'What Can We Help You Achieve?' Lady Gaga's Manager and Branding Experts Mull the New Normal
"We've gotten to the point in the world where the problems are so big that you have to do something," said Afdhel Aziz, director of Absolut Labs at SXSW yesterday afternoon. "What happens when you have brands with scale and reach, artists with creativity and non-profits who understand the breadth of the problem -- and bring them together?"
That was the crux of a SXSW Music panel called "Good Is The New Cool," taken from the title of Aziz's upcoming book, co-authored with Bobby Jones, that highlights brand and artist collaborations that serve varying causes. In a panel which also included MAC Presents president Marcie Allen, MAC vp Andrew Hampp and Lady Gaga manager Bobby Campbell, it was a question that came ready-made with a solution: as brands continue to extend their influence in the music world and artists embrace them more and more, the tenor of some of these deals has shifted from, "How can we make money?" into, "How can we make a difference?"
"My philosophy is always: if you start a conversation with an artist saying, 'What can we help you achieve something you want to do?' instead of just having them check a box, it's much more powerful," Aziz said. Gaga, of course, is a textbook example of an artist or celebrity using that platform to further the goals closest to her; Gaga's famous quote in Harper's Bazaar in 2011 -- "I don't want to make money; I want to make a difference" -- is her thesis statement. And over the years, whether through supporting LGBT issues or victims of sexual assault, Gaga and her manager Bobby Campbell have partnered with brands such as Absolut and Nokia, to name two, to get her personal message across.
"When you're able to find that authentic connection between the artist, the brand and the charity, there's a sense of magic that happens," Allen said, referencing a campaign she worked on for Musicians On Call where members of Lady Antebellum performed kids' songs at a New York children's hospital in 2013. "Authenticity is key... Consumers are very smart to see through partnerships that are just for a check. That's what I think we have to all challenge ourselves with."
For the more cynical set, it can seem as if brands and artists supporting philanthropic causes are doing so for a positive PR look, for good press or to seem like they're "making a difference." To someone like Gaga -- whose performance at the Oscars this year included an appearance from Vice President Joe Biden and was a powerful statement about sexual assault -- that perception matters little.
"It's easy for an artist to just check the boxes," Campbell said about Gaga's commitment to her outreach. "But it really makes a difference when it comes from the heart."
If all this sounds like it was putting a positive spin on what amounts to a money-making machine, the panel wasn't without its light-hearted moments. Aziz and Campbell spoke about their planned partnership, among other brands and organizations, to send Gaga to outer space to perform a benefit show -- an idea that never became a reality due to "setbacks" with Virgin Galactic that caused the plan to be placed on the backburner. "That will be the greatest project that never happened," Aziz joked.
And while Campbell was more than open to discussing Gaga's branding and philanthropic interests, he was more tight-lipped about what else she has going on. At the end, when Hampp lightly pressed him for information about what Gaga has coming up musically, Campbell paused and eventually demurred. Fans will have to keep waiting on that one.