Learn More
May 30, 2024 by Marc Peruzzi

Only Solutions: Show Me Something Real

Entrepreneurs have tales to tell, but the story of The Community Project might be a roadmap for the entire creative industry.

Scott Markewitz made a career out of photographing skiers and cyclists as athletes not models—real people with scars outside and hardware inside, trying to pay the rent.

By turning the camera on them, instead of the mannequin people brands wanted at the time, he helped usher in an age of authenticity to ski and bike media and advertising. Today, everyone pretends to be authentic by aping the style of the early fun hogs. But authenticity isn’t a look. The coquettish eye roll of the influencer; the van lifers surrounded by comfort class tchotchkes; the tales of easy self discovery—after 10-plus years of swallowing such algorithmically regurgitated content, the veneer is cracking.

Travis Tomczak built his marketing career by aligning brand positioning with products and customers—and tracking growth and loyalty because of it. He did that at times by being irreverent. But irreverence only works when a company knows who it is. Just as with athletes, authenticity matters. The Gap can’t be irreverent because they sell milk to milk drinkers. But outdoor sports were born from counterculture dirtbags, and despite the posing and entitlement we see in our feeds, that still matters. Much of Travis’s irreverent marketing rode on the images Scott captured.

Travis used to hire Scott for shoots. Later they would hang at enduro races where Travis competed in the age groups and Scott’s son Julien, a future World Cup downhiller, gunned it for the pro podium. This was just before Covid, and Scott and Travis were looking for the next phase of their careers. Scott’s meniscus kept saying he couldn’t chase young athletes with a 40-pound camera pack on his back forever. Travis was uninspired by the prospect of working for corporations run by people who would nod in agreement in support of brand authenticity—and then chase lowest common denominator ROI.

The origin story of the marketing company Travis and Scott started, The Community Project (TCP), is convoluted, as most origin stories are, but after years of kicking around ideas they looked at each other and said something to the effect of: “Between the two of us, we understand marketing from the brand and creative side as well as anyone. We should start a full-service agency.”

The Community Project went live in November of 2023. It’s a case study in how the business of creativity and marketing works now, as the categories evolve in real time under a cloud of uncertainty. That’s not hyperbole. To quote Donald Rumsfeld, the creative community is facing many “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” at the moment. Will AI break SEO? If influencers aren’t selling outdoor products, what exactly is the point? How can marketers reclaim a brand’s image after years of just moving SKUs through micro targeting? How does one even go about turning a customer base into an audience that breathes your brand?

What Scott and Travis learned in the lead-up to their launch, and what they’re learning now, isn’t just meaningful to their business, it’s meaningful to the creative industry as a whole at this moment in time.

The Community Project at Work

Scott, shooting up, Travis, looking up, and Hence collaborator Mike Call, looking in his viewfinder. TCP is helping Outlaw Bike Team, a local outfit for competitive athletes, with their brand positioning and marketing. The riders are wearing Leatt protective gear, another TCP client.

Some context about how we got here helps. There once was a golden age of Facebook advertising. The social media company easily parsed and packaged users—you and me—into demographic and psychographic bundles that they could sell access to. If you as a marketer wanted backcountry skiers in the Northern Rockies, Facebook delivered those users as if by magic—it was actually an invasion of privacy. With every dollar spent, you could track your return on investment. It was so easy that many companies stopped thinking about brand positioning or the brand at all in favor of immediate, transactional, ROI tracked sales. (It’s another story, but a lot of mediums for effective branding went away during this time as a result.)

And then the combination punch came. Just as Covid was ramping up, privacy was deemed more valuable than marketing, and Facebook advertising’s efficacy suffered as Apple essentially told Facebook that the days of stalking were over. And then the right hook of the full pandemic landed just as marketers were again thinking about branding.

The bike, backcountry skiing, and general outdoors categories are the best examples of what happened next. When Covid settled in, the world bought bikes and tents because hotels were deemed sketchy and only cardboard cutouts attended baseball games. Bike shop showrooms were emptied of bikes. Accessories, often stalled by supply chain delays, demanded a premium. Skyrocketing sales of outdoor apparel, sleeping pads, and backcountry skis mirrored bike sales. And in those verticals there was much rejoicing. Once Americans get a taste for outdoor pursuits, the thinking went, they will stay with them. Pundits theorized about post pandemic retention rates of 60 percent, 70 percent, and more. The theory held that the Covid participation bump would have a long tail. And ordering followed.

