This week, ICONIC, the full-service agency and entertainment company founded by James Kirkham, has announced the launch of its new print magazine, ICONIC MAG.
While the agency itself launched with the aim of giving brands a "queue jump to the front of popular culture", ICONIC MAG is set to celebrate said culture, elevating cultural figures and personalities across fashion, music, and art.
The bi-annual title – available online at iconic77.com from February 27th and to be officially launched on March 2 at 97 Berwick Street in London's Soho – promises to be a must-read for those interested in all things cultural. Interviews with DJ and BBC Radio 1 presenter, Sarah Story; Norwegian DJ and producer, SUCHI; James Brown, writer and editor of leading ‘90s magazine Loaded; Future Cut, the producers of Lily Allen's award-winning debut LP; DJ and producer Yousef; and Paralympian hopeful, Walid Saleh, are just some of the highlights from the magazine's first issue.
Above: The Issue 01 cover
The magazine is proof of ICONIC’s dedication to being part of popular culture, something that James believes differentiates it from other agencies. As former chief business officer of Defected Records and COPA90, he’s spent his recent career immersed in the worlds of music and football – and all the culture adjacent to those areas – from the re-invention of football with a fan-first philosophy, to Defected bringing house music to the world and becoming known as ‘the virtual rave which connected the world’ through their virtual festival during the pandemic.
But before that he was global head of social at Leo Burnett and founder of digital agency holler. With ICONIC he is gluing those two sides of his career back together, bringing insights from culture to clients who can benefit from them.
At the core of the ICONIC team, is “a hub of hybrid expertise, at the heart of a bespoke network,” says James. “This is not an agency who are wedded to outdated cost models where overheads drive the results. Our talent are here to accelerate a brand, business or product.”
Founding partner Ellie Farrer (formerly COPA90, ZAK and adidas) is an example, with a complimentary skillset running production and being a client lead. Ellie worked running the PUMA and VISA women’s football client relationship for COPA90, developing multiple campaigns too for Gatorade including series in and around women’s football.
Prior to COPA90, Ellie worked running the New Balance account at ZAK agency, but began her career interning at adidas, an experience she describes as life changing. Here she was given the opportunity to ask one thing to ‘anyone in the business’. This ability to serve across a business, meet talent in different areas with a variety of skill sets is fundamental in Ellie’s view of the industry today.
Culture isn’t siloed, as James has seen at Defected and COPA90, passions such as sports, music, gaming and fashion mutually fuel one another. James’ background spanning digital agency, social and mobile leadership, advertising and brand expertise, sports and music mean that ICONIC is, as he puts it, “the summation of that knowledge, the mixture of all of the stuff I learned from working in the music industry, dealing with talent, IP and marketing records, and using that to create new-era marketing machines that go out to communities. And then before that working within football, being all about feeling and culturally symbolic new talent. All built on top of those agency basics from earlier in my career.”
James himself was recently signed by Amfo talent management as a ‘cultural futurist’. As one of the world’s foremost media industry speakers, he’s appeared on stage eight times at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, featured in BIMA’s prestigious Top 100 for three years running, been selected in Leaders’ prestigious 40 Under 40 in sport, named in Campaign Magazine’s esteemed ‘Power 100’ in July 2019 and its A-list too.
Aged 23, James founded holler, which went on to be named digital agency of the year after launching E4’s Skins – the first time a TV show was marketed worldwide using social media. “We had a certain 23-year-old chutzpah that frankly only exists when you're in your early 20s. And we thought things were being done wrong agency side. But we hit a moment,” he says of his early business success.
Ten years after founding holler, Leo Burnett acquired the agency and James entered a more traditional agency environment for the next few years. “So it's been a while since I've had my own thing. And it's been a long time since I started something,” he says. “When you’re doing it for the second time, there's an awful lot of mistakes that you can avoid, or at least shortcut, and things you can approach and do differently.”
Above: James Kirkham
By the end holler had around 100 employees. “I know for a fact that ICONIC won’t,” says James. “I’ve set this up very intentionally differently.”
Iconic launches with a team of four but is promising a unique model, this hub comprising no bigger than eight full-time leads. James doesn’t want to line up employees at numbers behind desks which end up charging clients the cost.
That’s why the business is founded on another pillar, titled the ICONIC network. This is a personally curated network of creators, artists, designers, DJs, presenters, stylists, typographers, directors and more. This ensures ongoing legitimacy but also is a product offering for brands and clients. It allows a brand instant feedback from the network on an idea, brief, product or something else, effectively outlining their permission within culture.
