Jumpin' January: An Interview with Nikita Walia, Megan Thee Stallion's Got Us Back In The Gym, Plus More
The new beefed up version of Adblong is here for 2024. We're kicking things off with an interview with the founder of the strategy agency BLANK.
Welcome to the new year! Adblong is back and beefed up with more interviews, cultural analysis, and things to watch out for down the pipeline.
Nikita Walia Doesn’t Just Wear Many Hats — She Owns The Store
I had the privelege of sitting down with Nikita Walia — one of the most inspirational creatives and entreprenuers in the industry — a few months ago. Here’s our conversation (edited for length and clarity).
Nikita Walia walked into a teacher’s office wearing navy blue leggings. The instructor swore they were black, so Walia strategically convinced her that they were, in fact, navy blue. “I grabbed this woman’s hand and brought her to the window so the sunlight could prove my case,” Walia says happily over Zoom. At the time, she wasn’t standing up to a sarcastic high school teacher like you’d think; she was interviewing to get into a Pre-Kindergarten program. And this moment was just a glimpse of what kind of strategic chops she came onto this planet with and has developed even more since then.
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Walia is many things, but one of her major titles is being the founder of BLANK, a strategy agency that’s focused on shifting culture through brands. Click on her LinkedIn profile though and you might double take at all of the roles she’s had or is currently taking on. She’s been a strategist at multiple companies where she’s helped brands like PUMA, Nike, and Marc Jacobs appeal to a constantly changing world, delved in the world of Web3 as a futurist that’s designing the digital world of tomorrow through connecting with today’s cultural landscape, and is a co-founder of a jewelry store that focuses on helping consumers connect with bedazzled pieces they can build memories around. “Not all of my roles have been reflected on LinkedIn, but I’ve learned so much from them all,” she says.
Here’s Walia on creating her own company, getting into the strategy field, and more.
Could you tell me a little bit about yourself growing up? What kind of person were you?
I used to really struggle with school projects. Not that, I would do poorly, but I had a hard time imagining things from start to finish.
I’ll backtrack a bit. I lived in India with my grandparents and as a kid, I spoke up for myself. There was this interview that I had to do to get into pre-K and in order to get in, each kid was asked a question to show off their knowledge. The interviewer asked me what color my leggings were and I told her navy blue. She was convinced that they were black.
So what do you expect a three or four year old to do? Concede? Get emotional? I grabbed this woman’s hand and brought her to the window so the sunlight could prove my case. The navy blue shined in the light.
I moved to the United States a short time later and picked up English in what must have been a week. I was a really curious, voracious reader and obsessed with learning things. After living in Chicago with my parents, we moved to the Bay Area where I spent about 12 years. Following that, I came to New York where I’ve been for the last 11.
At what point did you get into the strategy field? What was that decision like?
Growing up, I really wanted to get into politics and work in Washington D.C., but I kind of stumbled into advertising when I started working at a social media agency.
The bulk of the work that we did was writing, followed by community management. I got to delve into the world of social media, back when Vine was considered this big scary short form video app that was going to take over. My boss told us to download it and figure out how it worked for some of our brands.
These experiences working at that time made me realize that strategy was something that I really wanted to do. Having the freedom to explore the platform (amongst others) made me realize how big of an opportunity that there was in the digital/social landscape and how I could leverage the moment to create an interesting career that played to my strengths.
Over the years you've worked on strategy for clients like Nike, Hugo, Marc Jacobs, and PUMA. What is your strategic process like when you’re tackling asks from clients on this scale?
When I approach briefs, my biggest thing — that has been my major focus from day one — is to say, what about the person that's going to experience what I’m creating? That is who I've always cared for. Is the person that's looking at this Instagram post even going to pause what they’re watching to check it out while they’re on Netflix? I ground my work in cultural and consumer insights and it’s always paid off.
One of your current roles at RADAR is a futurist. How do you define that term?
So I joined Radar at the height of the Web3 hype cycle, and I received a really quick education about what contributing to a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization) is and how to build a community. I'm unfortunately not as active in the DAO as I used to be because I've had pretty sharp inflection in my business, but I’m working on an independent insights project and maybe even building an insights arm of the studio.
As to what I think a futurist is, I believe it’s being brave enough to be wrong and having the ability to observe patterns.
What do you like most about being a futurist?
I love using my brain when I’m in this field to identify patterns. A big thread that I've been following for a while was just the idea of what a trend really is. I saw micro trends becoming a thing and taking off so I knew that the way we think about the word “trend” would change in the near future. It’s so exciting. I really like being able to sit and observe culture and decide what the direction of where all of this is moving will be.
Let’s talk about your company, BLANK. Why did you create it? Walk me through that inspiration.
