Grant Powell Interview

Each month we ask a corporate member of the Art Directors Club to share some industry news with the greater ADC community. This month, Pomegranate had us sit down with CEO, Grant Powell, to talk about the death of freelancing and how Pomegranate is developing new ways to collaborate.

What is Pomegranate?

Pomegranate is two things. What it started as is a creative talent network that was organized by the talent, as a collective. We had a vision of organizing all the freelance talent scattered in the industry together as a team. Then we started doing really killer creative and people started asking us to get involved in their advertising and strategy plans, to the point where we now have a digital agency team known as the Seeding Agency that focuses on strategy and advertising. We work with a couple different media partners such as KSL media to help with high-end media placement. We offer a full range of ad agency services. So now we have a digital agency team and a creative talent network and they’re internally integrated.

One of our starting contracts and clients and now probably our biggest is Google. This is something that’s not very publically known, but we are Google’s creative services powerhouse. We’re an integrated external vendor that does an enormous amount of creative services ongoing throughout the year. In fact, I just came from a meeting there – we’re working on a really stunning video and motion graphics project for a brand initiative they will be launching shortly.

We are Google’s creative services powerhouse.

Do they source creatives from you, or do you have a Google team together?

In the past we had done placement (not staffing, we’re not a staffing agency), but Google decided that it wasn’t the right fit. So we then developed our own Google team inside Pomegranate. It’s as if it’s a team at Google, just external and doing full time Google projects.

You got a lot of attention for the Show & Tell project for HP.

Well what was interesting was that the project was actually produced by creative and technical producers in house at YouTube. That’s one of the challenges that Google faces and why we’ve been able to develop such a good relationship with them. Because they really shouldn’t be producing creative campaigns – that’s not what they do. They provide the platform, and in my opinion should be outsourcing the [creative] development. I think they agree. They’ll come to us for example with, “here’s the campaign, you produce it and do the creative for it”. [With HP] there were a lot of moving parts, it was a big challenge actually, and there were three agencies all being managed by in-house YouTube producers. It was kind of a chaotic experience, but effective nonetheless.

One of the more unique areas that we handled for this project was the creation of seed videos. For this, we reached out to YouTube celebrities with instructions and brand guidelines for creating these seed videos. Once they were created and approved, the celebs launched them through their social profiles and we were able to generate a massive amount of traffic and visibility. This is one of the areas where we have unique experience. Very few digital agencies have created successful seeding campaigns like this. The campaign was a big success and is noted as “Best Creative” by YouTube’s Show & Tell. Editors Note: Show & Tell is a collaborative project between the Art Directors Club and YouTube that captures the best online creative networking projects.

Is freelance dead, and why should a creative sign up with Pomegranate instead?

I personally, being a former freelancer, absolutely believe that freelancing is dead. And I believe it’s dead mostly for the talents’ benefit. Agencies have a lot to benefit from freelances, because they’re on demand, they’re not salaried, they don’t have to worry about benefits and ultimately the cost of a freelancer is less than the cost of an employee. But the talent seems to be taken advantage of. [With Pomegranate] there are obvious benefits that would come from better organization, better motivation (because the talent it being taken care of) and actually offering a vested interest in Pomegranate. It’s a known model in any industry that to take something that’s unorganized and organize it creates value for everybody involved. That’s generally the vision.

Specifically speaking, if you look at a lot of freelancers, the really skilled and motivated ones start their own one-man company. What happens in that situation is that individual gets stuck doing everything, whether it’s admin, legal, accounting, client management, invoicing and actual creative. Pomegranate’s pitch to the talent is “let Pomegranate take care of all that, and you focus on being talented and doing creative.” Furthermore, we’ll guarantee you regular work, we generally pay higher and we can offer benefits. That’s the pitch, which is pretty hard to turn down. The pitch to the client is, because our pitch to the talent is so good we are on the mission of acquiring the best talent, and you’ll get it through us because they want to work for us. It’s still a work in progress – we have some amazing talent already, but there’s a lot more talent out there to be acquired. We’ve got a site dedicated to our cause,

Bringing creatives together must also be beneficial – collaboration is important for creativity.

Exactly, sometimes people will see our company at a glance and say, “Oh, you’re a staffing agency.” My answer is: absolutely not. A lot of staffing or even advertising agencies have what they call their “talent network.” A staffing agency is more of what I would consider a “pool”. They reach in a pull one out, and it’s like, “here’s a single creative person for you.” But with Pomegranate you get a true network – interconnected collaborative entities. We like to use the phrase, “cross-pollination” to be on-brand.

Is it a decentralized company for a decentralized age?

