Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Troy Brown, the President of one50one, an innovation engine in the converged media, advertising and entertainment environment where digital, mobile and social media insights, strategy and execution serve as the conduit to people engagement in ROI. I met Troy when we worked together at MSL and he has one of the best, most insightful pros with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working.
In our interview, Troy discusses a number of key ethics issues, including:
- How to respond when people try to marginalize you
- The unethical myth of we can’t find diverse candidates
- Ethical issues with influencer marketing
- Ethics of Blockchain and Digital IP
Why don’t you tell us briefly about yourself and your career?
My career started with a mixture of telecom and entertainment, which is very weird. People go, “How did that match?”
One side of my family was a musical family. My Uncle that was a close friend with Maurice Starr and I grew up with the New Edition and New Kids on the Block. My mom that went to the Jeremiah E. Burke High School for girls and was a backup singer who sang with Donna Summer, but was also a telephone operator at the telephone company.
In high school, I was a McDonald’s All American, played basketball and went to the Boston Latin School. Education was critically important, but I always had the music influence, so wanted to sing and do all that other stuff. But my parents stressed education.
I went to school on a basketball scholarship, had an internship at New England Telephone and got into the digital side of telecommunications. When I came out of school, I wanted to pursue the media entertainment side of things, but was still grounded in the business side of my internship.
So how do those worlds come together? At the time they really didn’t. My parents were telling me, “You need to focus on business. We had our time and entertainment and there’s no future in that. It’s a risky thing. There are sharks there, and people end up broke. They’ll take advantage of you.”
But the entrepreneurial side of me said, “Well, I ended up going to college. I can be a businessman. I know how to put it all together.” You know, it’s left brain and right brain.
While at Verizon and being a young manager ascending up the ladder, I saw how audio was now being transformed into bits and zeros and how digital products and services were coming into play. It was really enlightening and I really started to see what innovation and product development looked like.
But I still had a really strong interest in the music and entertainment side of things. So I was in the office from nine to five up and down the East Coast as I was ascending in my telecommunications career.
But after five o’clock, I was in music studios. I was in offices in New York at Viacom and MTV because I had friends who were in marketing and entertainment and media, and I still was trying to scratch that itch.
I tried to set up meetings in New York and Philly and DC and slowly but surely, I saw the worlds come together. All this content was being digitized. Finally, I asked, “Hey, can you guys let me get to the marketing side of the business? I’m stuck on products and services. I’m stuck on the engineering. I know how all this stuff is built, how well it’s made. Let me sell it. Let me get on the marketing side.”
They wouldn’t let me do that. I was the youngest person on the office’s staff at the time, launching ISDN, but they wouldn’t let me get to the marketing side of the house.
Finally, I just said, “Okay, you know what? I got to get out of here.” They offered a RIF, a reduction in force. And I put my papers in as a young 30-something and took a package and nobody knew.
My wife said, “I’ll follow you anywhere. I believe in you. ” so forth and so on. I took that lump sum. I was out.
I helped a former college teammate write up a business plan with a big agency partner in Boston at the time, Arnold Worldwide. And we were off to the races launching a teen and multicultural marketing advertising agency. We started working on big brands like Reebok, the truth.com smoking campaign with the body bags, if you remember that. This is your mind on drugs, all that kind of stuff, and we were off to the races.
I was starting to come up with all those ideas that I had at the time. But I also had that kind of digital technological forward-thinking lens because I was steeped in innovation from Verizon and Bell Atlantic. I knew where things were going. As Gretzky said, skate to where the puck was going. Right?
We were these young stars to could market to people in ways that others couldn’t, but it was because I really had this innovation lens and technology-backed lens. I ultimately left, went out on my own and relocated down to Raleigh-Durham and took over as the head of digital wireless entertainment and marketing at Sony Ericsson.
The right and left brain were coming together. Sony is entertainment, Ericsson is a worldwide leader in Bluetooth wireless technology. They’re coming together to now launch their handsets to the wireless carriers. Perfect for me because I can bring the two together. From there, things really just took off. Doing deals with the record labels and Facebook became big and brands now wanted to do branded content in entertainment.
