Social Effects — Maurice Li

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Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Maurice Li

Hosted by Edward Barnieh
Graphic by Charis Poon
Audio by Elphick Wo
Photos by Maurice Li

Social Effects is a podcast hosted by Edward Barnieh, or as many people know him, EdwardKB. Social Effects dives deep into the world of social media with transparency and in search of what’s lasting in an ever-changing atmosphere.

The effect of social media has had an undeniable impact on our lives, and these conversations allow us to find out more about the background of some of social media’s most prolific creatives, who Edward’s fortunate to call friends, their approach to the craft, and what keeps them up at night.

In this fourth episode of Social Effects, Edward spoke with Maurice Li, the Vancouver-based co-founder of Stay & Wander. Maurice left behind a successful career in venture capital to pursue his life-long passion for travel and photography. Shortly thereafter, he noticed a void in the market—commercial photography and videography—simply was not keeping up with the voracious appetite and unique demands of the social media age. As a response, in 2013 he co-founded Stay & Wander, one of the first digital content agencies to specialize in social-first yet commercially versatile visuals and influencer-led advertising campaigns.

You can listen to Social Effects here or iTunes, Spotify, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

Even when you have subjects that are so incredibly famous and everyone's wanting to know about them, it's not just a walk in the park, you still have to put time and work into it.

At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.

Edward: We’re here today with Maurice Li, creative from Stay & Wander. I also know him through Instagram, as many of my guests. We’re going to talk today about a number of things including his previous work, his current work as a photographer, and a little bit about sneakers and sneaker culture. Hello Maurice.

Maurice: How’s it going, Edward?

Edward: I’m good, I’m good. So I don’t know if you want to start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and then we’ll delve into your backstory?

Maurice: OK. I’m a photographer but I’m also a co-founder for a creative agency called Stay & Wander. We do a lot of work around the world really, in terms of brand campaigns, photography campaigns, both commercial and social media and we also do a lot of artist management, artist representation type work and consultation. My typical day can involve anything from shooting to producing to just networking with photographers.

Edward: That sounds like quite an exciting job but before Stay & Wander you had another career.

Maurice: I did.

Edward: Alright, well tell us about that.

Maurice: So for almost ten years I was actually a venture capitalist.

Edward: Wow.

Maurice: Yeah. So that was sort of the heyday of technology, before some of the big names that we all know and love in tech really made it big. Sort of before the big technology shift. In truth, it was actually during the downturn.

Edward: Right. So just after the bubble burst?

Maurice: Right. That was sort of when I got into things so it wasn’t ideal but it was great in terms of a place for me to really learn the ropes, learn the ways of the world in terms of how companies were built, how companies thrived or failed and eventually became devastating empty shells.

Edward: That put you on a sound footing to then go on and do your own thing?

Maurice: I would say it did. I mean I learned a lot from that career. Not all of it directly transferable in terms of knowledge, but I figured out a lot of things that really helped in terms of building a new company.

Edward: You would have seen how not to do things. What did it help you with that you are still using to this day or that you put into Stay & Wander?

Maurice: Well I think one of the things about venture capital is that because we’re not the founders of the companies that we used to invest in, we helped guide them, we stepped in with knowledge when we had it that was applicable, and if we didn’t we would be able to bring in a network of knowledge to help build those companies and help them succeed. And so I think that in a roundabout way, that is what we do for a lot of people now. We apply that knowledge both to growing Stay & Wander, and also to the approach that we take with other photographers in terms of the advice that we give, how to surround them with the right knowledge to help people do what they do best.

Edward: Yes. So what was the transition? Did you actively choose to stop being a venture capitalist? Was There a social media moment that made you think: “Actually I can harness this in a different way and take these things on a different path.”? How did you get from a venture capitalist to founder of creative agency?

Maurice: The journey was actually quite interesting for me because within the confines of the venture capital firm I was junior in terms of age by quite a few years. So the people that I worked with were slightly of a different time, so it was really nice synergy. They approached things with a very different perspective to how I did. Having said that, we were on the cusp of new technologies and I think a lot of those technologies being social media-related, they often couldn’t relate directly. So it sort of fell upon my shoulders to say: “Hey this is why we should be looking at this. Hey this is this is why I think this is going to be huge.”

Edward: Are there any things that you remember pointing out to people that are still around today?

Maurice: Oh absolutely. Being from Vancouver, one of the local success stories that we have is Hootsuite. It’s sort of a Twitter management, software platform. They’ve now branched out to variety of others. That was something that I really really wanted to invest in.

Edward: Kind of like a TweetDeck?

Maurice: Like a TweetDeck, it basically took over the market from TweetDeck. It’s still around today, it still does really well. It’s one of Vancouver’s success stories. So for example, that’s one of the ones that I wanted to get in on the ground floor. It’s difficult when it’s not at the forefront of everyone’s mind if they’re not using and living things like Twitter and social media. So I mean the guys are great. I think just in terms of the investor base, as well as the people who I worked with, it wasn’t always the right fit to go after these risky opportunities, and risky simply because nobody knew.

