In this episode, host Ryan Alford discusses strategic digital commerce and marketing strategies with James Gregson, Digital Creative Director, Americas at The LEGO Group.
Welcome to another episode of THE RADCAST!
In today's episode, host Ryan Alford chats with James Gregson, about these marketing topics:
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Ryan Alford [00:00:24] Hey guys, it's Ryan Alford. Welcome to the latest edition of The Radcast. I am excited for myself and my children a bit today, from a brand perspective. I'm joined by James Gregson, who is the Creative Director - Digital at Lego. What’s up, James?
James Gregson [00:00:43] What's up? Thanks for having me. Excited to be here.
Ryan Alford [00:02:44] Yeah man, you know, I know you’re gonna get it. I mean, a guy with kids like we talked about in the pre-episode, especially with the kids under the age of eleven. Do you know how many Legos are there in my house? I can build a bridge from here to Connecticut.
James Gregson I can imagine. I was just on a creative brainstorm the other day, talking about how around Christmas time I got a ping pong table and that lasted till like New Year’s Eve before that was a Lego table. So, I get it. That was my sweet spot. But my three kids under three years old are not at that sweet spot there. I am trying to not have them swallow Legos.
Ryan Alford Yes that must be so with the twins and a daughter. But yes, I both bless you and curse you because I am a big guy and I walk around the house, and you don’t know how many in-the-foot, ow, what is that, and it’s a Lego piece.
James Gregson You know, it’s like, misery loves company, you are not alone in that feeling. I can’t speak to it much more than that.
Ryan Alford Cool. Well, James, I trust you guys are doing well. So, let's get started for our audience. Obviously, they know Lego, but let's start with the about James section and your story and background. And you've been in digital and social media for a long time. But maybe let's just start down that traditional path of your background and history and the marketing world that led to Lego today.
James Gregson [00:03:08] Sure. I will say it was definitely not traditional. I was anything but an academic. The school was a vehicle to delay work, I think, to some extent or to party, to be quite honest. I enjoyed this. But I graduated with the very transferable skills of computer animation with a minor in painting.
Ryan Alford [00:03:39] Yeah, well, everyone has that!
James Gregson [00:03:42] But funnily enough, I actually started in college with advertising design, which is basically what I do now, but I just didn't find that interesting. Go figure. But long story short, I was in college when Facebook came up, basically when it was only for college kids and I was interning at a marketing agency and there was a social networking company that was wanting to launch in the US. This was about 15 years ago or even more than that. Social networking and social media were not even a thing. Bloggers were kind of the thing, but that wasn't even a thing. But long story short, I completely BSed my way into a new business pitch as an intern because I claimed to know everything there was about social media and social networking because I was on Facebook. But no other marketing executive in this large, publicly-traded marketing organization, publicly owned a marketing organization, knew about what social networking was.
Ryan Alford [00:04:48] You were doing social media the way everyone does social media now. Fake it till you make it. You're well ahead of your time!
James Gregson [00:05:02] Yes, so that got me kick-started. And I think it identified something in me that I was like, oh that I know a lot more about this naturally than the other executives do. And similar to my background, I straddle that line between the data-driven piece because that's so critically important social media and community management and paid social with obviously the creative background that I have for the creative skill set that I have. I basically worked all the way through the agency world in New York City, a publicly owned, privately owned startup, had enough for the agency world as most people do, and decided it would be a great idea to start up my own business. It was great fun five years of deciding what I wanted to do, who I wanted to work with, and how I wanted to work. And it was super successful. I didn't have health insurance, but it was super successful. And then through that, I had my own clients. I worked as a consultant for large agencies on projects. And I also used to white label my services for smaller agencies. And that's how I got connected to let go. I started working with their former PR agency based on the West Coast and then started working on Lego projects through them. And then an opportunity opened up at the social team at Lego and I joined them.
Ryan Alford [00:06:34] That's awesome. What is your creative background? I know you're overseeing multiple disciplines. Are you naturally a designer, writer, videographer, all of the above, or what?
James Gregson [00:06:48] I think most social media journalists would argue that they are storytellers, if you're really going to focus on something, I think that’s where the most traditional creatives will hate me for saying this. But I am like that short-form, snackable content storyteller. Because as we all know, anyone, especially digital, you've got three seconds, five seconds, maybe 10 seconds to grab someone's attention. If you don't, you're not doing your job right. That is not the traditional creative TVC-style creative direction. So you're probably paying a lot of social creatives to hear me say that. But that is what I think.
