Jeetendr Sehdev: The pop culture scientist
MTV EMAs, November 2019. Credit: MTVDavid Pidgeon meets the celebrity branding strategist to find out what makes him tick, how he got it so right about the power of YouTubers, and why gaming is the next big thing for brands
Jeetendr Sehdev is rather unique. He's something of an academic influencer famed for helping marketeers understand the power of the new, self-made celebrity - and unlike many others who offer such advice, he really practices what he preaches.
He has hundreds of thousands of followers across all the usual social media platforms, and his Instagram feed shows off a glitzy life in LA working as a 'celebrity branding authority'. Particularly in the US, he's often on TV giving his views on the celebrity machine and its evolution in the age of social media.
Picked out of university by Sir Martin Sorrell in his early twenties - and then mentored by the WPP founder - Sehdev worked for Ogilvy & Mather in New York before making a bigger name for himself after his 2014 research about the power of YouTubers went viral.
A book, The Kim Kardashian Principle: Why Shameless Sells and How to Do it Right, followed in 2017, and marketers keen to understand the power of social media celebrities gobbled it up, desperate to know how their own brands could emulate similar successes.
He's also the guy that helped kickstart the whole brands-taking-a-stand-on-social-issues-thing, because he recognised that young people - specifically Gen Z - expect brands to pick sides and demonstrate particular values.
It's surprising, then, to speak with Sehdev and find him nowhere near LA, but much more down to earth in Bristol, spending lockdown in his old home town with his mum.
Within moments of chatting - and he keeps his camera off because he'd not brushed his hair yet - it's obvious the glitzy persona I had researched online was not quite what I had expected.
He is extremely thoughtful, to the point where he throws me off track and down some philosophical side alleys, generous with his time and with a real academic streak I find slightly at odds with the superficiality of Instagram and selfies.
With his webcam off, I first picture him wearing one of his gilded suits that he wears to red carpet dos, but come to suspect by the end of the interview he's actually donning something a bit more practical.
Laughing, I ask how swapping LA for Bristol during lockdown has been for him, but he's only worried about how it's been for other people.
"I'm missing travel like nobody's business, but I know that I'm very fortunate. I know that there are people out there that are much less fortunate than me and have a lot more to deal with than just missing that creature comfort. So in that way, I think lockdown has also really forced me to sort of practise gratitude and to remind myself that I've got it good."
This sort of altruism and concern for others - and for global issues - is all part of not only what makes Sehdev tick, but how he thinks Gen Z ticks too. And that insight into the cohort so many find utterly mysterious is one of the things that has got him to where he is today.
So what is it that led him to the early insights he had about Gen Z that others appeared to be lacking - because getting there before anyone else appears to have paid dividends.
"Certainly by not abiding by any boxes that people wanted to put you in," he says. "Never since school."
Sehdev says he was always interested in doing lots and lots of different things. Indeed, he has three degrees, the first in medical science, followed by a degree in history at Oxford and then an MBA. He's also worked in investment banking, consulting, as a CMO, and has that nice mentored-by-Sorrell boost.
"What I then ended up doing was bringing all the faculties together," he says. "My comfort with analytics, science and problem solving with my passion for pop culture and literature and the world of arts."
This led him to "fuse" the area of celebrity with branding. At the time, around six years ago, few people were viewing celebrity in this way, and as such were blind to a new consumer sentiment, he says.
"They weren't looking at what people were really feeling towards them. Then I gave an interview to Variety magazine in which I said YouTube stars are more influential than traditional celebrities."
He cites names that I've never heard, such as Smosh, and I later look them up and see it's a comedy duo that started life on YouTube and now has 25 million subscribers and billions of views.
It then occurs to me this celebrity 2.0 Sehdev talks of has no blurred boundary of fame. I am a 39-year-old journalist from London and I'm vaguely aware of Dua Lipa because her fame bleeds into other walks of life, like the sides of buses. But these YouTubers appear to have huge, but precisely defined audiences, neatly boxed up and hidden away from anyone outside their target market. You either know them or your don't; they're incredibly famous, but also incredibly not famous.
"These sorts of people were more influential amongst a younger cohort than the likes of Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande," Sehdev says.
"And I'm saying, 'hold on, wait a second, who are these people? How can these people be? How can anyone be more influential than Hollywood and Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston?'"
I ask, at some atomic level, what is so different about these post-millenial YouTubers and Instagrammers and Sehdev says they are unique because the power of their influence does not come from exclusivity. That is the old model, and it's dying, he says - and you either come to terms with that, or you become irrelevant to the youngest cohort.
"Rather, they are born from inclusivity and that is what drives this new celebrity. The fact that anyone can become an influencer is the exact appeal and why it's infiltrating so many different strata of our society.
"Now everybody wants to be famous and they don't necessarily want to be famous for playing the piano or acting. They want to be famous for themselves. They want to be able to commoditise themselves, their livelihoods. And I think that that dynamic is really interesting and a lot of my work over the years has been to explain that concept."
Sehdev says if marketing leaders or media bosses really want to get to grips with engaging this audience, or even learning how to do it themselves as brands, they can't "demean or vilify" them.
I'm perhaps guilty of doing this myself because I've often reported on the downsides of the influencer market and the pitfalls of young people using social media, but I do find Sehdev's arguments more persuasive then most.
