Foursquare Seeks To Show Off Its Artistic Side With Its In-House Creative Shop Sixteen

"The goal is to take our expertise in location technology and machine learning and apply that to the creative process in a way that hopefully creates more powerful outcomes on behalf of our clients," says Sixteen By Foursquare VP, Creative & Marketing Swen Graham.

As the use cases for location intelligence continue to explore more than just targeting ads at drop-pins on a smartphone app, brands are trying to find ways to incorporate the analysis of geo-data with the building or creative campaigns across all media channels.

That broader marketing trend is what spurred Foursquare to formalize its own creative tools and talent into Sixteen last April. Foursquare billed Sixteen as in-house creative agency “dedicated to exploring the intersection of creativity and location technology.”

A play on the Sixteen refers to “four squared (4×4=16),” the unit reflects Foursquare’s growth from being a check-in app to a more expansive enterprise services company offering attribution, and programmatic ad buying tools with Pinpoint, and even white-labeling of its analytics to brands’ apps.

For example, in March 2017, Foursquare expanded the use of its location analytics outside of its own two apps, the eponymous flagship which promotes “discovery” and its Swarm check-in app. Foursquare struck licensing deals for its Pilgrim SDK to platforms that want to use the same tools to promote discovery within their branded apps.

Now, with Sixteen, Foursquare hopes to hone the science it’s developed into its artistic side, says Swen Graham, Foursquare’s SVP, Creative and Global Marketing.

GeoMarketing: What is Sixteen and how does Foursquare view the role of location intelligence shaping ad creation?

Swen Graham: Sixteen is something that we’ve been building towards for a while. We have an in-house creative team that has worked closely with advertising agencies and brands for years. Location is becoming more front of mind for advertisers. We’ve been seeing that trend more and more. Agencies and brands want a unique approach to being able to take advantage of the possibilities that location intelligence unlocks.

How did Foursquare decide to start a formal creative unit?

Given our history and years of experience in the location space, the mountains of data that we’re sitting on top of when it comes to understanding human movement patterns outside of Google and Facebook, we feel like we’re in a sort of a unique position to be able to offer something to the market that isn’t necessarily competitive with traditional agencies, but we see it as complementary.

Every agency has their own POV and their own skill set. We see the contribution we can make to the creative conversation, specifically for our clients of offering a POV at the confluence of location technology and creativity. That’s the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish with Sixteen.

The goal is to take our expertise in location technology and machine learning and apply that to the creative process in a way that hopefully creates more powerful outcomes on behalf of our clients.

An example of Sixteen by Foursquare ad creative

What is Sixteen’s mission? Is it to create ads for Foursquare’s flagship discovery app and its social check-in app Swarm? Or are you looking outside those Foursquare-owned apps?

The vast majority of what we’ll be creating is going to exist outside of our apps. This is a creative suite that enhances or offering for managed service for our Pinpoint [location marketplace] platform. This could potentially inform other types of client strategies and client decisions.

It’s an important point to note that is this isn’t necessarily just about the apps. This is about how can creative be informed across a whole suite of consumer touchpoints using location technology.

How will you work with agencies? What’s the template for how Sixteen will work?

There are dozens of examples of things that we’ve done over the years where we’re using our understanding of location to inform what the creative experience looks like. We have believed for some time that the places that you go and visit in the world are a much more powerful indicator of your values and how you spend your time and the types of things that you’d be interested in than just where you go on the internet.

I bet if I asked you, “What did you do yesterday?” You’re probably not going to come back with the answer of, “I opened up Facebook and then I looked at Instagram. Then I was on Snapchat checking out stories.” You probably do all those things, but what you’ll likely say is, “I was out doing this with my family,” or, “I was out in the garden getting a brutal sunburn,” which is what I was doing yesterday.

Those types of real world behaviors as a tool to inform the creative experience, whether that’s the message, whether that’s the moment that you intercept, whether that’s the type of behavioral profile that you can build to create more sequential messaging. That’s what we believe we can bring to the conversation when it comes to creativity and really serve as a creative counterpart I think to agencies that want to work with us.

Many times over the years where we’ve actually produced all of the creative on behalf of clients in-house. But, I do think that there’s a very interesting opportunity for us to look at becoming a collaborator. Not just to the agency community, but we’re in conversations with academic institutions about interesting ways to use our data set to inform things that they’re doing.

