For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
The birth of the partnership between the creative directors Free Richardson and Phil Cho hinged on, of all things, their shared faith. In 2018, Mr. Cho, the founder of NoLedge Productions, pitched a collaboration between his company and Mr. Richardson’s creative agency the Compound.
“I go to slide two, and he goes, ‘Yo. Turn that off,’” Mr. Cho recently recalled. “He’s like, ‘Do you love God?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m a believer,’ and he goes, ‘All right. We’re good.’”
Of course, it wasn’t just spirituality that brought them together. Mr. Richardson also was impressed with the effort Mr. Cho showed when documenting an event through photos and videos at the Compound’s art gallery. “Phil has something special about him,” Mr. Richardson said recently. “You can just feel a good presence of energy.”
The two companies are now a major force in the world of marketing, particularly around the intersection of sports and hip-hop. Together, they have curated an impressive portfolio of campaigns for brands including the shoe company Clarks, ESPN, the software company Niantic and DraftKings. Last year, the duo won three Cannes Lions advertising awards and five Muse Creative Awards, given for inspirational marketing campaigns. Last month, they won 12 Clio Awards, given for creativity in advertising.
Mr. Richardson, 50, also known as Set Free, is African American and was born in the Bronx. He grew up in Queens and Philadelphia and was deeply involved in the hip-hop community and the world of street basketball culture. In 1998, he created the AND1 Mixtape Tour, a traveling basketball competition, and in 2007, he founded the Compound.
Mr. Richardson’s story has helped shape and inspire many, including Mr. Cho.
Born and raised in Edison, N.J., Mr. Cho, 33, is Korean American and grew up with a passion for both basketball and hip-hop music. He was a middle school student when the AND1 Mixtape Tour debuted. (“Some moms in Korea probably know about AND1,” Mr. Cho said about the tour’s reach.) Since starting NoLedge at the age of 26, he has collaborated with a variety of brands including Toyota, the record label 300 Entertainment and musicians like Akon and Year of the Ox.
Today, Mr. Richardson and Mr. Cho are innovators in the crowded landscape of creative marketing, and consider themselves family as they “navigate the invisible handcuffs of corporate rule,” as Mr. Richardson put it.
“Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around a lot in our industry,” Ari Weiss, chief creative officer at the advertising agency DDB Worldwide, wrote in an email. But “you’re either authentic or you’re not. Mr. Free Richardson and Mr. Phil Cho are pure authenticity.”
The two spoke at the Compound’s headquarters in Brooklyn to discuss remaining authentic to their craft, being relevant and their shared faith. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
How do you stay current?
FREE RICHARDSON I think it always goes back to staying authentic and storytelling. Everybody has a story, and you can tell it through A.I., pictures, music, all the creative elements. Look at the NFT [nonfungible token] world. It came, and though it’s not gone, the whole time, I was like, I’m still going to go with touchable, feel-able art. Authenticity within. Look at a tree. The leaves will die before the root of the tree dies. A lot of things are happening through technology, and a lot of things are going to happen, but I don’t know anything that is bigger than the Mona Lisa. No matter what happens in technology, the root of creativity will always be around.
PHIL CHO The root of what we are is: It’s always been about relationships. When I walk into the Compound, and I see all this artwork, like Jonni Cheatwood, and you see how long it took for them to come up with these ideas and wasn’t A.I.-generated, I feel like that’s what drives more value.
RICHARDSON Yeah, I think it’s a lot of relationships. That’s with everything. The two things in life are communication and relationships. If we don’t communicate, you can’t make the relationship. Creativity is a revolving door. I still work with people that I worked with 20 years ago. It’s the reason we still hear Fleetwood Mac and Marvin Gaye songs in the same rotation that you hear Drake. And so when things are authentic and true, the creativity never goes away.
How are you navigating challenges and opportunities facing the advertising industry?
RICHARDSON I think the ratio of African Americans and Asians is very small. I don’t blame everything on race, but I think it’s a tougher role for me and Phil being a minority, because there’s not a lot of dominance of minorities in the advertising agency world, especially with Fortune 500 companies, C-suite level and businesses, especially small ones. [According to a 2022 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, of workers in “advertising, public relations, and related services,” 7.8 percent were African American and 6.6 percent were Asian American.] We’re kind of small, SWAT-style — boutique-small.
That’s what I consider Compound and NoLedge. It’s a strategic partnership that executes some of the same things that big advertising agencies execute, without the red tape.
CHO Before doing Compound, there weren’t people telling me how to facilitate production, and I felt like I had to just learn from trial and error. And a lot of the people that I would meet, they did happen to be white. So again, I’m not trying to make it a race thing either, but I just felt like there’s not a lot of people with my skin tone that are doing this and can help me out. So I think even merging with the Compound, it was a whole new world for me of just trying to be confident in what I’m doing and understanding that.
What’s a lesson that you learned from your staff, team or peers?
RICHARDSON At the end of the day, everybody makes mistakes. And myself, just looking people in the eye and just being like, “All of us are the same.” I think learning and working with NoLedge, it takes time. Everybody needs time — to execute a task, to learn, to communicate, to talk. To respect time and respect people and giving them time. Not to where you just want to get them to or the client, but just everybody needs time.
CHO With the guys that are in NoLedge, for me, it’s patience. I’ll say this, but it’s harder to practice it. You might be able to do X, Y and Z, and you want the same from your guys, but you got to understand that they also need to learn X, Y and Z first. So you can’t expect people to move how you move.
How do you keep campaigns authentic and meaningful?
RICHARDSON I try to give everybody their own white box. When you go look at an apartment, you’d rather see the apartment empty so you can dream of how you’re going to decorate and design it. But if you go into a home that’s already furnished, it already blocks you in. You can’t really put your ideas on it. And so walking into brands and working with companies, I try to give them the white box and tell them, “How do you want to design this?”
And then my job after that is just to put a magnifying glass on your ideas. You’re there to help the brand, not really to put your ideas on their brands. And doing it that way, it always helps expand what the goal is. The goal is not for my ideas to be presented. The goal is for my ideas to latch onto your ideas and make them bigger.
CHO I really do feel like Free kind of sets his own trend. And I think that’s what a real creative is, right? To me, the better creative director you are, the more you don’t care about what other people think about you, and I think that’s given me confidence, too. It’s just what comes out of when we facilitate a project — just do what we feel would be dope. Just be comfortable with it.
What are the challenges of a partnership?
RICHARDSON Time. We can’t do everything we want to do. I mean, you have to understand what you’re going into with partnerships. It’s like a marriage. Phil, I love him. He’s my brother, my little cousin and a son. Then there’s times that he’s my uncle. I got to look up to him in certain areas.
CHO It’s always about communicating. People have different work flows. It’s not like mine is exactly the same as Free’s. But I think the reason this works is so many young guys want to run the ship, right? So even while doing production, there’s certain things that I would do differently if I was shooting. But at the same time, a good leader is a good follower. I feel like these years right now, I’m soaking up the game. The same way Free was talking about clients and how you got to support their vision. I’m kind of doing a similar thing with Free. I’m supporting his vision.
How do you stay inspired?
RICHARDSON God. I want the world to understand that. He’s just the creator of all. If you can’t be inspired by thinking of that, I don’t know what else you’re going to be inspired by. God is my source of creativity.
CHO I agree. All the stories in this world from different people and backgrounds — he’s the biggest artist.