Ryan Alford [00:07:32] How is your growth? And I know you've had a few positions there within Lego. Talk about some of your growth and the differences in the roles.
James Gregson [00:07:43] It's a good question. And it sort of speaks to what I was talking about earlier. The social media Lego was originally this sort of beginning-to-end solution or an end-to-end solution, everything from channel strategy to community management to some creative development, to channel engagement, to paid media, to analytics. It was all managed within one global team that I was a part of and that was very effective for getting things done in a very large, highly matrixed organization, but that was not so effective in making a lot of friends internally, getting buy-in from regional marketing departments, and scaling to a level that we probably needed to scale to go beyond our initial growth. We've since been broken up and various departments have been moved into larger departments that make sense. For example, engagement has been moved into the customer service team. The social media travel strategy has been moved into the strategy team within the internal creative agency. And so my new role now has been moved into the internal creative agency as we try and build out a larger understanding of what digital and social content development looks like, both as an internal creative team and supporting sort of external creation as well.
Ryan Alford [00:09:24] I know you guys have a lot of employees, it just seems that the ecosystem of Lego is overwhelming, from the outside looking in. And I know you have your silos and everyone has their roles. But is it just as daunting as it seems? I know there is “organization” in the hugeness. But is it as gigantic as it seems?
James Gregson [00:10:00] I think it is. That's fair feedback. I think on the flip side, if I'm going to be super positive, I think it speaks to the scale of the opportunity. If you have someone like Apple as a brand that really brings to life what a digital ecosystem should look like, and how that sort of brand experience is replicated at every physical and digital touchpoint, that’s something that we are aspiring to from a digital ecosystem standpoint, potentially simplify and make it feel less daunting, but also make it feel high quality and luxury to some extent because that's what consumers have come to expect from the product itself. It is a very high-end quality product and we want that same experience from every single time you log on to the website to buy a product, to you visiting our retail store. So the short answer is yes, I think it is a bit daunting because there are so many, in some cases, to be frank, siloed digital outputs. But there is a lot of energy around what our digital ecosystem should look like moving forward, what digital transformation means to us at Lego and then how from a content marketing standpoint, how my team can be supportive of that.
Ryan Alford [00:11:31] I will say I feel I'm going to add one to the ecosystem that has been there, Legoland that has thoroughly delivered on the overall experience. To this day, it is my kids’ favorite place that we've gone to all the different ones, in which a cubic world seems crazy, but we'll be back there soon. But so you guys do a terrific job of carrying it through at all levels. Have you seen any top-down there?
James Gregson [00:12:04] That is the goal. I definitely have. I've been to the one in Orlando. I'm excited to go to the one in New York. That's opening soon, our newest one. But yeah. Yes, I mean, that's that physical manifestation of the product experience. From bringing it more to building or consumption from an entertainment or TV show style environment to that physical experience. It's cool to see it come to life.
Ryan Alford [00:12:35] Can we or can we not break any details on Lego, the movie three? Will that be part of the Radcast today? Any giveaways here?
James Gregson [00:12:42] I can neither confirm nor deny.
Ryan Alford [00:12:49] Okay, for my kids, I asked. We will just be waiting patiently like a kid on Christmas Eve. So, how many different channels do you like? How many different social media profiles are there for Lego?
James Gregson [00:13:11] I can't remember the last count. I think you'll be surprised to learn that it is not that many. So at a very basic level, across Instagram, for example, we have 7 or 8. Now, obviously, they're regionalized. There are not that many and that is by design. I think and I know this by speaking to many other colleagues of mine at major similar sized brands or bigger, they have upwards of 300 different social channels and it becomes immeasurable and not manageable. And I think we have a very different approach to that. So for Youtube, we have a singular brand channel and 5-7 sub-brand channels of that. And that is by design, it makes a whole series of things easier. Obviously, that channel strategy will likely evolve. And that's not ultimately my remit or my team's remit. But yes, we have a somewhat simplified channel strategy by design.
Ryan Alford [00:14:34] That's smart. We work with a lot of brands where that has not come to fruition and people are scared of innovation and keeping things to the brand standards and every other notion. So hats off to keeping that. In your current position, what success looks like? What is the day-to-day charge?
