With urban environments changing rapidly, our third issue of City Limits dives into youth culture's past, present and future…

Having first delved into the urban experience in Volume One, then taken a ride into mobility in Volume TwoVolume Three of City Limits has us exploring urban living from the perspective of young people.  

It’s impossible to think of youth culture without thinking of cities. Traditionally, they’ve gone hand in hand; it’s within our urban hubs that young people have ignited new trends, with creativity delivered direct from the streets. But cities are changing – free spaces are being squeezed out, gentrification is altering their complexion – and youth culture is changing along with it. 

In this issue, we explore the history of youth culture claiming its space in the city; we pinpoint the urban tribes of today; the challenge the online world presents to the city; and highlight best-in-class examples of brands connecting with young urban trends

City Limits Volume Three is available to download here.

And you can watch the video trailer below: 

With a focus on culture and influencers, a great new opportunity to join our London team...

Strategic Insights Consultant – (£25,000-32,000pa)

We’re seeking a strategic insights consultant to join our dynamic team in Hoxton Square, London. In particular, we’re looking for someone who has an aptitude for/experience in working with influencers, and across cultural passion points such as music, football and street culture. You’ll get to work on amazing projects for some of the most exciting brands in the world, reporting in to senior leads and collaborating as part of the wider team on projects at the intersection of insight, strategy and culture. A specific area of focus will be working on the development of our global network of experts, creatives and cultural movers.

In more detail, here’s what we’re after

– We imagine you’ll have around 18 months to four years experience, potentially in an insight environment but this could be elsewhere in marketing and media

– You’ll come well armed with useful cultural contacts and will be keen to build out this network further

– You’ll have a good understanding of new trends in areas such as how brands are seeking to connect with music, football and street culture

– All these great ideas and insights you have in your head, you’ll be comfortable presenting them out loud to others, helping clients to understand the relevance of embedding their brands in culture

– You’ll be a thinker, for sure, but we also want a doer – someone with the drive and initiative to problem solve

– All of this exciting stuff doesn’t let you off the hook in terms of organisational skills – you’ll be able to show good evidence of how you keep work on track

The role comes with great benefits (betterment scheme, training, sabbatical, company lunches and days out, flexi hours etc) and the opportunity to progress in an exciting and progressive business. To apply (attaching a CV and covering letter), please get in touch with Dr Matilda Andersson.

Internship Opportunity

We're looking for someone to come on board in our London office, to get stuck in and learn plenty about cultural insight and strategy work...

We’ve an internship opportunity in our London office, offering the chance to gain fast-track experience in an exciting environment, working with amazing clients and on first-rate projects at the intersection of brands and culture. We’re seeking a pro-active, creatively minded problem-solver who’s always keen to take on new challenges.

Plenty of our interns make the transition to permanent roles at Crowd DNA; others use it as a way to gain credible experience, and to gain a better sense of what their personal ambitions are. Either way, it proves an illuminating opportunity.

Check this blog post for more of a flavour of what interning at Crowd DNA is all about (hint: it doesn’t involve making tea and office tidying).

To apply, please contact Berny McManus.

New Roles For 2019

We're seeking two new hires to come join us in our lovely Hoxton Square office in London...

Associate Director – strategic insights (circa £52,000-£57,000)

We’re seeking a skilled and strategically-minded insight specialist to add to our AD talent, designing and leading projects with a particular focus on FMCG and retail. You’ll need to show proof of experience at all points from proposal writing, to managing the complexities of global work and providing impactful outputs that drive change. Reporting in to one of our strategic insights directors, you will have line management responsibilities and the license to develop new ideas and lead some of our most exciting commissions.

Project Producer – project management skills (£23,000-£32,000)

Joining our crack team of project producers, demonstrable project management skills are vital here, as you’ll play a pivotal role in designing and running commissions, with touchpoints including liaising with clients, suppliers and, of course, Crowd DNA’s in-house team. You don’t necessarily need experience in insight and strategy environments – more a track record in ensuring projects run smoothly; managing timelines, sourcing costs, allocating resource etc. Any form of recruitment (experts, artists, influencers) or casting experience is a plus.

