Very rarely do you meet someone who can fluently and fluidly speak to both leaders of culture and business. Cut from the school of Mona Scott-Young and Steve Stoute, Tiffany Hardin is helping usher in a new generation of entrepreneurship through the powerful convergence of music, content creation, products and experiences. We sat down with Hardin to discuss her rise in the music biz and advertising industry, the future of brand partnerships, working with Karen Civil and her new venture, She Knows Now.
You've been in the offices that have been at the forefront of culture for a long time—Hustle Management, Violator, Monami Entertainment, and Translation—what was that experience like?
I believe that I have had a unique training ground that has ultimately informed my present hustle. I spent most of my twenties working for all three companies. Working at Hustle Period, Violator and Monami were especially unique because they were talent management companies where I was directly interfacing with talent and the executives that ran those companies: John Monopoly and Mona Scott-Young. There was nothing that couldn't be done if we dreamed it. My job was figuring out how we get it done. It didn't matter if it was figuring out how to make a budget work for a video shoot or convincing 20 interns to go out to clubs at midnight to promote an artist and report back to me. I went to Translation at time when the music business was changing and more executives started to realize that advertising was enabling the music business. I wasn't 100 percent conscious of that shift at the time, but it was happening. I started as an assistant to Steve Stoute, and then went into the strategy department working on influencer strategy and partnerships leveraging data insights. I was able to transition pretty smoothly by soaking in my environment and being the person in the office that could connect culture to strategy and tactical execution. Translation was a very special place for me growing in career.
How was is working directly for/with cultural icons like Mona Scott-Young and Steve Stoute? What did you leave those experiences with?
I've spent my early career working for successful Black entrepreneurs, so, it's no wonder that I started my own company.
Working for Mona at Violator and then transitioning to work for her at Monami, after Chris Lighty and her separated as business partners was interesting. I've never seen her say, "I don't know what to do," in any situation. In the tough conversations, she can finesse her way into or out of ANYTHING, while still making the other person feel at ease. I learned finesse from her. I wanted to be THAT smooth at negotiations, conflict-resolution and getting what I want. I'm getting closer to fine-tuning that skill set, for sure. Working with her, I got to know her tribe. Seeing how she interacted with her friends and family made me realize that being a wealthy, powerful, influential mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend is possible as a business woman. Mona represented for me the infinite possibilities at very young stage in my career. I still carry that ambition for myself.
Working with Stoute is like taking a professional development course on steroids. Steve makes you acknowledge your achilles heel and demands that you strengthen it. Compared to Mona, his personality type is straight, no chaser. Steve's biggest lesson for me was being able to stay focused no matter the job. So, I've learned to stay focused on each step of the big-picture goal I'm trying to accomplish. Focusing on the small steps helps me manage my big goals.
In April 2011, you took the courageous jump to start your own company. Tell us about Gild Creative Group — what are the goals and mission of the firm?
The world "Gild" means to place a thin layer of gold over something raw and beautiful and share it with the world. Originally, this company was meant to service talent with marketing and management needs. I was more the marketer, while my business partner at the time was more of the talent development/A&R side. It was a great match. When I left Translation in late 2012, we had a plethora of talent, most notably, social influencer Karen Civil; hip-hop artist, Kris Kasanova and Canei Finch, a producer that I signed to Sony/ATV, who created records with Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Daley, Marsha Ambrosius and more. The business relationship between my partner and I fizzled and I decided to let go of everyone, with exception of Karen Civil and Kris Kasanova. I also decided to focus on my strongest skill set as a marketer: creating influencer partnership strategies for brands and advertisers. I have worked on clients like Target, Airbnb, Microsoft and have created many fruitful sponsorships and partnerships for myself and others. The mission of Gild Creative Group is to connect brand initiatives to influencer narratives for powerful campaigns. I believe that as cultural appropriation runs rampant in advertising, someone has to be at the table to say "Let's rethink how we approach this cultural insight," and develop a great strategy. I believe that person is me. I have the ability to understand talent, their needs and help brands utilize their resources to build authentic connections with creator communities.
How can brands do a better job integrating into hip-hop and pop culture? What are some of the do's and don't's from your experience?
