IPG’s specialist creative data agency is coming up to its first anniversary - the agency’s CEO and CCO speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about more than doubling in size, its new campaign for Black & Abroad, and how a healthy tension between efficacy and creativity drives the business
After almost six years of transforming FCB/SIX into a global leader in the use of creative data, CEO Andrea Cook, CCO Ian Mackenzie, and COO Elizabeth Sellors left to launch Performance Art in July 2021. Still operating under IPG, Performance Art was dubbed a “new global agency that brings together deep data, technology, and CRM expertise with highly awarded creative talent”.
Since then, the agency has more than doubled in size to around 250 people and is currently operating out of New York, Toronto, and Montreal with plans for further expansion in the coming months. Performance Art has grown its relationships with several founding clients including BMW, CIBC, and Kijiji, and has landed major new business assignments with Lyft, Veterans United Bank, and Clutch.ca. What’s more, in February the agency launched new work for Black & Abroad, a client that garnered huge awareness and a plethora of award wins for its ‘Go Back to Africa’ campaign in 2019.
“We had such a great track record creating meaningful, data-led creative work for our clients,” Andrea tells me. “IPG really recognised the need for the type of work we were doing and wanted to elevate our vision and increase the accessibility of our offering to brands around the world. For us, at the five- or six-year mark, it was kind of time to start evolving our vision and make sure that we are acid-tested for the future. To our mind, the ad industry has too often put performance and creative at opposite poles. On one side is low-concept, ‘hard-working’, sales-y and executional work. On the other side, emotional, high creative that often exists as film, print or crafted experiences. With clients demanding more accountability in their spend and more to be made of their tech infrastructure investments – with our backgrounds in creative data, we saw an opportunity to put the tension between efficacy and creativity at the heart of our new agency brand.”
Andrea and Ian both admit that when they launched FCB/SIX around six years ago, they thought a lot of people in the advertising industry had the impression that they were “a bit nuts” to willingly give so much focus to data before it was really cool to do so. But they maintain that specialist approach and believe that it has only served them positively as they continue to grow and scale Performance Art. “There are some really cool studies around specialisms and generalisms, and which one’s better,” says Andrea. “The results of these studies are that in times of rapid change - like we are in as an industry and as humans right now - you’re better off to be a specialist. We centre on data and platforms and on technology, and it's just a different way of solving problems. We’ll read the same brief as another agency might, but we'll read that brief differently. We understand and tackle challenges differently. And so with that, it’s obviously going to mean different processes, different kinds of thinkers and, of course, different outcomes.”
A perfect recent example of Performance Art’s thinking is ‘The Black Elevation Map’, the previously mentioned follow-up to ‘Go Back to Africa’ for travel company Black & Abroad. The campaign takes the form of a powerful, data-driven domestic travel platform that resides at BlackElevationMap.com. The platform takes cultural data, including Black population data, historical markers, Black-owned businesses and social media activity, and visualises it as points of interest on a dynamic, searchable elevation map of the United States. The greater the density of data, the higher the elevation. In addition to thousands of places of interest, the Black Elevation Map includes 12 curated city guides and 10 national guides, which include Black-owned wineries (‘Melanin Vines’), notable start-up companies (‘Black Silicon Valley’) and restaurants that fuelled civil rights (‘Civil Bites’). The campaign’s predecessor won nearly every global advertising award, including the Grand Prix in Creative Data at Cannes, the D&AD Black Pencil, and the Global Grand Effie in Positive Change. It also won a Commendation at The Immortal Awards in 2019.
“We felt a weight of responsibility to follow up Go Back to Africa,” says Ian. “The data tells us that the campaign had a positive impact on the world and was a great piece for our clients and the travel industry. We wanted to follow up with something that is also of value to the world as well as expressing the brand’s positive vision.”
In this case, the timing just so happened to coincide with a global pandemic and a total shut down, at least for a while, of the international travel industry. “Black & Abroad is a travel brand, but not necessarily an international travel brand,” says Ian. “So it made sense for us to turn the camera a little bit inward and focus on domestic travel and this brand’s own community of Black businesses across the country.”
