In September 2020 Dare.Win, an entertainment agency based in Paris and Berlin, was “inducted into the hallowed halls” of the MediaMonks monastery, becoming the latest future-facing business to join Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital. Founded by Wale Gbadamosi-Oyekanmi in 2011, Dare.Win is dedicated to building culture through engaging creative and entertainment content for clients such as Netflix, Spotify and PlayStation.
Wale had only been in the marketing business for 11 months when he founded his own agency, but considering the pace at which Dare.Win has grown and thrived in its first decade, he must have picked up some useful lessons in his life before then.
To find out more about how he formed his philosophy on marketing through entertainment, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Wale.
LBB> Where did you grow up and how did that affect the sort of person you became?
Wale> I grew up in a town called Neuilly sur Seine. A suburb right outside of Paris. It's a pretty posh place, where you have some of the wealthiest families. And I grew up there in social housing. All cities in France are supposed to be 10% social housing. And some cities would rather pay fines than build social housing, to keep people separate, which is sad. Neuilly only had 1% social housing and luckily enough, when she immigrated to France in the '80s my mother got a flat there. She decided to stay there even though there were other, cheaper options for bigger flats in other social housing in a less privileged neighbourhood. She decided that it was better for her two sons to have an upbringing and a community in a smaller flat. It was a one-bedroom flat, but it was better to have us grow up there with a better network, better schools, and better life opportunities than a larger house in a place that was less privileged.
I grew up the only Black person (along with my family) in the building, on the streets, in class. What it offered me is the ability to adapt.
I'm Nigerian and French so I have both citizenships. I spent time growing between Paris and Lagos. It was interesting to see the mix of having school friends with mansions in the countryside and going back to Nigeria and seeing a developing country. That was a fish out of water situation. I learned a lot from it: how you adapt, how you adjust, how you leverage a network of people you're surrounded by and how you can also benefit from the opportunities you get from that type of environment.
That also gave me access to a good school so I went to a pretty good university and that really helped. What I'm trying to do now is make sure that people have better opportunities. I had good opportunities because of my mother's life choices. But that's not something that's offered to everyone. So that's something I'm trying to balance out.
LBB> Otherwise, what were your biggest influences growing up?
Wale> I have a brother five years older, so he was a big influence. I stole his tapes, CDs and his clothes. He shaped a lot of my tastes.
Also my mother - her business acumen, how easily she adapted to a foreign country, language, culture, how she started up projects from scratch, and turned out to be an amazing businesswoman. That's something that was a major influence.
She also gave me more of a British point of view of the world. Since we're from Nigeria, formerly part of the British Empire. I think that's also a mentality that I have - I'm a mix of the French mentality but also British and Nigerian culture.
I was born in the '80s, So a lot of radio, a lot of hip hop, exclusively until university. Then that changed, I opened my tastes when I mixed with other kids. Electronic music was hot back then.
Then in the 2000s, when I got my first internet access, US entertainment. I was on Napster, LimeWire, Kazaa - all those downloading websites. I had access to all the music, all the entertainment possible. I was a big fan of the MTV Music Awards, discovering guys like Ali G. All those things shaped my tastes in music, entertainment, live events and how you tell stories on a global level.
LBB> You were in TV first before advertising. So what were the most memorable parts of that for you when you look back on that part of your life?
Wale> Most other people that work in an industry they're passionate about have an early-age connection with the industry and that's something I experienced when I was 17 and I joined the video club. I was producing content with friends, showing it to other people and it was just a lot of fun, a passion project on the side that felt like it could actually become a job.
That opened my network of people I knew and I got one of my first jobs on the equivalent of a mix of Big Brother and The Voice called Star Academy, as a creative assistant every week, primetime on Friday nights. That three months was super intense. For a 21-year-old kid being paid to be on set and have ideas for like tens of millions of people. That was super cool.
When I became a creative in the TV industry, one of the last projects I developed before I left on my world tour was a format for a talent show that challenged world-class performers against the internet - so you had an incredible singer and you'd challenge everyone with internet access to show that they can perform better. That actually became a TV format for five years, so that was pretty cool.