Brands need to get creative and think about how they can serve the audience they wish to communicate with through the hip-hop/music culture. I think Canon and Swizz Beatz did an incredible thing when they took unknown visual artists and put them on the walls of world renowned museums, and then auction the artists's work at Sotheby's. For any visual artist, getting your work into a museum and getting it sold is a big deal. Swizz is an art advocate and a hip-hop megastar, so engaging him in a program that he can help inform the creative and strategy for allowed Canon to borrow the cultural equity they needed to connect with Swizz's audience in an authentic way. It was almost as if they were "in it together" to bring these unknown artists' work to life in a meaningful way. This is the best way to work with influencers—no matter what the level of engagement actually is. From a marketing perspective, if you're going to work with influencers, make sure you have the budget to support your work with them from a media perspective as well. What good is a great program no one sees, discusses, discovers, or shares. I think the biggest "don't" is ignoring cultural nuance.
We are now in this hyper, social-influencer marketing era. Every platform, brand and property wants equity and affirmation from cultural curators. You've worked with Karen Civil, who, by many measure, was the first social influencer in hip-hop culture. What are your thoughts on this new frontier?
When I was working with Karen, I just noticed that she, herself, was a brand who had a very popular content distribution channel in her blog and a growing following across all her social media channels. I thought to myself: She isn't just a blogger—she's a personality, she's a talent and, eventually, she will be like the Ryan Seacrest of digital. So, for five years that was our vision at one point and I was hellbent on making sure that she rose above the fray through developing brand partnerships and hosting opportunities. I put her in almost every deck I did because there was no one like her that was independent, popular, female, Black and a trusted name in hip-hop circles. People didn't get it back then. But now they do. You see everyone these days trying step up their game when it comes to social presence and engagement, and for good reason, too! Influencer marketing is growing as a discipline and practice at agencies. As a matter of fact 72 percent percent of marketers think that branded social content is more effective than magazine advertisements. For every $1 spent with influencers, the return on investment is $6.50. You can imagine why brands are putting more resources towards influencers.
What advice would you give to influencers being pitched by all of these different entities?
Today brands offer money, gear, shoutouts, access to cool events, etc. As an influencer, you are limited in your offering, but it is no less valuable to a brand looking to leverage your voice. The most crucial thing for an influencer to do is to be able to understand and articulate your influence so that anyone who wants to work with you can easily see and validate the market value you've created for yourself. I've built a tech solution to address this called, Social ARMM (Social Asset Research and Media Management). It is a service platform that empowers talent and brand managers to use qualitative and quantitative data to guide strategic partnerships. I'm raising capital to get into a public beta for this as we speak.
Last year you launched another labor of love called She Knows Now. Tell us about it.
It's some of the most important work that I put energy towards. As a passion project, I started She Knows Now as a digital collection of confident, driven women who share what they each know for sure. The purpose of She Knows Now is to promote positive messages and images of women across media, and nurture community through trans-media storytelling. We manifest this missions through the insights archive, blog, events, podcasts and mini-documentaries. We have featured women who are entry-level to those who hold executive-leadership positions. We believe sharing empowered stories can spark the Hero's Journey in us all, cultivating a more compassionate, confident, informed and universally-connected world. We are producing the inaugural She Knows Now Summit THIS September in New York City, and are currently looking for sponsors/partners for the event.
What are some important leadership lessons you've learned since starting your own company?
I've learned to be patient and flexible with myself. If the vision in my head isn't working the way I thought it would, I need to be able to mold wet clay. Getting frustrated at what something isn't will not move the needle forward. I think anyone who starts their own business needs to take a firm look at how they are built as a person so that wherever they are weak, they can deal with it head on and create a solution for themselves, even if it means getting a business partner or a virtual assistant. The more honest you are with yourself and capabilities, the easier it will be for you to get help when it's needed.
My friend and music executive, Sickamore, told me before I left Translation that "my highs are going to be really high, and my lows are going to be really low." That sticks to my bones because what he was really saying was don't get comfortable in the good times or the tough times—there is an ebb and flow to this thing, so, you have to just keep moving.
REVOLT C-Suite is a twice-a-month Q&A where we will interview cultural movers and shakers who have displayed incredible business leadership, acumen and strategy. We will discuss branded content, partnership deals, social media strategy and much more. For the last column click, here.