What Strategists Can Learn from Music’s Crossover Artists

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Being a music fan, I watch the Grammys every year. This year, I was inspired by them in a new way.

As soon as the night started, it was clear that breaking down boundaries when it comes to mixing musical genres is where the industry is and will likely remain. Diplo, EDM DJ, and producer, walked the red carpet in formal cowboy gear as he prepared to launch a country project. Multiple Grammy winner Lil Nas X shared the stage with Korean boy band BTS and country legend Billy Ray Cyrus. Lizzo got her flute out. And of course, one of the original crossover and collaboration successes, Aerosmith, was joined by Run DMC to perform their hit “Walk This Way”, which Rick Rubin ingeniously pioneered over 30 years ago.

I believe all of this shape-shifting has notable lessons for ad industry types, particularly strategists.

Each day, brand strategists genre-bend, blur strategic lines and connect creative dots. We must go beyond embedded stereotypes, cross over mediums, personalities, and pull everyone together to get and stay on the same strategic path. We often draw inspiration from a category or industry that is different than our own. Musicians are applying this same theory to their craft – they are sampling and cross-pollinating elements from genres, and fusing them together in visionary ways.

While Alicia Keys won’t be hosting our briefings any time soon, here are 5 things strategists can learn from the music industry when it comes to crossover appeal:

A crossover artist bends, shape-shifts, and crosses genres, bridging divergent styles together in harmony. An artist that can do this demonstrates their ability to stand out and be completely unique. As strategists, we can bend roles as well, by dipping our toes in other disciplines and creating synergies between them, whether that’s being a partner in media or dabbling in comms strategy. This allows strategists to cross over and manage media partners, agencies, and client personalities, just like it enables an artist to appeal to new and expanded audiences.

A crossover artist knows that musical breakthroughs only come by stepping outside one’s comfort zone. Demi Lovato’s brave Grammy performance highlights her personal and professional growth that stretched her way past the Disney days. As strategists, we must tread fearlessly and be vulnerable at the same time – get into meetings that ‘don’t have anything to do with strategy,’ think outside the box in terms of research methodology, and find ways to truly absorb and translate culture at large.

A crossover artist learns new instruments (and is always open to learning more).  H.E.R. plays piano, drums, guitar, bass, and vocals. Same with the amazing Brittany Howard. Learning new instruments allows an artist to evolve. Strategists should also learn new instruments, like MRI, ComScore, or becoming more fluent in qual and quant research. The 2000s saw agencies embracing generalists; think of 2020 as the year of the polyglot, where every new skill or instrument adds value.

A crossover artist can connect divergent creatives and herd people down the right strategic path. Take Tyler, the Creator, and Rihanna, who cross over into various creative ventures with great success. Rihanna guided the vision behind the Savage x Fenty show, bringing together choreographers, stage designers, artists, and filmmakers to birth her big idea. Tyler, the Creator guides creative teams from his Golfwang fashion line, to his curated music festival Camp Flog Gnaw, to his cartoon show “The Jellies”. With so many personalities in the process, these artists are still able to successfully guide and collaborate with teams to execute a clear vision and identity.  And if you’re worried that you’ll dilute your value as a strategist by taking the plunge into something new, think again. If the vision is clear, they will come.

A crossover artist looks outside categories and genres for inspiration. Sometimes the best insights come from outside of the category. Just look at lauded Grammy-winner Billie Eilish, whose hit “Bad Guy” samples a Sydney pedestrian crossing signal. When it comes to stepping outside of the category, in the words of Billie – “duh.” Incorporating sound elements from other genres into their own (Bon Iver’s moody use of autotune), or collaborating with unexpected artists (think James Blake with Travis Scott) are boundary-crossing as well as big hits. Keeping all of our senses highly tuned to culture makes for a good strategist – from zigs to zags, and everything in between.

At a time when lines are blurred in everything from gender to work to life, crossing over is not just a fad, but a cultural movement. So, make like your favorite musician and incorporate more of this big beautiful world into your everyday practice.

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