Gut Checks and Conversations: Jules Ferree of SB Projects on Building Successful Brand-Artist Partnerships

Justin Bieber in his Calvins. Ariana Grande getting kicked out of a carpool sing-along. Tori Kelly singing poignantly about child hunger. Sometimes, the right conversation held around the table leads to a brand-artist collaboration with the power to entertain, emote and evolve the very concept of partnerships. 

At that table sits Jules Ferree, Head of Brand Partnerships at SB Projects. Helmed by music and entertainment industry power broker Scooter Braun, the company manages big-name talent like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Martin Garrix, to name a few, and also has a knack for signing some of the most interesting names on the rise (Braun famously “discovered” Bieber on YouTube, and has since kept an eye on emerging talent). 

Ferree, a 2017 Clio Music juror, talked to Clios.com about how the right brand-artist partnership can lead the charge.

Scooter Braun has said that he invests in people, not just products. To that end, SB Projects seems to very thoughtfully choose the artists with whom it works. What are the overarching commonalities among the talent you invest in? 

At our company, we call it “the Scooter Braun gut check.” Whether it’s creatively, thoughtfully or energetically, Scooter is the indicator for the direction—new clients, music, visuals. A thread I can weave is that our artists all have a unique and strong point of view that resonates with either a specific demographic or a mass demographic.

How is the concept of brand partnerships changing and what do you see as making a successful partnership in 2017?

It’s an evolution. With brand partnerships, alignments continue to become a more natural and genuine collaboration. Our clients are not inanimate objects. It’s much more beneficial when both parties come to the table not that dogmatic about the vehicle, but to do it the best way so everyone feels comfortable and gets to the message.

What I see as a success is to understand the goals and perspectives of all the parties involved, whether that’s the brand, the talent, the label or publisher, the event or festival. Once you’ve established and defined what a collective win looks like, all parties can work as a unified team to deliver on those thresholds for success. Is the goal storytelling, or an experience? Thresholds for success could be impressions or reach, number of views on a piece of content or engagement on a piece of social content, the brand or product’s sales or the talent’s sales. Or, it could just mean a meaningful conversation takes place.

What are some recent campaigns that you would deem a success?

One that continually stands out for how it originated and developed was Justin [Bieber] and Calvin Klein. That was many years in the making. Justin had a vision and a deep affection for the brand and wanted to bring back to life the iconic visual, but in a new way. At the time, Calvin Klein had the appetite to take a risk with Justin at that moment in his career. Ultimately, it paid off for them and for us. Calvin Klein was a terrific advocate for Justin, and vice versa. After one year, we renewed the partnership for another year and expanded the deal to have broader reach.

Justin Bieber + Lara Stone - Calvin Klein Jeans Spring 2015

Another more recent one that’s not specifically musically related, but is entertainment related is between Samsung and our client Karlie Kloss. It began as a singular, one-video concept back in September 2016, around their Gear 360 camera. Because of the success of the concept, the engagement around it, the conversation that happened because of it and nailing the creative, we grew the partnership to have multiple other deliverables and touch points, and now we’re planning for an even larger partnership for 2017.

Create with Gear 360: Casey Neistat x Karlie Kloss

Even though I haven’t participated in all of these projects, I’ve been enjoying T-Mobile’s recent work in music and entertainment. It dates back to Drake last year doing their spin on his Hotline Bling music video, to what they’ve done with Nicki [Minaj] and Ariana [Grande], who is one of our clients, then obviously with Justin this year with the Super Bowl. Their T-Mobile Tuesdays mobile app is really great. They’re doing a solid job of thinking first of the consumers and fans and what their interests, points of view and humor are, and developing creative campaigns that speak to those things as well as what’s going on in the culture. I think that’s why they’re winning in that space.

T-Mobile | Road Trip :30

What is the impact of a brand partnership going viral—for example, Justin Bieber’s Calvin Klein ads being parodied on Saturday Night Live?

