Q&A: Fugitives CEO Chris Gernon On The Future Of Marketing And Technology

Chris Gernon is founder and CEO of Fugitives, a Los Angeles-based marketing agency with a “we-can-fix-it” attitude that fills in the gaps when companies need help. He and his team have developed visual content for some of the world’s most influential brands (think Disney, CNN and Nickelodeon, to name a few).

Gernon and his team at Fugitives are also focusing on how brands can effectively leverage cutting-edge technologies such as virtual and augmented reality, and he is a seasoned TedxTalk presenter. Chief Executive caught up with Gernon to talk about launching his own agency, the role technology will play in marketing moving forward and what common traits he looks for in leaders within his organization.

Q: What were some of the things that inspired you to launch Fugitives?

A: That’s a great question, and one that I’ve thought a lot about through the years because I think it’s evolved. As I get deeper into it, the way I started is not what I think about it at the moment. And I think that’s key to anything as you start and you move through a good business solution is that, when you look at something at the very beginning, what drives you to start is not necessarily what motivates you to continue with it. And that’s probably been key for me, is that it has evolved, it has changed through the years.

But what it was initially, was that we saw a change in the marketplace, friends of mine and I, and it started with a conversation about how we felt that we could do things differently. And not better or worse, but just more cost-effective. We saw that the model was shifting to more in-house agencies with large corporations, and they were looking for resources to help augment their current staff and situation. And that’s really how it started. We saw a need in the marketplace, and something that no one was really doing. Everyone was focused on building big, behemoth sort of agencies, and working with a nice set of clients who would come and go, depending on what they felt about that one agency’s work, and they would shift agencies, and that’s how the model would sort of work. But what would happen is that, you would end up with a whole slew of work that would fall off the table.

And that’s why these large corporations were sort of building in-house agencies to sort of help pick up this slack, but then also, hold more of those agency contracts in-house. But they needed a team in-house to sort of work on those things. It had to do also with procurement, and how you staff up a team like that, and how you manage a team like that, and how you keep it rolling through. So, it was a little bit like, “How do we solve a problem of giving our clients a full service agency that they would come to expect with all of the expectations, and creative control, and being able to guide and lead a brand, an agency forward, but still keep it under this new model?” So, it was all these conversations that sort of happened.

And I say all of this, and yet, my model has shifted back to sort of a brick-and-mortar type of facility, where I’m now doing the things that I felt I was working against. And I think that that’s kind of the way the model is shifting, as well, is that once these corporations have sort of figured out that it’s not such a good model to work in-house, although most of them are still sort of moving in that direction, there is still a need for smaller, project-based agencies to run. I think the idea of adding an agency on retainer and having an agency of record is sort of outdated and obsolete. I think most corporations now are moving to project-based situations. And that’s probably better for them. I think the creative stays fresher. I think the agencies are more on their toes. I think there’s a better aligned process, and moving through a creative process, that makes that mentality a little bit better for the client. Not necessarily for the agency, but certainly for the client, it does make it better. And also it could be argued for the agency, as well, because it keeps them fresh. It keeps them coming up with new ideas. It keeps them challenged to work better, smarter and faster.

“I’m looking for people who are thinkers. I’m looking for people who have opinions, and who believe that the creative process is built through good conversation.”

Q: How did you pull your team together when launching the company, and how have you managed growth?

A: I like people who are self-starters. I like people who are thinkers and have opinions of their own. And so, I really look for that outside of just their creative ability and their roster, I really look for someone who can think outside the box, who can do things in a different way. And that sort of follows in line to the big philosophy of Fugitives—we think outside the box and we look at overarching ideas, and then we drill down. We don’t start looking at the nuances of something before we have an idea. And that big idea is really what drives the conversation. And so, to have a team around you that is constantly looking for those things, that is always going back and re-evaluating what the big picture is, and then how everything fits in line with that picture, is really the key to finding a good team around you.

