Interview with Stephen Niedzwiecki, Founder and CCO of YARD

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



stephenTell us about YARD and its inception. What differentiates it from other agencies that specialize within the retail space?

I founded YARD in 2002 (11 years ago). The name of the agency was originally inspired by my time spent on the West Coast. I was living in Orange County and was the creative director at Gap, and during this time I found myself drawn to and completely inspired by the backyard culture of southern California. From the street, things appeared to be fairly quiet and almost cookie cutter-like, but in the backyards, things were full of life. It’s where each family’s individuality and personality showed through. Hence the name of our agency.

Many agencies promise a special combination of strong strategic thinking and compelling creative. Few are able to effectively deliver on both. On the one hand, strategically driven shops typically lack the vision (and courage) to push the creative envelope and stay ahead of the fashion curve. By contrast, creative-led agencies are often distracted by the next hot trend (or model or photographer) and miss the opportunity to really understand where the brand is coming from and what motivates the target consumer. At YARD, we feel we’ve struck the right balance of brains and beauty between me and our co-founder, who heads up our strategy arm.

YARD has worked with many iconic retail and beauty brands, such as Perry Ellis, Laura Mercier and John Varvatos. With all the changes in digital communication, should fashion brands continue to rely on traditional media to influence consumers?

I believe that one of the reasons brands become iconic is that they adapt to the changing environment that they exist in. They evolve as their consumer evolves. And this is true for how they utilize traditional and emerging media. For example, John Varvatos utilizes both print and social media because it is relevant to the person who buys the brand. It is not a question about reliance; it is a decision about relevance.

How should these brands be evolving to face current and future challenges in brand communication?

The way these brands should evolve is by listening attentively to their consumer. One of my favorite brands, Isopure, has gained relevance by paying attention to what the end user wants. This is how we develop compelling imagery and communications that has grown the brand over the last few years.

Many brands and retailers are focusing on the offline ROI of online efforts; how do you track in-store purchases that were driven by online efforts? Should retailers be concerned with this, or how do you address this issue?

The short answer is that it depends. There are a number of different ways to not only track but also qualify success at the retail level. However, it largely depends on a brand’s marketing goals, which vary from brand to brand and from campaign to campaign.

For example, if we decide to run a focused campaign for a single product line with a direct drive to retail, chances are we will be able to attribute any lift in retail to that effort. Alternatively, if we’re running an integrated media campaign with multi-tiered brand messages that are aimed at altering brand perception, it may take longer to move the needle at the retail level because there are so many different factors and variables involved. So it really all depends on the goals that the brand is working to achieve.

What have been some of your favorite projects produced by YARD?Tell us about the thought and strategy behind these campaigns.

John Varvatos: Very rarely are you given the opportunity to create a campaign that marries so closely with your personal passions. In the case of John Varvatos, we were able to define the muse of the “Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman.” It is a brand truth, and for the past eight years, we have had the honor of working with some of the most infamous rock legends including Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, the Roots and most recently Jimmy Page and Gary Clark Jr.

Perry Ellis: Another favorite project has been our work with Perry Ellis. During our first season together, we were able to develop a long-standing platform for the brand to stand on for years to come. This project was particularly gratifying for me because we were able to reach into the soul of the founder, Perry Ellis himself, and bring out his true spirit. Perry Ellis, the man, believed that one shouldn’t take fashion too seriously. So with this in mind, we found a way to reinvent this creed for a generation that wasn’t as familiar with the designer. This provided us with the foundation on which to build campaigns for future seasons.

Isopure: Isopure is an interesting example of another rare opportunity that grew into something beyond what we could have ever imagined. Isopure came to us in 2010 seeking a packaging refresh. We took a product that had a deep-rooted credibility and trust within the protein beverage category and grew it into something relevant for the fitness masses. We added a layer of emotion that was otherwise non-existent and gave retailers something new to believe in. Further, we built a thriving social community — from literally zero followers to more than 200,000 in only 18 months — which is something that we’re extraordinarily proud of.

How does music influence your creative work?

Growing up between Israel and New York, I was constantly surrounded by music. And in both regions, music evoked a range of emotions and allowed me to find my personal escapes. In Israel, music was about celebrating, joy and dancing. In New York, I would sit in my room with my stereo and play my rock records — The Clash, the Pretenders and Joy Division — while I drew comic books of Godzilla and Mothra. So music always had a large role in my creative process, both back then and today. I am inspired by many things, but music is the constant sound that brings all of my interests and passions together.

With your work on Perry Ellis, you helped to revitalize an “American heritage” brand to appeal to a younger demographic. Why not just rebrand the company? Why work to maintain some of the history of the brand?

Why start over when you have something that hasn’t been used to its full advantage? When the Perry Ellis brand was originally launched, it was one of the very first true designer brands. Before Perry Ellis, menswear was very traditional; Perry was able to take men’s fashion to a new level and make it modern and playful.

Although there had been previous attempts to invent the brand in the past, we were careful not to walk away from the essence of the brand. We were inspired by both the brand and the designer and wanted to modernize the image to appeal to a new generation.

What trends in marketing/advertising do you find most interesting/exciting?

I think it’s very interesting how brands are developing their own media platforms with the aid of social media. It’s a direct two-way conversation now via tweets and hashtags. The development of unique content is another trend I find interesting. Instead of the 30-second ad, brands are serving up more information about themselves packaged in longer format

One reason you love what you do: My career affords me the opportunity to be surrounded by amazing, creative people every single day.

Favorite ad: One of my favorites, which has actually continued to be a favorite over the years, is Wonderbra. Always smart but always willing to push the envelope, it continuously puts out amazing work.


Must-read book: “Leeclowsbeard” is brilliant. It’s a must-read for anyone in the advertising industry and even for those who are not.

Connect with Stephen on LinkedIn or by visiting YARD.

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