Rankin and the team sit down for a bumper interview filled with life and leadership lessons, with Kenyatte Nelson, non-executive director for the British Retail Consortium. Delving into the subtleties of creating for high fashion, and zooming out to discuss building creative environments and the opportunities of WEB 3.0. Through it all Kenyatte guides us through the noise and to the heart of the matter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rankin: Do you feel fashion marketing is fundamentally different from other kinds of advertising? How?

Kenyatte: Yeah, I think the fashion market is different, mainly because fashion is necessary in so much as people need to wear something – but the vast majority of what we buy is not essential. So it's an emotive purchase. And so fashion marketing needs to be evocative, it needs to create and sustain an emotional reaction. 

And though my view may be a bit controversial, I think most marketing is white noise. The vast majority is not evocative, it's not brave. And in a category that requires provocation, the best in that context is marketing that drives a different point of view and that requires bravery. That's a difficult thing to do.

And so I think brands that communicate why their fashion, their design, their point of view is different, those are the brands that are successful. If you can't do that, and we've seen this, particularly in the British High Street, then it's a race to the bottom. You end up trading margin for sales instead of differentiation for margin, which is what successful businesses do.

Rankin: Luxury fashion brands don't tend to work with traditional agencies. Do you think that's the right approach or do you think more traditional agencies do have a place in that area?

Kenyatte: In my view, the requirement for great fashion creative is less about the agency you use and more about the people involved. And I say that because my view is that any creative endeavour, if it's truly creative, requires raw, almost counterculture, thinking. Creative people challenge conformity, they challenge the norm, and the more creative the endeavour, the more challenging that becomes.

And so they end up using and working with people who are outside of the conventional creative kind of sectors and most of the time they're right. I think they believe that those individuals are not confined by the conventions that sometimes constrain some of the big box agencies.

Now, do I think that those guys can do it better? Always? Not necessarily. But I think it requires a different kind of thinking and a different kind of approach. And I think one of the reasons why high fashion brands tend to work with different kinds of creative agencies is because you get a better quality of tension that happens as a result of those individuals in the room.

Rankin: Yeah, in fashion, you're not actually trying to solve clear direct problems so the storytelling is different, isn't it?

Kenyatte: I think so. With FMCG, for example, there are a lot of problems/solutions.

So I spent 16 years working with Procter and Gamble, but ten of those years working in hair care, then the last six working in fine fragrance and colour cosmetics for fashion brands like Gucci, Dolce Gabbana and others.

The difference in the way that we approached the creative from the first half of my P&G career, to the second half was fundamentally different.

And I think you're absolutely right, one tends to be more of a problem/solution. The other is about creating desire, because, again - this isn't a nonessential category. You know, no one needs a $5,000 handbag. No one can convince you that you need it. And so my job in that context is to create desire so that desire makes you forget about the price alone. 

This is not rational thinking. This is highly emotional, and so you need to tap into the things that are much more evocative in that context.

Rankin: I find those in luxury fashion are not as scared of taking risks and doing different things to get there, don't you think?

Kenyatte: No, they're not. And the other thing that I'm seeing that is really interesting is more fashion brands leaning into co-creation to achieve that connection. 

The Ralph Lauren collaboration with Palace a few years ago, the stuff they're doing in the Metaverse with Roblox, there's some really interesting stuff happening with fashion brands. Because, I think, of their willingness and ability to lean into the new and almost co-create and have two-way conversations with their customer base.

Rankin: How do you think you can create a culture where those kinds of evocative ideas can grow?

Kenyatte: If I had the answer to that question, I would be a much wealthier man!

I think in terms of creating a culture where creativity can flourish, the first thing that has to happen is there needs to be - across the organisation - psychological safety. 

Any creative endeavour is going to seek to challenge the norm, it's not going to conform. 

So if you're looking to be creative, and let me be clear - I think you can be creative in anything.

But I think what is required is feeling psychologically safe to do so. You need to feel like you can fail because you're not going to get it right every time. In the end, in the missing of the mark, there are lessons and learnings that can be applied to improve the next iteration of the endeavour, whatever it is. 

Creativity is going to flourish in that environment because people aren’t too afraid to allow themselves to move into that space. So I think that's critically important. I think the other thing that's really important is you need to be in a business or a place that views creativity as strategically important, because if they view it as strategically important, then they will create the environment where creativity can flourish.

My dad used to say;  ‘Go where you are celebrated and not just tolerated’.

Rankin: I just want you to talk a little more about what you think is maybe the key to building those emotional connections and 'two-way' conversations as you said.

Kenyatte: Yeah. I'll start with why I believe that's important from a personal context. I tend to believe and I've always felt this, that I personally am more anthropologist than marketeer. The reason I got into this career is because I love people. 

