“It’s about experience over stuff”

How a culture of experimentation, creativity and being true to your customers are the keys to being a 21st Century travel brand.

Tor White is Global Creative Director for STA Travel, the world’s largest travel company for students and young people. Working in a ferociously competitive sector, where the internet has dramatically changed the whole industry, needs a radical and energetic approach, and Tor has been at the centre of the company’s digital evolution. We talked Tor about marketing to those pesky millennials through music, how you can establish a unified tone of voice for a global company, and how an internal creative culture is essential for innovation and for cutting through the competition’s noise.

DOOTRIX: So how did you get here? How does one become a Creative Director?

Tor: My history is really non-digital and before I started my role at STA, I had my own little studio, ‘White With One Sugar’. I was doing a lot of print design, retail design, branding, small boutiquey stuff, product design, but not in a digital product sense at all. Five years ago, so many things that we use now like Instagram and Spotify weren’t even available, but you just learn from the doing, and I don’t think that’s any bad thing.

I am not the greatest illustrator, I am not the greatest designer, my photoshop skills are fine, but it is bigger than that. It is not about the skillset for me, it’s about listening and connecting, basically caring deeply about people, ideas and experiences and how we communicate with beauty and, again, care.

It is also about seeing something that is not really there yet and going, ‘that’s interesting. We need to be there.’ I think, it’s about having a good radar, noticing interesting things that are happening. For instance, I became curious about the app Musical.ly in the beginning of 2016, and which still no one over 18 seems to know about, but it has already over 200 million users, mostly teenagers — and is really cool.

DOOTRIX: Could you give me a hypothetical example about how an organisation, like STA, might use Musical.ly or Snapchat that is true to what young people use it for? Isn’t it an intrusion?

I have two schools of thought on this: firstly, when you see something, a new social platform or way of communicating, just give it a shot. As a brand, explore it, experiment with the people who are starting to experiment and be in its space, because that is where you win. If you are a brand that gets there first and that platform takes off, you are in.

Think about Snapchat. DJ Khaled reinvented himself through getting all up in Snapchat from the get go, and he is this big, older, American rapper and now he is super cool, but how did he get this happen? It was because he was there at the right time, committed to experimenting with it and learning it, and then grew with it. He is like, ‘Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’m doing,’ and I think brands can do the same thing. We shouldn’t be scared.

However, my other slightly contradictory thought, is to be so true to your brand that you look at a platform and say: ‘we don’t need to go there. This is what we’re sitting with’ To say, for example: ‘this is our manifesto, the content forms we chose to express it best are video and audio, and so YouTube & Facebook Video and Podcasts are our channels. That is all. And that is where you’ll find us and we will smash it, and all our creative attention and money will go towards creating incredible content there, and other things will come and go, but that’s where we are going to be.’

I think the best way to do it now, is a little of both: have your key core places that you really invest time in, but then also experiment lightly in ones that come up and tickle you and your target audience, and maybe those little ones you experiment in will indeed resonate and take off and grow into one of your core platforms.

DOOTRIX: We use Twitter because I understand it and I use it and I can share our company personality, because I know how to use the tool. So as a creative director, do you look for, someone who understands, naturally, that medium and, therefore, say, ‘We are going to let you people be the voice,’ and not say that it is going to be just STA broadcasting, it is going to Tom, Dick and Harry and Tor?

Tor: Yes. I think the editor is queen right now. For STA, it is layered. We have an incredible wealth of information and content at our fingertips, through our in-store Travel Experts, our customers (the travelers themselves) and our young creative pool of content makers, (because I am a big believer in young creative people doing what they do best), and they all help create the voice.

But with that, and this is where you need to be careful — as there can be so much general opinion without expertise behind it, and we have worked to develop our tone of voice so that it resonates with young people (without trying to be too street!) but so that we also sound like we aren’t going to send you off into some place unprepared! So that is a friction, but one I think we’ve crafted well.

