Creative Lives Podcast — Researcher Tarik Fontenelle on travelling the world to investigate youth subcultures
This week on the podcast we chat to Tarik Fontenelle, a researcher, anthropologist and co-founder of strategic insight agency, ON ROAD. Based in London, Tarik and his team investigate the thoughts, passions and trends driving young people – anywhere from Bow to Bolivia – helping brands create advertising campaigns and products that really resonate with them. In this episode, Tarik tells us more about how his research for Nike laid the foundations for the Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign, the people skills needed to be an anthropologist and how he knew research was his dream job while still in his teens.
Researcher, Anthropologist and Co-founder of ON ROAD
Nike, Converse, Boiler Room, Wieden+Kennedy London, BBC, Apple
Freelance Strategy Consultant (2016–2017)
Senior Strategic and New Business Lead, Ruby Pseudo (2014–2016)
Brand Manager, AKQA (2013–2014)
Freelance Planner (2011–2014)
Youth Brand Consultant, Ruby Pseudo (2008–2010)
BA Anthropology, Goldsmiths University of London (2009–2012)
Tarik (right) with ON ROAD co-founder Taro Shimada (left)
“I always say we’re a strategic research agency, but really we trade in being experts in an audience,” explains researcher and anthropologist Tarik Fontenelle in this week’s podcast. His agency, ON ROAD, covers four different key areas: In-depth research into specific communities across the globe; strategy for how to reach them; creative production [with a creative team working on books, films and exhibitions]; and project management [with several PMs who handle workflow in-house and help clients set up their own research projects].
“Brands are all the way up in the clouds, it’s hard for them to be connected to what goes on in the streets,” Tarik tells us. “We bring our clients as close to the narratives, the stories, the people in our research as possible. That enables an ability to story-tell and to make connections themselves.”
Behind the scenes on Nike's ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign
Collecting insight with one-to-one interviews
Tarik at work
Tarik himself started his research career at a very young age. Describing himself as a street kid who was often getting into trouble, he suddenly found his calling when his cousin asked him to help out on a few projects at his new workplace, the digital agency AKQA. Although he was thrown in at the deep end and wasn’t always sure what he was doing, Tarik impressed insight specialist Jenny Owen enough that when she was setting up her own agency, Ruby Pseudo, she gave Tarik a call. He was just 17.
An anthropology degree at Goldsmiths helped give Tarik’s work an academic framework, and after graduating he returned to Ruby Pseudo. There he worked on research projects around the world – one moment going to Munich to speak to the president of Audi, and the next navigating favelas while learning about sneaker culture in Brazil.
“I really wanted to change how the people [at the top] made decisions thought about the people they were selling to.”
Behind the scenes on research for Nike’s ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ campaign
But after a couple of years, Tarik got the itch to do his own thing. At Ruby Pseudo he had struck up an amazing working relationship with colleague Taro Shimada, and in 2017 the pair decided to set up their own agency. One of ON ROAD’s biggest projects to date was working on Nike’s Nothing Beats a Londoner campaign. An ode to the grit of young sportspeople in the capital, the ad features the real-life stories of 258 young Londoners, which were discovered through hundreds of interviews by ON ROAD. Their insight also helped shape the ad’s tongue-in-cheek humour, which gives it such authenticity. The spot was hugely successful and scooped up a Grand Prix and Titanium award at Cannes Lions, seven yellow D&AD pencils and increased searches for Nike products by 93%.
Far more than just helping admen sell stuff, Tarik sees it as his duty to show how important young people are as cultural gatekeepers. “When I set up ON ROAD, I really wanted to change how the people [at the top] made decisions and I wanted them to think about the people they were selling to” he tells us. Listen to this week’s episode to hear more about how Tarik tackles a brief, why street culture is a fascinating source for anthropology and what makes a great researcher.