The Dot Connector – An Interview with Jon Wexler
Adidas is all over the place right now. With an intangible hype around the brand, something seems to be working out right for Herzo. Of course there are lots of people responsible for the push, but when it comes to the big “halo effect”, Jon Wexler is definitely one of the big protagonists. From signing Kanye West over the period of one and a half years to hand selecting musicians and creative, he’s deciding over who’s representing the Three Stripes. We’re proud to present to you the Global Director of Entertainment & Influencer Marketing who in all his humbleness likes to see himself as a “dot connector”.
Jon, it’s great to have you as our interview guest. As a matter of fact, everyone in the office freaked out when I dropped your name. Has Kanye’s celebrity status rubbed off on you?
(Laughs) Clearly, I’ve got them fooled. I definitely don’t feel that way about myself but that’s very nice to hear. Thank you.
Humor aside, the media attention must have really increased with such a big collaboration, right?
There’s definitely been a lot more attention. But I think with the explosion of social media, there’s been a bigger peek behind the curtain at the people who have these types of roles at brands like adidas, much more than in the past. So with social media being what it is, you just have a broader platform to become attached to things. Before, you used to stay on the other side of the lens. We worked on amazing campaigns over the last decade, but as the intersection of social media and that work has come about, it just allowed for people’s names and faces to get out there.
Speaking about celebrities, let’s take a step back in time. In your youth, who were some of the people you associated with adidas? Who triggered your interest in the brand?
Well, I grew up in the eighties; I’m a kid from that era. So obviously with the whole evolution of the brand and Run DMC’s involvement with it, they were a focal point in my life and created a really sharp point for my interest in the brand. I actually played basketball in Pro Models, which is crazy to think about now because we wear them as a lifestyle product and have an entire basketball category now where we create products specifically for that and shoes that have great technologies in them. Run DMC was a critical moment in my life. I remember hearing the song “It’s Like That” – and it just became something I wanted to be a part of. The whole culture of that music, the art form as well as the brand adidas. And obviously Bob Marley was influential in my life and he always wore adidas as well. I was also watching Muhammad Ali boxing on television for those big heavyweight fights that used to be on, and he was an adidas athlete. So a lot of these people whom I looked up to and who were aspirational to me represented the brand.
Sounds like a good mix of people from both sports and entertainment?
You know, the question gets asked now all the time: “adidas is working with people from the entertainment space, what’s that going to do to the brand?” And I keep thinking to myself that we worked with Run DMC in the eighties and it helped put Superstars on the map for a whole broader audience. So to me it’s not that big a leap. But I guess when we talk about the athletic brand with “athletes as heroes” it gets to be a bit of a more murky discussion. But I view it as a very natural progression for a brand like adidas that is so inclusive and so aspirational in general to want to associate with the types of creatives and creators that we currently work with.
Do you remember how you came on board with the Three Stripes in the first place?
What happened was, I was working as an independent sales rep for a number of young men’s brands for about ten years. And I moved to Portland, Oregon in 1997. I just focused on the brands that were based here and adidas was such a big factor in my life as a kid, and the brand I always wore growing up. With them being based here it was just like the stars had aligned for me. But it took about three years of banging on the front door and getting every rejection letter from the HR department imaginable before I finally got my foot in here.
How did it all start – what was your first job there?
I was a merchandiser. The role was called “Sweeper,” which doesn’t exist anymore for the adidas US basketball category. My job was to create sell-through reports, make sure samples were in the sales reps’ hands, and in the hands of the advertising and brand communications team. I was kind of at the hub of all the business-critical information for the category. That was my entry point for the brand and through that I networked and developed relationships with other parts of the company and then grew my role into category manager for US footwear for adidas Originals, and then from there did the leap over to the brand communications side a couple of years later. So it was not a linear progression by any stretch. There were a lot of twists and turns, but it worked out.
It definitely sounds like full circle for you, having previously been a DJ and now coming from the other side and building partnerships with musicians.
adidas in general is at the intersection of who I am: the mix of creators from sport and culture and from sport culture. So one of the cornerstones in my life of what I was interested in as a kid was to play basketball four to six hours a day throughout the middle of high school. But I always kept playing with my friends at the playground and stuff. And I basically stopped playing basketball because I wanted to invest more time into DJing. So now being at a brand that has such a footprint within the sports world and the cultural side of the world – it’s surreal when I wake up every day just coming to work.
Part of your job is to pick the right people to represent the brand. What are the values you are looking for? Are there “common denominators” in their DNA?
