June 16, 2024

KT Business

The Business Servicess On for You

Defying Convention: Trade School’s Vision for Modern Marketing

6 min read

“We found that we were breaking the machine in order to give our clients what they needed,” recalls Genna Franconi. “There was a focus on digital and content-at-scale, and we needed a new model to deliver it effectively”. 

As the founder and president of Trade School knows all-too-well, the past decade has been a turbulent one for marketing. And that’s putting it mildly. Having helped lead a “big, integrated, AOR-type” agency for the best part of a decade, Genna developed an instinctive sense for what the traditional agency model was getting right, and where it needed to shift to meet the changing times. 

Based on that diagnosis, Trade School came to life. It’s an agency rooted in, as the founder articulates it, “solving modern problems for modern marketing”. That explains the company’s embrace of in-house production, influencers, data-driven personalisation, and technology which enables large-scale content production. 

That vision came to life in 2020. And now, Genna continues to emphasise the importance of adaptability and reinvention. Because, as she sees it, the industry is undergoing another fundamental transformation – one which needs to be met with an entirely new set of fresh ideas and imagination. So much of that initial incarnation of Trade School has changed to keep up with the industry’s pace of change, notes Genna – “but what remains is the idea of building for what’s coming next”. 

“I’d argue that the central challenge which needs to be solved right now is how to inject humanity into technology”, she tells LBB. “It’s one thing to have the capacity to produce content at-scale, but is your brand tangible and visible throughout every touchpoint of the customer’s experience? That takes care and, ultimately, humanity”. 

In search of an example, Genna mentions the industry’s current favourite topic: AI. 

Artificial Intelligence, with Personalised Craft

It’s easy to see how AI could turbocharge an agency’s ability to both produce and personalise content at scale. But, for Genna, that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the technology’s potential. 

“Plenty of people are afraid of AI, and we all need to figure out how to reckon with it”, she says. “It’s easy to chase in a superficial way, through gimmicks that might generate a couple of headlines. But my feeling is that the true value will come out of how you develop the human skill sets needed to prompt, govern, and provide quality assurance to the output”. 

Happily for Trade School, there’s an intersection between that challenge and an approach the agency has pioneered for years. Described as ‘adaptive branding’, it’s the idea of finding a way to express your brand’s identity in different ways, far beyond linear advertising. Eschewing the idea that 30-second TV ads are the only platform on which a brand can tell a story about itself, Genna and the Trade School team find ways to communicate a brand’s values and personality across a more holistic and all-encompassing form of brand experience. 

“I think our industry has been telling itself a story which is far too safe for far too long”, she says. “And that’s this idea that, if you can change hearts and minds with an ad, you can create a lifetime of value in a customer. But this bears little to no relation to how human beings actually connect with and think about brands”. 

So, Genna argues, it’s time to rethink how brands show their value in the modern world. “Okay, that might mean a high-craft, cinematic ad which tells a traditional kind of story”, she says. “But it is also going to involve finding a way to connect with the young mom who is up at 4am taking care of her kids, and has just realized she needs more diapers. The brand who can successfully solve her need is going to generate a ton of brand love”. 

And it’s in those more dynamic moments where Genna feels AI can make its most powerful impact. After all, the advent of the smartphone has ensured a dizzying diversity of daily moments where we might interact with brands – and both the scale and quality of content needs to rise in order to match it. 

“Don’t get me wrong, brand loyalty still exists”, says Genna. “But the way you build it in 2024 is very different than it used to be, and requires a much more holistic customer experience”. 

Connecting Through Humanity 

Genna’s outlook might sound ambitious, but this isn’t something which has only just occurred to the Trade School founder. The idea of generating connections through human storytelling is something that the agency has been developing over a number of years, and you can see similar thinking in its work for big-name clients like The Home Depot and FedEx. 

In the case of The Home Depot, Genna mentions How To Undo, an ingenious campaign which began as an initiative to flip the popular ‘how to’ YouTube tutorial scene on its head. “We saw that, if you look online, you can find a how-to video for pretty much anything”, she says, “But if you’ve messed up a DIY project, it’s pretty much impossible to learn how to undo your mistake. That’s where we saw an opportunity”. 

In collaboration with the influencer Mike Montgomery (aka Modern Builds on Instagram), the idea eventually blossomed into a full YouTube series of thoughtful, funny, and genuinely helpful videos of branded content, totalling 23 episodes and over an hour of view time. And the whole thing was conceived, produced, and edited in-house, via Trade School’s integrated production arm. 

For FedEx, the agency wanted to spotlight how essential the brand was in the fueling of small businesses across the US. “There’s a story behind every FedEx small business partner – stories of grit and sacrifice”, notes Genna. “We created a content series to tell those stories, highlighting the defining attributes that make small business owners special”. 

Respect The Hustle is another example of Trade School honing in on the human element of a brand’s appeal, and crafting a narrative from it. The magic of that approach is in how it becomes a kind of instant-recipe for relevance, making a brand tangible not in the context of marketing trends but in the way we all live our lives. We all make mistakes during DIY projects, and we’re all rooting for small businesses to succeed; Trade School’s magic trick is to take those universal themes, put brands at the centre of them, and then scale those ideas in unique ways across audiences and platforms. 

And now, the agency’s challenge is to find a way to perform the same trick in what might come to be known as the post-AI era. At the end of our interview, LBB asks Genna what the next year might hold for Trade School. “We’re all going to have skinned knees from dealing with AI”, she predicts. “It’s going to be a learning process, and nobody can confidently say they’re an expert on how to get through it”. 

But Trade School’s journey to date does at least offer a blueprint. “For some of us, this isn’t the first digital revolution we’ve encountered”, she concludes. “My hope is that we can learn from the first one, and be responsible for solving challenges in a more thoughtful and human way than before”. 


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