Except the tail was bobbed. The outdoor industry is run by enthusiasts. And enthusiasm is a bias. We want everyone to love what we love. But riding a mountain bike is hard. So is sleeping on the ground in the rain. Backcountry skiing is both hard and risky. Hell, even a kitted out van gets old after the third road trip. (Sell me your van, impulse buyer!) Despite Ozempic weight loss, outdoorsy apparel as a fashion “do,” and gyms that cost more than golf club memberships, actually doing stuff outdoors is back to pre-pandemic levels as spectator sports rebounded quickly and screen time continued its steady march to destroy society.

What followed was predictable if you’ve been around the greater outdoor industry long enough to remember downturns. Marketing departments and budgets were cut, and in some cases nearly eliminated, as management tried to figure out what to do next.

Cutting marketing is a reflex reaction to a down market. That’s nothing new. Some simply can’t spend, because they didn’t keep enough cash on hand for cyclical downturns. While others run their companies like they ride bikes, staring at their front wheel instead of down the hill. But as with the stock market, where smart investors spend more in down times, maintaining or doubling down on brand marketing during downturns sets you up for a faster and more sustainable recovery. But even if you think that conceit is up for debate, the larger reality is not: The battle for eyeballs and brand loyalty is only intensifying. In this climate, killing your brand marketing is suicide.

Relationships Matter

As a former pro athlete himself, Scott knows how the talent/creative relationship is supposed to work. It’s about working for each other.

It was into this market that Scott and Travis launched The Community Project. TCP is not just a creative agency, or a PR firm, or an athlete management collective, it’s a community of people with those specialized skills and more. When you’re looking for a highly skilled sound engineer for one very specific project, you’re in the market for a specialist. When you need to envision a campaign that will correctly position your brand for the next two decades, you need a community.

As for Scott and Travis, they had proof of product: Their shared histories as creatives and marketers across mediums speak to that. There’s also nothing particularly hip about TCP. And that’s also by design. But as a young business built to address the challenges of 2024, TCP identified a clear advantage in their approach, which is to tap proven colleagues to collaborate with on projects.

That approach—building teams as projects demand—sounds brilliant right about now. While the legacy agencies often tell clients they can run all your marketing at a fraction of the cost of a fully staffed department, in reality those firms are saddled with many of the same burdens as any company: Rent for office space; staffing costs; HR; and all the rest. That’s why, for an example I have firsthand experience with, when you outsource your social media to a legacy agency, they immediately set you up with a junior staffer with no connection to your brand or category. You do not want that person to write your posts. It’s the same story with that brand anthem video that didn’t come together. Or the ad campaign that fell flat. The brand is pinched, the agency of record is pinched, and the results speak for themselves.

“It becomes a race to the bottom,” says Travis. “Maybe it’s the CEO, maybe it happens at the agency, but you get this ‘I have a guy,’ mentality. ‘I have a guy that can take those photos for a third of the cost.’ Yeah, but there’s a difference between those images and the work of a high-level professional photographer. The content isn’t representative of the brand or the product. Consumers are starting to recognize that now. I’m seeing that in the comments—finally. They say things like, ‘That’s a bad edit. I hope you didn’t pay for that.’ Every agency says that ‘when you want to look different, come to us.’ But it’s not true. Because of the way the relationship works between brands and legacy agencies, cheap inauthenticity is everywhere right now. Are you going to let them generate your next tagline over ChatGPT?”

The Community Project has a different model. For one, they’re lean. There’s no central office with air hockey tables. And to execute on projects, Scott and Travis build those teams of high-caliber 1099 professionals because they have the rolodexes to do so. That means they’re contracting with people who, because of the quality of the work they do, would often be cost prohibitive for most high-overhead agencies in the outdoor world.

TCP is also more transparent. Because they’re tapping seasoned pros, they don’t have to keep the team behind a veil. Yes, there’s risk in that. A client could poach the team on the open market after the first campaign. But the upside to transparency is trust. The client knows who they’re getting—and what they’re getting. “We don’t tell people we’re going to be disruptive,” says Travis. “We tell them we’re going to do the work to find out who they are as a company, and then let their inherent uniqueness stand out in the campaigns we build.”

It’s not like Scott and Travis are trying to compete for the next global Coca Cola contract. They’re only taking on projects that they can deliver on as they grow. “We’re small,” says Scott, “so we have to start small. Some of our first clients included a local band, the Outlaw Bike Team, and a sports bra company.”

By contracting with professionals as projects demand, TCP also bakes in protections from the trap of overreach. They aren’t making staffers or contractors stretch themselves thin by taking on work that might not be a strength. “They get to do what they’re good at and what they enjoy,” says Travis. “We’re not asking one person to wear ten hats. Yes, you can expand your horizons, but you don’t have to do everything yourself like the filmmaker who takes on a project without a budget for a team. That’s also true with me and Scott. We get to work with creatives from other mediums. That’s bliss. I’m learning from you and you’re learning from me. That type of intentional, unforced growth is what this business was supposed to be about.”

