10 Questions with Ed Catto and Steve Rotterdam of Bonfire Agency
Ed Catto and Steve Rotterdam have recently launched Bonfire Agency, LLC. The company helps brands reach the highly sought after pop culture demographic and the influentials that can make or break what the next big thing is.
We’ve had a few articles about our thoughts on marketing in the comic book industry and the two men have agreed to subject themselves to our 10 Questions.
Graphic Policy: First let me say thank you very much for the interview and congratulations on the new venture. For people who don’t know, tell us about Bonfire Agency, LLC which you started along with Steve Rotterdam.
Ed Catto and Steve Rotterdam: Thank you for the opportunity. We’re really excited and the first few weeks have been a whirlwind. Bonfire Agency was created to help companies connect directly with highly passionate, intensely loyal and incredibly challenging to reach consumers of pop culture – and to do so with relevance and authenticity, encouraging these influentials to embrace their message and help spread it outwards. As a full-service marketing agency, we’re able to develop strategies and fully integrated campaigns that tap into the heart of what these consumers care about. And because this is a marketplace that hungers for the “new” and respects risk-takers, it’s an environment within which brands can play and experiment; to do some of their edgiest work in trying to engage and enlist these consumers.
In addition, we’re developing three discrete service offerings – a comics media ad network, our Fan-Pan research panel and a retailer-based promotional event network. We’re establishing great partnerships already, but one relationship in particular has been especially important in enabling us to hit the ground running. We’ve created Bonfire Agency as an agency within an agency. So while we’re independent, we’re also aligned with EastWest Marketing Group. This gives us access to offices in New York, LA and Chicago, as well as an established infrastructure, top talent and services. That being said, we’ll also be reaching out to specialists and top creatives as specific projects demand specific skills and sensibilities.
GP: Marketing has seemed to lately focus on the idea of “Navigators,” “Connectors,” you call them “Firestarters,” but they’re influencers of their peers who are evangelists of what they like. How is it that marketing has evolved over the years to this? What’s empowered the individual influencer?
EC and SR: Over the last two decades, marketing has evolved from a broadcast mentality, pushing a message outwards to everyone, to a narrowcast reality, engaging individuals in ways that are meaningful to them. Not every company does this or does this well, of course, but you can see that the best in class want to talk to you and engage you in a conversation. Jim Joseph, author of “The Experience Effect,” talks about the importance of a “brand soundtrack” and how successful companies strive for engagement. And that’s not just a two-way conversation, but one that’s meant to radiate and be amplified by influencers and opinion makers.
The many fan communities – consumers of pop culture including comics, graphic novels, science fiction, action movies, manga, anime, pulps, toys, television, music and beyond – are very vocal. They invite, and often demand, that individuals weigh in and offer their thoughts and opinions. They’re extremely intelligent, very well read and hyper connected. They engage others online but also in person at conventions and on weekly pilgrimages to their comic shops.
All this adds up to a group that is anxious to consume and enjoy media, primed to critically analyze and capable of sharing and discussing. The “geek culture” demographic, for lack of a better word, is a great place for marketers because not only are they wired to engage, but if marketers approach the opportunity with respect and creativity, they’ll be embraced and the impact of their efforts will be magnified.
GP: Your press announcement talks about an “integrated ad network.” Is this primarily print and offline or will you dipping your toes into online advertising as well?
EC and SR: Integration is the operative word. We’re working with several comics publishers across a combination of print, online and digital platforms, as well as via social media, both virtual and in person. In the increasingly challenging advertising marketplace in which we will operate, no one medium is strong enough to address the marketing needs, desires and expectations of major brands. It really is, more than ever, all or nothing.
GP: How about social media? It’s where a lot of the influencers spend their time, but beyond them will you be getting involved in social media marketing campaigns, which have been somewhat lackluster?