That’s when I was able to start doing deals with other major corporate holding companies and agencies, and I was able to then get with Alloy and IPG, Octagon Sports & Entertainment. Then it just kind of took off and went from there. One5one was born in 2008, and continued to run. And now we’re 13 years old and have a myriad of different clients across categories and agency of record for a multitude of different brands, whether it’s on the multicultural side or the general market side.
Thinking about your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?
You know, the crazy part is, obviously being a young African American kid, it’s always a color issue. I think the interesting part is I think people look at me and marginalize me, but they don’t know my telecom and digital technology background.
The one thing that I didn’t mention at the beginning is that I’m second-generation telecom. My parents are both 30- and 40-year telecom executives. My father was a chief auditor and engineer of the network. It’s kind of infused in me from the two of them about technology, digital, telecommunication, so forth and so on.
From an ethical perspective, I’ve always dealt with a myriad of different issues. Going into the agency world, you’re kind of looked at and marginalized. I was always told, “You’ve got to be twice as good or do twice the work to get the same amount of credit.”
So ethically, you’ve got to deal with those issues, whether it’s for me, or for trying to create other opportunities to bring folks behind you. It’s really akin to what Kamala Harris said in her inauguration speech. You know, as a woman, she said, “I am the first, but I won’t be the last.”
So ethically, it’s how do you break down those barriers? How do you create opportunities for others? Even in my last stint with a major holding company and trying to create a North American Center of Excellence, I was seen as the lead as a person of color at my level.
And then all of a sudden, you start to bring in a lot of other people of color as my digital organization started to get bigger, it started to get browner if you know what I mean.
Then all of a sudden, the undertone and the undercurrent was, “Well, wait a minute. Is he bringing in more people like him?” There were notions of, “Is that a cousin or does he know them?” So, you have to address those things. And I mean, if you know me, Mark, I address things pretty sternly. Professionally, but I don’t let any moss grow under my feet, as they say. I get that from my grandfather who was the first independent taxi owner in Boston. He addressed things very swiftly and professionally, but he addressed them so that people understood where he stood.
I wish I could say those issues were few and far between, but they weren’t. And even to this day, as an agency owner, honestly, God has been extremely good and we’ve been blessed to win several agency of record awards, even during the pandemic. But you scratch and claw to get them, and I’ve dealt with those same issues now, as an independent and boutique agency owner.
You brought up a lot of key points. There’s an issue I’ve been talking about with a lot of people from Mike Paul to Thomas Bennett III. What’s your recommendation for avoiding marginalization? When somebody finds themselves in that bucket, how do you avoid that or fight back against it?
The athlete in me always wants to initially snap back really, really quickly and being a city kid from Boston, is very, very hard not to.
I’ve got a lot of good counsel around me. But you know, honestly, I have to resort back to scripture a lot. The Bible says don’t pay evil for evil. It’s really tough for me not to return fire because I’ve got a quick trigger hand.
But to be honest with you, I think I have to resort to forefathers and elders, right? Like Langston Hughes has a poem that says:
I too, sing America
I am the darker brother
They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes
But I laugh and eat well and grow strong
Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes
Nobody’ll dare say to me, “Eat in the kitchen”
They’ll see how beautiful we are and be ashamed
I, too, am America
I think for me, what I do is my model for whether it be the teams that I’ve built IPG or Publicis or my internal one5one team, all my folks know I use this term, a CTW moment, I have circle the wagon moments. Then I always say to my teams, “Listen, folks, great work begets great work. I internalize a lot of that stuff and I come out fighting and swinging.
For me, what that poem says to me is, “Okay, now what you’re going to get from me is twice the work, and I’m going to show you that, I’m going to punish you with how great I am and how good I am.
There will be no doubt that I’m going to be twice as good as you. My folks know I’m not trying to win in the fourth quarter by two at the buzzer. I want to be up at halftime by 50, because in the fourth quarter, I want the 11th and 12th man playing in the game. And I want to be on the end of the bench with a towel over my head, joking with my teammates so that you know how bad we beat you.