Absolutely, we are the brand for creators. So we are looking for people who push the envelope within whatever culture they’re from. You know, highly visible and influential people who talk to our consumer, relevant in the online world as well as the offline world, relevant in sport and culture. People who have a loyal and dedicated following and who are engaging to the people that support them. Accessible. Good management team around them if they are at that kind of level. If not, straight shooters, and just people who have the ability to create and the people to whom we can offer a platform to help create on a broader level. At the same time it’s a two-way street, so also people we can help out. And if there isn’t positivity on both sides of that equation, then something’s breaking down. We look to people who are open to becoming brand advocates for us, but it’s more like this philosophy of what I call reciprocity. You know, we show love to people – they show love to us.
Aside from the business aspects, what do you think are the factors that convince people like Kanye to work with adidas? What do they see in it?
Kanye wanted to work with us because of the community of designers that we partnered with over the past ten years. It was more about giving him a creative platform so that he could explore his creativity with us. And we’ve done that to the best of our ability by giving him the tools that he has been lacking in his design career until now, to create on a really great level. Guys we have worked with over the years like Raf Simons, and Rick Owens, and Jeremy Scott, and Yohji Yamamoto – there’s that history and design community. Also working with Run DMC gave us an honest and authentic entry point to partner with someone from that space of designer and entertainer. I think relationship comes into play to a great degree. And creativity with Kanye. But definitely the fact that we are partnering with him to such a broad extent.
You often use the word “dot connector” to describe your role. Where do you see your best ability or strength in that field? Is it building relationships?
I think when you unravel that entire onion (laughs), that is really my skill: sort of unpacking conversations and breaking them down to their building blocks and then addressing issues one-by-one, and attacking them and solving them – both internally and externally. Because the thing is that my role kind of straddles the fence between the internal world of adidas and the external world. For our external partners, our internal collaborations and internal stakeholders are my clients. But when I talk to those same people internally, these external partners are my clients. So it kind of revolves around the ability to interpret information and get to the core of what people are trying to express. And then sharing that in either direction, if it’s getting lost in translation. The beauty and benefit of it is that we are working with a lot of intelligent people. So I’m not the only one in the room with that skillset. I just try to talk to people openly and honestly. I’m one to go out on a branch with people and I think that when you’re willing to take risks and see them through, people respect that, whether or not they’re successful in the long run.
Building something successful can also be very gratifying on a personal level. What were the most gratifying moments for you?
Honestly, every single minute of my day is gratifying. I know that sounds really contrived, but it’s true. I’m very fortunate to get on call after call and meeting after meeting and photo shoot after photo shoot and product meeting after product meeting with all these amazingly creative people. And just the gems that they drop in these meetings have taught me so much. I mean, everything from how to be very direct to shoot people straight, which I’ve learned from guys like Snoop and from Kanye, to the method of communication. And also working with the people internally, who inspire me. They get here early, stay late…show them a wall, they bust through it. It’s just that the internal camaraderie we share here is at an all-time high. The unity that the brand has right now is amazing and adidas has become more than a sneaker brand, it’s become a cultural movement. It’s just awesome to be both a participant in it and a witness to it.
Speaking of hard work. You often described Kanye as a super hard worker with a great work ethic. Can you tell us an anecdote?
Basically, when we work with people, no matter what the word is on the street about them – we see their best face. I think when people work with adidas, it’s just such an amazing opportunity that we always get their best foot forward. With specific regard to Kanye: the guy’s mind is just always going and he has so many great ideas that he wants to see live and breathe. So those things happen so frequently that it’s hard to single one out. The thing that comes to mind when I hear that question is the very first day when the deal hadn’t been announced yet. We were at that point in time still on the down low and we were sharing an office with him in LA at our LA Entertainment office. I remember he showed up the first day, the deal was signed on a Thursday and we flew to LA that Monday to start meeting up with the team. He showed up that meeting the first day 15 to 30 minutes early, he came in solo, we did a quick tour of the office, we got into the conference room and then within an hour five more people from his team showed up and they started brainstorming. Then another hour later, five more people from his team showed up and the brainstorming session continued. And by the end of the night, there were ten to twelve people in our conference room with reference images on our walls, sketches being drawn…it was like an entire team just going from zero to one hundred. It was an amazing thing to be a part of and witness. We reference that date a lot in our meetings and talk about the level of determination that’s constantly being exhibited. It was like we started running on day one and we haven’t stopped since!
That’s a great final word. Thanks a lot for taking the time for the interview.
Thank you Holger for the opportunity.
This interview is part of Sneakers Magazine Issue 30 – GET YOUR COPY HERE!