SB Projects may not be a household name outside of the entertainment industry, but chances are you know its work. The 6-year old company is responsible for discovering such recording artists as Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Carly Rae Jepsen—to name a few. The company’s founder, Scooter Braun, made a name for himself building unknown musical artists into platinum-selling musical brands, in large part, by taking full advantage of emerging digital marketing platforms.
CMO Brad Haugen was the company’s third employee. A childhood friend of Braun’s working in the advertising industry, Haugen first created an augmented reality-driven Web site for SB Projects’ Asher Roth, and eventually took on the larger role of building the company’s marketing organization from scratch.
During Haugen’s tenure, SB Projects has grown from niche music manager to a diversified entertainment company with projects in the television, film, and technology industries. CMO.com talked to Haugen about why technology matters to the entertainment industry, hiring marketing talent, and how he decides where to place his digital marketing bets.
CMO.com: You joined SB Projects in its infancy. What were the biggest marketing challenges at that point?
Haugen: I came from the very structured background of an ad agency. So the initial challenge for me was having to wear 1,000 hats. I got on board a rocket ship. [Founder] Scooter Braun and [general manager] Allison Kaye were doing an amazing job launching Justin Bieber’s brand. It was just a matter of getting my bearings and figuring out what made the most sense to focus on. I went from complete structure to complete chaos—in the best sense of the word. It was a full-time job to make sure all the projects were united and building toward our bigger brands.
CMO.com: In what ways did your agency background serve you well in your first CMO role?
Haugen: I was very fortunate to work with a lot of incredibly creative people in my agency days, many of whom I still keep in close contact with. They elevated my standards for doing effective work. They taught me how to push the boundaries of creativity while still achieving goals.
One of the most important things I do is push our team to think outside the box. But I also need to hold them to our higher standards.
From a structural standpoint, my agency background helped me build my team. I look for people who are creative, but who are also great at execution. In the entertainment industry, where things move so quickly, we need to balance the two. We need to come up with creative ideas and also move projects forward.
CMO.com: How do you find marketing talent that’s skilled at both the creative side of marketing for entertainment and the executional side?
Haugen: Our philosophy is “hire slow.” Our projects are plentiful, and there’s lots of work to be done, but we’re not just going to go out and hire a bunch of people. We want to bring people on that are a cultural fit.
There’s no single source of good marketing talent. One of our key marketing hires was Jackie Augustus [now an associate marketing manager]. She was a fan running the massively popular Bieber Army Twitter account. She had amassed a million followers for the account while she was in high school. When she was 18 she went to Hawaii Pacific University on a cheerleading scholarship, but they shut down her program. That’s when we swooped in and offered her a job. [Jackie is currently completing her online degree at Arizona State University while working for SB Projects.]
We’ve hired people from MasterCard, record labels, and tech businesses. Their background doesn’t matter. There are great creative people everywhere. What matters is that they fit into the culture here.
CMO.com: How do you assess whether they’re a good fit during the hiring process?
Haugen: If I think someone has potential, I like to meet him or her multiple times and not just in the office. I like to have a beer with them or share a meal. You have to really get to know a person to see if they understand our vision.
CMO.com: How big is your team now, and how has your role evolved as the company has grown?
Haugen: There are eight of us the marketing team, and we’re continuing to grow. I definitely have taken on a more managerial role. But for all intents and purposes, we’re still a startup. There are certain projects that I still roll my sleeves up on. Staying involved with some of the minutiae keeps me going.
For example, I’m flying to New York to go to a video shoot for the new single from Carly Rae Jepsen called “I Really Like You.” I don’t have to be there. I want to be there. When I first joined, it was just Scooter, Allison, and I brainstorming ideas with our talent and labels. It was an exciting time. Staying involved keeps me excited.
CMO.com: SB Projects has its hands in music, TV, films, and technology projects. Are there similarities in the way you approach marketing these very different entities?
Haugen: I have a chalkboard wall in my office with a grid of client projects and dates. Every week we have a companywide meeting and then a marketing meeting to figure out what we want to accomplish that week. And then we break it down day by day and hour by hour.
We look at every project with new pair of eyes. Every brand is different. Every project is different. They each have their own path. You’re going to wear a different pair of shoes whether you’re heading to a beach or going to hike a mountain.