I know some people hate the word, but ‘curation’ of things versus the full ‘everything that is available’ is hugely important, especially when we are saying we, as a brand, are experts in something, so then the people who talk across all our channels need to be helping steer conversations and keeping it at a level.

DOOTRIX: So, as a creative director, is that as much about being a shepherd of people?

Tor: Yes, a really good way of putting it. Yes, I think so.

DOOTRIX: It kind of makes perfect sense when you are saying give it to young people, let them go with it, knock your socks off, off you go. But you are going to have the CEO looking at you, going, ‘Tor, how is it selling airplane tickets?’ So how would you square that circle with your CEO?

Tor: For me, I feel it is my job to be in there, championing that long view. Growing a tribe, growing trust in what we do, being there, being relevant and not having everything that you put out having to have a direct and fast ROI on it. And being lucky enough to work for a CEO who understands and trusts in me, and who has an incredible radar and an appetite to ‘try’ and constantly question, iterate and test.

Our new music vertical is the perfect example of that. There will be some questions ‘OK, you’ve created a music platform, so what is the direct ROI on that — how will that get bums on seats?’ And if we did that for every single piece of content… I don’t think you’d start anything — you’d never be able to experiment. In my eyes, it is like, ‘hell I don’t know!’ but we can clearly see and plan what success could look like.

For STA Travel Sounds for instance, what we are doing is multi-layered, but one of the layers, for example, is that the artists we work with are unsigned when we are with them, but they have a trajectory that is, hopefully, quite good.

We become a huge part of their digital legacy. So when their fans Google them, we are there, and we are there in our truest form: with them travelling, or touring… us enabling their adventures. And their fans are unlike anything we could ever understand. Young music fans are a force! They become the ultimate micro influencers and brand ambassadors for us.

Then there is the obvious uptake of numbers on our channels, and specific destinations related to our bands, and there is a lot of anecdotal feedback. I have, every week, artists in my inbox saying, ‘I want to work with you.’ I have music industry people doing the same thing. And that is pretty neat, and a clear sign of success.

Tor guiding the band Skinny Living through the Phillipines

DOOTRIX: Is there a point when you can tell that a 16-year-old girl becomes 19-year-old traveller and buys her tickets from you because she has been watching a band? Does that matter?

Tor: I don’t think it does. I think the level of interest in what we are doing means that it’s working — again the long view, embedding ourselves in a young person’s life through this music and emotional connection — as that is what music really is — even if not able to attribute to direct conversion. The interest through engagement with content pieces online, our staff loving it, and from a partnership perspective — there is definite interest — they see us as being the “bringer of the cool” in the youth travel space, and want to do more with us.

Taking our inaugural Sounds artists — the band Skinny Living to the Philippines is a great example. I think music and the makers’ stories are the way forward — as the means and magic and method to communicate with young people, and a way to tell new stories and adventures. It’s a shift from old school destination marketing, and we partner with tourist boards who say ‘YES! We agree!’ Our industry partnerships and collaborations are hugely important.

DOOTRIX: So has your ‘marketing mix’ of advertising, PR and social evolved, especially digitally?

Tor: This has been a fascinating part about these last five years, because we have gone through incredible change in that time, because of what is happening in digital and in the travel industry. It can either scare the hell out of people or you go, ‘this is interesting — what are the opportunities — let’s go for it.’

There are so many parts of this. You have the very real ‘everything is about data’, and that has its place, but as the company’s creative lead, for me, all our work needs to be true, it needs to be relevant, it needs to be honest, it needs to be quality and, in fact, you can win more with that stuff because there is so much thoughtless shit out there.

DOOTRIX: I am interested in, the difference between creativity and design. It seems like a lot of designers would say it is a lot about discipline, it is about process, it is almost like engineering, problem solving, and creativity feels like the more wild, abandoned, whoo, let’s throw some paint at the wall and see what happens. So can you combine the two?