I wouldn’t say it’s a decentralized company. Actually we just set up collaborative “office” space in Los Angeles, so people are actually physically getting together. And we’re looking at space in New York as well. I actually spoke with somebody at McCann at one point and in our meeting said, “hey, I hear that you’re really good at setting up virtual agencies!” But I’m not interested in doing that because you’re talking about taking your core team and distributing them out, which is actually pulling them apart. I’m more about bringing them together. I believe in the collaboration. Pomegranate is a bit of a counter-counter culture in that way. The new fad is to de-centralize, and we are doing the opposite.

Is this where more digital agencies are headed?

I think it’s where they should be headed. In the modern world, it’s not a matter of “what’s the best talent I can find in New York” it’s a matter of “what’s the best talent I can find, and how can I bring them together through technology.” This is what everybody should be doing: finding the best talent, and then finding ways to create or inspire collaboration.

What percent of your current freelance pay would you give up to not have to worry about anything except having to do the creative?

You have a bit of our mission statement to Connect Provoke and Elevate in your DNA.

Yes we do. We ELEVATE talent by empowering them, and CONNECT talent into creative teams. We also CONNECT clients with our teams. And lastly, we are PROVOKING change in the industry through our unique approaches and philosophies.

There’s one more piece to it: we’re a creative talent network by the talent. Everybody who is a part of the Pomegranate talent network has a vested interest in it. Usually that’s in the form of an equity stake or a profit share – there’s a lot of theories behind that. One is that you can have 100% of your own company if you’re running it, but what’s 100% of something that’s worthless, as compared to 1% of something that’s really valuable?

So your creatives have a stake in their own projects.

They do, and they’re encouraged to bring their own clients and projects. It’s basically like a creative playground – we bring in the best talent and we give them work and the tools they need to do amazing work, and then say, “do whatever you want.” There aren’t multiple layers of management – the agency team runs a little bit differently, because that’s a core group of highly experienced, highly talented individuals – but the network is really just like a creative playground. Not every client that’s brought in is right for Pomegranate though. We require our clients to be open to forward-thinking marketing tactics, and to be dedicated to the highest quality of creative and message.

What are your big projects other than Google?

Everything we do with Google is exciting non-stop and it’s constantly growing and changing. We started working part time for one team and now we’re working for half a dozen or so different teams within Google. I won’t get into anything specific for the future, but in the past we’ve done things like the HP project. YouTube has their own representation called the Business Brand Marketing Group, and we worked with them to do a project called Fast Forward. That was a really fun project because it was YouTube and Google saying to the world: we are forward thinkers in the advertising and technology industry. To work with Google’s brand managers and bring that to life was a really exciting project.

We started working with Porsche recently. We’re working with the corporate group, but specifically efforts focused on the dealership level and if it works well with one, we’ll move on and help the other dealerships. Working with Porsche is always exciting – they’re a great company. And Beverly Hills Porsche is the number one dealership, so that’s exciting too. We did research and found that people in the higher income brackets, (Porsche’s client base) are more likely to use social media platforms and social networking than people in the lower income bracket. On top of that, luxury automotive dealerships and companies are really behind on the adoption of social media and digital strategy. So here we’re coming in as the heroes to bring that together, and if we can do it right we’ll spread like wildfire to other dealerships and other luxury automotive companies. In our very short term working on the BHP dealership marketing efforts, we’ve been able to nearly double their website traffic and increase their subscriber base by 400%.

We also just partnered up with Pop2Life, an event marketing company to execute creative and marketing strategy on events for Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts and many more. We’ve also taken on a really interesting client, – the first-ever virtual pawn shop.

That’s a fun bit of sociological research you did for BHP.

You have to as the digital agency of record, it’s our responsibility to understand their market and get in front of them – it’s part of our job.

When were you founded?

Pomegranate didn’t start until 2008. A lot of the people in the company are people I’ve worked with for as long as a decade, but the company was not formed until 2008.

Are you international now, or just in the US?

We’re on the verge of international. We have a small group that’s not quite fully integrated in Brazil, and we have a couple individuals in the UK, but it’s actually our goal in 2011 to become international. We are communicating with one of the premier beverage brands in South America, and we’re also communicating with Google about working with their Brazil offices. If those things go through we’ll be more international really quickly. We just started working this month with Google Asia. We are international on a very scale, just putting our toe in the water way, so to speak.

You mentioned talent bringing in their own clients, is that common?

All of our work is referral based, we don’t have a sales team. The talent is encouraged to bring in their own clients to work with and they do it, but that’s a slow curve. Here are where the challenges come with “freelance is dead”: Helping a freelancer understand why it’s more valuable to them to bring a project to the network. Lots of times their first reaction is: I’m giving up my work and my revenue. People who actually have taken that leap of faith just sing praises left and right about Pomegranate and how they made more money, and how it brought them future projects that they never could have gotten, etc. That’s the vision, but there’s a real big barrier for talent to get over psychologically in trusting Pomegranate. Our motto is: Create Value. Everybody’s vision is to create value for their client and team members. You have to be very trusting to believe that. Those are where our challenges come in. We’ve had a few very successful cases of talented members bringing in projects that turn into really great clients, and everybody benefits, including the client.