Small Companies Start Small

Between Scott (right) and Travis (left) you have more bike marketing experience than most dedicated firms in that space. But by design they’re taking on clients that they have community connections to as they grow The Community Project. TCP is already moving into ski, outdoor, music, and more.

Because of the work that we do as creatives and brands and marketers, and the focus that it requires just to execute, we tend to work in microcosms. We used to break out of those shells at trade shows and in big organizations, but remote work, for all its many upsides, is inherently isolating. Yet nothing that we do in the pursuit of authenticity can live in such a vacuum for long. Relationships, collaboration, and all good work are ecosystem based. The creative and talent—athletes, personalities, sources, subjects—relationship is symbiotic.

Which brings us around to the meaning behind the name “The Community Project.” Before he was a ski photographer, Scott was an athlete on the other side of the lens. In the years since, the relationships he fostered with athletes propelled his career. Many of the skiers he worked with, like Richie Schley, went on to drive freeride mountain biking. The big mountain skiers he shot in Alaska’s pioneer days became guides and lodge owners. Scott brought his athletes recognition, they brought him access.

Travis, who didn’t like staying in corporate lanes, spent much of his career as a de facto athlete manager (Cannondale and GIRO) or oversaw it directly (SPY). It helps that he’s been an athlete his entire life, first in D1 field sports and later as a Cat 1 downhiller on the mountain bike circuit.

To Scott and Travis, community is fundamental. It begins for TCP in the ski and bike spaces where Scott and Travis came up, but it’s more inclusive than that. Those same marketing cuts discussed above are affecting the ability of companies to properly manage their athletes. By bringing athletes into TCP—they have seven mountain bikers and counting—a brand can outsource their talent management through TCP. To execute on that, Scott and Travis brought in Jim Heeney as the head of athlete and talent management. Heeney has decades of sports marketing experience and, says Travis, “is one of the most likable human beings on the planet.” He has a deep knowledge of the inner workings of brands, athletes, and the event world.

The talent management component rounds out TCP’s portfolio, which is soup to nuts and includes brand consulting and development work, PR, marketing, campaign creation, and photo and video production—all of it built to order through the community of professionals they’re gathering.

But even a neighborhood-sized community of professional creatives, athlete managers, and marketers like TCP can’t afford to live apart from the broader creative community. To be irreverent, to promote athletes, to tell the stories behind the stories, to be relevant to the community that they’re building, Scott and Travis knew they needed to push their stories out to make larger connections.

They’re doing that in conjunction with the former World Cup downhiller and Red Bull announcer Eliot Jackson. Kickstand Media is a separate LLC between The Community Project and Jackson. It’s on Kickstand that the team—the community—will have total control of original projects. Kickstand also allows brand partners to align with meaningful content derived from the type of voice and risk taking that most risk averse brands wouldn’t be comfortable producing on their own.

Kickstand starts with a podcast with Jackson and the downhill star Neko Mulally—the first one ran May 15. But there’s more to come, says Travis: “Right now Neko and Eliot are the value. The athletes are the draw. Stage two is video. Stage three is more in the Anthony Bourdain travel style. As you hit 1,000 subscribers on Spotify and a million views on YouTube then ideally the channel becomes more valuable. Everything is going to be high level and clean. Kickstand, while separate from The Community Project’s business pursuits, will give rise to the community’s voice. It’s how we close the loop.”

Hence collaborator Mick Call is a filmmaker by every meaning of the word. He's also a collaborator with Scott. Check out his behind the scenes edit from The Community Project's on location shoot with the Outlaw Bike Team and Leatt.

This column—Only Solutions—is based on the idea that as a culture we spend too much time dwelling on problems rather than solutions. But to recap the problems quickly: Marketing departments are facing a downturn after a tumultuous decade that witnessed a lot of ROI chasing at the expense of brand positioning and, more simply, meaningful connections between consumers and companies.

Only marketing can fix those problems, but the companies need outside help. That’s why The Community Project makes for a timely experiment. They are a team of people with highly specialized skills, but collectively they are much more than that. Instead of struggling through the understory, TCP’s community-based approach lets them see clients, the competitive environment, and even a bit of the future from a drone’s perspective, which is what it takes to produce meaningful storytelling around brands in 2024.

And the Only Solutions prescription: Embrace collaboration, rebuild community, allow yourself the transparency to build trust, take some ownership of your distribution, and remember nothing lives for long outside of its ecosystem.