Tor: Yes, and I completely agree. I am not process or details driven (laughing). But I have a great team of those people around me. I wouldn’t say I’m emotional, but I’m so passionate about what I do, and I ‘feel’ it all. I do think it’s problem solving, but with a different start point that the solving comes from. I think every business needs that. I think we need that fire, especially in a corporate environment. The next part then is how do you take that and turn it into business KPIs, metrics, and all of that good stuff, that can then in turn allow you to do more.

DOOTRIX: And the answer is?

Tor: I think it is having this wild vision, then creating some very clear brand guidelines. It is almost like you create the framework very clearly, simply, almost your non-negotiables, but then you also say, ‘But there is this whole other place too,’ and I hate the word ‘play’ in that sense, because it sounds like colouring in, but it is like, ‘don’t try and change that. This is our brand, this is the layout, this is our tone of voice, copy is important to us, this is the kind of photography we use, but you can be completely free in your interpretation of that, and also evolve it.’

What I said to my guys is, ‘We have branded guidelines and they are constantly moving, and I want you guys to help shape that.’ They feel that they are part of this evolving brand. For me, that is really important, especially as a young, youth student brand.

The idea of being stuck or standing still doesn’t work for me. So for me, it is leading through trusting myself. I have heard this from loads of people, who say, ‘What’s it about?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, but it’s working.’ Timing? Luck? Being the creative lead working for a CEO who respects what that sort of thinking brings to an organisation, and helping build a brand that works with young people who are creating all the time due to the digital tools in their hands and in turn making creativity part of the brand, part of our USPs… ‘I don’t know, but it’s working.’

DOOTRIX: I am interested in this idea of how a creative lead, at the top of the organisation, can help create company culture and morale.

Tor: Massively, and I think that is one thing that I didn’t realise how much of an impact this way of thinking could have in that regard, but I am so passionate about the brand, when I do speak about it, I am animated. It is real. Obviously we have our finance teams, accounts, product, da-da-da, they may forget why we are here, whereas I am living that every single day, and my team do too. I think the company can see the creative team as a reminder of why we all are here: who our customer is. The vibrancy of our brand.

DOOTRIX: So, is that part of the reason why you feel it was important to have an in-house creative team?

Tor: Yes. I am really anti old-style agency stuff. Again, from the start, although I was brought in to do an external brand refresh, I did the same for the internals. We created an entire brand suite that the world would never see. And that has changed a lot of things, from how people present to each other in internal conferences, to the fact that our travel experts all wear hoodies, and people at HQ’s WANT to wear branded STA hoodies; they ask for them for presents!

DOOTRIX: I suppose the modern understanding of the way that most people want to relate to a brand, I mean nobody has a relationship with Pot Noodles or Shoe Shine, but people do kind of have a relationship with some of the fashion things. They probably do have a relationship with a brand that has taken them off on their wildest adventure ever. So how much do you think that culture could only come from inside, projecting the, ‘Hey, this is us, we’re just guys in hoodies who are just passionate about travel.’ Is that a massive part of it?

Tor: I am sure there would be some agencies who could do really good jobs at it. But as the largest student and youth travel company in the world, the workings of the business behind the scenes is massively complex. The knowledge that people have is key, is really key, and an agency wouldn’t be able to really see and be a part if it all; they couldn’t live it and breathe it. The wider business and all it’s parts move at a pace that is quite unbelievable, and having a creative studio in-house means we can move as quickly as we need to: we can react quickly, be nimble in our actions, as well as have a very clear understanding of our vision and strategy.

DOOTRIX: Is that where you see, primarily, your role as?

Tor: I do think so yes. One level is putting things out in the world that is on brand and evolving and being cool and relevant, knowing our customer base, and all integral stuff, but the other part of it, which I think I have really loved, is actually being that voice inside a business, and championing that creativity.

DOOTRIX: I was watching, vicariously, through Instagram, your trip with the bands in the Philippines. I was going to ask you, as a creative lead, how do you step outside of the structures of the office and ‘keep it real’?

