Damian Kulash and OK Go Seek Brand Partner for a Year of Crazy Adventures

Who's in for the new record?

Headshot of Tim Nudd

CANNES, France—OK Go, the band that makes cool stuff with brands, is looking for a partner.

Having worked with Chevrolet, Google, Samsung, State Farm and others on their inventive and incredibly popular music videos, the band would love to link up with a single brand partner for a series of adventures connected to its upcoming record, frontman Damian Kulash says.

Kulash was here at Cannes Lions this week, a year after the band's video "Needing/Getting," a collaboration with Chevrolet, picked up a slew of Lions. This year, he was on hand to announce the winner of a Saatchi & Saatchi contest in which filmmakers were invited to submit clips to become the official video for "I'm Not Through," a new song from the band's forthcoming fourth album. (Nelson de Castro, a 25-year-old American, won the contest. See his video here.)

Kulash sat down with Adweek to talk about bands, brands, fear, freedom and what kinds of insane things he wants to try with the new record.

You reinvented the way a band markets itself. Why were you so far ahead of the curve on that?

Necessity? Good luck? We consciously tried to stop thinking of music as the product it has been for the last 100 years—or since the '50s, I guess. We still follow our creative instincts in a pretty similar way. It's just that instead of stopping at the edges of music, instead of saying, "OK, now we've made a song, or an album, and we're done," we try to look at, "What do we want to make?" Usually it starts with music. Usually it ends somewhere else.

Do you still call yourselves a band?

Yeah, I'd call us a band. When I meet someone on an airplane and they ask what I do, and I say I'm a singer, I feel like I'm lying a little bit. Even though I do sing for a living, I do all these other things for a living, too. They think a very different thing than what I actually do.

They think you do weddings?

(laughs) Exactly. And they're like, "Aw, and you're making that work for you?"

Are you guys a media company?

(pause) Yeah. If you asked me what we are, I wouldn't say a media company. But if you ask if we're a media company, I can't say no. Yes, we're making media.

What do you look for in a partnership with a brand?

Basically, honesty. The reason we work with brands at all is that they're better partners for us than the traditional music industry. Our vision of success for something matches our partner's vision much more when we're working with a brand than when we were working with a record label. Record labels measure success by record sales and radio charts. Our feeling is that engagement is success. Certainly, buying a record is a way of engaging with it. But so is watching a video, and so is playing a game. That connection to people is what we are addicted to. And brands tend to have a much more contemporary view of success that way. If that's what they're looking for, and they're honest about that, then it's awesome. Almost any problem is easy to solve from there on out. It's like a romantic relationship. You can get in a fight, but you've still got "I love you."

Is it good to work with a bunch of different brands?

It's more time consuming. We have a new record. It's actually a record and a half—17 songs. So, we'll be putting out some stuff this fall, and then a full-length release early next year. We would love to find a single brand to work with for the entire thing, or a small family of brands. We wouldn't wind up having to do the same thing over and over again. And we'd be able to make much more interesting stuff if each project doesn't have to be distinct from the others. It would be really fun to plan 12 or 18 months of awesome stuff that actually connected to itself.

Do you know who the sponsor might be yet?

We're talking to several brands right now. And we'll see what happens. We won so many Lions last year that a lot of agencies and their clients will take the meeting, and talk the talk, and kind of disappear. But the record being finished means we're ready to go out in the world and do stuff. We released a game a month ago, and it was really successful. That's made a difference in convincing a lot of people we talk to that we're not secretly talking just about videos.

What else would you like to try?

I'm really excited to swing with the fences with the live show. I feel like there haven't been really dramatic changes to what people do in rock shows in a while. People have gone from good lighting to LED screens. But if you think about what you can do with 5,000 people in a room for two hours…

With their devices…

With their technology in hand. You just have to liberate yourself from the idea that it's got to be four people up there playing instruments. The best show I've seen in a long time is a Daft Punk show. It might not even be them up in those suits. I have no idea. You certainly don't know if they're doing anything live or not. They're just two guys standing up there, and awesome stuff is happening to you. Audio-video awesomeness is occurring, and you are super excited, and that's what matters.

Obviously, the experience you'd have at one of shows would be different. But there's so much to take from theater and technology and film. I feel like that experience could be really fucked with. And I'm hoping we'll find a brand that gets that.

Is there a dream brand that you'd love to work with?

It's usually brands that sell ideas, primarily, and whatever they make is just the instantiation of that. Apple and Google are both pretty good ones. While Apple is clearly selling stuff, it's an environment, not a product. In general, it's easier for us to imagine gracefully coexisting with something where we can all get behind innovation, or wonder and joy, or nerdiness and math and science—something we can all believe in, as opposed to "But it's this potato chip, isn't it?"

Are companies ever scared that your brand might overshadow theirs?

Not so far. There's just a lot of negotiation on how something is going to be rolled out. No matter what they say, most people have a conservative history. And so, even if they want to be super new world about everything, at the end of the day it's mostly about exclusivity and "We should be driving traffic to their YouTube page" or something. You don't really want that. If we make a video and it shows up on your YouTube page and seems like an ad, then people don't see it as a video anymore, and they don't engage with it. There's a lot of hand-holding to get people to overcome their fears of existing in such a nebulous space, to have marketing out there that isn't specifically controlled and trackable.

Tell me about Nelson's video, and what you liked about it.

It was a really good, simple idea. It was the closest to something we might have done. It's a very simple idea, very well investigated.

What will success look like with this new record?

I hope I don't know. Over the last record cycle, I knew we wanted to make videos and keep chasing these weird directions, but I certainly had no idea it would play out the way it did. In the most traditional description, the record is really electronic. There are not a ton of organic instruments on it. There's a guitar here and there, and there's drums every once in a while. But it's a really synthetic and very poppy sound, and I'm really into it. It's not a wild, wild departure, but it definitely is new and different for us.

Now you just need the "Brought to you by…"

Exactly. I mean, if we put the record out ourselves, we'll be fine. We have enough fans that I'm not too worried that we couldn't pay our bills by selling records. But the scope of things we like to do with videos and stuff is definitely beyond our own pocketbooks. So, it would be good to find the right partners.

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.