AIDS messaging, the debate around saving lives at the expense of perpetuating generational stigmas persists today. Perhaps, the best lesson to be learnt is creating space for those conversations to take place, where prior crises had so little open space for those voices to be heard.

But there is another lesson worth noting. Black individuals are now being diagnosed with monkeypox more than any other racial or ethnic group, while white individuals have received the lion’s share of available vaccines so far. Like the HIV epidemic before it, how public health officials and the LGBTQ community can work to address these racial disparities will be the most critical conversation to have in the next phase of this epidemic.

-Ed Hunt


LBB - How HERO Collective Unearths Clients’ “Cultural Superpower,” with Sara Hashim

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LBB - How HERO Collective Unearths Clients’ “Cultural Superpower,” with Sara Hashim

Sara Hashim’s job title includes an amalgamation of two things most often kept quite separate within ad agencies; she is EVP creative and client services at HERO Collective, a 100% Black-owned, digital first agency based out of New York. As part of HERO’s core leadership team, Sara manages key client relationships – ensuring that both creative and account teams at the agency are delivering projects that are strategically on point, creatively executed, quality assured and meeting all internal and external benchmarks.

Coming to her work with a background in design and strategy, Sara is an award-winning creative director and educator who loves to connect dots in unexpected ways. Sara also teaches an ‘Innovations in Marketing’ class at NYU, has taught Design at Hofstra University, and serves as a visiting critic at Pratt.

LBB’s Addison Capper wanted to know more about how her role works in practice, and how her duties as an educator inform the way she approaches her job. So, he spoke with Sara to find out. 

LBB> Your job title – EVP creative and client services – is an intriguing one. What does it entail?

Sara> It’s true, it’s an unusual title for a very particular situation. HERO was born out of a sense of purpose and a challenge to enter conversations in a way that adds value to people’s lives. Our work is about disrupting archaic modes of thinking and that entails challenging brands to be different. To do this, we must also be willing to hold ourselves to the same standards and methods internally. As we scaled, we saw the value of having a leadership position that operated across our design and account verticals to ensure that there was clear communication and cohesion – both internally and externally. In my role, I manage key client relationships, ensuring that both creative and account teams at the agency are delivering projects that are strategically on point, creatively executed, quality assured and meeting all the necessary benchmarks. There is a new business component as well, where I represent HERO Collective leadership during the pitch process and help new client partners settle in with their working teams.

LBB> How do you balance both sides of the role and why does it make sense to have creative and client relationships together? 

Sara> I find the output of our work is a balance between the way our creative work is done internally and how we communicate and partner with our clients in service to it, so it made perfect sense to have a role that bridges those two areas. From an internal perspective, it keeps our account and creative teams in close communication with each other, working in lockstep. Simultaneously, it signals to our partners that we’re an integrated studio. It is because our leadership team is structured in this way that we can ensure vision, strategy, creative and execution, and have a cohesive thread throughout a project.

LBB> You’re an award-winning creative director, have a background in strategy, and are a graphic designer by training. How do you find the challenge of also working more closely with clients and how does all of this experience feed into that? 

Sara> Working with clients is one of my favourite parts of this role. When we interact with our clients, the discussion is centred around making a difference in a meaningful way. That process is not always easy but it’s important. It requires everyone involved to move out of their comfort zone to have some hard conversations. Through this, we determine where we are, where we’d like to be, and how to bridge that gap in order to create real change. We begin by taking a deep look at where the brand operates and build a strategic foundation. That includes finding their cultural ‘superpower’, how they add value to consumer’s lives in a way that goes beyond the transactional benefits that their product or service provides. Every action we recommend from that point onwards – key messages, communications strategy, creative – ties back to this and aims to meet audiences where they are in a way that feels sincere, valuable, intentional and culturally relevant. This combination of human relationships, trust building and the rigour of the process that follows feels like a strong extension of both my personality and my background. 

LBB> How does your design thinking and experience inform your leadership style? 

Sara> The reason I’ve always gravitated towards design thinking is because, at its very simplest, it is a human centred approach to problem solving. It’s the way my mind wants to think about any kind of problem. Helping to solve for the complexities of an organisation like ours, scaling, taking on projects that have multiple phases, scopes and facets, galvanising a team towards a milestone and gathering together when we experience setbacks; these are all parts of our business that require a deep sense of empathy, a high bar for excellence, rigour and a flexibility of approach. But most importantly, it’s about being human. Design thinking is baked into every aspect of my day. It’s an exciting time to be a leader in this space, and we are fortunate to be working with some of the most talented, spirited, passionate and diverse people in the industry. 