EC and SR: Today’s fans and today’s consumers don’t live in such way that they only engage in one medium. No one only reads the paper or only watches TV or only looks at billboards or only goes online. People are more in control than they’ve ever been and consume content seamlessly across myriad platforms and media. Brands need to be as “unstuck” from communications conventions as their audience already is. At Bonfire, we might offer a specific solution to help a client achieve a specific goal, but by and large we’ll be developing integrated programs to help companies reach and connect with consumers in the best, most efficient manner.
GP: We’ve posted commentary about marketing and some of the basics the industry lacks. One of the most powerful tools I’ve used over the years in my political work is demographic and behavioral data on voters. It seems that there’s an inherent issue with gathering that type of data in the industry and not an effort to do better. How do you think customer demographic data can play a bigger role in comic book marketing?
EC and SR: It really is a shame that more precise and in-depth market research has really never been fielded. Most of what passes for it is either anecdotal or self-fulfilling (“Hey, let’s ask only the questions that will give us the answers we want or already know!”) It’s one of the reasons that we’re establishing our Fan-Pan consumer research panel. It’ll help us gain a better understanding of the true demographic and statistical profile of the passionate fan community. We’ll be offering it up to brands and companies that want to better understand, test and refine new products and campaigns with the fans, using the data to inform strategies and craft dialogues that most appeal to these “firestarters”.
GP: Part of the work we’ve done is micro-targeting to voters. We just don’t see that happening in the industry. Is there something we’re missing? Have any good examples where it has we might have missed?
EC and SR: The problem with micro-targeting is that the industry is too big and not big enough. Let’s say you wanted to micro-target a segment of passionate fans. On one level, there may not be an absolute quantity of consumers to make it pay out, and, on the other hand, it may be difficult to distribute the end product to a geographically diverse population. It’s difficult, on a retailer level, to plan for and offer just the right amount of product for just a sliver of a demographic.
We think the bigger opportunity is to flip the funnel upside down. Instead of micro-targeting inwardly, target those tribal influencers whose passions already radiate outward. As we help brands communicate with authenticity, wit and creativity, the messaging has the opportunity to play out onto a bigger stage.
GP: As a whole geek culture has grown in its influence over the greater pop culture. How has such a niche industry finally broken through to “take over Hollywood” and influence it so much.
EC and SR: You see it in so many ways. A big part of the equation is that many fans are now creators at a certain professional level and are bringing their history and passions to their high profile jobs. It’s not only The Dark Knight, Red or Road to Perdition as realized by folks who “get it”; now it’s comics fans writing for Lost, Seinfeld and Big Bang Theory. A New York Times best-selling author like Marjorie Liu grew up in the 90’s watching X-Men cartoons. Here in New York City on new comic book day, the comic shops are filled with professionals not only from the advertising and fashion industries, but from financial services and law firms. “They walk among us” is a sardonic description, but it’s true. And unlike other shared experiences, youth league soccer for example, fans no longer age out of it. They continue to engage and enjoy.
GP: While your agency seems to be focused a lot on the influencers it’s often basic press and communications operations that are missing. Any thoughts into moving into offering that service for companies that may not be able to afford a full time staffer?
EC and SR: It’s something we’ve talked about – and we’ve gotten a substantial number of resumes from press and public relations professionals. We’re also pretty well connected among the folks that cover comics and the broader popular culture. But it’s not something that we currently offer as one of our core competencies. We expect that to change, but not during the first six months.
GP: Is there any brands or conventions you’re already working with?
EC and SR: Yes. Within the industry, we’re working with Reed Pop! and their line up of conventions, Diamond Comics Distributors, the CBDLF and several other groups. From the world beyond, we’re already working with a candy brand, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, as well as the Robin Hood Foundation, a non-profit focused on fighting poverty in New York. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy a great initial reception, so Bonfire has a full dance card for the weeks to come too.
GP: What’s coming up in 2011 for Bonfire Agency?
EC and SR: The next six months will be busy times – we’ll be focusing on our current clients, signing new ones on board and launching our comics ad media network, recruiting fans for our Fan-Pan research panel and signing up retailers for the Retailer Network. It’s going to be an exciting year full of new programs, engaging marketing and a lot of fun and creativity along the way.