Steve Conner is noted for producing global, viral success stories with his branding and entertainment technique. He is also an Emmy-nominated writer/film director/DP and an award winning product designer.
Steve pioneered his way of working at his branding/ production company in NYC – STEVE/STORM FILMS. The most notable success story was the global phenomenon – Budweiser Whassup.
Whassup started as a company wide exercise that produced a short film from the strategic insight – guys don’t have to say anything to say everything! The short film went viral via social media. Steve then licensed the project to Budweiser and its advertising agency DDB Needham.The result was the famed Budweiser Whassup campaign.
Steve was tapped, by retiring 30-year ad industry veteran Tom Burrell, to take over as Chief Creative Officer and Managing Partner. While at Burrell, Steve became close council to Chief Marketing Officers at Fortune 500 companies such as Verizon and McDonaldʼs, helping them achieve their corporate vision. With Conner’s guidance, Burrell swept the Mosaic Awards and became Ad Age’s Multicultural Agency of the Year. In addition, the agency’s client, Verizon, went on to win Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year.
After Burrell, Steve went to DRAFT FCB as an EVP, Group Creative Director and was charged with developing a transmedia program and directing portions of the Kraft Foods account.
To truly capitalize on the transmedia space, Steve launched Fluid Content, a boutique transmedia content firm. Current Fluid Content projects include Elle Macpherson, Revlon, Character skateboards, the North Shore city of Waukegan, Columbia College and a series of in-house projects – most notably the sci-fi fantasy network – Phathom.
What was your first break?
When I was about 14 years, one of my parents friends worked in production for Paramount.
This meant I got to see pre-screenings of all the films. That particular year the film was Lead Belly. I was introduced to [director] Gordon Parks. He shook my hand and said he wanted to talk with me after the film. He was told that I had a passion for film and that I was already directing. We spoke for almost an hour. He gave me sage advice that I remember to this day.
Gordon said, 1) Help people to “see” with your work. Help them to reflect on who they are and what they can become. Make meaning. 2) Fail to learn 3) Be brave and 4) Make plans after you’ve leapt. .
I carried Gordon’s advice with me into directing and also running the agency that I built with my Executive Producer, partner and wife Sheila.
Worst thing that ever happened to you to remind you that you are Black?
I was attending a finely appointed C-suite gala for a highly successful marketing campaign that my team and I were responsible for. It was hosted by a high ranking executive who worked for the company and who happened to be Black.
When it came time for congratulations, accolades went out to everyone except my team. I felt we deserved to be acknowledged. It was our campaign. Our insights. Our idea and brand stewardship. Initially, I chalked it up to the executive wanting it to be a team win for all of the agencies. That is until later in the evening, when the executive pulled me aside and in a whisper said, “You know how much I appreciate you and the work of your team, but I can’t really say that here. I’m sure you understand.
I smiled and the exec smiled back. I wasn’t sure which of us I felt more pained for.
1- Skin doesn’t make you kin.
2- Seeking permission is really the root of our problem.
Best thing to ever happen to you to remind you that you are Black?
Lemonade from Beyoncé. I delight in the ingenuity and brilliance of Black people. In the midst our holocaust, pigeon-holing and red lining we continue to create works of wonder and innovation. I have high hopes for the future.
Work you are most proud of?
Whassup was reverse-engineered advertising and one of the first social & viral success stories of the internet.
It was 1998, and even though the DOTCOM crash hadn’t happened, it was coming, we were in the bubble. Understandably, clients were super skittish. They were running from anything to do with the internet and the work was just terrible.
I saw things differently. There was opportunity to communicate in ways we’d never seen before.
To prove it I created an in-house exercise that would tap into pure truths and belief systems – all to attract this burgeoning consumer. Everyone in our shops – the STEVE Agency and C&C Films Production could participate. The rules were… 1) come up with your personal truth through a series of exercises. 2) I would create a strategy based on the truths and 3) we would then come up with creative that could be served up as a gift to millions of people. My only caveat was that it had to be conspicuous. Something that could be shared with many, many people – meaning film or some sort of guerrilla public display.
One of our directors, Charles Stone’s truth had to do with people having shared knowledge – group code. He came up with a ton of ideas to capture this truth. One of ideas had us changing all the signs in lower Manhattan just to see if people would be able to get around. The one that stuck however revolved around the refined strategy that guys don’t have to say anything to say everything. We did several rounds of the story and finally got down to a group of guys saying Whassup. Charles named the piece TRUE. Once the 3 minute film was complete we shared it all over the internet and it got millions of views.
The DNA of TRUE matched the DNA of a few of our current clients on the production side of our business. Namely Budweiser and Miller. We wound up licensing the idea to Budweiser. We even licensed the name TRUE to be used as the tagline. We negotiated a sweet deal for Charles to work with the creative team at DDB and C&C FILMS produced the first batch of ads.
The irony is I really couldn’t market the success. I was running an agency called STEVE and a production company C&C films at the same time – a big no-no in the industry. (Only Bob Giraldi could do that in the daylight – certainly not a black-owned company located in SOHO and Brooklyn)
So, I couldn’t go to Cannes. But Charles and the guys and our amazing film rep Steve Weinshel did. I got the licensing check.
In the end we cracked the code. A licensed, viral idea, reverse-engineered advertising. It was so effective that even those who participated in the experiment were not quite aware of their role in the chain of events.
A lot of clients want this type of work. It takes real guts to lead with your meaning and truth, rather than your USP. Not a lot of folks understand the difference. It’s not a media strategy, it’s about meaning and an energized idea executed via transmedia.
Note to clients: If you’re brave, give me a call:)
How has the business changed since you broke in?
We are living in the most transformative time in human history. There are 3 things that have changed everything.
1- People want more content more often. We are insatiable with our swiping.
2- Users don’t need retail to get what they want.
3- Data, digital and Ai. The use of data collection and analysis to be accessible when they are looking.
We must make meaning and be authentic in order to attract the NHU (Nomadic Hybrid Urbanite) as I call our new user, as they roam in wild packs on islands of interest.
All this change requires that as communicators, we deliver more than advertising. If you’re not in the business of story and complex character development you are forgotten in less than 5 seconds. You can no longer capture the user, you have to be intoxicating enough that they will want to capture you.
It’s no secret that retailers across the planet are more interested in working with brands that understand this truth. And those brands don’t have to be that big. It’s reckoning time. Time to know who you are, what you stand for and what your story is so your users can get excited
Trapped on an island, what are the creative essentials you must have?
Hmm, lets see. A Solar panel, 3D printer, computer, a Chemistry set and a full suite of Arduino components.
If you had a time machine, what would you say to your past self?
“Halt for what?”
If you could have a one-on-one with anyone who would it be? And why?
There is only one person that I’d like to have a one on one with:
Why? He’s got his finger on the pulse. He has all the right ideas and concerns.
At the moment everyone is watching him like Jordan in the 4th quarter, back in the day. Even the players are watching. The thing is if we are going to survive being on this rock, everyone needs to put an oar in the water.
I’d like to meet Elon because I think I could help him devise an idea that would give all those who are just watching him, a way to play with.
To read about others on The Reel Black List, click here