Agency group Common Interest is on an acquisition drive

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Agency group Common Interest aims to fill a gap in marketing where cultural authenticity trumps appropriation.

If that sounds surprising in an industry that touts cultural reflection, remember that hits like the marketing for the Barbie movie are rare exceptions. Indeed, marketing often flirts with culture but rarely delivers.

Harsh? Maybe, but for every Barbie, there are countless flops that miss the cultural zeitgeist entirely. Bud Light, PepsiCo, Balenciaga, Burger King, Peloton — even these revered brands with savvy marketers have had their share of tone-deaf attempts to reflect culture in recent years.

Suddenly, Common Interest’s pitch starts to make perfect sense.

Of course, every agency aims for that. Where the group’s leaders hopes to stand out is in the execution. Founder Anthony Freedman, a former Havas regional chair, knows CMOs want to steward culturally relevant brands but struggle to sell it in the boardroom. As a result, marketing often gets dragged into an efficiency-driven race to the bottom. But it doesn’t have to be.

“One key thing we’re trying to do with Common Interest is to provide CMOs with the business case they need to develop, support and then measure a strategy that’s based on building cultural relevance,” Freedman said.

To do this, they’re focusing on weaving together a network of businesses that provide CMOs with the insights to understand culture and the tools to create content that earns its own media, rather than relying solely on paid reach.

So far, this consists of three businesses: brand consultants-cum-management experts TwentyFirstCenturyBrand, acquired last year; Otherway, the creative studio acquired in April; and CultureLab, the cultural intelligence platform launched in the spring.

By the end of the year, there could be a few more to add to this list. 

There is already one on the horizon, with Common Interest planning to launch another creative company later this year. Over the next year or so there could be another three deals. 

“At that point we could have seven to eight businesses within the group with several hundred people across the U.K. and the U.S.,” said Freedman. “There are a few deals we’re looking at now.”

He’s unsurprisingly coy on the details, not just out of caution, but because it’s difficult to pin down the type of business he wants for Common Interest. They’re not the typical targets for marketing services groups. Think beyond the usual suspects — those in brand, entertainment, tech, and modern media. Discussions with several such companies have already taken place.

“We’re not trying to build another marketing services holding company,” said Freedman. “Instead, the idea is to create something that operates where brand meets entertainment, technology and modern media. To that end we want companies that will enable us to operate in those spaces, including some that are founded in entertainment, but can also be leveraged for brands.”

On that latter point, he’s eyeing companies in one of the more interesting and potentially lucrative trends in media today: branded entertainment. Slowly but surely, major advertisers are becoming entertainment financiers, getting their brands in front of people beyond the typical ad break — whether it’s between TV shows or social media posts. 

“We think it’s likely we will have an entertainment division because part of our strategy is to develop intellectual property and entertainment formats of our own,” said Freedman.

This way, Common Interest has more credibility in convincing CMOs they can create their own entertainment. 

There are two businesses the group believes could help with this: one is a startup they’re looking to invest in, the other is a business they’re looking to acquire — both straddling advertising and entertainment that Freedman declined to name.

“These companies will be built around people with ideas and an ambition to create original content that exists to entertain,” said Freedman. “We have a strong network to help both realize that ambition as well as find an audience for those ideas. We also build much more credibility to help brands operating in popular culture if we’re also operating as part of the entertainment industry.”

More broadly, the group’s credibility seems to be doing just fine. In fact, conversations are already happening with some clients about working with its businesses across the group rather than separately. 

It’s a testament to how far Common Interest has come since its launch last September.

“What’s important to note is that cultural relevance goes beyond entertainment or a relevant celebrity in your ad,” said Diageo’s former head of culture and entertainment Leila Fataar, who now runs her own agency Platform13. “We are in a world of radical transformation. With consumer attention the fiercest it’s ever been, a fragmented media (digital and virtual) landscape, new commerce models driven by intuitive Web3 behaviors, and AI gone mainstream, the traditional funnel is no longer fit for purpose.”

Clearly, Common Interest is being positioned to run counter to marketing’s obsession with quantification. Yet, the group’s bosses don’t dismiss those ideas completely. They know that paid performance, for instance, is important to amplify certain ideas for more reach, but they’re not driven by those metrics. Not when so much of that is controlled and increasingly commodities by the technology platforms themselves these days. It’s up to marketers to come up with strong ideas that can exist in spite of all that.

“We’re much more an origination business than a functional implementation business,” said Freedman. 

This won’t be for every marketer, and he knows it. In many ways, it’s a niche play.

“Our strategy is not to try to persuade CMOs that are not inclined to think about things in this way to spend budget with Common Interest,” said Freedman. “We’re here to create a new and different option for CMOs who have already come to the conclusion that cultural relevance is a competitive advantage.”

He’s really talking about those marketers who have reached that point in their careers where they recognize the importance of building a strong brand. For many, the pandemic was a moment of clarity. Brand advertising was the key that enabled companies to corkscrew through the inflationary period of the past two years. Time and again, CEOs mentioned on conference calls how the strength of their brands allowed them to pass inflation costs to consumers. Not paid advertising. Not programmatic. Brand strength.

“It’s a tough job,” said Fataar, who has written a book ‘Culture Led Brands’ on this topic. “Done right, it’s emotional, it makes people feel something by driving both reach and relevance, hype and depth, pulling people to your brand, not pushing your brand on people.”

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