LBB> You touched on the fact that you went travelling the world. You've visited so many amazing places. Could you pick one place that you went to that was particularly interesting?
Wale> I spent a month in Myanmar in 2008. A friend of mine was meeting me there. I spent the first 15 days of my trip there by myself, and I couldn't visit the most famous sites, because I wanted to visit them with my buddy. I was in the south. There was no guidebook, nothing to visit, but it was the only part of the country I could visit without spoiling major sites for my friend. I think it's one of the least visited countries in the world. People in general say Asian food is unbelievable. I was very disappointed by Myanmar's food to be honest. And it was the rainy season, so it was two straight weeks of rain. But it was a very unique experience. It's right next to Thailand and China, but doesn't get a lot of tourism and especially not the south. I think it was a great experience. The people are amazing, the culture is amazing. I learned a lot about myself, about how you engage with people and how much people who are so different to you are in fact so similar. And that's something I really realised while I was in Myanmar by myself as a Black man of 25.
LBB> Then you decided to educate yourself in marketing content online. How did you go about that?
Wale> I came back from my world travels to the TV industry, got bored and realised how little I knew about digital and how much I needed to learn about what was going to become a major industry. I felt it. I just knew that something was going to pick up, there were going to be opportunities and I knew nothing about it.
I started a pet project around the World Cup 2010 in South Africa. We tried to raise money on a website by selling pixels, which is an idea I had seen from students in the UK called the Million Dollar Homepage. We had a team of 11 friends that were supposed to raise money. We were selling grass. The tagline was: "The 1st team selling grass to make it to the World Cup in S. Africa", so selling grass (cannabis) and grass from the football field, so it was a funny PR stunt that people had fun with.
We did a lot of PR, social media, online content, and we got a lot of attention, but little money. And that made me realise that I was very interested, but I needed to learn. So I applied to a couple of agencies, including Buzzman. And Buzzman were crazy enough to hire me.
I was there for 11 months, but that agency went at such a fast pace that I learned a lot of things that are still useful now. Back then they were one of the best agencies in Europe working in digital and I was lucky enough to be there at the time. So that's how I learned.
When I felt I had learned enough, I started my own thing. And to be honest, I'm still learning every day.
LBB> That's a huge step to just go and start your own thing after 11 months in the industry!
Wale> Not when you have a mother like mine!
Just a quick story: In 1998 there was a World Cup in France. I wanted to go because Nigeria was playing in France, so did my brother. We asked my mother to ask the people from the Nigerian embassy if they can get tickets. She asked and they didn't know if they were going to get tickets for Nigerians in Paris. So she decided to start the Football Fan Association of Nigerians in Paris and was the person responsible for handling all the tickets for Nigerians in Paris.
So when you have a mother that starts from there and ends up being a football player manager (because she ended up being an agent for footballing talent), you realise from an early age that nothing's impossible. Like starting an agency after 11 months.
LBB> And it's turned out pretty well! In all the years since, leading up to today, what have been the key moments as Dare.Win has grown?
Wale> I think the first hit campaign that we did that made me realise that I was creating something real was when I got the first application from someone. I thought if only this person realised that this is a one-man show. There's no company as such, just one man in a room. If people see that this is a company and are willing to quit their job, this means I'm onto something that's interesting. I'd just launched the first campaign that was pretty successful from a PR point of view and from a business case point of view. That's when I realised that what I was doing was something real, it was sustainable. It wasn't just one project, it became a business.
A second moment that was key was three years later, when we won the Netflix pitch for France in 2014. We're working with them still seven years later, which is incredible. All things considered I think Netflix is to us what Nike is to Wieden + Kennedy. We've had a relationship from the start for a very long time. I think we've shaped them a bit. They have had a big influence on the culture and the process of the work we do. And I think we've got a really symbiotic relationship, learning, earning, gaining, retaining and growing that client has been a key moment in our history. There is a before and after, definitely.
LBB> And another big moment must have been merging with MediaMonks in September 2020. What convinced you that was the right decision for Dare.Win?
Wale> The thing that convinced me to sign the deal with MediaMonks was ambition. I think that's something I've always had. I've always wanted to be the best. I work hard. I expect a lot of myself. And I want to push things as far as I can. So when MediaMonks told me that the ambition was to be the creative company of the next decade I was interested.