The campaign went through a number of iterations, but the team kept coming back to the idea of some kind of immersive digital experience that reimagines the American landscape by visualising the heights of Black culture as elevation. “Hopefully, during the creative process we land on an idea that we’re all excited about, that feels powerful and like it can act as a platform for a lot of things,” says Ian. “Then we pursue these lines of questioning: ‘What data can power this map?’; ‘What might be the challenges with some of the data?’; ‘How do you measure culture?’, ‘Technically, how do you convert an elevation map which is powered by metres above sea level into something that's powered by cultural data?’; ‘What are the biases that you might build into a system if you aren’t careful?’; ‘How do you make it something that people can use?’; ‘How do you make it something that people can contribute to if they feel that they want to?’.”
In terms of ensuring that bias wasn’t unintentionally built into any of the data driving the experience, Performance Art partnered with Kinesso, the marketing engine of IPG, to tap into its internal and commissioned research (such as its MAGNA 2021 Black Consumer Report and UM’s SIMMONS Cultural Index study), as well as publicly available studies to understand the behaviour, lifestyle and values of Black travellers, and what is influencing their travel decisions. They then worked with Kinesso and its audience designers to match these lifestyle and psychographic attributes to its data stack to build representable addressable audiences for digital syndication.
“Using such a nuanced approach to the data resulted in the creation of a Black traveller audience that we feel is much more representative of the population than if we simply selected a ‘Black’ ethnicity data attribute,” says Ian. “Then, when we went to market with the Black Elevation Map, Matterkind and Reprise activation teams prioritised media placement within contextual environments with relevant content to Black travellers, and leveraged Kinesso's IMPACT Marketplace of Black-owned media properties.”
The campaign’s central film, which is a real beauty titled ‘A Hymn Away From Home’, was produced by Alfredo Films, one of Canada’s only Black-owned production companies. Directed by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall (whose ‘Black Bodies’ was an official selection of TIFF 2020), the film combines aspirational footage of more than 30 business owners from across America with iconic images of mountains, and original poetry commissioned and performed by Washington DC-based poet Jasmine Mans. “It’s an incredible piece of poetry,” adds Ian. “It sounds like some sort of magic story. It’s so beautiful and it’s so appropriate for this project.”
As Performance Art continues to scale and expand, a lot of Andrea and Ian’s time is being spent focusing on evolving and codifying the agency’s culture. “It's going to have to change as we open more offices around the world,” says Andrea. “We talk a lot about the freedom for those markets to have their own flavour, while also staying true to what has made us so successful - which is a happy, collaborative, smart and kind group of people, who are accountable. I don't think we have all the answers, but I think we're good at bringing people along the journey to help define the place that makes the most sense for them as individuals and also as part of our team.”
One initiative that they have implemented is called ‘The Art of Human Performance’, which Andrea says is solely about being a happier human being and has nothing to do with being a good art director or project manager or whatever. It’s about wellness in all its forms which, yes, does involve things like yoga, but also deeper things such as how to have tough conversations with your partner, how to manage an ageing parent, how to breathe, how to not be stressed about your money. “We’re still yet to see the PTSD that’s going to come from these past two years,” says Andrea. “It's a post-traumatic situation and if we're not really generous and careful as leaders, our people are going to continue to struggle. We're not even seeing past the tip of the iceberg yet, so the thought with ‘The Art of Human Performance’ program is to help our people find that grounding and be happier folks, and give everyone a lot of influence over what decisions we make in shaping the agency as it grows.”
“Our people are incredible,” adds Ian. “Aside from running a little ragged from two years of Zoom calls, you can feel the excitement about the agency’s vision and where we’re headed. At the end of the day, this is about the work we put out into the world with our clients, and we're trying to learn and grow fast and express that vision through the work.
“I love our name, ‘Performance Art’, because it evokes the tension of duality. It’s a direct reference to the fine art discipline of ‘performance art’ – which itself is on the avant of the avant-garde. As a practice, it’s really pushing at the edge of creativity and centred on the human, lived experience. At the other end of the duality is ‘performance marketing’ – a rational marketing construct that is typically more interested in algorithms than art. It’s data-driven, technical, results-oriented, and accountable. We wanted to create an agency brand that lives at that intersection. We love the values of performance art, its progressiveness, and how it challenges the status quo while hopefully moving the world forward. It's an evolved, distilled vision put into practice and a really powerful framework."