Tor: I think I don’t change inside or outside the office! I’m one of those folk whose life is work is life is work and am totally happy with that. Travel and creativity is me. And I was able to make this incredible idea actually happen! I like to roll up my sleeves and be “on the ground” — be it at a festival or directing the films, it’s possible I’m a control freak but more like I want to craft as I go, and allowing for the magic to happen. Maybe as it’s my ass on the line to make it work, I’m massively invested in all the parts — our brand, our vision, the quality of the story, our partners, the band and their brand and image… I want to do make it all sing.

DOOTRIX: Even with great stuff, the constant challenge for all marketing types is how do get your ‘content’ seen and heard?

Tor: Well, I could create so much stuff because I think it is great, and any brand could do that. But, if you don’t have the distribution and amplification models right, there is no point spending that money. It is such a catch-22, because I only want to create stuff that is awesome quality, but, you need to have a community to see it and then share it and then really use it. You can’t just create something awesome without the supporting ecosystem sorted and expect it to flourish.

The three components, as I see it: you must have the great quality, relevant and real ideas and stories, captured via the best content fit for it — film, writing, audio — and then the distribution: the channels and timing that resonate the most with where your audience is at. If one of those is missing, it isn’t going to fly. I think that is where most businesses are still learning.

DOOTRIX: Talking about some businesses that you admire, not necessarily that you like, but you really respect the execution and the way they are doing, and then the other way around, some people who you just, flat out, like?

Tor: I have got two sides of it. My first love is always for small, individualists, doing more carefully crafted stuff for quite small, niche tribes — and they’re the ones that stoke my creative fires. Often in fashion and sustainability, brands with stories to tell, with their brand as product (think Hiut Denim, Elvis & Kresse, All Birds). But for the big guys…. I think Nike is amazing in everything they do. I think Red Bull is fascinating and wonderful, it’s a soft drink — but what they’ve done with music and extreme sports, as a content/media publisher — before that became de rigueur — is very impressive.

Air New Zealand are amazing. You receive an email from them and it will tell you the flight details, what the weather it is going to be, who is the Captain of the flight, and the lead host. Their personalisation and user experience is amazing. It is always, totally customer first.

DOOTRIX: Air New Zealand is a good one, because they have become famous for having the Lord of the Rings and the All Blacks doing their preflight safety videos, and they did it with a kind of very, ‘This is who we are. This is our Kiwi sense of humour and style’.

Tor: Yes. But, also, again, horrible word to overuse, ‘omnichannel’, but, for them, they are them through and through, in everything that they do. From email, to phone, to online, to plane. The tone of voice, it is living and breathing.

DOOTRIX: I have been laughingly talking about HUX — Holistic User Experience — have you been able to do something like that with STA?

Tor: That is the ultimate goal and that is where we are heading! How people are buying travel is changing of course — across so many mediums, but, for me, it is like one piece: our tone of voice and design across all our customer touch-points — our “brand in action” — should be the same in one of our Facebook ads to someone on the end of a phone, to a landing page, to an email, to one of our travel experts sitting in one of our stores in Australia.

DOOTRIX: So, if you were giving advice to another director, setting out on that journey to establish that, what kind of advice would you give about creating user experience through the whole thing?

Tor: I think you need to be so clear on what you stand for, first and foremost. Again, it is setting out that framework and then looking at every single customer touchpoint, and maybe scaling them from touching the most to touching the least. Even though you might be reaching more people online, our Travel Experts in our stores give our customers a much richer experience.

The base level is that everyone — online and offline — understands WHY we are here, HOW we do it, and then of course WHAT we do.
Tor and the STA stage at Bestival

DOOTRIX: What is interesting in talking to you, particularly, is STA is primarily a young people’s business. So do you see behaviour that is utterly different from a generation above?

Tor: I didn’t work in this industry before millennials were around, so I came in as they came in. I do think that I am one as well — or rather have that mindset. I think that helps!

But, in terms of how millennials are travelling, the “gap year” after school, it exists for sure, but not like it used to. A lot of people will be travelling later, because, they are not settling down until later, or — you get a lot of this — as house prices continue to grow, people chose: ‘Let’s go away for a year before we settle down.’

