Working in marketing at Interscope from 2007-2010, Bobby Campbell got to know an ascendant pop star by the name of Lady Gaga. He must’ve made a strong impression, because by 2010, he joined the talent management company Atom Factory, founded by her then-manager Troy Carter, as its chief marketing officer. And his first Lady Gaga album as CMO turned out to be one of the most hotly anticipated releases in pop music history – Born This Way, released 10 years ago on May 23, 2011.
The album’s massive, multi-faceted promo cycle dominated music news in 2011. Gaga brought idiosyncratic, wild performances to the Grammys, the VMAs, Saturday Night Live, Good Morning America, American Idol, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Oprah – other than the Oscars (which she would conquer a few years later), she hit every major TV property to promote the album. And it wasn’t just TV that Gaga and Campbell turned to: She partnered with the mobile game FarmVille, debuted a highly sought-after Supreme x Louis Vuitton collection, sold her album at Starbucks and even brought out her Little Monsters to soundtrack a Google Chrome commercial.
It paid off. “Born This Way” became her first song to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Born This Way debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 1.108 million units in its first week, and follow-up singles “The Edge of Glory” and “Judas” also notched top 10 Hot 100 placement.
Now, as Born This Way approaches its 10th anniversary (which we as a staff celebrated here), Billboard hopped on the phone with Campbell – currently Gaga’s manager for Haus of Gaga – to talk about his favorite memories of the campaign, the song on Born This Way that made him cry, and how they used the album to push for LGBTQ rights and inclusivity at a time when it was sorely needed.
What was the first song you heard from Born This Way?
I think I heard “Born This Way” first and I was elated and excited at what it stood for and what it had to say. I felt so excited as a gay man to be part of something I knew was going to change culture and the world. Also, I remember hearing “Hair” for the first time at Interscope. I was in a corner of the room crying because I could relate to that song so much.
After you processed the music as a fan, how did you approach marketing it?
People celebrated the Born This Way release then and continue to use it as a case study because we were able to take a message of inclusivity, individuality, being different and celebrating what it is to be an outsider and present it in a mainstream way — a Google commercial, Starbucks, FarmVille. We were able to take a message that was pure, authentic and had a meaning for a lot of people and plaster it over the world as if a Marvel movie was coming out, and in a way that made those kids feel they really mattered. Which maybe a few years before, they could have not imagined. The sweet spot for me was, “how do you take that message and really make it loud?”
What were the touchstones behind the marketing?
Keep in mind, at the time, gay marriage was hotly debated, it was in the middle of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell being repealed, what it meant to be part of the LGBTQ+ community was such a big part of the conversation and she was doing that work. She was lobbying senators to get Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. When we were doing the Monster Ball, I’ll never forget when she was in Buffalo [New York] in March 2011 and she gave the email of the New York state senator and asked everyone to email him on the spot so he would wake up to a bunch of emails about passing the New York state marriage bill. It was about her walking the walk and a core part of her human being and doing something celebratory. It’s a scary thing when you are a member of the community and politically the future of what your family and relationship can look like is being decided for you. So to be able to feel like you’re being celebrated by someone who isn’t a politician but really cares about you is part of what I wanted to do to the fans.
Did you ever get pushback from anyone?
I don’t think so. I think people knew what Gaga stands for is non-negotiable. There are people who use marketing to the LGBTQ community as a checkbox and that’s never what she’s been about.
There was just a relentless press cycle for Born This Way in 2011: The Grammys, SNL, GMA, a New Year’s Eve performance….
As those things were happening it felt like an explosive campaign. You could not escape her. She put so much time and care into every performance being completely unique. They all felt like big moments, turning what was an appearance on a talk show into a musical event. I look fondly on the creation of the music videos for that campaign. You could tell by the energy on set each one would become iconic moments in her career. When she directed “Marry the Night” all night throughout the night, we were shooting a scene where she’s on the roof and it starts to rain, and everyone was trying to stop her. She’s like, “We have free production right now, free rain. Cover the cameras, we’re going to shoot.” You look back and I can’t imagine it without the rain. There are these moments of serendipity. It puts a smile on my face when I think of the hard work that went into that campaign, but it was so fun and exciting because we knew we were part of something incredibly special.
It’s such an eclectic album, with some hardcore dance numbers and then more rock-leaning songs. How did that factor into the marketing?
Because she was such a huge household name at the time, part of the strategy in my mind was getting to the different pockets of her audience wherever you could find them. What she did on social kept the fans fueled. And then we sold the album at Whole Foods, Starbucks, there was a Supreme campaign happening, the Google commercial and FarmVille — if you put all those things on a list together, none of them make sense, but the way we weaved them together, it catered to different folks.
One of the few things that was not well-received about the album was the cover art. Do you still stand by it?
I love it, I think it’s totally badass, I have always loved it. I think sometimes things come out and they’re not quite understood and down the line people come to appreciate them differently. We all saw what just happened with ARTPOP and the way that narrative shifted. Also, people have a lot to say, which is a fact of life, but I know she stands by it.
What’s your favorite song on the album? And you can’t say the title track.
My favorite song is “Heavy Metal Lover.” I don’t know why; it’s always had a soft spot in my heart. Or “Hair.” Or “Scheiße.” I could go down this rabbit hole where I could say every song on the damn album.