James Gregson [00:15:02] That’s a really good question, something I just shared in a fairly large global internal meeting about the fact that traditional creative has a very different performance metric than digital creative. Especially social creative very quickly, maybe within a minute, within 60 seconds, whatever it is, whether a social post is going to perform well or not, and that's based on benchmarking. So one of the things that I harp with my team is I get very upset when I hear things like and this social post performed really well, or it had 500000 likes. Okay, compared to what? What’s that in comparison to? Is that up 10 percent on the last post? What's our benchmark? So we vary. I talk about success, benchmarking a lot. Right. And yes, I would say there is an apples-to-apples comparison. It's difficult, certainly when you look at the content being published for a high-affinity audience versus a low-affinity audience and organically speaking of high opinion, the audience is going to live on your social channels and engage in that content higher than a low-affinity audience. But at a very basic level, my creatives need to know, very quickly, what is good and what is bad; and benchmarks help to do that. Sort of basic level. We have an engagement rate benchmark across Instagram and Facebook for videos, and across Facebook and Instagram for images, and then an organic reach benchmark across videos and Facebook split by Facebook and Instagram. That's a very basic way of looking at it, because, as I said, it's the best quick litmus test without having a whole bunch of data analysts looking into it to see how we can determine what was good and what was bad.
Ryan Alford [00:17:03] I love it. The benchmarking. I preach that to my team. Vanity metrics drive me crazy. Preaching works. But I think in your role and maybe just your perspective with all your experience, we have a lot of discussions here with brands we work with. And I see it, especially in the coffers of LinkedIn and otherwise, this performance marketing versus brand and the performance marketing has become the buzzword. I joked at the posting recently, smart ass feedback. We were so desperate for attribution marketing, we had to put the performance world on the front end of it. And the C suite required an ROI on every dollar that I feel like it's sapping a little bit of the creativity that comes with true branding. However, all of my biases aside, I would like to know, like both in your role and just your general perspective on both of those.
James Gregson [00:18:16] It's a good topic. I think for all of the success that organic social drove businesses and marketing. I think it's also been potentially a downfall because once the value of organic reach has been essentially declined or diminished, there too has the theoretical ROI of what we do as marketers or as content creators. I think there's a number of variables at play. I think the industry as a whole is full of a lot of crap to potentially write. And I think there are a lot of people selling the value in social in a way that gets people burned or in a way that sets up the honest ones of us for failure to see success. And this comes back to my experience when I ran my own business. When let’s say you're running a Facebook page for a brand, this is not a hypothetical this is real for a clothing brand, a high-end clothing brand for kids that was being paid and you were being paid by the founders of sent brands out of their pocket every month to manage that presence. You better be sure that that presence delivers some element of value. Now, if you're not able to define what that value is in a way that makes them feel comfortable and happy with giving you X number of dollars a month, then they're not going to be your client for very long. And that client specifically, I won't use their name, but they were a client of mine for three and a half years. And they were my longest retainer business that I had. And that was because every month I delivered a report that defined the value of what I did. It's not just this post that got you this many links or this post drove you this many likes, it was “we drove this much traffic to your website and therefore potentially drove this much level of traffic”. Stick to it; whatever is defined. My point being is it's both. You've got to be very strict about what your objectives are and then ensure that you are communicating those objectives very clearly. It's so easy to water down those objectives by providing too much data or just not being super succinct with what you're trying to deliver.
Ryan Alford [00:20:51] I'm glad you brought up the other brands you worked on because Lego is in a unique position being the size that it is so that you don't have to scream out “Our Legos are on sale” versus a very cool brand video that's elevating the ecosystem or whatever. But for other brands that don't have that, it was kind of just crushing my soul a little bit in the rush to the bottom of price and features. First is, call me old school, but the ‘Can you hear me now’ campaign, the campaign aspect, the brand aspect of marketing seems to be a gain, maybe not for brands like Lego, but seems to be diminishing.
James Gregson [00:21:53] If the brand building was easy, everybody would do it. Brand building is a marathon, right? It's not a sprint. It takes time. It takes testaments. It takes failures to figure it out. I think, again, to some extent that the social media world and the influencers behind successful brands in some cases have ruined this for the rest of us because they've made it super successful because they became a viral sensation. And I literally just came out of my meeting before this was talking about the TikTok oceans, for example, and how all of a sudden we've got this. “How do I go viral” moment picking up again. Everyone wants their Super Bowl Oreo moment, which is great. I totally get it. Of course, I want to be behind one of these moments. Absolutely. But that isn't the strategy? That's an unattainable strategy. It's the process and having the process and that and the team behind that and the strategy behind that, that enables a moment like that. But, yeah, it's a tough one.
