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'Traditional marketing is dead or irrelevant' - American Apparel's marketing guru

Meet Ryan Holiday: self-confessed media manipulator, author and the marketing brain behind one of the world’s edgiest brands.
Mar 16th 2014, 11:30 AM 16,462 16

YOU PROBABLY KNOW American Apparel.

They have a shop on Grafton Street and sell very cool clothes to very cool people. They also have sexagenarian models and mannequins that have pubic hair.

On top of that, they are a fully vertically-integrated company. The clothes they make are fabricated in the same building that the CEO works from, this Los Angeles headquarters:

image(AP Photo/Nick Ut)

Far from using sweatshop labour like many of their competitors, American Apparel pays sewers an average of $12 an hour, pays for classes so workers can learn English, loans them bikes and offers health insurance.

What you probably don’t know is that the company’s marketing director is just 26 years old, is currently finishing his third book and is one of the most in-demand speakers at marketing conferences around the globe.

This week, Ryan Holiday came to the DMX Dublin marketing conference in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. His presentation, “Don Draper is Dead” talked about growth-hacking, a marketing strategy that allows start-ups gain exposure without a traditional marketing budget.

Rather than focusing on marketing, the companies tend to focus on growth, such as Hotmail including “PS I Love You” with a link advertising the service at the bottom or referral schemes like the one Dropbox offers.

Holiday characterises a lot of what he does as Growth Hacker Marketing, to the point that that’s the title of his second book. But, is traditional marketing dead?

“I would consider [traditional marketing] dead or irrelevant for the majority of new companies.

Not only was it designed for a different media environment, it was designed and perfected to help big companies get a little bit bigger.

“Nowadays, we’re trying to take a start-up from nothing to something and that’s a different kind of animal.”

Holiday cites the example of Instagram, which was a geo-location network that was popular for the photo filter feature, flipped what it was doing mid-stream and became a billion-dollar company. Had they sunk $15 million dollars into advertising early on, Holiday argues, they would not have been as lean or as flexible.

American Boy

And what about his own job? What makes American Apparel a marketer’s dream?

Because we’re a vertically-integrated fashion company that makes its own products in the same building that the marketers work in means that the people who are doing the marketing are more intimately familiar with the product.

But, when you’re paying about 12 times an hour what others are paying a day, that impacts on your budget for marketing. Not that you’ll hear Holiday complain that the playing field isn’t level.

Sometimes I think, and this is the title of my next book, the obstacle is the way.

“So this impediment, not having the money, allows you to try things that others would think are not kosher or were too controversial or too risky.”

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Ah, controversy. Something the man who has a bestselling book entitled Trust Me, I’m Lying, knows a little something about.

But, is the controversy contrived? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly not unwelcome.

“We don’t have to think about the things that other companies don’t have to think about.

“When you’re spending $100 million on an advertising campaign, that makes you conservative.”

In essence, that sums up Holiday’s message. That being the underdog, the start-up or the small business, needn’t be an impediment, if you’re willing to take chances.

“Marketing isn’t about taking some boring, watered down product and tricking a couple more people into trying it.”

Read: American Apparel launches mannequins with visible pubic hair

Read: American Apparel’s new underwear model is 62 years old

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Paul Hosford

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