The pleasure and pain of celebrity collaborations

In Trends by Peter Gearin

Brands like to use big names in their content to attract extra attention. But sometimes they don’t get the reaction they expect.

Daniel Johns released a music video in July. It wasn’t his first, and it likely won’t be his last, but the video received headlines in the mainstream press for being “controversial”. Did it include sex, nudity or animal cruelty? No. It was deemed to be “controversial” because the video was a collaboration between Johns and 177-year-old Australian department store David Jones.

In The Sydney Morning Herald, music writer Bernard Zuel wrote: “Nothing says cutting-edge artistry, nothing says sexy R&B and adventurous rock, quite like the oldest department store, with the oldest clientele, in the country right? Living on the edge baby.” Zuel later pondered, somewhat sadly, that this kind of thing is just the new normal.

“He will do what he can to get the music heard and get the bills paid,” Zuel writes. “Dream about the future certainly but this is now.”

The subject of the video itself is pretty standard fare – Johns and the band playing on a stage as three fashion models pirouette and pout. (George Michael clearly had the edge on sexy in his Freedom video in 1990.) But this is clearly an interesting project for Johns, who has had a solid solo career since Silverchair went into cold storage in 2011.

The “Shot by Sound” video features one novel idea: shots from 42 cameras are rigged to the band’s instruments and voices (“so the band is taking the photos”, according to the PR). The video is accompanied by a “behind-the-scenes” special, which explains how it all came together and Johns’ motivation to be involved.

“Fashion and music have always been intertwined,” the star says. “When David Jones mentioned that it was going to be a photo shoot/video shoot powered by technology, and that the instrumentation was going to trigger the visuals, it seemed really new and seemed like an interesting piece of art to us.”

“We agreed from the start that he [Ray Martin] was not there delivering brand messages.”Andrew Sidwell

From a marketing perspective, it’s an interesting (and admittedly curious) collaboration. Johns is able to leverage David Jones’ reach and power to find an audience, and the department store gets to associate with a well-known, young and slightly edgy musician, which clearly shows how the marketing team would like customers to see the brand. But where is the controversy when a collaboration between talent and brand is mutually beneficial, and doesn’t suggest any kind of endorsement?

David Jones stepped up its involvement with celebrity ambassadors in 2015. In October, it aroused even more controversy when it announced that just retired AFL champion and former Australian of the Year Adam Goodes was one of six ambassadors, including model Jessica Gomes and You Am I frontman Tim Rogers, to star in the “It’s In You” campaign. The DJs website received a number of abusive and racist comments towards the brand and indigenous hero Goodes, though the department store was able to claim a form of victory when the announcement was viewed more than 200,000 times and its Facebook page saw a 235 per cent spike in “likes”.

It’s well established that star endorsements, sponsorships and ambassadorships can be problematic when things go wrong. We only need to think of the commercial crises that companies faced when they were closely associated with Shane Warne, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong … and that’s without moving beyond the sports pages.

Collaborations between stars and brands, however, will be a growth industry for brands looking for content and image and stars looking for ready resources and an audience.

This isn’t just something that affects brands looking for a youthful tick of approval. When respected journalist Ray Martin was announced as the presenter of an eight-part podcast called The Road Next Travelled, produced for financial institution Colonial First State, it was deemed “wrong” and “a sell out”.

Martin is best known as a journalist and presenter on respected news shows This Day Tonight and 60 Minutes and as a host of A Current Affair. Many will also remember he was the long-running host of The Midday Show, which gained him the tag of “television personality” rather than simply “journalist”. These two sides of Ray Martin played out when The Road Next Travelled was announced in the same week he was appointed to lead an inquiry into editorial standards at ABC TV’s Q&A program. He is clearly an esteemed, unimpeachable news presenter, but he’s also able to have a bit of fun when he believes there are no political or commercial conflicts or obligations.

Fairfax Radio Network, which presented the The Road Next Travelled podcast, pursued Martin because they wanted a presenter who represented what the show was about … helping people find a new direction in their lives.

“His name came up in the creative process,” Fairfax Radio Network Content Creation director Andrew Sidwell says. “In our research we found out that Ray had this really amazing passion for photography. In an article we found he said that ‘if TV stopped for me now, I’d happily do this for the rest of my life’. Because we had this concept, we thought he would be the perfect person to bring this to life.”

Sidwell says there was never any real need to discuss the commercial nature of the project with Martin. “From Ray’s point of view, he could see that we were really trying to help our audience [with the series]. We agreed from the start that he was not there delivering brand messages . . . it was not an endorsed commercial campaign. The client obviously has subject-matter expertise in some of the topics we were going to talk about and they became part of the story, so Ray interviewed them – using his journalistic skills, doing what Ray does.

“There was never an issue about the commercial nature of the series and we were always up front [with the audience] that this was created for Colonial First State.”

Leaving aside Martin’s involvement, the podcast and website is clearly a good content vehicle for Colonial First State. Available as a podcast as well as running over eight episodes on radio stations across the country, it follows three older Australians as they move into their prime years and offers specialist tips and advice. Financial advice comes from a Colonial First State expert, of course, but this is not central to the program.

Sidwell says Martin was keen to be involved when a second series was being planned. “He wanted to do it because he was happy with what we were doing for our audience.”

The client, of course, would also be happy to have a respected figure such as Martin involved. Colonial First State executive general manager Linda Elkins told Mumbrella: “Colonial First State wants to help more Australians to re-imagine their retirement – to think differently about their future, in a positive and constructive way that leaves them inspired, empowered and excited to get expert advice to help them get there.”

And all with the help of a little star power.

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About the author
Peter Gearin

Peter Gearin


A former senior editor at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun-Herald, Peter is managing editor of Brand Tales and director of Sydney-based content services business Top to Tale Media. He specialises in helping in-house content teams achieve better results.