I think we have a really strong content vision, but we lack the media and data side of things. Think about the next decade. Are you going to beat them on the data and on the media side? I don't think so. I am a strong believer that if you can't beat them, join them. And I had the opportunity to actually join them.
LBB> In the blog about that, there’s a phrase that I loved: “we ourselves have railed against the annoying, intrusive content that brings personalized panic to consumers in the form of banner ads that seemingly follow you everywhere.” What is it that you particularly object to about that kind of advertising?
Wale> If you're in contact with that type of advertising, you're annoyed and you feel it's intrusive, how does that serve a business? How does that serve the user? I don't think it does. It's that simple. If the relationship you're building is annoying, it's not going to work. That's why I believe entertainment is a great way to educate and convey a message, while being intrusive and following people around is creepy.
LBB> And what do you see as the healthier alternative? Is it about being embedded in culture?
Wale> Embedded in culture is great. I think embedded in conversations is even better. What we're trying to achieve is create content that's interesting to people. And my KPI for being interesting to people is: How much are they willing to share? How much are they making it part of their life? How much are you making it part of the conversation in a positive way?
I believe that from a business point of view if you're a brand, what you want people to do is recommend your product. To me, that recommendation from peer to peer, from someone you trust - whether an influencer, your neighbour, or your grandma - I think that's the fastest and most solid bond you can have with a product. That beats pretty much any other piece of marketing, from my point of view. What we try to do is generate content that people will be willing to recommend, rather than being intrusive and creepy and following you around like "buy me, buy me, buy me".
LBB> Are there any recent examples of work Dare.Win has done that encapsulate those values particularly neatly?
Wale> In the previous world when we could go out, what we did for Get 27 was turn a full street green. It's the type of work I like for several reasons. First of all it's universal. If you're from the south of Myanmar or from Latin America you can understand that this fresh drink is green and we turned a full street green, it reduces the temperature and is the freshest street in Paris. That's universal, striking, strong messaging that generates awe. People see it, they're impressed, they want to capture it, share it.
The other work I would mention is more recent. The work we did for Lupin on Netflix, the best performing French show globally. It's about a gentleman that's also a thief that disguises himself so you kind of see him but you never notice him. I really think what we created resonates a lot with who I am now, and the general environment in France. It's a mix of Covid, of invisible minorities and great messaging. The main actor is one of the most loved and famous French actors [Omar Sy]. He was featured in X-Men, so a big French celebrity and also becoming an international one.
We made a hidden camera piece of content where one of the biggest stars, with a mask on as a Black man was pasting the billboard up on the Metro. He's one of the biggest stars in France, and no one recognised him because of the mask.
I think it's super interesting because it says a lot about people who are invisible. Like frontline workers doing that kind of work for us in a time of Covid that we don't recognise, even when they are the biggest celebrity. And obviously it has something to do with also the fact that he's Black.
I think it's a really interesting Zeitgeist campaign that talks about entertainment in the Covid world, being a Black invisible man. Even if you're the most famous Black man in France, people still won't recognise you on the Metro. It doesn't have a political point of view. It's more like a point of view on society and the way we interact, especially in the Covid world. I think there's something interesting in the post George Floyd era that's beginning. That campaign was a hit because it's entertaining but deep in meaning and you have several layers that you can read. And I think that's what's good about it, when people have different points of view, but they all appreciate it for different reasons.
LBB> What sort of things do you do when you're trying to get some distance from your work?
Wale> I travel, which has been impossible for a year. But I have several ways of travelling. Music is a voyage. It takes me to a different place and my Spotify app is on 24/7.
Then TV. I recently watched a series on Netflix about a Turkish woman who had panic attacks, and that was an interesting way to discover parts of Turkey I didn't know about. That's something I love about entertainment - how stories about people that are very different but at the same time very close to who you are.
I have kids now, so I play with my daughters. That's something that definitely helps me disconnect.
And I just go out. I'm a big fan of people watching, looking around is one thing I really appreciate, which is more difficult with the masks, to be honest.
Nothing out of the ordinary, but I disconnect by travelling to other places or discovering new lands.