So, I left my last real job with no plan. I actually went part-time there and I was just kind of figuring it out. Was I going to go to grad school? Was I going to go work in tech? In that short term time, about six months, I started consulting and realized a couple of things. First, that there was a real market for somebody like me who is a student of the internet and culture, and also that it was a really unique skill that wasn't really set up to thrive in my previous workplaces, just in the way that a lot of companies productize the way that they do strategy.
I think too, because I'd worked in a really wide diverse set of strategic skills from brand, product, and social, my ability to work as a generalist was something that was impactful and helpful for early stage startups. And three, just selfishly, I realized that if I wanted to do the work that I love and live the life that I want, I would have to create that for myself.
In the last six years, we've gone from just me doing brand product, social content, and social strategy into having a team that now does everything from the company's initial brand concepts, and ideation to branding, all the way to market.
What have you learned from previous roles that has helped you as the head of BLANK?
At my last real job, I was working in a hybrid account role. While I really resented some of the responsibilities I had at the time, they have been incredibly invaluable in running a business. Prior to that, I didn't know how to write an MSA, scope out a project, and a ton of other important things that have been very important for me now.
Not all of my roles have been reflected on LinkedIn, but I’ve learned so much from them all. Another one that’s currently going on is what I do as the co-founder of a fine jewelry company — where I handle all of the strategy projects — as well as co-author for a massive insights project with one of my peers. Both of these roles have taught me so much about project management.
So how do you manage demanding tasks and workflows?
I've recently changed my mindset about time. Instead of thinking that it's this really scarce resource, my life coach has helped me to see it as this malleable thing that I can play with. He really challenged me to think about what kind of game I want to play with my time and to set up a life that's conducive to that.
And even when you use that language, it becomes so much less pressure. The game that I wanted to play was to work X amount of hours a day on the main business and consulting a couple of hours a week on my other one — plus find some time for thought leadership projects, cooking dinner, going out, and more. I used to have a lot of guilt around resting or closing the laptop, going away, working out whatever.
My coach really taught me that everybody in my life, from my clients to my boyfriend, to my friends, would want me to show up at my best, which is when I've worked out, when I've slept, etc. And so instead of the narrative that I'm lazy, that I'm choosing to do X instead of work, it's like I'm actually being the best version of myself. So I would say really think about what are your priorities when it comes to your time, why are those your priorities? And then, think about what game you want to play and run some experiments. See what works best for you.
You mentioned starting a jewelry business, which is the most badass thing on Earth. Could you tell me more about that?
So my mom and I have talked about doing a business together for a really long time, and then we had an opportunity to start working in jewelry with a family friend and develop our own concept around it. The concept behind the brand is really focusing on this idea of your first nice piece of jewelry (or second or third) that you really cherish and want to buy for yourself when you have an achievement, et cetera. Who doesn't like to play with diamonds?
You’ve brought to life some incredible initiatives. What tips do you have for creatives who have trouble acting on their own plans for entrepreneurial pursuits?
I think so many people get caught up in this idea of the result and being caught up on the result is a zero sum game. If you're caught up on a specific result, you think that this has to be a million dollar business. You've already lost because you're limiting the possibilities. And by limiting the possibilities, you're also creating a lot of anxiety that you do not need to have around it. So for me, it's one part, I wouldn't even say it's goal setting as much as envisioning the possibility of, I want this diamond business. I want to learn these things about it. I want to be able to do these things. I want this business to create this kind of freedom in my life. So thinking about it that way, what might it generate for you?
And then also just get started. I think this zero sum mindset of it has to be perfect, really, really, really serves people poorly. So I like to think about scheduling achievements in three month increments. Let’s say I start my new project on September 1st. A year from now, what do I want to be celebrating when it comes to this? Then, break things down to 3, 6, and 9 months. You can go even further. Instead of three months, do it per month. Per week. Don’t fixate on a zero sum goal. Act on what you’re doing first and plan next steps accordingly.
What is your favorite thing about your strategic process that defines your workflow today?
I love to work with high collaboration, high context, high communication, and that's really possible when I work with smaller companies. I love, love, love that I'm able to have an impact on the internal workings of a business and the external advertising and comms. What really defines the way that I work that I feel is really different from the typical agency, is that I don’t do the Don Draper-style presentations that are overly dramatic.
I involve my clients every step of the way. If I have a minor thought about a strategic positioning thesis, I will literally slap them and be like, “Hey, man, I've been thinking about this. How is this feeling?” And similar to how I break down bigger tasks, when you sort of incubate an idea to a client for a couple of weeks, you get to that big presentation and it's no longer such a big scary event. Oftentimes you're all agreeing and celebrating on some really kick ass work you've done together. And that is my favorite thing: working in really close communication and collaboration with people. I know that's really hard and in some ways it feels antithetical to a lot of the things the agency model has become. But I am truly obsessed with it.
Top of Mind
Here’s what I think about some of the biggest things happening in pop culture right now.
