Red Gaskell is a freelance photographer, director, and satirical author. Responsible for growing ethical brand Everlane’s social presence, he adapted their narrative from when they were an innovative start up into the cultural powerhouse they are today - pretty much straight out of college. In those early days of Instagram, marketing a brand, not a product, was something few were doing and even less were getting right. Red’s passion for translating culture into content turned Everlane’s socials into the beating heart of their brand story.
As the company evolved, so did Red’s role, and passion for creative storytelling eventually led him to pursue fresh challenges beyond Everlane. He left on good terms and with an invaluable network. Whether it’s turning Kanye West’s tweets into poetry (and a bestseller), searching for the next startup, making films or writing articles - Red brings a multidisciplinary perspective and a splash of colour to any digital strategy.
I met up with Red for a burger and a chat about his magic social touch. Just don’t mention the aggressive cheeseboard and IPAs to any of my Whalar colleagues.
Where did it all start?
I had a couple of interesting gigs in college. One was running Twitter for a food truck, and another was managing a wifi and webcam company’s Facebook. Their audience was stay-at-home mums and people who needed fast internet, so I learned how to speak to different groups. I also got an agency internship in the food industry. I would help develop menus and, if a recipe was doing really well, figure out how to scale it up across multiple restaurants.
Then came startup ethical fashion brand Everlane. On social, you grew their IG following from 20,000 to 380,000 during your time there.... How?
When I took over the social, Michael (The Founder) told me that we needed to figure out who our community were and what our strategy was. At the time in San Francisco, there were a lot of these things called ‘Insta Meets’ happening. People would meet up and take photos together, but it was much more about photography at that point. I started to embed myself into that community and going to these events. They were a tonne of fun and many of the people I met are still my friends today. Our thought was - if we want to work with creatives, how can we be a part of the community? What can we do for them?
I focussed first on growing my own Instagram by getting better at photography. I re-enrolled in a bunch of classes, went to events and talked to other Instagrammers. Once I understood the industry community and platforms better, when I spoke to people about Everlane the conversation wasn’t just about the brand. I knew what was valued and what drew engagement.
Interestingly, we did this campaign that got us on Instagram’s suggested user list, but it actually had a negative effect. Essentially, Instagram was saying to new users - Hey, go follow these accounts - and we just left with loads of dead weight. We emailed Instagram asking to be taken off and saw our engagement go back up. For us, social was, and needed to be, an organic dimension of our brand. People loved our products, website and emails - social was the avenue for consumers to add brand affinity and get an inside look. It was like a feedback loop that kept feeding itself in a really cool way.
If I look back at those first four years it was a fairly linear but consistent growth. We didn’t ever push our product, instead we took a strong stance on just not selling.
Building a narrative, not a sales pitch
Every time a new product came out, I would get approached with a link where people could buy the products on Instagram. That was not our goal on social. Our website was the only place to buy Everlane. The tools back then were better for retailers with higher SKU (stock keeping unit) counts and multiple brands.
This stance made my job so much easier because we could just focus on producing cool stories and finding interesting methods to make us stand out. If you read the posts from brands trying to sell stuff in 2014, you could tell they were so fake and full of bullshit. It just felt like negating storytelling, I don’t think anyone enjoyed writing that copy. As a founder, Michael was really receptive to this. He pushed me to be even less salesy and a better marketer by really understanding our audience and make something that is good.
I think that people have this belief that marketing is bad, it’s actually just about bad marketing. Marketing is good when someone can objectively see good work.
What made you leave and go freelance?
I enjoyed the creativity of the role - the writing and taking photos - but I wasn’t so sure if I ever wanted to be a manager. Every 3-6 months I would evaluate myself or have a conversation with friends aside from my annual reviews. And in the first year I found myself wanting to be CMO, the more I learned the more my opinion changed. When I found myself voluntarily spending weekends to shoot photos for Instagram or planning Snapchat stories I knew the path needed to change.
Everlane grew and needed me to focus more on planning and strategy. But I wanted to move to New York since the first event we did back in 2013. I knew it was the place where I could learn and grow next.
Michael, the founder, was extremely supportive. He offered connections, helped me with my strategy and still checks in every couple months. I feel I’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive circle of people, especially the group chat.
The group chat with my friends has been key to my sanity and my success. When you leave a company, you also leave that mini social network - where you can bounce ideas off, vent, or discuss problems. When you’re freelance, you don’t have that. The group chat is the antidote. One person is a founder, another is a freelancer, a chef… people who have a shared understanding, but different perspectives.
Your Kanye West book, “uh huh honey”, from last year - how did that happen and what inspired the project?