Edward: It seems so set in stone that these things would work now. But in hindsight it was a very nascent landscape as you said.

Maurice: So eventually I transitioned out of that role and a lot of that was because I had a calling creatively. Photography something that I’ve been doing since a very young age because my dad was big into photography. I can still remember cracking open his case and playing with all his old cameras and lenses.

Edward: You were lucky enough to have a dad that allowed you to do that as opposed to locking it all away like somebody’s dad, I’m not going to talk about who.

Maurice: It was a great opportunity to follow my passions. I had sort of developed a name for myself amongst friends and close peers. So I was being asked to do more and more ‘professional photography work’. Eventually I think my venture capital day job and my photography night job if you will, nights and weekends, started to shift–the proportion. It got to a point where I was comfortable making the leap. The guys at the firm were very supportive, I mean they’re like a family, so it happened.

It’s a really long story but I’ll try and condense it. I tried photography and really quickly I landed some big jobs. One of which was following Will and Kate, the duke and duchess of Cambridge, around Canada and shooting for press publications as well as for all the social media channels for Canada. That was great work and I think really what came out of that was that it was a brutal experience in terms of how hard the work was. It’s not something that I could have imagined.

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They can pretend to [understand what we do] but this is something that you can see through really really quickly. So I think the the clients that want to push us in that direction because client is always right. That brings trouble. It doesn't make for an effective campaign and ultimately we want what's best for everybody.

Edward: That particular job?

Maurice: You know it’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life. What you had to do in terms of creating content, writing copy, editing the photos, getting those out, and then also doing press photography and delivering to waiting recipients in Europe. So it was like I was never sleeping. But I think what was fantastic about it was that it helped crystallize for me: hey this is not something simple, creating content that’s engaging for social media platforms. Even when you have subjects that are so incredibly famous and everyone’s wanting to know about them, it’s not just a walk in the park, you still have to put time and work into it. So I came back from that trip and it really helped to focus myself in terms of what I wanted to do.

I knew that I didn’t want to be a wedding photographer, I knew I didn’t necessarily want to be a corporate head shot or Come What May type of photographer. So very quickly after that I started approaching companies and brands and at the time Twitter Facebook were really taking off and so my pitch would be simple, I would sit down with them and say that everybody’s hiring people that can write great copy to run their social media. We see that everywhere, that’s just what was happening, but you’re having people that come from a journalism background or a writing background or even at the time a blogging background, and you’re asking them to also create the photos and the content that accompany the pieces that go out across social media. I showed them that there is a bit of a disconnect because the quality is just not there, you’re not able to tell stories in a natural way.

Edward: Or in a visual way.

Maurice: Exactly. And so what a lot of people were doing obviously was going with stock. And so you had these very engaging relevant tweets or Facebook posts or blog posts and they were accompanied by smiling people from stock photography and it just wasn’t working. So basically I started pitching the idea of them letting me be something that is a bit unheard of right now, but be their social media content creator. I will help you tell the stories that are being written, visually.

Maurice: What kind of response are you getting for that?

Maurice: So you know, the people that I met with, the reaction instantaneously was: “Wow that is amazing. I need that. I need that right now.” And I think that a lot of those people were getting bogged down because they knew, they were creating with Blackberries, pretty poor camera phones like the type of stuff that I would say marred good, nicely written pieces.

It just didn’t look right. Then they would have this terrible stock photography of smiling people and it just didn’t work. So everyone was excited and they would be like: “Yeah this sounds great. Let me get back to you and we can talk about a retainer and things like that.” Hey I was like: “Excellent. That went better than I thought.” After every meeting and invariably the response would be: “Yeah you know, the people that write the checks, they have no idea what you and I are talking about. So I think this is not something that we can move forward with but let’s keep in touch.” That’s the way that it went for a long time, to the point where I was able to then focus more on commercial photography and I realized the things that I like to shoot, but it still wasn’t necessarily where I wanted to be. Fast forward two years after that and I met a photographer by the name of Alex Strohl.

Edward: I’ve heard of him.

Maurice: I think a few people have heard of him these days… And it was interesting, he somehow ended up in Vancouver, he had had some commercial photography experience, not a ton, but we met and he was hungry. The way that people think he’s hungry now, he was always that way. He likes to go after it. We met, we clicked, and very quickly we started talking about how can we turn this into something bigger and better? We both had the same thoughts which were at the time: look at all our talented friends who are doing Instagram and social media and look at the way they’re interacting with brands, it’s kind of a shame because we had this commercial experience and we knew what was possible. They did not, and they were having trouble, they were getting taken advantage of in many ways. There just seemed to be an opportunity to help those people get on a more equal footing.