"[Marketing leaders] have got to firstly understand this shift and understand why it's so important for folk to be famous. And then at the same time they've got to all sit there and develop a level of empathy and compassion in order to emotionally understand where these people are coming from. And that's when you're going to be able to develop brands that emotionally resonate with your audience. But if you're going to ignore your audience's genuine wants and desires, how are you then going to do that?"
He also notes, with some emphasis in a highly polarised world, that Gen Z - the cohort for whom all of this is totally normal - is the most colour-blind and gender-blind cohort we have ever seen.
"It is the most accepting of people choosing their agendas. I think it is just a phenomenal shift. They are incredibly independent, but they're also very practical. They're very entrepreneurial. They're very financially focused. They are the ones teaching older generations how to use technology, putting them in the driving seat."
They've learned, essentially, how to be self-made, personal brands. And along the way they expect major brands to be a bit more like them - human, with political and social ideals, and frailties and problems.
GQ Brazil, October 2019. Credit: Ben Harries
Has he met resistance to his ideas? It's certainly true that industry is divided on making brands 'appease' Gen Z by taking a stance on political, environmental or cultural issues, which has ushered in an era of 'brand purpose' and partisan marketing - something Sehdev says Gen Z demands brands do because issues like gun control and climate change are literally life or death issues for them.
"There's a lot of resistance upfront," he says. "Because when you're introducing new thinking, people are afraid of the new, there's a lot of fear that comes with that and our immediate reaction is to try and discredit that or to take that down."
However, he says he "very much welcomes" people who disagree with him.
"What interests me is in getting people to think and to consider an alternative way of living and being, and then to make up their own minds as to whether they agree with me or whether they don't. And that's very much what drives me. I've never really looked for anyone's approval."
Ultimately, however, Sehdev says he's found satisfaction listening to people wait years only to start saying exactly the same things he's been arguing since 2014.
"So I hope that that's a learning for people who really want to do something different and want to be something different."
I ask if he thinks the mainstream media has failed to embrace Gen Z, or at least failed to understand them fully.
"I think that their way of thinking is incredibly unique to the rest of the world," he says. "So I feel as a result, Gen Z are tuning out a lot of what they're hearing and they're making up their own minds."
This, he argues, is the crux of the challenge for brands, CMOs and media bosses. "They need to better understand them, to actually engage. That's why they're such a difficult nut to crack."
And how does Sehdev think lockdown will impact Gen Z, a generation constantly told they're 'snowflakes', usually by older, grumpy newspaper columnists.
"I think that the pandemic has made life for a lot of them very uncertain. But I think at the same time, it's a generation that has been born into a very uncertain environment."
Sehdev points to the constant threat of school shootings, job losses, climate change and high divorce rates in their parents' generation.
"I think in that way that they are better off. And I think also because they are our first digitally native generation, they are best suited to manage this pandemic in many ways because so much of their life is already online and it works through the digital realm. And so much of that digital realm is still unaffected because of the pandemic.
"As a matter of fact, I think that the pandemic is just going to further accelerate innovation within the worlds of social media and digital. It will increase its use and consumption."
We draw the interview to a close discussing gaming, which Sehdev also notes has thrived during the pandemic. It is also the theme of Mediatel's next lockdown event for which Sehdev is booked to headline.
Last year, Mediatel News reported that industry experts expected to see gaming emerge as its own, independent media channel in 2020, and at the time data from the Entertainment Retailers Association put the value of the sector at £3.86bn in the UK alone - more than music and video combined.
Naturally, the gaming sector therefore poses an interesting proposition for advertisers – and some major brands, such as Intel, Coca-Cola and Red Bull are already investing.
Sehdev has now tuned his radar towards it too and argues gaming is the "ultimate brand extension" for organisations, individuals and celebrities today.
"We're seeing that with the growth rates. The industry generated $120bn last year and is projected to generate $200 within two years. We've also seen it thrive under the pandemic."
Sehdev says gaming is now "well positioned to be the biggest thing within the world of entertainment."
"The whole industry has changed since the 1980s. And I think a lot of people today who are playing games would not describe themselves as 'gamers'. A lot of people who are playing games today don't need a console. They don't need to dedicate four hours a day. And I think that's really where the growth in the gaming industry is coming from, through mobile gaming."
Sehdev says, creatively, games hold so much user attention and can now be accessed anywhere, at any time, they are the perfect platform to "tell your story, to sell your narrative."
He does warn, however, of two lurking issues. The first - something he said will bring it all "crashing down" - he insists on holding back to discuss when I interview him again during the live-stream event.
But the second is an issue some readers might find familiar because it has cropped up in other debates about the industry's future.
"A lot of creative teams are still so stuck on wanting to create traditional forms of media, like the TV ad. That's a shame because if you are really trying to engage a younger audience, they don't understand that sort of hierarchy of prestige in media any more. It doesn't apply."
Consequently, Sehdev ends the interview calling for more flexibility in the way that marketers think about advertising strategies, signalling that so much has changed, so quickly, that it's hard to keep up.
"We're in 2020 and we're still so stuck," he says.
The special lockdown event also features: Twitch // Snap // McLaren Racing // Formula 1 // Anzu // Bidstack // Danone // Mindshare // DAN // VCCP // Omdia // Vungle Creative Labs // Cassette // Twitter // Imagen