Megan Thee Stallion’s Making Me Renew My Planet Fitness Subscription
Your favorite musician uses Instagram to show off a rented luxury car — if they’re not Megan Thee Stallion. Houston’s favorite emcee snaps flicks of her toned abs, legs, and glutes and shows you exactly how she got them — in the gym, practically attached to the machines, putting in the work. There’s a Queen of Rap (you know who I’m talking about — her fans will crucify me if I write her name here) already, but that’s cool — Megan’s the first-ever Mother of Fitness.
In the new work from Barkley (shoutout to Mary Buzbee, Lauren Meadows, and everyone else who worked on the project), Megan’s a new face of the company’s “Judgement Free Zone” campaign that combines the Hot Girl world with the land of accessible fitness that the PF name is synonymous with. In an empowering (and hilarious) campaign video, Megan uses heroic jump ropes to whisk deserving gym goers to PF to workout in a judgefree manner. Accompanying the work is merch with Megan-inspired messages like “Real Hot Girl Fit” and “Big Fitness Energy.” It’s an awesome piece of an epic campaign that I have to support — even if I’m already signed up for one of its ‘roid-raging competitor gyms.
“Crank That” Wouldn’t Be Bigger Today, Sorry Soulja Boy
Soulja Boy made a comment on a recent episode of the Kids Take Over podcast about his breakout 2007 song “Crank That,” saying that it would be bigger now than it was back then. “Imagine if I had TikTok! What the fuck?" he said. "You know how many people would have been doing the 'Crank That' dance?"
Now Soulja, while I love “Crank That,” I have to wholeheartedly disagree. 2007 was a different time — when dance songs ran amok. Everybody was snapping their fingers, doing two-steps, and leaning back until their spine was on the verge of popping. “Crank That” broke through a crowded landscape because it was simpler than just about everything else. The controversy surrounding it, with people saying that it was the very “death of hip hop,” combined with its simplicity helped it to become an earworm that everyone loved.
In today’s landscape, “Crank That” sounds like pretty much everything else. So much of what’s popular on TikTok is dumbed down, remixed music that practically invites people to dance.
But here’s the thing. Most of TikTok’s biggest hits don't explicitly tell people to dance. Songs like K. Camp’s “Lottery” (that inspired Jaliah Harmon’s “Renegade” dance) and J.I.D.’s “Surround Sound” (that inspired the “Ceiling Challenge”) have soundtracked millions of dance videos potentially because they don’t mention people making challenges out of them. We’ve seen people try to make dance songs specifically for TikTok and they crash land on the floor because they’re too on the nose. Gen-Z isn’t dumb. They want to dance if they feel like it — not if they’re told to.
With that in mind, how do you think they’d react to a song that’s literally telling them to try out this new dance?
Keith Lee Does Not Need A Netflix Cinematic Universe
I’ve been following TikTok’s resident foodie Keith Lee for awhile now, so it’s interesting to see how the mainstream world seemingly finally took notice towards the tail end of 2023. Rolling Stone gave him a cover story that makes him look like the fourth Migos member. His TikToks now go viral on Twitter with people either supporting what he’s doing wholeheartedly or getting mad at him for blowing up their favorite spots to eat. They’re even talking about him on ESPN and he’s making appearances on the Breakfast Club.
But that’s neither here nor there. When he recently announced that he’s crowned New Orleans as the #1 city to get amazing food, he set off a firestorm of people hotly debating his list (Atlanta, a city that’s well-revered for having fire food, only made it to #8). It now feels like he crossed another threshold where it’s only inevitable that Netflix creates a cinematic universe around his food journeys.
That made me think. Should large brands really try and implement him into their marketing campaigns now? If you ask me, it’s a little too late. Lee’s been posting restaurant reviews since 2021 and has changed the lives of so many business owners thanks to his reviews. People support him for his authenticity and everyman feel when he posts reviews. To commercialize and elevate his platform would really take away from what he’s built. He’s been doing it on his own for so long that now it would feel very late to the punch — and expose how culturally unaware that brands/agencies can be until things make it to the top level for them to finally take notice.
Let that man cook in peace, no pun intended.
What’s Going On
Exactly that. What’s happening that you should keep an eye out for.
Playboi Carti’s kicked off the year with one wild new song with Travis Scott called “BACKR00MS”
Sexyy Redd, the hottest rapper of 2023 (and I’m willing to debate that with anybody), promises to take over this year. Brands, tap in now.
Since Disney’s copyright for Mickey and Minnie Mouse has officially expired, the images have entered into the public domain. Now Mickey’s about to give Michael Myers a run for his money
Snoop Dogg’s destroying everyone’s 2024 bingo card by revealing that he’ll be reporting live for NBC at the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.
Game of Thrones gave us some of the best sword fights this world has ever seen. Will an animated spinoff have the same impact?
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