Edward: Just to dial it back just a tiny bit. When you say that you and Alex could tell what was possible, what were you thinking was possible at that moment?

Maurice: We had done commercial photography, we had worked on larger projects, we knew what kind of value we were able to create for brands, for agencies, for companies. Make no mistake, I knew that as soon as social media began to thrive, it meant that photography was worth less in a way. The half-life of photograph, you no longer were expected to have one photo shoot last through a year. It’s just not possible. You need fresh content all the time.

So right off the bat I think I recognized that the value is not going to be the same. But, at the same time, the value not being the same doesn’t mean… Shooting a commercial campaign in exchange for a pair of shoes or a T-shirt, that is too far on the other end of the spectrum, and yet that’s what was happening in a lot of cases. So it sort of became our mission to talk to our friends and contacts and say: “Hey guys you know you should think about working on negotiating a better deal for what you’re doing because it’s really not that different, the work that you’re doing is fantastic, you’re talented, don’t be treated like a hobbyist if you’re delivering professional grade commercial content.” What happened was, at the same time that we were chatting about these ideas, we were brought on to a–at the time it was called the CTC but–Destination Canada, the tourism organization for Canada. We were brought on to a project that involved taking bloggers, content creators, photographers, videographers across Canada on a train, culminating in a travel conference. We were brought on to be photographers on some of the train legs of that project. It was really cool. We ended up meeting in Toronto, we went to this conference and it was sort of a travel writing conference more geared towards bloggers, which we weren’t. But there were a lot of representatives from different destinations there from around the world.

It was funny now that we think back to it but Alex and I both said: “Hey let’s meet, grab lunch, and then go take off and shoot some photos for ourselves. This conference isn’t really for us.” So we met up and the lunch wasn’t open yet and yet all those booths with the representatives from around the world were open. So we decided let’s go walk around and have a quick chat with some of these people and really quickly I realized something bizarre was happening. I would go up to these representatives from destinations–destinations meaning not just places but hotels, other types of travel companies–and they would say: “Oh Maurice, so what do you do?” And I would say: “I’m a photographer.” And they’d be: “Oh okay.”.

Edward: What were they looking for?

Maurice: So here’s the thing, there would be this awkward silence between us for a few seconds and then they would say: “Well but do you do Instagram?”

Edward: I see.

 

Eventually I think my venture capital day job and my photography 'night job' if you will, nights and weekends, started to shift–the proportion.
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Maurice: I would say: “Well, yes.” And then suddenly it was like their eyes lit up because this was the cusp of its growing and people were starting to see what was possible in terms of inspiration and aspirational travel and things like that.

Edward: So, in a way they still weren’t valuing you as a photographer. Once you said you do Instagram they were valuing either the audience that you have or maybe the fact that you understand social media better than them.

Maurice: Precisely and they could also relate to it more because a lot of them still had the the context of bloggers in their minds and they were like: “Oh okay, picture bloggers.” And I think that’s sort of what they thought of us. So I quickly reconnected with Alex and he had been going around to those same booths and having the same experiences. We picked up some great contacts. We went away from that conference, went home, and we were like, you know this is really a thing, just because of the reaction that people were having. I mean this is almost all the market research we need to do at this point because what we were thinking about was creating something that was really geared towards travel. Very very shortly after that, Stay & Wander was born and shortly after that we pitched projects to some of the brands we met and some of the people that we had worked with in the past and I believe we actually set up the first Instagram travel campaign in the world, on a ‘we don’t necessarily know 100% what we’re doing’-basis.

That took place, at the time just through our own connections in the photography world we were able to bring some of the biggest photographers–biggest meaning non-celebrities with the most followers and highest engagement creating great work on the platform. So we did a test-run project, it went really well and then they came knocking again and they were like: “Hey can you guys help us put this together?” And that was what eventually became the Alberta one by one and at the time it was five or six of the biggest in the world and they came and while this project was going on we just saw the numbers go through the roof. Engagement, heartfelt comments like “Look, this is amazing, I need to do what you guys are doing.” And it was I guess a level of engagement and instantaneous engagement that our clients hadn’t seen before and so everyone got really excited and to this day we can use that project as one of our own and we can hold it up. What came out of that is the history of Stay & Wander. From there, we had done it a couple times to success just instantly we got a foot in the door with a lot of different organizations. Fast forward now four years later and it’s not just travel. We run projects in a variety of different industries, different verticals from travel to automotive to retail, fashion, food. We’ve done so many different things and four years later that’s kind of now where the story begins at this table.

Edward: Yeah, I got you right here which is where you were aiming for, probably. Going on from that I just want to come back to you on your name. You said something earlier about making a name for yourself and I would love you to tell this quite literal story about how you came to get your username which is actually your name Maurice which is incredibly rare on the platform and involves some real detective work and I just want you to go through that because I kind of know it but obviously you tell it a lot better. So you were Maurice Li?