And when you find them, I work really hard to keep them. Because I know that they’re rare birds out there, and I know that a good team is the foundation to any really successful company. And I’m not looking for button pushers. I’m looking for people who are thinkers. I’m looking for people who have opinions, and who believe that the creative process is built through good conversation. And so, having a good team that can really inspire you in the sandbox to play better, smarter, and faster. You know, I think that’s really what inspires me every day is coming in and working with a team of people who do that for me. I had a guy in here just the other day, and he’s not on this project, but he came in with some ideas to help foster a new approach to that project that he was not even on. I really admire that because that is what it’s all about, right? It’s not about ego, it’s about saying, “Hey, I’ve thought of something and I want to see what you think about it.” And from that conversation that he and I had, it built into a whole new revelation for the client that spurred on a conversation that grew into something else.

And that’s key. It’s key to have that work environment with your team. And it’s also key to have that work environment with your clients as well. Because I believe that clients give you little kernels of information that lead you to a better place, and it’s important that you listen to those, and you investigate them A lot of times, people write off the client as not knowing what they’re talking about. And I value their opinion because I believe that they’re saying something that I’m not completely understanding. If they’re making a comment, it needs to be investigated.

Q: When it comes to marketing and communicating branded messages, how will brands make the most of emerging technologies moving forward?

A: I think that’s part of the mission of Fugitives is to think outside the box and come up with new, different and interesting ways to further a marketing campaign. And that might mean virtual reality, or it might mean something else, like we just got a huge contract for a casino where we are creating a video installation inside of their casino to bridge and to help meld these two areas of the casinos together, but it also becomes a marketing approach. And now we’re able to give the brand a position inside their own casino. We also started some new bingo sites that many people are loving. And that is another way to move the needle forward—what are the marketing tools we have available to us? VR is one, traditional media is another, social is another. But then we also have these outliers which are just coming into our focus, which are the experiential type of experiences. That’s what we are doing with the casino. These are things that are on the perimeter that are just now coming into our vernacular when it comes what’s available to us as marketers and how do we get the brand message out there in a viable and interesting way?

And so, I believe the days of traditional advertising are over. I think that we’re at the tail end of any one of these commercials or print campaigns and I believe everything will move to social or virtual reality, which I still think is a new technology. I don’t think there a lot of eyeballs or a lot of viewers in that realm, but those numbers are growing. And as they grow, you have to be positioned to know how to handle the technology, and know that you’re not blind-sided at the very beginning of an emerging opportunity, such as this. You have to stay cutting edge. You have to stay aware of what’s happening technology-wise, and also what’s happening throughout the internet so that you know and you’re aware of things coming forward, and that you start playing around in those areas, and finding ways to tell those brand stories in a new medium.

And that’s kind of key to the success, I think, of any company, is to move and stay top of line. And really stay aware of what’s happening in the marketplace, and what are the new emerging tools available to us as marketers to tell our company’s brand story?

Q: What do you look for in leaders within your organization and what do some of your best employees have in common in terms of leadership skills?

A: I’m not one for a lot of ego and bravado. I like people to be, at least teams of mine, to be thoughtful and considerate. And to not just speak because they’d like to have their voice heard. If I find that there’s too much bravado, then I find that it limits the actual process, and the actual means of communicating with one another. So, ego is a big thing for me. And I will always have an open-door policy. I will sit anywhere, and I love being approachable. And I think everyone should be approachable because things come up, and you have to be able to switch gears and have a conversation with someone to be a good leader. And I look for that in the leaders that surround me, as well. You have to have an openness about you to be able to roll with the punches and understand how to deal with situations that are changing right in front of you. And be able to deal with them straightforward and just focus on getting the work done.

And a good mentor of mine said this to me once, and I truly wholeheartedly believe it, a job of a leader is someone who says, “The goal, guys, is over here.” And he points them all in that same direction. And then throughout the journey, getting to that result, people will inevitably have problems. And it’s up to the leader to minimize those problems. To keep everyone focused on where the goal is. And to keep everyone charging for that goal. And until you have a focused team, that goal is unattainable. So, the goal of a manager, the goal of a leader is to keep everyone focused on that one goal and keep everyone understanding, and also having ownership of that goal. It’s their product as much as it is yours. In fact, it’s actually more their product than it is yours because they’re the ones creating it. You’re the one inspiring them to move forward and move in a direction. And I look for that in all of the people that I work with. Leaders, staff, everyone, all the way down the line, because it’s important that we all work towards the same goal.

Patrick Gorman :Patrick Gorman is managing editor of Chief Executive magazine and Corporate Board Member magazine. He is based in Stamford, CT.