That’s just how I internalize it as an athlete. That’s how I deal with it. I want to let the work speak for itself. So great work begets great work.
As an industry we suck at diversity. We’re getting better, but we still suck and we know we’re not getting there fast enough. Being representative of America is morally than the right thing to do and the data shows it’s better for business if you’re doing it that way, yet we’re still not making the strides. What else should we be doing to help break the dang log jam and move it forward?
It’s really simple, right? I mean, growing up in Boston, our city has a bad reputation, and other people ask “How’d you grow up in that city?” One, just dealing with that. But then I talk to people and have these conversations and it’s like, “Well, we just can’t find qualified candidates.”
Really? Is that the case? Have you heard of the tool called LinkedIn? Do you know about HBCUs? Do you know about UNCF? Have you heard of the 100 Black Men? Have you heard of NSBE for black engineers?
There are just so many organizations with qualified people of color and not just for Black people. I’m talking about Hispanic organizations. I’m talking about Asian organizations.
If you want to really find them, there are a multitude, a plethora, a cadre of people out there for you to find. My grandfather used to say this: “Troy, people aren’t stupid. They’re lazy.”
The people are out there but business just don’t want to find them. There really are no excuses anymore. There is this thing called Google or Bing. If you want to find them, they’re really out there.
I will say, I think you’re the first person who’s mentioned Bing in two years. Beyond the issues you have identified, are there other key ethics challenges you’re seeing when it comes to influencers or business?
Influencer marketing is riddled with ethical issues.
I’m talking to brands now that still don’t understand the notion of how to post or how to ensure that FTC guidelines are followed or how to engage with influencers. AdSpawn and all those things, those are table stakes.
As opposed to years ago there are pretty guidelines on what you have to do now.
Listen, I won’t out folks, but there are celebrity-level entrepreneurs now that are hundred millionaires, billionaires. Right?
I dealt with a lot of those folks in the media entertainment industry and they are spirit brand owners, they’re clothing brand owners. These folks have brilliant minds. But you go to these people and say, “Listen, you can’t run that influencer program and do this because these folks are your friends and you’re going to pay them.” Or, “They have to post like this. They have to…”
And they say, “No, forget all that. I’m so-and-so. This is what we’re going to do.” I tell them, “Listen, ethically, you can’t do that. You can’t pay them like that, or you can’t do.”
You’ve seen some of them get fined, but a lot of these businesses and companies at this point will just take the fines because they want to do it their way.
What are some of the other ethical topics that you’re concerned about in influencer marketing?
Disclosure, payments, contract negotiations, the length of usage and rights around content. It’s just the whole industry right now. I really would love to see an organization like the IAB step up and police influencers, more than anybody else.
You just said, though, when it comes to enforcements, people are paying the fines and moving on because they think they’re getting the value in excess of the fine.
Correct. That’s true.
You said earlier to always look where the puck is going. What else should be paying attention to?
I think there are a lot of ethical issues right now around Bitcoin and blockchain.
I had a discussion late last night around the sale of digital. Art is one thing and digital IP and what that’s going to look like – I don’t think it’s on people’s radar now, but it’s a real hot button item.
I was helping a company with blockchain that was working with professional sports teams to secure their digital IP.
That’s morphing into the music industry right now with music publishing payments. They’re trying to see if they can wrap that into blockchain to make it secure or ensure that some of the rights holders can get paid. Right now, during the pandemic the touring industry has stopped. Venues have closed down. A lot of those artists and IP owners, because they’re not getting paid and unfortunately haven’t managed their lives correctly and their budgets are having to cash in on their publishing when unfortunately, they may not be getting the right multiples.
You have to look at the ethics around a lot of that and how it should be paid out, how it could be paid out, what are the tools and resources and mechanisms? There’s just a lot there around it.
I agree. Particularly around the whole promotion of it and what you’re doing on Telegram and how people are manipulating things.
Absolutely. Dealing with a lot of that.
You’ve given some great advice. What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Really the best one as I think about it… Don’t ever say or do anything that you wouldn’t want done to your mother or your daughter.
Listen to the entire interview, with bonus content, here.
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