Both roles come with great benefits (betterment scheme, training, sabbatical, company lunches and days out, flexi hours etc); the chance to work on some of the most stimulating and culturally-driven projects out there; and the opportunity to progress in an exciting and progressive business. To find out more info about a particular role, or to apply (attaching a CV and covering letter), please get in touch with Dr Matilda Andersson.

Decoding The Ads Of 18

Last post of the year from us: Crowd DNA semiotician Roberta Graham decodes some of the year’s most successful campaigns, identifying the key stylistic themes connecting them to wider culture...

2018 has been an interesting year in cultural insight. With global discussions around such huge themes as gender, sexuality, racial equality, political polarisation and the death of truth driving major shifts, there’s been no end of contradictions to get our heads around.

These factors have made a great impact on the world of advertising (Adweek ads of the year) and how brands are communicating with their consumers.

To round off the year, we’ve honed in on a few key themes, to give you a run-down of some of our favourite adverts. We’ve decoded their hidden meanings to understand why they have resonated so strongly with consumers around the world. Let’s go.

Polarisation – Black and white and everything in between

In their striking campaign featuring NFL star turned activist Colin Kaepernick, Nike used the traditional simplicity of black and white photography to communicate strength, honesty and authenticity. The exclusion of colour strips the star bare, as does the frame of the image, which focuses keenly on his facial expression, as he gazes directly back at the viewer, determined and unshaken. The caption, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,’ refers directly to Kaepernick’s forced departure from the NFL, due to his political beliefs on racial equality. This is also reflected by the pointed use of black and white imagery, which makes clear reference to issues of racial inequality, as well as the stark contrast between right and wrong. However, the greyscale of Kaepernick’s face, central to the images also represents connection between the two and offers potential for soft, empathetic and human centred change.

Truth Seeking – Comedic conspiracies

Taco Bell created an irreverent response to our post-truth society’s obsession with anti-establishment, truth-seeking documentaries in their comedic ‘Web Of Fries’ campaign. Set in the format of a movie trailer, the campaign uses classic motifs and tropes of conspiracy movies to paint the picture of an establishment cover-up of their product – Nacho Fries. This perfectly pitches Taco Bell within the zeitgeist, while maintaining their brand positioning as a playful indulgence and antidote to reality.

Liberation – Autonomy of automation

Apple, of course, made two of the most striking adverts of the year. Their Homepod advert, featuring FKA Twigs, and ‘Unlock’ for the iPhone X were both widely praised. They both leverage the themes of female autonomy and independence which have been making waves throughout culture. But the way in which this has been communicated is particularly interesting. ‘Unlock’ sees a central female character throw open her entire world using only her eyes, linking the functionality of the product directly to physical empowerment and freedom of expression. The bright block colours of the advert, primarily orange and blue, echo this by communicating ideas of democracy and simplicity. This is also reflected by the setting of a school, representing future potential and broadened horizons.

Visibility – Highlighting greatness

Visibility has been another key theme for discussion this year. Increased awareness of intersectionality drives calls for diversity in the media, beyond physical appearance alone. Brands are going out of their way to highlight the achievements of people from marginalised groups within society. One brand is doing this in the most literal sense possible: Stabilo Boss’s campaign ‘Highlight The Remarkable’ used its own product to flag up forgotten heroines across history, from mathematicians to first ladies. The iconic fluorescent yellow of the highlighter disrupts the simplicity of black and white photographs, drawing attention to those who would be forgotten among the crowd. This bestows these historic moments with a renewed vibrancy and significance. Placing the highlighter pen itself as the silent hero, this allows these stories of greatness to be retold many years later.

Gender and sexuality – Reimagining romance

Among much global discussion of gender and LGBTQ+ visibility, these themes have been reflected in advertising, as we reimagine what romance can mean. Japanese cosmetics company Shisheido created a surreal romance in their short Halloween themed film, ‘The Party Bus’. The lead character, a young girl, moves between the physical space of the bus and surreal imaginary landscapes, as she tries to choose between three romantic suitors. Each are dressed in unique costumes made up of traditional Japanese dress, classic Halloween costumes and contemporary streetwear. This communicates strong themes of self-curation and individuality among hyper-traditional tropes of ‘romance’. The film ends with the protagonist unmasking and kissing her androgynous choice of partner. This coupling drives home a message of inclusion within individuality.