Maurice: You have to go take a few steps back because I was actually one of the early users on Twitter, somewhat by accident, I mean Steff who I come to visit in Hong Kong was in the tech industry in Vancouver as well and we both kept up with technology and one day she was like: “Hey have you heard of this Twitter thing? I don’t know what it is but we should sign up for it.” So we did and that was still back in the day where every tweet that you made was through text and every time someone else tweeted you would get a text. Quite horrible by today’s: why don’t I just see if my name is available and it was. So I think I was user five or six thousand on Twitter. So that was the source of minor fame as well. “How did you get Maurice?” I was like: “I don’t know. I was just early!” I mean I didn’t use it for a year or two, but now that Twitter is a thing, it’s great. Then when I did the the royals assignment that I mentioned, I had to run, among other things, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, which was a fledgling at the time. I had not yet signed up for an account so I was like: well if I’m going to run this thing I’d better have an account myself and Maurice wasn’t available, only Maurice Li, so I did the project with that as my username and then when I came back I thought: this is terrible. Because at the time it was pushing your posts from Instagram to Twitter.

Maurice: And it would change the username and it would look weird, or when it got to Twitter, that name would have an @, it wouldn’t be a clickable link.

Maurice: Right. So it was this nightmare where I just couldn’t keep them connected. So one night I was like, OK well I need to see about @Maurice so that I can have matching usernames. I looked and I think a lot of us have gone through this, it’s a dormant account or it’s not really being used. There’s only one photo, no followers, they don’t really follow anybody. Is this really being used? Can I somehow get this account? And of course there’s no contact info, no email, no direct messaging back then, there’s no way to contact the person. So I had to do a little forensic work. I enlarged the photo by downloading it or copying it.

Edward: His profile photo?

Maurice: No it was actually the one photo that he had posted on his feed. At the time there was no way to enlarge either so I just screenshot-ed and then somehow blew it up and I saw that there was a binder from a rocket science lab in Switzerland. Crazy right? And so I took a chance and went to their website for their department and sure enough there was a guy named Maurice and his email was listed so I emailed him and it was just something I did before bed one night. I was like: “Hey, long story short, you’re not really going to care about this but I have Maurice on Twitter and I see you’re not really using this, it would be great as a photographer if I could maybe get this username from you and I see you’re not really using it so I can compensate you, I’ll send you a print of your choice. Let’s chat.” So I sent it off and then I went to bed and I think I woke up like eight hours later and two hours after I’d emailed him he’d sent a reply and said, “Yeah you’re going to make much better use of this than me. Here you go, I’ve deregistered it.” So it was just sitting out there for six hours until I grabbed it, and that’s how I got it. This is back when people weren’t thinking about what’s this worth. He was just like, yeah this guy seems like a nice guy and I don’t really want anything for it so I’ll just give it to him.

Edward: And I guess at that stage, the platform itself wasn’t big enough for him to even think it had value, maybe it won’t even blow up. I think in regards to Twitter, Edward was gone. There’s a developer in San Francisco who takes on everything. Same guy. He’s just one step ahead of me with every app.

Maurice: I’m that guy for Maurice.

Edward: Edward was gone, so I took EKB as my name on Twitter. I sent out a few tweets but as you said it was a terrible experience. I had two friends on the platform, at one stage maybe two weeks in I was like: “What are we doing guys? I’m actually going to close my account.” And I closed EKB and then it was probably years later I went back and EdwardKB was still available. To talk about people that get it now, I tried to get EdwardKB more recently on facebook, for my facebook photography page and it’s actually… I mean how can I go into this? You wouldn’t think it would be common but Edward K, K is actually a Ghanean name, stands for Kwame. Now, it’s a day name which means that depending on the day of the week you born you get a name in Ghana.

Six of those names of the seven names start with a K. So if your English name in Ghana is Edward, there’s almost a 90% chance you’re going to be Edward K-something. So EdwardKB is owned by someone who is in Ghana and my email was pretty much the same as you, actually sorry it wasn’t an e-mail, I added him as a friend and I sent him a message just trying to be as boring as possible: “I just want to do something with EdwardKB so it would be great if you could just give it up and then you can be this and then I can have EdwardKB. His response was literally minutes later, he was like: “Well why don’t you be this and I continue to be EdwardKB?” And I didn’t get into it with him anymore but it was essentially like the world’s changed and everyone realizes the value of things like real names or usernames, brands basically, which kind of brings us back to the point of Stay & Wander.

Maurice: Not just the value in that sense and trying to ask or acquire it, but I mean I have notifications at least once per day of someone trying to hack my account, trying to guess my password and once I contacted Instagram and asked if there is anything they could do about this and they said no. I mean this is what you have to put up with because because you have the name. But I do get–and these are always funny to me–but I’ll get DMs at least once per week saying: “Hey can you give me your username?” And I’ll look and they’re Maurice something and none of what we did which is: “Please. We’ll offer you a print or compensate you.” They’re just like: “Yeah why don’t you give me your account?” My reaction is always: “No, why?”