CMO.com: Both you and Scooter were in your twenties when the company began. Has your age been a benefit in marketing your brands?
Haugen: It has, but only because of the sense of fluency I have in evolving technology. I have a background in technology, and I’m a big fan of social media. We have lots of friends in startups, and that has definitely helped Scooter and me. But we also recognize that we don’t know everything.
When you’re young, you tend to have no fear. So we look for people like that. It’s not necessarily an age thing, but we want that kind of willingness to try new things.
CMO.com: When you worked at advertising agency BBH, you were involved with the company’s venture capital arm, ZAG. SB Projects now has its own tech incubator. Why should an entertainment management company invest in tech startups?
Haugen: When you look at the music industry, every major shift has been a technology shift. It went from radio to vinyl to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs to MP3s to streaming. As the technology evolves, so does the industry. I think that’s true for most industries today, not just entertainment. We’re using technology as a tool to help us do everything from marketing to distribution.
If we’re not directly involved with the development of emerging technology, we’re going to get passed by. We want to be part of that conversation. We see a lot of holes in the marketplace, and we want to invest in or incubate companies that will fill them.
CMO.com: What have been your biggest accomplishments as CMO?
Haugen: The thing I’m most proud of is that, as a company, we’ve been able to stay true to who we are. Our goal was to create amazing moments and inspire people to chase their dreams—whether it’s our artists, their fans, or technology entrepreneurs. And I think we’ve done a really good job thus far.
Specifically, I think we’ve created some really innovative marketing campaigns as we’ve branched out into different genres of music and other media. There was this moment in 2012 when things were really humming—Carly Rae’s “Call Me Maybe,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” and Justin’s “Boyfriend” were all hitting. And we thought, “Holy crap, we’re really affecting the culture.” Since then we’ve branched out into different areas of entertainment—our TV show “Scorpion” [on CBS] to the “Jem and the Holograms” movie we have coming out in October. Again, we don’t know everything. But we know how to partner with the right people.
CMO.com: What’s one of the more unique marketing campaigns you’ve created?
Haugen: After Justin’s hit “Boyfriend,” we helped him develop a fragrance for women called Girlfriend. We thought it would be a cool idea to hold a contest asking fans to cover the song and create new lyrics for it. We featured the best one in a TV spot and flew the winner out to meet Justin. BBH helped us with the creative. It was a very cool moment.
We really focus on digital campaigns, and we’ve done some really great work over the years, whether it was helping “Call Me Maybe” go viral—although I hate that word—or taking a guy like Psy and breaking him here in the U.S.
CMO.com: Digital marketing is evolving so rapidly. How do you determine where to place your bets?
Haugen: A lot of it is instinct. Some of it is artist-specific—they have specific types of media they like to work with. But most of it is trial and error.
We meet with new technology companies all the time. When something new comes along, we try it. And if it doesn’t hit, we try something else. We love taking risks, but it doesn’t always work out. A good example of something that did work—going all the way back to the beginning of the company—was Scooter discovering and selling Justin on YouTube. At the time, no one did that. It was a great example of how to use technology to break new talent.
Our direct relationships with social media platforms, such as Facebook and Snapchat, allow us to have open conversations about new features. And we want to be a part of those new features.
We put a lot of effort into experimentation, but you can tell pretty quickly if something is working, especially when you’re working with global pop starts. When something goes viral, it happens fast. We knew “Gangnam Style” was going to blow up. We sensed that “Call Me Maybe” was going to happen. It doesn’t always happen right away. Sometimes a new platform takes time. But if we have a good instinct about it, we’ll keep chugging along and waiting for the next product update.
CMO.com: Do you think your experience holds lessons for CMOs in other industries?
Haugen: I talk to a lot of CMOs in other industries. There are some unique aspects to my company. We’re small. We’re not publicly traded. Our clients are people who can say yes or no to things. But the most important lesson I share is to not be afraid to fail. It’s important to look at the consumer as a person and have a one-on-one conversation with them. Then when something doesn’t work, you can ask them why.
A lot of brands try to sell, sell, sell. But marketing isn’t about trying to get someone to buy something all the time. Sometimes you just need support for your brand. We give a lot to our customers—inviting them to concerts, offering them free music. It has to be a give and take. I know a lot of CMOs are judged by their P&L and how much product they move. But sometimes it’s worth investing in the people that will help build your business.