With such richness across comms this year, particularly at a time when so many brands are going above and beyond to engage with wider cultural meanings, it was tricky to narrow our list down. We can’t wait to see what 2019 might bring…

A senior role at Crowd DNA London. Amazing projects for incredible clients guaranteed...

It’s been a year of major growth at Crowd DNA and we’re seeking a senior hire to join our London team in lovely Hoxton Square. This is a key role – you’ll be one of three strategic insight directors reporting in to our managing director, with a brief as follows:

– To run one of our three workstreams at Crowd DNA, generating business, designing/directing projects, and building category excellence

– In doing so, to come armed with the confidence and gravitas to gain the absolute trust of our clients, and to meet their expectations on exciting but often intellectually challenging project

– Line managing an associate director and, more broadly, having the 360˚ view required to oversee our skilled and highly motivated  team of researchers, strategists, semiotics, writers and videographers on the projects in your workstream (rather than get lost, heads-down, in your own workload)

– A strong ability to fuse cultural insight to sound strategic thinking; also to take the global view, with our briefs frequently covering multiple markets

– Similarly, to regularly fuse cultural insight with the type of content outputs that have always been core to Crowd DNA (film, digital, print, events etc)

– To contribute as a senior voice in the business, adding to thought leadership and, as part of the directorial team, to developing our perspective and position

About you: we envisage you’ll come equipped with strong experience in qual insight and/or strategy work – most likely agency-side – and will be able to point to projects you’ve been involved with that get us truly excited, demonstrating how you’ll add to the brilliance of Crowd DNA. Titles vary from agency to agency, but we expect someone joining us who’s currently at associate director level, or perhaps looking to transition from a comparable director role.

This is a fantastic opportunity to join, in a senior capacity, an agency that gets to work on a huge number of incredibly thought-provoking and culturally-oriented projects for amazing brands; and to be a key contributor to how we continue to push the boundaries of what we’re about as a business.

The role comes with a competitive salary and benefits. To apply, please get in touch with Crowd DNA’s London managing director Dr Matilda Andersson, attaching a CV and covering letter.



The Firestarters series of events took a sharp turn in our direction this week, with insight, and its role in the planning process, under investigation. Crowd DNA’s Andy Crysell took notes.

Three great speakers, and a mix of both singular and overlapping perspectives were on show at Google’s London HQ for the Firestarters’ Brilliance & Brutalism Of Insight event. It was wonderful to hear ‘the insight’ held in such high esteem, but also a firm reminder of how often that term is used wrongly, or there in name but not in reality.

First on stage was…

Rob Campbell, head of strategy EMEA, R/GA

Rob enjoys swearing and, now that he’s back in the UK, after lengthy stints in China and the US, he’s hoping he’ll get away with way more of it than ever before.

For him, the question of whether insight is important or not is pretty absurd. Of course it’s important. To do good work, he says, you need to understand wider culture; not just zoom in on your category.

Helpfully, he also came up with fives ways not to be as boring as fuck.

1. Don’t State The Obvious

A recurring theme through the evening really, and where research work can really lose its way. Stop asking the same people the same questions. Get out in the real world and get to the ‘dirty little secrets.’

He recalled the time that, for a car brand who mistakenly thought they were held in similar esteem to Mercedes Benz, Audi and Lexus, he interviewed sex workers, who make a call on the financial status of a potential client based on the motor they’re driving. Said car brand was in no way seen in a similar light to the prestige marques mentioned. This changed the conversation.

2. Play In The Jungle, Not The Zoo

Great work needs to come from inside of culture – so get inside of culture. Get to the nuance and the texture. There’s meaning everywhere. Get stuck in.

Don’t try and appease people with insight – provoke them, create conflict. This was certainly one of the louder messages of the evening; just as it should be. There really is no excuse for tame and timid work.

3. The Work is The Sun

…Meaning insight doesn’t have to overpower all other parts of the process. Insight is never meant to be a literal dictation – it should inspire.