Edward: That’s very strange. So fast forward four years. Can you see a change in the landscape of working with influencers? I can’t believe it’s been four years but I remember first speaking to you about this, about people being taken advantage of, people on different sides of the world being at various stages with brands in terms of social media marketing. You’re at the forefront of that still, have things normalized? Are we at a stage where people are respecting content creators and that thing you said earlier where people were using BlackBerrys or whatever to do their social. Are brands all at the stage where they need your services?

Maurice: I think the short answer is no. We’ve come a long way and things are still changing literally by the week in terms of what brands want or think they want or how they approach it. But really what we had was a situation a couple of years ago where a very small number of brands and agencies got it and the vast majority did not, or they were curious and yet they weren’t ready to dip one toe in and so they would just continue with what they were doing traditionally.

Now I think that you have a very broad range of brands, and agency clients, and even individuals who run businesses. Their understanding runs the gamut. You have people that really get it, you have people that are think they need to pay for it to get top work, there are people that think: “Well this guy has a million dollars, so if I offer him a T-shirt he can probably make seventy five posts.” And they’re not trying to screw anybody over, that’s simply their understanding of the value of social media. On the other end of the spectrum you have clients or entities that feel like they’re over it, they’re past the whole influencer social media game, they think: that is not something we want to be involved in and we don’t want to pay people for that, we’re we’re going to do our own thing and do something differently.

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We field inquiries from... I mean recently we were contacted by a company I personally had not heard of but I did a quick google and they're worth nine billion dollars and you have that to individuals saying: "Hey how much do I need to pay you guys to shout me out?" So really everything in between, everyday.

 

Edward: What does their own thing tend to be?

Maurice: Their own ‘new’ thing often tends to be doing it the old way again. But there are people that are trying to innovate and do very interesting things. I guess in short what I’m trying to say is that there are still plenty of opportunities because the market is so large but you really have to spend a lot of time sifting through the opportunities, or educating, or learning just when to say no really quickly to be efficient in terms of what we do.

Just give me an example for us, we field inquiries from… I mean recently we were contacted by a company I personally had not heard of but I did a quick google and they’re worth nine billion dollars and you have that to individuals saying: “Hey how much do I need to pay you guys to shout me out?” So really everything in between, everyday. So like I say, it’s still the Wild West in a way and you can land really really big projects and you can do small ones and I think for us what’s been important is to really figure out who we are and what kind of projects we want to be involved with and what kind of clients we want to be involved with and that has sort of set us on the path that best represents who we want to be.

Edward: Speaking of your Wild West comment, because I’ve always–when I say always, maybe for a couple of years–thought that it would normalize and there would be some rate, some official kind of… Not rate card, but something where everybody knew how much everyone was being paid for brand or content work. Very recently I hired someone at Cartoon Network, and taking it through the process of acquiring or co-producing TV shows, she had a lot of questions about the cost of things and I started to realize that I’ve only been handed down prices from people that told me, I’ve been doing this for a while but obviously there’s been animation being made for television for many years now, but although the cost of an actual show may be normal, may have a fixed price by labor and by materials but actually how much people pay for it varies wildly to the point that I couldn’t actually explain to this new starter. That made me realize that we might be waiting for something to normalize that may never normalize.

Maurice: I actually don’t think it’ll ever happen. You know the disparity in rates, I mean you can see it in other careers as well but perhaps not to such a big degree, and that’s I think because it’s still the Wild West. I think some degree of normalization of range will take place. But what’s one post worth on somebody’s channel who has a million eyeballs but they represent your brand 100%, you are aligned versus somebody who has a similar million eyeballs but they’re not really quite what you’re about in terms of what you’re doing. There are going to be companies that will say: “Look, whatever the difference is, I will pay it because we believe in our brand messaging and we believe in our brand identity and we want to work with somebody who represents that to the fullest.” For every one of those there’s going to be another who says: “You know what, I’m going to save a few bucks or a few thousand bucks maybe. I’m okay going with this other person. And maybe they’re doing this job for me and then doing something for a competitor next month. But I’ll get what I want out of it and I’ll gladly take the savings.” So it really depends.

Edward: The brand part is where I want to segue into next and talk about one of your other passions that you could have followed, you could have ended up working in a sneaker factory. I wanted to talk about something that I didn’t realize when I first met you I think, oh no maybe I realized a little bit because I was just coming out of my old life of staring at people’s feet and judging them when I meet them but I wasn’t doing that so I didn’t realize how much you were into sneakers until later on when we knew each other a bit better. But you have been a collector for a very long time.