Ryan Alford [00:23:08] What's been your most exciting project at Lego or something you're most proud of?
James Gregson [00:23:17] At the end of the day, my eight-year-old version of myself does not appreciate the job that I have. I was that kid that was obsessed with playing with Lego for hours. I had one of those cans of popcorn that we used to get for Christmas as corporate gifts, they would split into cheddar popcorn, caramel popcorn, and salt popcorn. I very quickly threw that popcorn out and made those big barrels of Lego sets of Legos. I used to use that ping pong table to build Lego. So for me, being a part of a brand that probably defines purpose-driven branding is the best part about working for Lego. I think a project most recently that I'm really proud of is how he really leaned into supporting families stuck at home during covid, which was Let's Build Together. And it was all about the premise that everyone's routines were completely messed up, kids didn't have routines, people were stuck at home with little to do. So maybe pause from Netflix a little bit and start building with Lego. And there was a whole bunch of sort of engagement supported informative content to help people pass the time.
Ryan Alford [00:24:48] I love it and it's relevant with Covid and everything else. Which leaves me a little bit towards again, I know you're in a leadership position. Talk about your leadership style and your growth in that area and the kind of navigating that may be as relevant as it is Covid. But how have you been navigating leadership through Covid. And just in general, you talk a little bit about that.
James Gregson [00:25:12] So in general, I am a pretty straight shooter. I'm super transparent. And in an interview-related term would be authentic. I think that's a value because once you report it to me or you work with me, you understand what I'm trying to say. And I'm not trying to get to another point without being very direct. Obviously, I'm sensitive to giving the right type of feedback in the right sort of way. But I do think that's at least a unique element to my leadership style. I think as any leader that is dealing with what we're dealing with, I'm just going to raise my hand right now and say that I am transparent with my team about this. I've got three kids under three. I have literally had like two hours of sleep, jumped out at four o'clock in the morning, meeting for a massive campaign and been fried and absolutely melted down. But, I think it's about being honest with yourself and making sure that you're checking in with everyone. So we do everything from what I have daily, like coffee hours or office hours. Anyone from my team can join in. I'm not there every day, but it just gives an opportunity to see someone's face, maybe not talk about work. We try not to talk about work, never really talk about podcasts or TV or food. Yeah, I think it's about also being creative. I think the thing that I struggle with is a creative inspiration to some extent. I mean, I'm stuck in these four walls every day. And if I'm lucky that I have a dedicated office space in my house. I think back to being in New York City, in my apartment where my desk was in my bedroom and my desk drawers were full of underwear and socks because I don't have closet space. But not everyone has the same set up as I do from a home office. So it's checking in with people and making sure that they are doing okay. I think it's humanizing leadership a little bit more so than you ever would before. We've done everything from getting lunch, socially distanced, in the parking lot of our office that was closed when it wasn't cold to renting out a movie theater because you can do that now for upwards of no more than twenty people and you can watch classic movies. So I think we're going to watch Jurassic Park as a team in a whole movie theater. That's certainly one of the things I hate about Covid is that I can't go to the movies. I used to love going to the movies. But I think there's a number of things where you've just got to break it up. It's a slow burn, and I think certainly as we get into this, I don't want to call it a second spike of Covid, but in the wintertime, I think it's going to become an issue again. So I think just staying very close to everyone individually.
Ryan Alford [00:28:48] You talked about creative inspiration. Where do you get yours? But are there brands that you keep up with?
James Gregson [00:29:08] I'm at the end of the day, a content consumer. Yes, I also work in the content generation business. But for better or for worse, I think it's for better, I watch probably an hour's worth of YouTube on my personal time every day. Now, I'm not reading the best of the market. I'm not watching the best of marketing videos or stuff like that. But my brain can't help trying to understand the process of how that video is being delivered to me? How is that algorithm serving that piece of content to me? Why is this content engaging to me? Why have I not turned it off yet? What video shows up next? And that algorithm, all those components, what pre-roll happened was that a good piece of pre-roll? Did I fast forward that whole experience again, for better or for worse? So that inspires my day-to-day. Obviously, there are the destinations that I go to, the clear destinations I go to, like LinkedIn or Harvard Business Review or Ad Age for the hit-you-in-your-face type inspiration. But I think it's the passive inspiration that I take great, great value in because I as a consumer am consuming this content as not a professional but as a consumer. And I think that's that's that sweet spot that I'm trying to understand in the work that we do.