It all started when he got back on Twitter in 2018. I wanted to participate in all the memes, jokes, conversation - essentially the culture that was taking place around him. Initially, I thought I’ll just make some memes for social, but there was definitely something of more value happening. Then we tweeted how he was writing his own [philosophy] book ‘in real-time… I’ll work on in when I want’.
And I thought, why don’t I do this for him.
So I made a couple of pages on my on a trackpad, super lofi. Then I showed it to some of my friends who thought it was really funny. Once I published 4 pages on Instagram and Twitter I got a load of replies, one person said they would vendor me an absurd amount of money if I made this into a book, another said that he would get the illustrations tattooed.
I just thought, What the fuck is happening? So I Googled, How to make a book.
Amazon has this company called ‘createspace.com’, and they will basically publish books, TV shows, movies, books for you and put them on Amazon Prime. I didn’t want to handle distribution or anything like that. I’ve seen friends who’ve made books and its this long, drawn-out process. These guys can get it done fast. Great. I didn’t really care about quality.
I choose the cheapest options for everything, and I made the PDF for it in about three hours. I looked through all his [Kanye’s] tweets and drew as many of them as I can. I actually gave myself a time limit; I would read a tweet, and if I didn’t think of a drawing in 2 minutes, I moved on.
I ended up with about 42 pages, which I thought was a little light for a book, more of a magazine… but then I didn’t care. Let's just get this out. I uploaded it at 9pm on a Sunday night. 9am Monday it was published, ready to order. By Wednesday, all my close friends in my network had it and it started picking up momentum. It was never a strategic project, my thinking was more along the lines of: This joke is getting really far, how much can I push it? Will I get to meet Kanye West? I don’t know!
I hit up friends who knew people at Hype Beast and High Snobiety for some coverage. High Snobiety were nice enough to publish it even though I didn’t have the actual book at the time - I just had the pages and the cover, and they did the renderings for me. That was the first spike.
So my friends were buying it. Then friends with some influence were also buying it and posting about it in their stories and tagging me. Another spike. Then a few weeks later Busy Phillips (1.9 million followers) posted about it on her stories. But she didn’t post just one, she did a full-on reading of the whole thing and was tagging me. I don’t post photos of myself, and she was saying, I don’t know who this guy is, I don’t know if it’s a dude or a chick - here’s their account. Go find it on Instagram. Everyone I knew who followed her were hitting me up. Big Spike.
How did it change you?
Freelance is great, but this is the type of project where you’re fully independent. There’s no client and it’s through your own efforts that you are able to support yourself. I’m trying to figure out how to do that again. People just ask, why don’t you just make another book? Illustrate someone else’s tweets? It seems simple, but it’s hard for me to do because what if I just got really lucky with Kanye? I can just walk away with the win.
Then I got some advice and got told to develop the characters - work on them and give them a conscious, so that they could reflect on the tweets that represent them, instead of trying to replicate something similar.
It hit number 1 new “parody” release on Amazon. The signals that made it very satisfying and, besides the money, all the steps that needed to go right, did. It didn’t go super-viral to the point where that would be the only thing I can do, but it was successful enough to give me a taste for independence and artistry in the pop culture sense. The level of reach it's given me has allowed me to move across different disciplines.
Elevate but not defined?
Exactly. I was encouraged to take it further. Either a book signing, an event or some sort of contest. I didn’t want to promote it that much, it went well enough organically.
That whole influencer spectrum, is that something you want to get involved in?
Right now, I think I make more money as a freelancer than being on a platform, because I can charge more my skills than my audience. But if it happens as a result of what I’m doing - great! It’s just not my main focus.
Where do you think influencer marketing is going?
There’s this theory that influencers are going to start working more in-house for companies.. Right now there’s power in influencers who are independent, and their audience's trust that they are making unbiased opinions. I think maybe in a couple of years from now, the influencers who are in the company are going to be trusted more because they are there day to day, and trust the brand from the ground up.
This whole industry is so nuance it’s very hard to make a broad generalisation about this. There are influencers who are experts in their niche, and there are influencers who are good entertainers. It’s just about finding the right one for your brand.
Red reminds us how complacency can be the killer of creativity. Always looking to refine and expand his crafts, his knowledge of all things digital has proved himself to be an invaluable asset to multiple brands. As for his independent projects, although sometimes satirical, they articulate a deep understanding of how pop culture is resurfacing on digital channels.
Whatever Red does next, lets just hope he never starts to think inside the box.
Follow @redgaskell for greater insight into his unique blend of urban and portrait photography.
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