LBB> You’re also an adjunct professor, teaching an Innovations in Marketing class at NYU. What kind of philosophies inform the types of lessons you teach and how do they also influence your work at HERO? 

Sara> My course at NYU focuses on equipping students with a strong foundation of marketing strategy. We study the principles that power innovation to navigate a rapidly changing landscape. When I crafted this course I thought deeply about all the ways that strong theoretical knowledge could meet real world application. So whether it is a reading, the way an assignment is structured, or a discussion, I made it a point that it had to translate to working life in some way. The intention is for them to be creative thinkers that can operate within robust, flexible frameworks. We have a high bar for success in this class, it’s not an easy class. But it is deeply thoughtful, it pushes students to connect the dots across industries, it challenges them to be analytical and flexible thinkers and it invites them to create an environment where we build something together and show up for each other. These are the same principles behind what we do at HERO. Interacting with this younger generation, hearing their perspectives and paying attention to what is motivating them certainly strengthens my work with HERO

LBB> Speaking of HERO, what kind of work do you feel the business does best and what kind of unique place does it occupy in the market?

Sara> HERO is a full service creative digital studio. We can do a great number of things, but the core of everything we do is based on showing up with a sense of purpose in a way that adds value to the cultural conversation. We are 100% Black-owned, incredibly diverse and we operate at the intersection of commerce, community and culture. Starting from that place of difference and expertise allows us to occupy a unique space in the market. I’m proud to say that we have successfully helped brands like Mattel, HP, BAND-AID and Nike to have powerful conversations that translate into action within the communities they serve.

LBB> Which projects from your time with the business are you particularly proud of and why? Sara> Our work with BAND-AID is a project I feel deeply passionate about. In 2021, with the background of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, we partnered with BAND-AID to release their new multi-tone brand ‘OURTONE’ that was in service of the Black community. As we sat through early consumer research, our responsibility was to listen, acknowledge, absorb and respect the stories we were hearing and to weave the insights from them into the very fabric of the brand, from the name ‘OURTONE’, to the packaging and the campaign itself. We had strong brand partners in Johnson & Johnson and the BAND-AID client teams, who trusted us and championed the work internally. We worked with creatives who were diverse, our sets, production teams, writers all reflected the communities we were serving. The luminaries we worked with were pillars in the Black community, and as a result the work showed a depth through and through. Even now, it’s the project we get asked about most, outperforming all benchmarks on the campaign and transforming the way in which BAND-AID shows up in that space. 

LBB> What creative content inspired or interested you most when you were growing up? Do any TV shows, films and ads stand out to you?

Sara> I grew up in Pakistan which has a rich cultural history that combines so many influences. I was raised with a curious mix of culture and art; from the fiery calligraphy of Ismail Gulgee, to the modern art of Imran Mir, to Shazia Sikander’s take on miniatures, there was a lot to absorb. In my young adulthood, I discovered the work of the American neo-conceptualist artist Jenny Holzer, who I really loved. Seeing her work for the first time switched on a part of my brain that has remained active ever since. 

When it came to television; it was really about what made it through the border at the time. It was a very curious mix of British television from the ‘70s, European MTV and a slew of sometimes obscure American TV shows that felt like they were coming to us 10 years after they went everywhere else. Manimal anyone?  

LBB> How did you wind up doing what you are doing? Was it a planned venture or did you fall into this business? 

Sara> I would say my beginnings were very far from where I have landed. I was studying to become a doctor and right before applying for the medical entrance exam, I realised medicine was not my calling. I put everything I had into applying to art school. I worked incredibly hard to build a portfolio and was accepted at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, one of the top schools in Pakistan. From there, I tried to expose myself to as many different working and learning experiences as possible so I could grow my craft. I joined JWT as an art director and got some great advertising experience. I then moved to New York for my masters degree in Communication Design from Pratt. Following that, I did a fellowship with Milton Glaser, who I was incredibly fortunate to work under. From there, I joined a design studio and then eventually started my own practice, which led me to working with Joe Anthony, our CEO at HERO. He was about to embark on a large branding project for Pfizer and was looking for a creative to spearhead the project. We’ve been working together ever since!

LBB> Outside of work, what keeps you entertained and/or relaxed? 

Sara> Finding ways to be nourished, energised, and pacing yourself is so important – particularly with this kind of work. I love travelling when I’m able to; it provides space for contrast and perspective. Spending time with friends, preferably over a great meal or for a concert. Getting away from the city to walk in nature is a practice I’m nurturing more and more. For me, it’s contrast that keeps things interesting, when balanced properly.

Originally appeared in LBB here.