Maurice: I have. I’ve been a collector, I’ve been just a general fan of sneakers or shoes. It’s something that started at a young age. It’s really interesting because I think when we met I was in the midst of a 10-year-long retirement and I think we even talked about it once, I made some comment to you like: “You know I might have bought these in my former life.” So anyway, I’m not sure really what happened but I fell back into it a couple of years ago and so now I still read the news, as you know because we are in a…

Edward: We’re in a chat group, we’re in a number of chat groups but yeah we are in one about sneakers and in that group a lot of what is reported, a lot of what we find out is dictated through social media. So what I want to put you, having been into sneakers as long as I have, is that there was a time where you didn’t know something was out until it was out, until it was on the shelf.

Maurice: Yeah I mean sometimes it was you were like when did that come out?

Edward: Or, for me, you probably had the same thing, but you knew someone at a sneaker shop who would show you a catalog and that was maybe the first instance of knowing how far in advance fashion works because something someone would be showing in a catalog was actually not coming for nine months, that’s essentially how much they had to order in advance.

Maurice: Well, and in a pre-social media world, nine months was a lifetime.

Edward: I know, how crazy is that? So there was one other thing that they did, particularly Nike, they had these quickstrike things which meant that they could come a bit quicker. So that was pretty much how sneakers were bought. You knew it was there when it was there and then it was gone, either on your feet or on somebody else’s feet, and that was the end of it.

Maurice: Real life influencers.

Edward: And now, delving back into that world, how would you say things have changed?

Maurice: The rise of buying online is the single biggest change. I think back and to acquire a pair of shoes that I wanted I used to do things like meet people in parking lots or meet people in alleys in Japan and to this day there are friends that I met and originally it was meeting them in Shibuya in an alleyway saying: “Here’s a North American release, I’m going to trade you for an Asia release.” So the the acquisition cycle, I don’t know what you want to call it, but that was very long.

Edward: Yeah and just just a tiny point that you just made is that there were releases that would never make it to you.

Maurice: Absolutely. Geography was huge.

Edward: Yeah it was. So I’m going to go into it again but this is the globalization of things has changed. I would say that there used to be this Japanese bookstore near where I lived and I used to buy these Japanese magazines that were sealed–that’s the reason I bought them is because they were sealed, I couldn’t just go there and use it like a library–and they would have stuff like these black and neon Air Max 97s. They’ve been released three or four times since, but when they were in that magazine they were impossible for me to lay my hands on unless I went to Japan.

Maurice: Well they were Asia only, the first release.

Edward: So I mean you went to Shibuya and you met a guy you did some swap or something?

Maurice: Let’s bring it closer to home, I had to travel to London to go to Footpatrol for the Footpatrol Air Stab. I remember that at that time, the folks at Footpatrol didn’t have a great reputation in terms of the staff. I met the nicest people working there and they hooked me up, so yeah things like that. I had the privilege of being able to travel quite easily and so I used that to my advantage and I would pack up three or four pairs of US or Canada release shoes and then just go and be like: “Hey, let’s trade.”.

Edward: Where were you meeting them to trade? You’d meet them online?

Maurice: At the time it was message boards. So NikeTalk was a big one.

Edward: I remember being on that message board at uni actually, NikeTalk and just seeing the new Jordans.

Maurice: There was no other way. There was no Twitter, there was no Instagram, there was no way to DM somebody.

Edward: That was the exchange part of it, and that has changed, but do you feel like the brands themselves have changed as a result of social media, the way the brands market sneakers to people?

Maurice: Oh absolutely. They know how to play the game. They seed sneakers to various blogs, influencers, just like any other industry, perhaps even more so. They understand that now they can release regional exclusives but there’s no real boundaries now with the internet and the boutiques know that as well. So they don’t only market to their home crowds, they market to the world. And I think there’s a bit of a backlash these days because locals are thinking: “I support your store and if you don’t me to by every release from a different story around the world then you should help me out.” And so I think a lot more stores are starting to think about that and have in store only raffles or releases and things like that. But I mean yeah, one thing is boundaries, there are none or very few anymore in terms of trying to acquire sneakers. The other big thing is that back then, if we saw something we really wanted, we couldn’t buy it.

Edward: Unless it’s in front of you.

Maurice: Unless it’s in front of you or you know somebody.

Edward: For me in school it was like: “Oh this person’s going to the US so I’ve seen this thing. Can you get hold of that thing for me?”

Maurice: Yeah. Now it’s different because if you have money, you can get whatever pair of shoes you want. I mean there are these sites like StockX and GOAT and things like that and eBay. For me, a lot of it was the thrill of the hunt. It was trying to find that sneaker, sometimes you would set your sights on something and it would take you three to five to nine months to actually track it down, only to find out that they didn’t have it in your size. Now it’s different, you try to buy something, if you have the money you can pay up, if you desperately need something. And then you have it or you don’t have it, you can’t get it and then oh you know what, 10 more sneakers are releasing next week so you just move onto the next thing.

Edward: Yeah, the production line is so crazy these days.