“23 years in the industry has meant a black book and understanding that much of the best talent sit outside the agency walks,” says James. “So this isn’t paying for people you never need. This is always a handpicked team of skilled superstars primed for the job.
“An awful lot of that talent still exists outside agency walls. It would be borderline insanity for me to have 20 people behind the computers right now waiting, because the output can be so beautifully varied. From killer content strategy to smart deployment tactics to creation of an episodic series and the branded content or a web3 universe. All of which is a feasible and potential outcome of a conversation with a brand. Therefore to assume and predict all of those would be kind of bizarre.”
The network was there from day one. It includes talent the ad industry is familiar with, like creative directors, cinematographers or editors. “We believe in the power of that network – in true expertise,” he says. “But the flip side of it is that we have this network which is far more cultural, where we can give brands a cultural temperature check.”
From fashion journalists to Afro house DJs and footballers, ICONIC will rest on people operating in, not just around, culture. And the honest evaluation they can give to brands attempting to situate themselves in culture.
James notes how often he’s seen brands fail to operate authenticity in the parts of culture they claim are their playgrounds. “It can often be done badly where a brand might try and effectively take a slice of legitimacy by going 'we've got this music artist’ or ‘we've got this DJ’. And it's led to just rinsing it for a moment. It's pretty transient and then it moves on.
“These days, of course, audiences and consumers rightly understand that that's nonsense. They don't necessarily believe the brand. The word ‘culture’ comes from cultivate and nurture, but many brands forget that cultivating and nurturing it takes time. You have to build it over time. And we really believe those principles.”
The Queue Jump
ICONIC’s founding clients include a social publisher, a disruptive drinks brand and a sports apparel business – brands that the agency is looking to give that ‘queue jump to the front of popular culture’. James points to three areas where his agency can help them: “Number one, you need to make moments that matter. Because moments are everything. That is like fan fuel – you create a moment and, frankly, people do the marketing for you.”
Secondly, ICONIC recognises that everything is PR, so respecting the power of earned media is key to the queue jump ticket. “It's something I've always believed. But when you see it done well you don't say it's even PR. You don't even see the lines. It permeates every part of work.”
James’ third tip for the queue jump to the front of popular culture is “moving at the speed of a meme”. At Defected, James points to how the team created a virtual festival during the covid-19 pandemic. “We came up with it on a Sunday night on the management team WhatsApp. By the Friday it was live to the world from an empty Ministry of Sound nightclub across all platforms who'd all leaned in and all been collaborative, with a set of world-class DJs. It ended up with millions of people watching. And then it was every week over lockdown. It came from speed and that gives you a first-mover advantage. Even though there were loads of copycat virtual style events, we kept getting a lovely reflective glow because we were the first.”
Underpinning all this expertise is AI. ICONIC says that AI is ‘a founding partner of the business’ (known internally as ‘AICONIC’). “We’re underpinning the agency processes with AI and see this as pure value-add for the agency offering,” says James. “I believe AI utility is going to be more potent and pioneering than when I first used social media for marketing in the early 2000s.
“We’ve looked at the tech stack and categorised output of every key business function. We’re finding smart ways to optimise across the board, from speed, quality, differentiation of thinking.” ICONIC is using AI to help power influencers’ content, from even writing a creative brief through to copywriting and editing. Creating AI influencers isn't new, but will grow. “We elevate our creative output using the best of both man and machine in synergy,” he says.
“We’re building unique value in your own AI ‘black boxes’ that get smarter the longer they run, it's a unique creative value that won’t leave the building.”
He points to TikTok’s ability to discern our preferences, and get us “hopelessly addicted to their never-ending doom scroll.” It is AI there that scans every swipe, every like, every tiny touch of the screen. It is always about complex decisions based on evolving inputs.
There are a bundle of other products ICONIC is offering clients. These include ‘Origins’, built around research, insight and positioning. Also ‘Dopamine Machine’, which is billed as hot house ideation sessions, often delivered inside the business to “positively infect” those working client side. ‘The Hits Factory’ is a product designed for brands who want to plug into the deployment expertise of the team, bringing fame and creating hits authentically.
“Having founded and eventually sold holler, I was then lucky enough to be at the helm of two of the best sporting and music businesses, I believe, in this post-digital and social era - COPA90 and Defected. I’ve unashamedly taken over two decades of knowledge and brought it to this point,” sums up James.
“Not only are we giving brands a queue jump, and permission to play in culture – but we’re in it. We’ve got some incredibly exciting launches to come, which put our money where our mouth is. We’re living what we believe. We’re doing what we say.”