Slight tangent perhaps, but he commented that the folks behind the boat that was almost called Boaty McBoatface missed a trick – if they’d have gone with that name, the scope to build a narrative around the topic (cartoons, toys etc) that kids would connect with would’ve been massive.

4. Stop Thinking You’re Yoda

Don’t think that insight will solve everything. Insight can provide the directional plan but you’ve got to then add the context. The challenge is to show you’re culturally engaged, not – as too many assume – to simply aim for intellectual victory.

5. Anyone Who Says Insights Aren’t Important Is A Giant Cockerel (you get what he means)

Henry Ford was an idiot, says Rob, referencing the Detroit mogul’s famous/apocryphal “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” quote.

Rather than this being an argument for not seeking the view of others, anyone with their insight faculties switched on should be taking from this that people want to get from A to B faster – and therein was the opportunity for the automobile, not a speedier horse.

Culture is texture and nuance
Culture is texture and nuance

Dr Helen Edwards, founding partner, Passionbrand

Helen starts her talk from the angle that not all successes, whether great or small, are necessarily derived from insight, citing a number of examples (from Apple to Emirates).

By this she was largely meaning the ‘killer’ consumer insight, the singular game changer. But while, in part, she was clearly here to be the dissenting voice on the importance of insight, what she was suggesting instead, ‘outsight’, could be argued as simply other forms of insight. Such as drawing from your own team’s understanding of their customers, or from academia, or from broader cultural understanding.

As per Rob, she noted the underwhelming qualities of many so-called insights. Choice examples: “When my hair feels good, I feel good.”/“I prefer my kids to eat healthy snacks between meals.” Shudder…

We clearly need to set the bar higher, and here’s the model she works to:

Revelatory: an insight should, of course, not just be plain obvious – but it should be surprising and a little obvious at the same time. An ‘of course!’ moment, because it feels fresh, but is also in line with what you already understand about human nature.

Directive: everyone across the business knows what to do with the insight; it doesn’t just live in the abstract.

About Them, Not You: as in that too many insights are shaped from the business perspective (either in the sense of taken from stakeholder experiences or based on what the business feels it can solve) rather what’s truly coming from the audience.

Serving People: there’s only real value in an insight if it addresses an issue that’s currently unaddressed, and from the point of view of the customer.

Helen gives the example of the Golden Sleep work from Pampers. Where previously the comms message majored around issues of averting leakage and offering better movement, the insight – which then shaped the campaign – was that what people (parents and baby!) really crave is sleep (wetness being a barrier to it) and that this is where the emotional energy can be found.

Pampers, Golden Sleep
Pampers, Golden Sleep

Mark Pollard, CEO, Mighty Jungle

Mark begins, amusingly, with hip-hip, lounge jazz, Chevy Chase and Andrea Pirlo. A little hard to explain in brief, in a blog, but somehow we get from there to some well-formed views on the role of insight (again, the lens here seems primarily about the role of insight in creative development work).

Insight, he says, works in one of two ways –

1. It gives language and shape to things we kind of have on our minds already (the ‘I wish I’d said it like that’ moment).

2. Or it’s ideas that seem brand new, but that you can immediately relate to (much like Dr Helen Edwards’ point).

Mark also leaned heavily on the role of insights as sources of conflict and friction. It’s okay to tell the client they have a problem to solve. That’s not being negative – not it you are then willing to take on that problem and reach solutions.

An example of a charged, provocative insight was an interviewee telling him: “I don’t feel successful enough to be bald yet.” You don’t need to know much about the brief, or the objectives, to realise that’s the type of thing you can work with; that’s going to change current thinking.

Mark also spoke of the need for craft. To really work at shaping an insight, capturing the tension it packs in a way that others will empathise with (thus, this is most definitely not about plonking fairly random consumer quotes in a PowerPoint and thinking your work is done).

Insights, he concluded, are really important; life and death stuff. But we also take them too seriously. We’ll get more from them with a greater sense of mischief and play.

