Girlilla Marketing founder Jennie Smythe found the drive and courage to launch her own company after one soul-searching question from her father.
“He asked me one day, ‘What would you do if you knew your life was going to end soon?’” Smythe recalls. “I told him, ‘I would launch my own company and I would travel more.’ We didn’t really talk about it a lot after that.”
Tragically, her father passed away in 2007. With that brief conversation still in her memory, Smythe launched the marketing company Girlilla in January 2008.
This year, the company celebrates its 10-year anniversary, and the company that Smythe launched with one computer at her dining room table has become a digital marketing powerhouse behind campaigns for Darius Rucker, Lee Brice, Sugarland, Rascal Flatts and Lee Ann Womack, as well as the Academy of Country Music and Red Light Management.
Girlilla Marketing’s company name encompasses the passion Smythe has to see women succeed in business, and that has attracted a talented team of marketers, including Ashley Alexander, Stevie Zea Escoto, Jessie Whitmire, Sydney Guilliams, Conley Sweeney and Lindsey Feinstein.
Smythe’s entertainment industry career began with work at Elektra Entertainment and Disney’s Hollywood Records, before joining Yahoo! Music as Director of Marketing and Promotion. She would later make the move to Nashville and begin working for Warner Bros. Records’ New Media Department and then as Clear Channel’s Sr. Director of Content and Marketing.
The challenge of trading years of working for large companies to take a risk was not lost on Smythe when she officially launched Girlilla Marketing.
“I remember day one, when I was sitting by myself and I just broke down. Why would I give up a high-paying, high-profile career path after spending 12 years building up to that point? I did because the idea that there might be something more was far more attractive. It was about making a new path. It’s hard, but not as hard as not trying. I put everything I had into it.”
MusicRow spoke with Smythe about today’s marketing trends and challenges, and what is ahead for Girlilla Marketing.
What was your vision for Girlilla?
I wanted to create the company I always wanted to work for. So instead of spending time talking about glass ceilings or even things that are very timely today, I decided I can spend my time creating instead of complaining. There is a real satisfaction in knowing that half of our employees have been here for more than seven years and half of our clients have been here for more than seven years.
Who were your mentors when starting Girlilla?
I didn’t have anybody to help me figure out the core of the business, but there were a few people who had similar agencies in Los Angeles, so I borrowed from them. One was [former Fanscape CEO] Larry Weintraub. I continue to call him when I need advice.
Who were some of your first clients?
Randy Houser and Zac Brown Band and Universal South, when Fletcher was running that company. He gave us like five clients right off the bat, so we really cut our teeth quickly.
What is the process like when you begin working for a client?
Everybody is different, but we get to know each other. I don’t become them online. I don’t do social media for artists, but I figure out what moves them in real life, so we can create campaigns that reflect that online. When you have the gift of a music client, most of them and what is specific about our Nashville clients, is those clients are on the road so they are touching people in real life. It’s not just a video on YouTube, it’s a real person singing real songs in real life, so the strategy, instead of concentrating on, ‘How do we get people to stream this record or buy this ticket?’ It might be, ‘How do we capture the artist-fan relationship that is happening on the road and translate it online?’ It’s become more complementary instead of the driving force.
Somebody’s website needs to be updated or an email database needs to be updated and the data needs to be segmented, tour dates need to be corrected on a thousand sites. So we speak to our PR counterparts, we are on the phone with management, business management, because we talking copyright, trademark and monetization. Those three things are paramount in everything we do.
Now you’ve almost become a project manager or product manager for every single initiative. When you are off-cycle on a label initiative you are usually on-cycle for a tour project and at every point, content is being produced.
How have the leadtimes for projects changed?
Lead-time has become shorter, which is good and bad. It is good because it is not as expensive anymore. It wasn’t too long ago when you would start a campaign with two photos, a bio, a list of tour dates and they would say, ‘This is what we have.’ It would be expensive to make videos and if you had to change photos in the middle of a campaign, that was a big deal. Now, we can have three to four looks, because you still want to follow the rules of branding. You want to have consistent looks and graphics and logos for the artists so things start to click for fans.
Now that more artists are younger, digital natives, how does that help or hinder what you do in digital marketing?
We don’t have to explain as much. We used to say if a potential client wanted to know why they should be active in the digital space, we were out. But if they wanted to know how to be active and better promote themselves digitally, we are in. Now artists are so used to putting everything out there that nothing is special anymore, so sometimes you have to create a balance.
Given how the digital realm has changed so much in the past few years, how have you changed your approach to digital marketing?
It used to be the Wild West. We had free reign to experiment and explore. Over the past five years, that has been dampened a bit by business development, retail, FTC compliant and those kinds of things, but when I hear people jump on the negative train about that, I still think it is the best job ever. There are always new platforms, new features on those platforms, or changes to algorithms.
Two of the biggest platforms we use are still Facebook and Instagram. Especially when they integrated Stories and Live, it took us away from Snapchat a lot. We still use Twitter in terms of being a part of a conversation in a timely fashion or an awards show or TV performance or a great piece of content from an outlet. For an overall mosaic of how to express yourself as an artist, I think Instagram gives us the best tools.
How do you approach marketing brands and companies, versus marketing artists?
On a brand page, you’ll never get the same reaction and engagement, as you will on an artist page, although everyone wants higher engagement and more followers on social media. And that’s ok.
Sometimes fans expect an almost immediate response when controversy happens, and yet sometimes responses have to go through different channels before they are posted. How do you balance crafting the right response, versus a timely one?
We always err on the side of accurate. I would rather be late and accurate than shoot off the hip and retract a statement. We’ve all been in situations where someone has gone against that advice, but it’s still my job to clean it up.
Sometimes artists say things that perhaps they shouldn’t say on social media. How do you handle that when you find out about something after it has been tweeted or posted?
My biggest advice is to always address it and don’t delete it. If it was innocent, by deleting it, it can send the wrong message. Of course there are commonsense rules that apply to everyone, like don’t post things at 2 a.m. after you’ve had a few cocktails.
How do you see digital marketing changing in the next several years?
My hope is that everything becomes more simplified. I think people are over stimulated. There are so many platforms and ticket options and merchandising. We are selling, selling, selling and I believe that every revolution comes with an evolution and I think it is simplicity. I think we have already seen that with the surge in vinyl sales. I think the human connection becomes even more important.
I love that there are no music genres. It pains me that people still try to put music into boxes. Fans today go from rock to country to urban in one sitting and that’s okay. Parents are sharing playlists with their kids and they are bonding over this music.
I’m so excited to see what happens in the next five to ten years.
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