Trevor Johnson

Trevor Johnson

Most Creative Marketers: Trevor Johnson

TikTok's global head of commercial partnerships on why big brands and creative agencies need no longer be scared of the platform

By Sonoo Singh

It’s become the defining platform for a generation. “If you want to know what’s happening in the world or what creativity looks like, all you need is to go on TikTok,” says Trevor Johnson, TikTok head of marketing, global business solutions for Europe. “It’s the platform to help the expression of culture and reflect the zeitgeist.”

Scroll through the videos, and you'll pick up massive global trends - from culinary crazes such as pesto eggs through to newest music memes to the flourishing mental health and mindfulness content for the anxious generation. For too long, social media has been defined by an age of anger. Along comes TikTok and the world is made to look like a musical. It has of course evolved beyond music videos, but remains very much “the sunny corner of the internet”, as Trevor puts it.

Progressive Politics and TikTok

That self-expression discovered by TikTok users has meant that they have learnt to use the platform for political activism. From taking the credit for the sparse turnout at the Tulsa Trump rally to having a prominent role in Black Lives Matter and promoting it as a trend on its Discover page - TikTok users are increasingly using it as their space for political conversations.

“People use the platform to express themselves and their humanity, and part of that is political expression or a viewpoint on the world. TikTok did not take the view to enable political expression. But people are able to see they're able to utilise the platform in order to do just that. But in a very different way - an uplifting way, which the community around them values and appreciates. And this is different from anywhere else online.”

He gives the example of the NHS nurses who during the dark days of the pandemic last year told their stories on TikTok “but in very uplifting ways” such as #DancingNurses celebrating the big wins and handling stress in their fight against the pandemic.

As creators and brands leverage the social video app to tell their stories in 15-second snippets, whether it is sharing meme dances or practical jokes or encouraging people to protest, what is that moves Trevor? And sitting at the helm of a platform that provided more than a window to the Black Lives Matter movement, what does he make of the industry when it comes to the matters of D&I?

“I really want to separate diversity and inclusion,” he says. “Diversity is an exercise and you can throw people in that look differently, and that's fine. We may have made some progress there. But where it really matters is inclusion - which as an industry we haven’t made that happen and we cannot be proud of that. So does having people like me in powerful positions help? Yes, that’s important. But having people that are in positions which are directly responsible for how the industry progresses or what's invested in people like you and me - there aren't enough people doing that and that's not good. That's just not good.”

Trevor is the chairman of the board of Trustees of the Ideas Foundation and continues to play an active role in championing diversity and inclusion within the advertising industry. A role that he wants to always imbibe with joy. TikTok has created a grassroots employee-led campaign supporting the black community across Europe, called ‘Black History, Black Present and Black Future’, which celebrates the Black story in Europe in uplifting ways.

Effectiveness and Creativity

Creativity and joy are TikTok’s core values, he continues to remind me. But like for any platform, one of the key objectives for TikTok remains providing clearer campaign measurement and allowing users to manage their data more easily. So does he think one of the biggest problems with our industry has been this obsession to measure everything? Where efficiency equals effectiveness, and some marketers might actually have forgotten how the creative muscle can help build brands? “I think there’s an element of that,” Trevor says. And he should know.

Trevor joined TikTok from Facebook and Instagram, which he joined in 2008 as one of Facebook’s first employees outside of the US. He most recently held the role of director of Instagram, EMEA, and prior to this held a number of senior global strategic and partnership roles during his Facebook career (which included establishing 14 Facebook offices across the globe, then moving to Facebook’s Global Agency Partnerships function, based in New York City, to manage the strategic global relationships between Facebook and some of its large media and creative agency partners). There was AOL before that for five years.

“I don't think that measurement and the ability to optimise and target is wholly bad. But the quality of the creative is still the thing, that's number one. Right? And you still need to think about it. And people forget that. I don't think marketers have chosen the wrong thing, maybe just not focused on creativity as much as they should have.”

While there are some very interesting examples of creativity and inspiration on TikTok from brands and agencies, it continues to court them on how best to integrate ads onto the platform to build new ad formats and tools. There’s anecdotal evidence, however, that some creatives and indeed certain brands remain cynical of a platform that says advertising is not the answer if brands want to connect with TikTok’s community - with its ‘Don’t make ads. Make TikToks’ mantra.

“Yes, it is a challenge to the industry but it is not a mandate,” assures Trevor. “It scares some of the big brands and big creative agencies off a little bit. So the question is what can exist on TikTok? A highly-produced really great creative of course. What works equally is also a low-fi, simple cut down, but just incredibly creative stuff that is created by creators. And everything else in between. I think that can be both a blessing and a curse for our ‘Don’t make ads. Make TikToks’ campaign. What we are is a creative tool for brands and agencies.”

Clearly a pro when it comes to understanding the relationship between platforms, agencies and brands, Trevor adds: “They [brands and agencies] are always wary of new platforms. This hesitation is not all bad, but we're having the right conversations with the right agencies and the right brands to figure out how they can be successful on our platform. It was the same experience with the other platforms I've worked on. You've got to remember that the TikTok commercial proposition is probably only 12 to 18 months old.”

The brands that understand the TikTok community best are the ones that will be the ultimate winners, he says. Retail brands, according to him, are doing some of the best work on TikTok “utilising the creators, while understanding that users want to be inspired and engaged. These brands know people want to be seen and heard.

“The best campaigns are the ones that are the most inspiring, joyful, relevant, engaging, authentic human pieces of creative, which then allows you to target the right people and measure it.” Some of the most creative TikTok brand campaigns include O2 '#O2BublDance' by Havas Media and VCCP, Beats By Dr Dre '#BeatsDaisyChallenge' by AnalogFolk London, Asos '#AySauceChallenge' by Byte and Ray-Ban 'You're on' by TikTok Creative Lab.

Trevor's Creative Stimulus

Into this brimming well of creativity, Trevor is obviously making his own videos as @UKTrevor. “I don’t create as much as I should,” but one of his videos with a Peppa Pig book and his daughters has racked up more than 50,000 views. And that is where he finds his creative drive and passion - with his one-year-old and his almost-four-year-old. "Kids think about the world in such a different way. My daughter wants to be a rainbow unicorn one day and Peter Rabbit the next, while building this whole world and whole narrative around it. That's my creative inspiration."

Home to one billion users worldwide and more than 100 million people across Europe, TikTok has undoubtedly become not just a social media juggernaut by opening up a world of creativity to anyone who fancies making microfilms for a ready-made audience.

Even the likes of Netflix and Adobe are paying attention. This week, Netflix and Adobe have announced the launch of a competition on TikTok where users can submit pitches in the form of a trailer and the selected concepts will be developed into short films. Meanwhile, TikTok has announced a celebration of the return of fans to live football to mark its sponsorship of Uefa Euro 2020 with a TV and social global campaign, created by Dark Horses, that invites fans across the globe to get involved in the magic of the beautiful game.

“At TikTok we’re moving at the speed of culture,” says Trevor, talking about his excitement at finding inspiration for innovation every day when he opens the app to discover endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And we are all paying attention.


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