You can read more about Google Firestarters here

From Now – To Next

Victoria’s Secret’s CMO recently argued against presenting a more diverse representation of women in their shows. Crowd DNA Singapore’s Emma Gage counter-argues that projecting the ‘where next', rather than just the ‘right now’, is exactly what their powerful event platform should be for…

We love a debate about culture and brands, so thank you, Ed Razek, for giving us so much to work with. And in the same week we launch our How To Speak Woman work.  It’s like we planned it…

For those who missed the story, or who have never heard of Ed Razek: he’s the chief marketing officer of Victoria’s Secret and when asked in an interview with Vogue.com this week if they should be casting a more diverse representation of women in their shows (plus size, transsexual, older models… the list of possible ways they could be celebrating female diversity goes on) his response was a very clear: “No, I don’t think we should, because the show is a fantasy… we market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.”

Clearly this is a PR error and, of course, Victoria’s Secret have been quick to manage the fallout. But even without uttering those words, it’s evident what Victoria’s Secret’s stance is. Every brand touchpoint – from the show to the in-store experience; from the product to communications – is a celebration of a fairly outdated, and certainly one-dimensional, view of femininity. It’s a ‘fantasy’ told through the male experience. It’s why the brand is falling out of favour with young buyers and has been for a number of years.

But it does bring up an interesting point. The topic of gender is hot right now. Debate is loud and for a number of brands it can feel more minefield than opportunity. Consumers are calling for brands to have a stance on these kinds of issues and to walk the talk in every aspect of how they operate as a company – and when they get it wrong, people are quick to call them out.

At Crowd DNA we talk a lot about the power of cultural relevance. It’s the number one measure of brand health and while not every brand can be culturally iconic, a la Nike, Google or Gap, we believe that every one has the ability to be culturally relevant, whether selling shampoo, toilet cleaner or biscuits. 

So how do brands get this magic ingredient?  And how do they balance it with selling product in the short term?   

We believe it comes from working with a more nuanced understanding of the culture in which you operate and in which your consumer exists. It can be very tempting to play it safe and to generate lots of ever deeper insight around your core (often, mainstream) consumer. You understand how they buy, how they use your product, what they do in the supermarket, why they choose your brand rather than someone else’s. They take on the persona of ‘category buyer’, as though that’s literally all they are.

But how would her broader experiences as a woman inform her role as mother, wife, care-giver? How would understanding her as a three-dimensional woman change things and allow you to represent a world that’s relatable but aspirational, grounded but still progressive. This comes from also understanding her relationships; with her partner, her friends. The things she really cares about; her dreams, her ambitions and what empowerment looks like for her. And the things that limit or constrain her today.

It’s also about a culture tap; what does the trajectory of change look like? What’s influencing it? What are the more progressive narratives that are brewing (even if she’s not currently aware of them) to forecast what her world could look like in the future. The most powerful brands pitch themselves here, in the stretch and the aspiration, not in the quagmire of the reality.

It used to come down to a decision of whether you want to create a longer-term platform for activating your brand, or just sell product today. Now the two are one and the same. It’s not CSR; it’s about aligning your brand and organisation with positive change and having equity in cultural relevance.

We believe that brands have a responsibility to do better. To understand their core consumer, but also to understand this trajectory of change and to help them get there, be that practically or through inspiration. Whether you are Nike showing crowds of bold, empowered young women running through the streets of Mumbai (‘Da Da Ding’) as a celebration of how far women have come; or Ariel challenging men to ‘Share The Load’ in the household. This work captures a zeitgeist and presents a direction for a whole organisation to get behind. This is the kind of exciting work that gets called out for the right reasons.

So back to Ed. Yes Ed, we get it. Many of the everyday consumers buying your lacy undies are thin, ‘girly girls’ or at least they wish they looked like a Victoria’s Secret model. But what are you saying as a brand? How are you representing yourself? How are you part of an evolving conversation around issues affecting women? A brand with global reach, and a high-profile platform like the Victoria’s Secret show, absolutely has the opportunity to be culturally iconic and representative of the most progressive narratives surrounding the female experience today. Otherwise it just becomes an exceptionally expensive way to sell knickers and bras.

Come and talk to us Ed – we’d love to work with you and your brand.