Security, freedom and empowerment –
that’s what we try to create

We have a big student audience concerned about jobs – what does Pomegranate have to offer them: will they get the same kind of development opportunities and care as in a traditional agency?

Yes, we hire students. There are two levels at Pomegranate: members and leaders/partners. It’s a little bit like a law firm – people come in as associates and they work their way up to partnership. We hire members based on a rigorous interview process, including background checks. We really only want the best talent and people who we feel we can trust. This is a trust based business. We have policies and protocols, and check and balances, so it’s not an honor system, “hope you guys do the right thing!” There’s a lot of trust and we want to limit the kind of people who might come in and be high-risk. So there’s a rigorous interview process and people who come in will be put on a team lead by one or two partners. That’s pretty much the only level of management we have, and then above that is the executive staff.

Students will be mentored, trained, watched and given work until the time that they come to the table and say, “look I’m really passionate about this and want to start my own team,” or “I want to bring in this project and be the leader on it.” They’re still encouraged to bring in business obviously, because we’re not going to turn it down if it’s the right client. But if they do bring it in, it would be as referral business, so they refer it to one of the partners who would take a lead on it and make sure the project was taken care of correctly. Someone could go from member to partner within as little as two years.

What are some concerns freelances have about switching over?

The three words that come up are security, freedom and empowerment – and that’s what we try to create and that’s a really challenging combination, specifically with freedom. We believe that we’ve created an environment where we will empower talent with our reputability and technology. We have systems with our business development team that will help you close deals with our talent network and get you work on projects that you might not have the talent sets for on your own.

For example, if you were a designer and needed a programmer to make a website, where do you find that programmer? How many horror stories do people have where they found a programmer and got screwed? Being a member of a network you can trust is really valuable to somebody like that. So the challenge that comes in is the fear that people have of losing their freedom. They’ll say, “I believe you can create security and empower me, but at what cost?” Sometimes when we approach talent to acquire them into the member network their barrier will be, why would I bring this project to you and lose a part of it, as compared to making 100% of the money myself. My answer to that is you’re not actually making 100% of the money. Let’s say you spend 10 hours on the project and you bill yourself out at $50 an hour you make $500 dollars. But you’re not counting into that accounting, admin or legal, if the client doesn’t pay their invoice and you have to pursue them.

Your saying it’s 100% of the profit, but not 100% of the work?

Right. So what percent of your current freelance pay would you give up to not have to worry about anything except having to do the creative?

There’s also a responsibility element. If you’re a one-man shop running your own pseudo-business as an independent freelancer, you have a responsibility to your clients. If they need you for a week and you’re trying to take a week vacation, or even if you want to take a week vacation, there’s the unknown of what’s going to happen that week. So if you had a network to rely on you know that your clients are taken care of.

I’ve got testimonials and spreadsheets that show how much freelancers were making before they joined Pomegranate and after.

You’ll be doing the exact same thing except within Pomegranate. You now have a huge network behind you, reputability, legal counsel, an accounting team, payroll, benefits and we’re going to bring you more clients. So you’re going to take your existing workload and we’re going to add to that. You should only join if it’s going to be adding value to your career and life, which I believe it would for anybody who’s creative and driven.

Tell me about this new thing called Engage Me?

We own a social media marketing technology that we developed called Engage Me. It’s real-time social engagement, which can manifest in a lot of different ways. For example, we’re using it for Beverly Hills Porsche to track interactions across their online presence. When they close a sale they get that person’s email or twitter. Then we put that into a query and it shows us all the historical online interactions in hopes that we could find a point of entry for another sale. Second example, which we’ve done a lot for musicians and bands: if they’re doing a large show we have a live chat that bridges the gap between local and online events. That’s just incentive for us to collect data. Engage Me really is a trend data system that’s Pomegranate-only. We’ve implemented Engage Me for U2, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, The Nationals, James Blunt, and several more.

We’re launching a campaign with Google that is going to use a version of the technology that allows people to run real-time searches against social media sites. So they can gather data to see what people are searching for in association with this particular initiative. This is a really notable platform we’ve developed. A year ago nobody was doing it. We were doing it, but decided that we weren’t doing it well, so we took six months hiatus to redevelop it, and in that six months 100 companies came out doing it. They still don’t get it, in my opinion – they’re doing chat and that’s it. Social media chat applications are everywhere now. We do data mining, aggregation and research across platforms. We’ve got a ton of those sorts of projects, technologies and initiatives.