Also, there are so many different ways of travelling. Smaller focused breaks are popular, and people deciding on particular travel and adventures as something they can put on their CV. So it is not just ‘I am just going to go and party’ but more: ‘I want to volunteer, I want to learn a language. I want to make a difference”. Working holiday visas are massive, and different cultures do it differently as well. The reasons why young people travel have changed, and definitely the way people are travelling has changed, and of course, will continue to change.

DOOTRIX: Again, if you were giving advice to another business, just simply about how you think and look at the generations behind this, because if you are a creative director or technology director, you are likely to be 30s, 40s, possibly 50s. Any advice about how you should be looking back at the generations that are coming up?

Tor: Here’s one of those great Gary Vaynerchuck sayings I love: “the market decides” — right? I think given all the digital tools we have, you just need to watch, be aware, be interested in what the next generation is interested in. Observe shifts in behaviours, take guides from music and fashion and what apps are hot and how they are consuming media. Get curious. Talk to young people. Engage with them and you’ll learn fast.

I learn so much through my creative team and all the young people I work with — film makers and musicians. Like when you start a conversation in messenger, that then continues in instagram, swaps over to whatsapp and then completes in a twitter DM. That then is how we as a brand need to be able to communicate with our customers. And it helps that we have positioned the STA Travel brand to be creative, working with our customers to create stuff, collaborative, all the ‘C’ words, but it is because that is what they (young people) are doing.

DOOTRIX: That is interesting, because that is the thing that most brands fail to do. They can say, ‘We are collaborative.’ but you can’t just say it, you have got to be it.

Tor: Absolutely. Again, the Philippines Unplugged film project was fascinating for that as well, because I took a group of guys in a band who had not travelled to Asia before, and we were able to witness (and capture!) their reactions and experiences — and that was wonderful. It is stuff that you cannot fake, like filming Danny, one of the guitarists, having arrived in Manila at 3 in the morning, he hadn’t left the UK before, and his eyes are sparkling and popping out of his head and his smile is so wide — it is divine to see!

It was how I had envisaged it, which was great: this ‘arrival’ very pale (sorry guys!) from an English winter… and then just loosening up, this physical and spiritual loosening up: faces getting wider, hair getting messier. It was like, ‘I haven’t washed in three days,’ ‘It doesn’t matter’, ‘this is life’.

“That was such a beautiful reminder to me of why we do these things, which is forgetting the shit. It is experience over stuff.”

DOOTRIX: So you’ve caught all of that, you have got the magic in a box, you bring it back to Kensington, how do you put it into an STA campaign?

Tor: I would do that again and again and again; taking young people who haven’t travelled away on an adventure and capturing it all. It is the ‘showing through doing’ thing. That is it, really. Those stories tell themselves. All that Philippines trip needed was someone as a guide — that was me — and a plan and our film crew (two young creative guys I work with) to capture it. … and it worked! That is the thing of being so real, and we are working with travel which is real.

You don’t need big budgets, you don’t need to be glossy, you just need to show transformation, the real emotion, and what an incredible world we are in, and how much growth and change — and joy! — that happens when you get out into it. That is it. It is quite simple.

DOOTRIX: Do you have a prediction of how digital technology is going to change, particularly in your industry, but the way a creative director can lead a brand?

Tor: I think we don’t know yet, and you have to love that — I love that! I love the fact that a video campaign won’t have the same impact in two years. Or it might have more, who knows? Perhaps we’ll be back to spoken story telling so that we can ask Alexa to tell us about a band going to the Philippines and what went down! I think it’s always changing, and that is really exciting.

“I also think, at the end of the day, the things that still matter are the same things that mattered from the beginning of time. It is about quality; it must be honest and true and reflective of your brand values and what the market wants. That seems so simple to me, and I think people forget that.”

DOOTRIX: That is the mantra, really — honest and true to the people you are talking to.

Tor: Yes. It is not hard. You just need to know those people honestly, know yourself (the brand), know what you stand for… know how you want to make people feel… and then make cool stuff.