I think if you're going to be a really, really great marketeer, you have to get comfortable listening and tuning your ears outward and your eyes outward and understanding what it is that drives behaviour, that drives choice and desire. And I think when you understand that, you're able to tell more compelling stories, you're able to create more interesting narratives. And those are things that people gravitate towards, right? 

Rankin: And having that ability and desire to really listen, do you think that's about the types of individuals in the room?

Kenyatte: Yes. In the context of getting the right voices in the room to drive out a better result. We talk about this in the context of diversity and inclusion quite a bit, right? I have a personal point of view that diversity and inclusion is sometimes a bit misconstrued. I think a lot of times businesses and individuals think about DE&I in the context of what you might class as ‘visual’.

And there are lots of different kinds of diversity, there's visual diversity for sure, there's obviously ability diversity, but there's also diversity of thought, of experience and of socioeconomic upbringing. 

And so in my mind, the important thing is to acknowledge that diversity is a fact, It just is - No one's the same, no one. So diversity is not a debatable point. 

And in fact, inclusion is an act, we have to lean into inclusion and we have to actively pull in other voices, perspectives, and points of view. I'm not saying that to suggest that we shouldn't be opening up equality of opportunity for women or people who have different abilities or ethnic diversity. I'm not suggesting that at all. That's important but I think if we can get businesses, whether that's fashion or otherwise, to lean into the inclusion piece of it and the intention around inclusion, you're 50, 60% of the way there. In my view, that's when the magic will happen.

I think unfortunately what happens now is people are focusing on, 'do the people in the room look different than me?'  Well, that's great. But if you all went to the same school, does it fucking matter?! 

It's about creating a listening culture, not a telling culture. So that's what I think because inclusivity is not about bringing someone to the table, it is bringing someone to the table and letting them talk and listening to them. 

And human beings, if anything, want to be acknowledged, they want to be heard. When they're not being heard, they make it very clear that they have a problem with that. I think that's the bit that brands can get wrong sometimes, the brands that get it right, are the ones that in the long run, create some brilliant conversations with their customers.

Opal [Creative at RC]: So looking into the future of those conversations with the audience, what do you think is the biggest opportunity coming for those?

Kenyatte: It's always interesting to speculate because there's about a 100% chance you get it wrong! 

But from my point of view the biggest opportunity in the fashion sector is probably in the continuous growth of D2C and the WEB 3.0 space.

When you look at what luxury fashion brands and well, high street fashion brands have been doing over the last, I would say, five years, it’s aggressively moving into the D2C space. They are moving their capabilities and product, and the way they sell their product, into what I would class as a vertically integrated way to serve their customers. And I think more brands will move into that space from a Web 3.0 standpoint.

More brands will start to experiment with the idea of selling fashion commercially, that is digital. So you look at Tencent; you can buy fashion for your avatar and pay real money for digital clothing.

I don't think we're far from that, I think that this is something that brands are starting to look to play with, in some way. Because the fashion business from a physical standpoint - we saw this with COVID - is completely overserved, the reality is no one needs any more physical clothes.

The landfills are filling up, all over the place circular is becoming more populist and interesting. Rental economies and borrowing fashion or selling, buying and then reselling on platforms like Depop, eBay, Stock X and others is becoming more normalised. 

But If I have an avatar and I can dress them in Polo Sport and I can dress them in Prada and I can dress them in a ‘fill-in-the-blank’. That becomes really interesting, particularly if I'm paying real money to get that product.

You don't have to physically create it, It costs virtually nothing to make, there are endless iterations that can be done so you can create highly desirable collaborations, even one-off products that people might be willing to spend more money for - the possibilities are endless! And so for me, I think that’s where the industry will move.

Opal: And what do you think are the opportunities or implications for brands in the WEB 3.0 spaces?

Kenyatte: I think the opportunities for brands are huge because if I've paid money for something, there's a high likelihood I want people to know what it is!

And so I think the opportunity for brands is quite exciting. Because if you can create and sustain a strong brand presence in the real world and in the digital space, you'll be rewarded for that. In the digital space, far more than in the physical space in my view.

I think we're just starting to barely scratch the surface on this stuff. So if you have a brand and you're not experimenting in this space - not necessarily plunking loads of money on it - but experimenting and playing around, then you're missing a trick. We have to learn because this is where the consumer will move.

But look, we're physical beings, we exist in a physical world and that's never going to change. We're all always going to go meet friends and go get coffee and go shop and hold hands in public displays of affection. But I do think it will fundamentally change the way we engage with one another outside of those physical interactions. And I think the implications from a branding standpoint are huge in the context of the opportunities to engage with customers more frequently and in different ways.