Q&A with Nathan Ellis of Syndicate

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OK, Nathan, let’s dig in. How did and your partner end up in NYC?
Growing up in North Carolina, my original goal was to be a writer. The city is quite magnetic for wannabe writers… my partner Bridget wanted to work in fashion. We went to high school together and both majored in journalism at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

What’s your firm – Syndicate – all about?
Passion, innovation and, believe or not, subtlety. We work with clients that we believe in, and we try our best to do work that resonates with the most skeptical, difficult-to-reach consumers. To do this you must be creative and have a strong sense of where popular culture is heading. Subtlety is key with this group as well – they have disdain for the obvious and do not like being pandered to. People think of PRs as pushy loudmouths, but we are quite the opposite.

How is your market changing?
Everyone knows that the stranglehold Madison Avenue has crumbled. This ridiculous amount of money – and I mean billions and billions – spent on an outdated medium is pouring into the nontraditional sector, which I consider us a part of. This will only continue. People are realizing that PR is often a much more effective way to build brands than advertising. Also I think brands will become smarter and more nimble about the agencies they use. Billion dollar companies can benefit greatly by partnering with a boutique-sized agency to achieve certain objectives. Our dialogue with influencers in fashion, entertainment, art etc. is much, much stronger.

What are the big challenges ahead for Syndicate?
Maintaining that passion and quality of execution as we grow from a boutique to mid-size agency. Also tailoring our approach to new markets such as Los Angeles, where we just opened an office.

How do you try to foster a culture of innovation in your office?
We encourage input from everyone, and I mean down to the interns. I’m not one for a lot of hierarchy or formality. We have an office blog – whenever we are doing creative, I’ll post asking for ideas and anyone is welcome to contribute. Also we encourage our staff to be out and about at night as much as possible; they really must live the culture to be effective for our clients.

Yes, walking the talk is key. OK, some tips for entrepreneurs who can’t afford your services?
Be disciplined, focused and embody your target consumers’ mindset. In terms of PR, know the key placements in each sector and focus on them, even if it means holding off on placements in other publications. If it’s a brand partnership, make sure the partner is someone your core audience trusts and also holds up a mirror to the values of your brand.

Any start-up lessons learned along the way that you can share?
We drew a list of clients we wanted to work with when we started the company. It was pretty pie-in-the-sky but we have worked with almost every single one in the five years since. You can’t have a journey without a destination. Figuring out how to get there is what cemented our process and identity.

I like the dream client list idea. So, where does Syndicate go from here?
I want to expand into Asia and Europe. To be national is not enough any more, the world is an increasingly nomadic place and there is far more interplay between popular cultures. I can get on a social networking site, hop a plane to Shanghai and Berlin and be connected with what’s current and happening in those cities the next day.

A wired jetsetter with global ambitions! Any emerging brands out there you think will go the distance?
In fashion, 3.1Phillip Lim is going to be huge. It hits that sweet spot of price point, quality and commercial appeal. I also like UrbanDaddy, an invite-only men’s email magazine in New York. It has the right voice, editorial content and has scaleable potential a la Flavorpill, Daily Candy. Full disclosure, both Lim and UrbanDaddy are Syndicate clients.

And not entirely on the subject, I think there is a lot of opportunity for brands that mix aesthetic appeal with technology. As we’re seeing with iPods, flat screen TVs and cell phones, design is becoming more and more important to consumers.

Thanks, Nathan. I appreciate it… there’s some good stuff in here. One more thing, what’s the story with the backdrop to your photo up top?

Here’s a link to the Syndicate web site for IBC readers.

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