marketingEarlier this year, I had a revealing conversation with three transformers. I’m not talking about characters from a summer blockbuster, but instead senior marketing executives from three iconic brands: Absolut, GE, and Google

The subject of our discussion was the ways in which advertising agencies need to transform to serve a new generation of clients. (A subject they know well, since they are driving that transformation.) Today, we get to hear more from: Afdhel Aziz, Global Brand Director for Absolut.

Absolut, always a marketing pioneer, has created something innovative with the latest project that Afdhel is leading, Absolut Labs. Described as a “marketing innovation lab,” Absolut Labs put the brand at the heart of the nightlife scene, facilitating connections among nightlife personalities and encouraging collaborations that drive nightlife forward. With projects such as its State of Nightlife report (on the possibilities and challenges for nightlife) and its live-streaming of a rooftop concert using virtual reality technology, Absolut is taking innovative steps to associate its already-strong brand with nightlife.

The Way I See It

  • With research indicating that millennials value experiences over consumer goods (and spend accordingly), it makes good sense for brands such as Absolut to design marketing that is more experiential in nature.
  • Absolut Labs has identified the “Nightlife 100,” a “community of the most progressive and innovative people in nightlife across the United States,” including DJs, promoters, photographers, and others. Only certain brands have the credibility to create communities such as this, and they must be careful in how they leverage them. When executed with care, however, those communities speak powerfully to the appeal of brands such as Absolut.
  • Authenticity is critical to initiatives like Absolut Labs. If consumers believe that Absolut cares about nightlife, they will look favorably on its efforts to evolve the experience.

The Way the Industry Sees It



I sat down with Afdhel Aziz, Global Brand Director for Absolut, to talk about how agencies are changing to serve new generations of clients.


Looking at the traditional agency model, do you see it as being sustainable going forward?

I think we’re going to see some massive transformations in the agency landscape driven by a couple of different things that are going on. One is technology.  It is getting easier and easier now for us to do with technology what used to be done by human beings.  You see that in media buying with the rise of programmatic.  You even see that in things like copywriting, with the rise of platforms, which can copy text, optimize in real time, very quickly, thousands and thousands of different innovations faster than any human copywriter could ever create.  So I think that you’re going to see the skill sets that are needed for success change quite dramatically within the agency world.  I think even in traditional agencies, the creative team of a copywriter and art director will experience interesting new permutations like, creatives and coders working together to be able to create new digital experiences that are really at the vanguard of how brands need to start communicating with their customers as well.  I think that it’s going to have an impact on the speed at which agencies need to react as well.

With traditional agencies changes, does that also mean that you’re looking for different skill sets as well?

I’m looking for agencies to remove their complexity.  I think what clients want now is an integrated answer in terms of what they get as a solution.  So they’re not actually interested in knowing what the guts of the roles are.  They just want people who are able to be, the term I use is polymaths, to be able to have a conversation with them which is looking at a problem multi-dimensionally, looking at a problem strategically, creatively, from an ROI perspective, from a technological perspective, and present them with an integrated answer, as opposed to having fifteen different conversations with fifteen people inside one agency.  They need people who can think across disciplines, speak many languages, and are able to then deliver a solution which is not, in most cases, not a linear solution.  And I think when you see the talent pool that agencies have to kind of pick and choose from.

So flipping it around, do you think brands in general need to change with the times as well?

I think that’s part of why we set up Absolut Labs.  Labs is there for us to do the kind of the thinking about the future that is difficult to do within the normal commercial structure.  So when you have a brand like Absolut which is thinking above the line, below the line, retail, product innovation, it is difficult to kind of pull back and look at the future of where the category is going, where the industry is going, and to link it into the future evolution of the brand.  I think that’s why it’s important for brands to create spaces like marketing innovation labs where somebody’s tasked with looking at what happens next, because the only truth is change is inevitable.

Do you feel that it’s harder to accomplish that goal in a lab context at a brand in the distilled spirits category as opposed to other categories, or does it really matter?

I think it’s always difficult to get out of the focus on the short term, for any company.  Every company is focused on quarterly earnings, and is focused on delivering results for the shareholders. Frequently there is a battle for resources between needing to service what the brand’s needs are in the short term and pulling back and looking at the future of what’s happening.  I’ve been inside companies which weren’t able to look at the future and paid the price as a result.  Due to this, I have an intimate knowledge of how that can affect any company, whether it’s alcohol, or whatever category, and what can happen when you don’t pay enough attention to what’s happening around you.

Tell me about your new book, Good Is the New Cool: How Great Marketing Can Optimize Life.  What’s it about, and what do you hope your readers are going to take away from it?

Yes, it really was my own personal kind of curiosity which led me to start looking at examples of how great brands work, thinking about how to create platforms, if you want to call it that, products and experiences that enhance people’s lives.  In the book we talk about how brands have an amazing opportunity to help fix problems from the everyday to the epic.  And historically if you look at brands and social problems, you used to kind of put it in the pigeon hole of saying it was CSR or it was cause marketing.  This book talks about going beyond even those categories, which are, by the way, fantastic, and not to denigrate them, but what’s really interesting is the examples of brands creating things which are marketing platforms which has a tremendous amount of social good.  One of the best examples in the book is Citibank and Citibike.  The Citibike program was a forty million dollar, six year commitment from Citi.  What they invested in was technically I guess you’d call it a sponsorship, but what they created was actually a public transport infrastructure for New York City that didn’t exist before, in the form of the bikes.  And the return in investment that Citi has gotten on that program has been phenomenal in terms of brand consideration, in terms of advocacy, in terms of social media, in terms of PR, in terms of just being part of the fabric of New York City.

So what’s the most interesting object in your office?

I think the most interesting would be designs, or prototypes, or mockups of Absolut bottles that we never launched. It opens it up to so many different creative interpretations.  I’ve been lucky to work on things like Absolut Texas, Absolut Chicago, which came out in the last couple of years which are super-interesting projects and yet there’s always a few which didn’t make it through, which are on my desk, which I have a particular passion for.