When a partnership between an artist and a brand is weaved farther into pop culture through a vehicle like SNL, and then subsequently awareness is farther spread across platforms garnering more earned media—it’s something we could not have predicted. Naturally, we see that as a win. The impact is, hopefully we’re seeing success on all sides and it leads to continued future business together. In this case, it struck a funny bone.

How does the partnership strategy differ for an established artist (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande) and a more up-and-coming artist?

First, we’re extremely thoughtful about how we approach partnerships for our talent at any point in their career. A basic way the strategy will differ is the outline of the goals or the metrics and the definition of a successful partnership for both the talent and the partner. For a client that may be in the beginning stages of their career, a win could be establishing reach and awareness across millions of consumers that we then would hope would become fans.

For a client with a more established career, the metric for success may be revenue based for both the talent and the brand via product or service sales. Regardless of the talent’s level, we listen to our partners to fully understand why they’re even coming to the table to have a conversation with us and what they want to walk away with. The most successful campaigns are the ones where we’ve diligently integrated the partner’s goals into the creative or the experience with the talent that still remains true to the talent’s music or art, positioning and fan base. That’s why that initial conversation about, “what are we trying to accomplish?” is fundamental.

What leads a major brand to partner with an emerging talent—for instance, Pepsi’s “Joy of Pepsi” campaign with singer Tori Kelly? 

Pepsi is an incredible brand partner in that they like to be leaders in music and music discovery, and be part of the story of breaking talent. In the case of Tori, they saw her star on the rise through months of conversation we had, and they said, “We want to be a part of it, and we want to be part of it right now,” because they wanted to play a role in establishing her as a household name. That campaign, “The Joy of Pepsi,”—a song that iconic performers have sung before her—was in millions of homes over the course of more than six months. That’s a badge of honor they get to wear of helping to bring Tori into homes, and from our perspective we liked the creative and knew the partnership made sense for Tori.

Tori Kelly - Pepsi Commercial

Social media is changing the approach to brand partnerships. What are some of the more creative recent initiatives?

Social media obviously has changed brand partnerships, and that’s been occurring for many years. The change is that it’s not just about social media anymore but about the vacillation between social platforms—why and when you choose to use certain platforms. The current, interesting part about it is watching how users, including talent, leverage the newer aspects of each platform, whether that’s how Facebook Live is being integrated into creative, or Instagram stories or custom filters on Snapchat.

One that resonates with me that I’m still impressed by is the “Straight Outta” campaign from the film [Straight Outta Compton]. When you boil it down, it’s such an incredibly simple campaign, yet it was so smart, impactful, relatable and somewhat emotive, which I think is what makes it winning.

Philanthropy is one of SBP’s core values—how do artists organically incorporate philanthropy brand partnerships?

Scooter is vocal, privately and publically, about the importance of giving back. Scooter hired a fantastic man, Jordan Brown, to lead our social impact. It’s quite unique for a management company to have this role, and one of the many functions he has is to help our artists and employees make an impact. Some of our artists are involved in activism; some of them are more quiet in their efforts and contributions. Regardless, it is ingrained in our company culture to care, to make a plan and to be involved.

Our hope is that anytime we do a partnership, whether it’s big or small, that we build in a philanthropic element. It’s a question we always ask: What foundations, organizations or charities are you aligned with, and how can we weave it into this deal? Ariana did a partnership with Coach, and as part of that a portion of the proceeds were donated to a no-kill animal shelter in L.A. Tori Kelly recorded a song for the “Child Hunger Ends Here” campaign partnership with ConAgra. Separate from partnerships, Justin donated $1 from every ticket sale for the Purpose tour to Pencils of Promise.

Last year, SB Projects won a Clio Music Bronze for the adidas + Kanye West partnership. As a member of this year’s Clio Music jury, what are you looking for in winning work for 2017?

I think it’s important to recognize and celebrate music and brand partnerships in entertainment. I’m looking forward to viewing compelling, emotive narratives where music is the foundation of the holistic experience, where the storytelling is complementary to all the parties involved and where the inclusion of talent or music feels and appears very seamless.

Entries for the 2017 Clio Music Awards are now open. The first deadline for submissions is April 28. For more information, please call 212.683.4300 or visit clios.com/music.