Maurice: One of the most hilarious things about online discussions about sneakers, whatever platform we’re looking at, is the definition of a grail. It’s hilarious because people get so heated with that discussion because you have us old heads who are like: “Oh holy grail, it’s something I’ve been searching for ever for, I can’t find it in my size. When I see it I’m going to buy it no matter what the price.”.

Edward: Yeah and then what are other people saying?

Maurice: Yeah well now you have kids who are like: “Oh you know the last Yeezy, I finally got it. It’s my grail.” It’s like okay, who am I to argue with you? Sure it’s your grail but the definition of grail has definitely changed.

Edward: Yeah right. It’s kind of like best film ever or best song ever, back in the day it was something that was like 20 years old or something but it could be just a song or a film from last summer. I get that a lot. What is your favorite pair of sneakers that you own? Or–I knew you couldn’t answer that so I already hit the ‘or’–what was the most satisfying pair of sneakers that you bought?

Maurice: I think maybe Atmos Air Max 1. You know there was a set? It was an Air Max 1 and an Air Max 95, kind of brown tones and purple?

Edward: Oh I see. And was this a social media hunt? Did this take a long time to get hold of?

Maurice: Oh no no that’s from back in the day. I met somebody who wanted to trade a pair of shoes.

Edward: I had a pair of Air Max 95s that were–for anybody that doesn’t know, Air Max 95s for a few years were the only things that people wore in London, there was just nothing else, it seemed like they were the only sneakers on sale because everybody wore them. So there was a pair that was exclusive to Finish Line in the US that were all 3M, so totally reflective. I know it sounds terrible but they were cool. My sister lives in the US but my sister didn’t have time to go and search for sneakers for me so I had to order them online. It wasn’t that much effort, but I ordered them from Finish Line to be delivered to my sister who then sent them over to the UK and yeah I was just getting stopped in the street like a celebrity by anybody. But it was almost like a vampire, they wouldn’t show up in pictures, any photos that had a flash, it just looked like my feet had exploded. Pure reflection. But I really wish I’d held onto them, they were also one of the most… I guess I’ve paid more for sneakers now but they were the most expensive at the time.

Maurice: What was the colorway?

Edward: It was all 3M, all silver. There was a touch of dark blue on the back, and they had dark blue laces but I changed them out for silver laces as well because. You know, you know how we do. In terms of expensive probably Wovens, Wovens caused the most stir when they were first released. It was one of the first big marketing things I saw from Nike away from sports stores, was that they gave Wovens to the fashion shops in London. So Post, Browns Focus, Hideout and a few others, they gave them a color each and the shops were in Soho within maybe half a mile of each other. They limited it to two pairs per person but they were £220 I think.

Maurice: Back in the day?

Edward: Yeah.

Maurice: Well that’s like $10,000.

Edward: It’s like a ton of money. We’re really dating ourselves. I remember buying two pairs and then there was a there was a stylist in New York who was like–I don’t even know what forum she used–but I found her and she was willing to pay like up to £400 for one of the pairs that I had and that was my first ever like resell moment. I didn’t plan to be a re-seller but I literally bought two pairs because I knew they had value, there were people standing outside Post willing to buy your second pair off you. I’m not going to do that, but when I got home I realized I could actually sell these on. So yeah I don’t know what year that was but that was my first example of this business.

Maurice: Obviously you realized that that wouldn’t be a wise career path.

Edward: But just bring it back to social media for a moment. So in terms of these companies, I’m going to name check Nike and Adidas and whoever, how does it feel now–bearing in mind you’ve maybe looked up to them, you’ve sought out their products repeatedly–how does it feel now to work with companies like this on a Stay & Wander level? Is it as fun as you expected or is it much more business-like now? Is it like peeking behind the curtain basically of marketing plans and that kind of thing? How does that feel?

Maurice: Just for the record, we have not worked with those brands but as a general answer to your question, I think for the most part I’m pleasantly surprised when I work with the creative teams. Especially the bigger companies who are hired for a very specific purpose. So within these companies they have people who are actually dreamers, who really want to create something fantastic, and those are the people that I really enjoy interfacing with. It’s when you layer on the other business units that sometimes…

Edward: The people that maybe don’t understand what is being achieved, what you’re trying to achieve?

Maurice: Yeah they might take direction from those other departments but they’re there to make sure the bottom line works, that it fits with a certain strategy which may not be a creative fit. I think that’s sometimes where things go off the rails a little bit or a lot of times when the assignment makes its way through a company it gets distorted and by the time it reaches us, something that we always like to say is that we’re most effective and we can be most effective for you being the client, when you bring us in at the ground level. Because the worst is when you come to us with something that’s half or, even worse, nearly fully baked. We basically have to spend so much time undoing everything. Let’s go all the way back to something we were talking about earlier, for a lot of people it’s not their role to necessarily understand what we do because they don’t live and breathe it. They can pretend to but this is something that you can see through really really quickly. So I think the the clients that want to push us in that direction because client is always right. That brings trouble. It doesn’t make for an effective campaign and ultimately we want what’s best for everybody. As ‘influencers’ or brand representatives or doing brand work, the brand’s success says a lot about our own success and so we should be aligned and when we’re not, I think that’s when things fall apart. It really shows through in the final product and it’s unfortunate. We’ve seen people that we love and respect and work with doing terrible things because they were forced to.

