In a repurposed Gastown loft, exposed brick and white walls house a cadre of soft-spoken employees who pad along in an impressive array of cosy slippers that make us want to rethink our own footwear. If you had to imagine the headquarters of a startup called Quietly, you couldn’t get much more on brand than this.
Think of Quietly as a think tank for the social media era. It’s Mad Men, if Don Draper had a penchant for hip hop-themed motivational posters and an SEO super computer. Heavy hitters like Herschel and Mountain Equipment Co-op rely on Quietly to engage with consumers in an era where content is king and traditional advertising platforms are going the way of the landline.
We sat down with co-founder Sean Tyson to talk effective content, the future of marketing and the ideal dinner party.
Kit and Ace: Why “Quietly”?
Sean Tyson: We liked the ethos. We wanted to quietly help publishers and content creators compete with the big boys. We saw mega-sites like Buzzfeed and Mashable crushing the Internet, and we wanted to level the playing field by quietly giving everyone those same tools and services. I think there's a lot of bravado in the world of startups and software. We'd rather take a backseat and let our clients shine.
With so much content being produced, how does Quietly stand out?
ST: I think in general there's been a race to the bottom with content. The barriers are so low to create and publish content online, anyone can do it. We're trying to add value and elevate content by wrapping technology and strategy and research around it. Magical things can happen when you marry the art of good editorial with the science of technology and good data.
Has something fundamentally changed in the way that brands are interacting with their audiences, or have brands always been telling stories?
ST: Brands have not always been telling stories. I come from a world of traditional advertising, where you're paying to have a one‑way conversation with people. I think it started to change when we realized that if [brands] want our attention, they have to give us something in return. It's got to deliver utility, information or entertainment. There needs to be an exchange of value. I think stories and content are a form of value – it's earned media. It's a beautiful thing, because everyone's better off for it. You’re getting something that you enjoy consuming instead of having something blasted at you.
Do you see traditional advertising dying out completely?
ST: The short answer is yes.
What will advertising look like in 10 years? 50 years? 100 years?
ST: If every brand is a media company, then the media companies that have the best publications will win, ultimately – whether that content is outsourced or created in house. That's a very simplified way of looking at it.
I think you're going to see further confounding of what sponsored content is versus branded entertainment versus branded content. You're going to see a lot of people who used to work for traditional media properties jumping ship and working for brands and running their publications, just like you saw traditional people who work in journalism leave the old guard – Postmedia, Reuters and these kinds of publications – and go to BuzzFeed and Mashable. Mashable has Jim Roberts running the show. Are you fucking kidding me? He ran The New York Times.
What is your current favourite project?
ST: The marijuana industry is emerging and that’s something that’s been fun. People laugh. They think, "Pot heads and smoking doobies and stuff," but these companies are very savvy when it comes to digital marketing and it’s big business. There's no legacy stuff. They don't have traditional constraints where they're managing print or television spends. They take risks, so working with them has been cool. We’re allowed to push the limits and we work with some of the biggest players in the space.
If you could have a dinner with any person, alive or dead, who would it be?
ST: Phil Collins has been someone that I've always wanted to chat with because, aside from the fact that he’s one of the most accomplished musicians on earth, he can be a real cantankerous bugger. Who else? John Ralston Saul is a good answer. He's a real intellect. Charles Saatchi. He built the agency model as we know it and he's one of the world's largest art collectors. He's facetious, self‑deprecating, a total riot.
Maybe all three of them.
ST: There you go, a roundtable with John Ralston Saul, Charles Saatchi and Phil Collins. What a colourful group. The conversation would be so strange. I'd have to make sure it was interesting enough for everyone. Charles Saatchi would be smoking cigarettes the whole time.
Discover more of Tyson's work at Quietly.