All of those types of efforts will fit under the umbrella of Sixteen and what it can offer to the market. That might be interesting in creative data analytics at some point. It might be sort of the ad units or the deep media units, which are some rich media units that we’ve launched that are contextually aware of their location.

What’s your personal approach to creativity and how does it fit with what Sixteen hopes to accomplish?

I have long believed that creativity is not about the medium. Creativity is optimistic problem solving. That can come in the form of interesting ways of looking at data and consumer insights. It can come in the form of the actual visual rendering of an experience. It can come in the form of using machine learning to unlock new business models.

Because of our expertise in location, because of the deep data set that we have, because of the deep expertise that we have with machine learning, there’s a unique confluence of factors there that allow us to hopefully create some really, really cool creative experiences that help transform our clients businesses.

You said that Sixteen’s focus is beyond just apps. Are you aiming at mediums like TV? Or do you see Sixteen as primarily a “mobile ad creative shop?”

I definitely believe that this will be much broader than just mobile. I think that the mobile device becomes the window into that consumer behavior so I think it will always be rooted in that to some degree.

Being able to inform where you should have some kind of activation in the city or the types of insights that can be baked into a creative brief that informs TV. All of those things, I think, are unlocked when you start looking at location not just as the actual physical geo-coordinates of a particular device. But to starting to look at location as the combination of people and places over time.

When you start to look at those types of macro trends, you can start to extrapolate some really interesting insights about human behavior and the economy. That’s really the foundation of what next generation creative experiences will be rooted in.

I firmly believe in happily for some time. By bringing location behavior and the metadata associated with the places that people go into your broader understanding of your consumer, that just rounds out the picture. I’m not saying that it’s not important to understand what they watch on TV or websites they go to on the internet, but it’s our POV that the places that you go in the real world are just as important as those factors if not more in determining what kind of creative message will resonate.

Data is at the heart of what Foursquare is and, as you say, the way Sixteen will approach creative. How do you deal with that art versus science question? TV has long led the way in terms of defining creative. While Sixteen is not limited to mobile and apps, is there a way to redefine creative from that perspective? After all, digital is still stuck in the notion of measuring clicks, while TV still commands emotion and affinity that advertisers are willing to pay for, even if the analytics around that are a bit more nebulous.

The question of regarding TV versus digital, from my POV, it’s all just ones and zeroes at the end of the day, right? The video that you deliver over linear TV is not dissimilar from what you would see if you were streaming Hulu or looking at something on Instagram, right?

I don’t think it’s necessarily about the medium so much as it’s about understanding consumer behavior and measuring real world outcomes. I think one of the reasons why TV is so powerful beyond the fact that it sites down in motion, which is obviously a rich creative canvas to paint on, is they can demonstrate that it moves the needle for business.

You said something that I think is really important which is digital is still stuck in this click through rate and how many impressions did we deliver versus driving real world outcomes. What we talk about with our clients all the time is trying to move toward models like understanding incremental visit lift. Control versus exposed looking at particular creatives. Which creative is driving people into your store? How do you optimize toward that experience by using real world data?

There are a number of different companies that have a number of different POVs on the best way to approach that. It’s our belief that if you can build a creative experience that actually causes someone to go into a store and you can measure that, that’s a really, really powerful indicator that that creative resonated.

I don’t suspect that TV’s dominance is going away any time soon. I do think that advertisers are starting to look towards more sources of information and inspiration when it comes to creating a TV that resonates. I think it’s our belief that location is an extremely powerful tool in forming those types of decisions and experiences.

Do you see Sixteen measuring success through values such as brand affinity?

Absolutely. I think that measuring brand affinity and brand lift is something that we’ve done for years. I think that what’s important is by looking at layered KPIs, things like brand affinity, but what other actions can we measure? I think that’s how you get to a more accurate picture of is the advertising affective or effective or not.

Brand affinity is super important and there are some advertisers out there that just want to drive brand. The majority of what we see and I suspect that this is true across all of our competitors is a layered set of KPIs, where brand is important, but so is other things.

That’s just speak to the complexity of the marketing space right now is that it’s not as simple as three network TV stations that you’re broadcasting and you’re just trying to drive eyeballs. The landscape has changed and it’s definitely incumbent on companies like Foursquare to offer a unique POV on the way to most effectively measure efficacy. That’s part of the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish with Sixteen, is to bring our POV to the market on how location can influence creative.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.