Edward: Going back to your previous point that sometimes they’re not even hired as the right fit. So sometimes it can go back to that but then you’re right, it can also be the right fit but given the wrong instructions.

Maurice: There’s so many different ways that things can go wrong. And I think part of what we do, because we’re an artist run agency, myself, Alex Strohl, Rishad Daroowala, we are all photographers and influencers if you will, meaning that we have audiences that we interact with and there’s mutual respect and so we understand when we work with photographers, no matter what country they’re from, we understand what they need to succeed and to do a good job and what they need to be creatively honest with the work that they’re doing. We also know as consumers ourselves, when we talk to our clients we’re very straightforward in terms of letting them know what will work and won’t work. Because who are you selling to? They’re not ‘the audience’ meaning some third party. We are those people. So something that I always say is we’ve basically found success because we understand and we’re able to convey that in general people don’t hate advertising through social media or coming from people like us, they don’t hate advertising, what they hate is bad advertising. So our mission is to work with people so that they don’t have to put out bad advertising, to create advertising that inspires, that people are receptive to, that people find interesting. So that’s really the bottom line.

Edward: After that big pitch, I remember you said at the beginning that you followed your passion, it seems like you deal with a lot of the business side now. Are you still passionate about photography and do you still shoot? I know shooting a posting is different, but I was speaking to someone who said: “Maurice doesn’t post as much as he used to.” So is that just because you’re busy working or not feeling it anymore? What’s the story?

Maurice: To be super candid with you, a lot of it has to do with time. So one of the reasons that I actually enjoy coming to Hong Kong every year, and I’ve been here for the last seven years around this time, so all the years that we’ve known each other. I come and I try to carve out time for myself to shoot because this city has so much to offer for photographers. What happens is, and I’ll just use this trip as an example, so I’m here for about two weeks and I thought I would land and get out there, I have some agency meetings and client meetings I need to do, I have some photographers that I want to get to know better as friends but also potentially if we can work together in the future. But really what I want to do is eat, and you know I love to eat and explore food and I want to do some shooting for myself. But you know, look I’ve been here nine days and I’ve gone out to shoot one day, two including today, because when you don’t see me I’m doing things for clients on Western time, Eastern time, European time, the first week that I was here I probably got an average of two and a half hours of sleep per night. That’s great, you have all day Maurice, but when you’re on two and a half hours of sleep you can’t really go out and explore. So I think that that would be my regret but it’s kind of not a regret because I really wanted to build this company up, I want to be of service to our clients, I want to be of service to the photographers that we work with. We need to grow but that’s what drives me, and so I would say that right now it’s at the expense of my own personal photography time, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do sometimes and hopefully if we continue to find success then I can move some of those things off my plate and have more time to create. Still doing it, I still really enjoy it. I still love photography as much as I used to but I just don’t have the time. In terms of the influencer work which I also do myself, or have done in the past, same thing for me. I get to be a lot more selective because that’s not my main income if you will. So I did a job a couple of months ago and I realized when I did these posts, I haven’t done a sponsored post for almost two years, coinciding with the the rise of our agency.

Edward: No but that’s a good thing. Honestly, busy is good. So my final question to you really is what next for Stay & Wander? It sounds like you need more stuff.

Maurice: We definitely need to grow. We haven’t done any advertising in our four years so we could really stand to get our name out there more. Almost all of the work that we get is word of mouth.

Edward: Sounds like you need a campaign.

Maurice: Maybe a campaign for ourselves. Well it’s interesting, the Stay & Wonder account recently hit 500,000 followers. It’s great, we have this community of people that like the type of imagery and the brand that we’ve built for ourselves but I think we need to show people more of what we do. It’s not that we’re secretive, it’s more just that we haven’t had time to market, we don’t have PR. Most of the jobs that come our way, thank you, but they’re like: “We’ve seen something that you’ve done or one of your photographers has done. How can we work together?” We have to tell them what we are. So we’re very blessed that way. It’s a good problem to have. I think next level is to continue growing, continue operating and partnering with creatives in more areas in the world, and really just continuing to do great work. That’s the reputation that we have and I’m very thankful for that so we want that to continue.

Edward: Well, I’m looking forward to seeing all the great work that you do. Thanks for coming on.

Maurice: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

 


 

Subscribe to the podcast Social Effects and follow Maurice Li and Stay & Wander on Instagram.

Episode One: Varune Thota
Episode Two: Holly-Marie Cato
Episode Three: Tyson Wheatley
Episode Five: Vivien Liu

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