Jennie Smythe’s Strategic Digital Marketing Agency, Girlilla, has grown from a two-person startup in 2008, to its present day, 11-person size with offices in L.A. and Nashville. Clients include Zac Brown Band, Darius Rucker, Dwight Yoakam, Jennifer Nettles, Jack Daniel’s Whiskey and many more. (You can sign up for the weekly Girlilla Geek Speak email here.)
Smythe came up through the ranks in the West Coast entertainment industry and then in the early 2000s arrived at YAHOO! Music as Director of Marketing and Promotion. That position led her to Nashville where she joined the Warner Bros. New Media Department. Later she moved to Clear Channel’s Nashville digs as Sr. Director of Content and Marketing. In 2008 she took the entrepreneurial plunge and founded Girlilla Marketing. Her young company was acquired in 2009 by ROAR LLC.
“Business plans make me laugh,” Smythe smiles. “When the entrepreneurial spirit is in your DNA you sometimes just know a left turn is needed, even when everyone says, ‘turn right.’ Sometimes people call you crazy, but if it works, you’re a genius.”
Our animated discussion took place Oct. 1 in Nashville at the company’s Cummins Station offices. The following is an edited account of some of the many topics which seemed to fly across our agenda like stones skimming across a pond.
NEKST: Let’s revisit the Girlilla early days…
Jennie Smythe: I fell for the Nashville community because of my work at Clear Channel. That job gave me points of contact at every label and management company and provided a base for going out on my own. The idea for Girlilla was the idealistic philosophy to work only with people and projects I liked. We started in 2008 and were acquired by ROAR in 2009. In the beginning, with just two of us, Paul Worley graciously let us squat in his office. Now in 2013 there’s 11 Girlillas— nine in Nashville and two in Los Angeles—and a stack of really great clients.
NEKST: What services do you specialize in?
Smythe: People come in the door for social marketing not knowing that’s only a small part of what we do. Likes and Follows are easy to count, but we concentrate on building databases more than anything else. Capturing an email or mobile phone number is important to us. Ultimately, it’s how you leverage the information that creates success. Sponsorships and corporate partnerships do pay attention to numbers, but for us it’s more about time spent, engagement and aesthetics. Making sure your digital brand is protected across all your networks. We encourage our clients to post, but we might go a couple of rounds with them to make sure they are using the medium in ways that are impactful and appropriate.
NEKST: Do you use tools to automate posting?
Smythe: Dashboards give us nightmares because they go wrong too easily. Especially in times of crisis people forget to cancel a preprogrammed alert. Suppose a natural disaster hits and soon afterwards a preprogrammed tweet goes out from your artist saying buy more merchandise. It can be so insensitive.
NEKST: You say bands, brands and fans create a marketing triangle?
Smythe: Usually a band promotion either benefits the fans or the brand, not both. Same thing with the brand, it either benefits the band or the fans. But when you have somebody in touch with the fans as well as the band and the brand you can put together a plan that benefits all three, and that is magic. A lot of the Madison Avenue agencies getting into social marketing don’t realize it needs to be a conversation. My question regarding the paring of brands with bands, “Is the cost of messaging the fans worth the benefit paid by the brand to the band?” What might seem like a really good idea on paper doesn’t always work. So when we say “YES,” to a brand, they’ve been carefully vetted and might not necessarily be the guy with the biggest check.
NEKST: Is the term New Media still relevant?
Smythe: It seems archaic for labels to have a separate digital department because today there is a digital touch point to every aspect of the business–sales, publicity, merchandising, touring, tour marketing, traditional marketing and radio. For example, it’s confusing to have somebody on the digital side reaching out to radio when the label already has a team working radio.
NEKST: What’s in your digital marketing toolbox?
Smythe: Big Champagne helps us recognize what is going on with P2P sharing. It’s disappointing that people are doing that, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look. Somebody complained about a fan they met backstage at a show who was streaming their music, because the artist felt like they were getting it for free. I said, “So somebody discovered your music on a streaming service, fell in love with it, bought a ticket and made it backstage to tell you? Isn’t that tripping over a dollar to get to a penny?” In addition to Big Champagne, we love the insights on Facebook and YouTube. And I hope it doesn’t sound cheesy, but my employees are my biggest asset. Each one brings something special. On Tues. and Thurs. mornings we discuss all our projects in depth plus new technology and general business issues. Every client at some point talks with every Girlilla… and that’s on purpose.
NEKST: Do you conceive contests and online promotions differently for baby acts as opposed to superstars?
Smythe: Absolutely. When trying to attract attention with new acts you set the least amount of hurdles, clicks or fences. For superstar acts, however, it’s about engaging, entertaining and retaining the people who have so graciously decided to be a part of our community. Navigating online is already a part of the Digital Native’s DNA, but some of our superstar clients might be a bit older and you need to consider their older fans as well.
NEKST: How do you advise clients regarding volatile subjects?
Smythe: Post in a way that starts a conversation. But really, do you have to post about, say, politics? Because then your fans are fighting each other and it becomes combative. Stars are like broadcasters with their own network so consider your programming. I want my clients to be authentic, but that can be a double-edged sword. Maybe the artist’s volatile opinion doesn’t live up to a fan’s perception of who they are. Now it affects if they like your art. I always encourage authenticity, but think before you tweet or key. Make sure it’s worth it, just like in real life. I’ve been on both sides of crisis management and it can be stressful because people will take it to the next level and the crazies are the most vocal. Assume you are having a conversation with somebody and they are entitled to have an opinion back when you have an opinion.
NEKST: Thoughts about the future?
Smythe: Digital marketing is becoming universal. If you are a sales person you need to be a digital sales person. If you’re in promotion you need to understand how to do digital promotions that correlate with your terrestrial partners. I love being able to take on different projects. It keeps us sharp and I don’t ever sit still. We couldn’t be more lucky and thankful to be doing what we get to do!