Ryan Alford [00:30:48] My wife hates me because I walk her through the reverse creative brief for every commercial that comes on. I tell her what this is what consumers thought before. This is what they're trying to make them think. This is how they want them to think, feel and act. And here's the main idea. Like I literally do. I see it's hard to take off the blinders of the job, but it also makes me a smarter marketer kind of understanding the same thing.
James Gregson [00:31:18] I mean, it's everything. I listen to a sports podcast. And for what it's worth, I get paid by podcast advertising. Sorry if you have advertising in your pocket. But I take great inspiration because this podcast has done what I believe is the right way of brand integration. And it has become an integrated part of their podcast. And it's not that 15-second spot that the reading off from the paper that is so clearly rapid and unengaged. And it harkens back to the Samsung and Casey Neistat type of relationship. That is influencer marketing done right. I don't know the financials behind that relationship originally, but it wasn't an ad, it didn't become an ad. It became an integrated part of his content journey. And that is how I think the future of advertising should be addressed and that's a social influencer space.
Ryan Alford [00:32:28] I agree. I do want to ask you, is there anything that you're watching, trends-wise? I know you've got the proliferation of TikTok and reels and the short-form video. I can only imagine what you guys are dealing with. But anything you're seeing or wrapping your head around for 2021?
James Gregson [00:32:56] Not specifically. I think we're all waiting to see how the economy reacts to Covid. I think that's going to be a big one. Obviously, some elections might have something to do with that as well. So I think that's definitely going to have a potential impact. I think right now, a lot of the social channels probably need to look at themselves in the mirror a little bit and figure that stuff out, speaking from my personal perspective, but no, I mean, I can't speak to specific trends. I think the pivot of the event marketing world is going to be really interesting. And how that evolves, I don't think physical events, Comic-Con, South by Southwest are going to happen next year. So that's two years without marquee moments in event marketing. And I'm not sure anyone's really figured out the solution for that. And I think, obviously, there isn't a solution for that. But there's going to be a need that there's going to need to be a reallocation of that money somewhere. But what it's worth, TikTok is the most fascinating platform of all time. I still don't think brands have really figured it out. From my consumer experience of TikTok, the brand integration is obviously very influencer heavy. But even from an algorithm standpoint, if I'm scrolling through, I was going to say I've seen three pieces of branded content produced from a brand, by a brand on TikTok. So I think there's a long way to go for brands to figure out their space to play. But the reason I think it was today, the partnership with Spotify is going to have some pretty massive implications.
Ryan Alford [00:34:57] Of course. That marriage of music and video. You are a hundred percent right. I think right now the best integration is if you just let the influencer do it, they would normally do. And then they just have a logo t-shirt on. When you get them into doing unnatural things just as much as they really do about, TikTok is somewhat unnatural, but it's natural to that platform, anything that’s just not organic or real comes off so played up.
James Gregson [00:35:38] It's a fast and fascinating social experiment, TikTok. But they're no joke. The data behind that platform is super impressive. I think podcasts are being hit pretty hard just because of the evolution of people's commutes. And the impact that has on podcast consumption. But they were having quite the wave. Right, pre-covid. So I'm excited for that. And it was resulting in really, really great content. So I'm excited as is everyone, I'm a little excited to bring back some normalcy to our routines that then bring some normalcy into the marketing.
Ryan Alford [00:36:31] As a podcast host, I totally agree with it. But we've seen what's interesting is that our subscribers have gotten more loyal. But the growth of the subscribers has slowed a bit. And I think we will at least chalk it up to the natural disasters of what's happening as the inability of the performance of the content of the day.
James Gregson [00:37:04] I hope I can help with that. The death of the commute is a real thing. I used to spend a little over two hours every day commuting. And that was a content consumption moment, right? Yes, I was driving and I wasn't looking at YouTube, but I was listening to podcasts at that time and that time I haven't gotten back. I wish I could have it back.
Ryan Alford [00:37:33] Me too. James, I think you've inspired me. We were thinking this anyway. But I think we're going to do the definitive podcast on the state of TikTok soon. So we'll send you a link and maybe use them. James, just a pleasure. Really appreciate your time with us. Stay in touch with us all on LinkedIn, stay in touch and maybe do a follow-up, hopefully with a rebound in the world. But best of luck with those three little ones. How can we keep up with you, though?
James Gregson [00:38:23] You can reach out to me across socials, so that's LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter, JLW Greg.
Ryan Alford [00:38:27] Yes. That’s it for Radcast, we'll see you next time.
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