Forum: Carter leaving Fuse, but is likely to light up new ideas
Bill Carter has always spotted trends. One that he is following is that it’s better to get out too early than too late. Sitting in the backyard of his Vermont home, he talked me through the reasons why he and his business partner, Brett Smith, surprisingly decided to sell their stakes in the Burlington-based agency, Fuse Marketing, to partner Issa Sawabini.
Carter has been at it since 1997 with Fuse, and with our same age, 51, and our kinship in my home state of Vermont, we developed a rapport over the past 20 years, as he was my go-to source around action sports and trends in youth culture. The Maryland native went to Gettysburg College where he majored in writing, and then to Michigan State where he studied sports management while being an assistant coach for the lacrosse team.
After East Lansing, he moved to New York City and started in the agency world — from Vantage Sports to Contemporary Marketing — while also teaching sports marketing at NYU. He was connected to Smith, joined Fuse Sports Marketing in 1997 and moved to Burlington at the age of 27. The agency, opened two years earlier, had Burton Snowboards as its main client, and anyone consulting for the late snowboarding pioneer Jake Burton was clearly tapped into the mindset of a new generation. For the next decade, Fuse Sports Marketing was the agency in action sports, consulting with Fortune 500 companies who were eyeing this new genre. But as interest and spending in action sports shifted, so did Fuse, and by 2010, the agency had changed its name — dropping “Sports” — and branched out into music, gaming and youth culture.
Bill Carter on marketing post-COVID
“The mistake brands are making are in expecting a return to normal — pre-pandemic. But the foundation of teen and young adult life has been changed and it’s hard for me to see a way their behavior will ever go back to that normal. There is no return to normal. We are never going to go back to that place. But the hard work we are all doing and putting in now is really about preparing for the future forever, not just as a mechanism to fix 2020. The things we’re doing — or other businesses are doing — we will still be using five years from now. It’s innovation that we were forced into, but much of the innovation we won’t take away. We will leave it because it works.”
“COVID has changed so much in the way young people behave. It has changed the way young people go to school — online — as well as how they socialize and gather, now in small groups only. It’s changed the way they play and watch sports and other entertainment. While these changes are not permanent — this exact behavior won’t stay exactly as we see it now — the change in some form does feel permanent. Marketers will need to adapt to the new cadence and actions that make up a young person’s life that is different than it was a few months ago.”
Like many others, I frequently tapped into Carter’s expertise on consumer insights and the beliefs and behaviors of people, especially in understanding youth lifestyle. Maybe it was the company’s edge, maybe it was being in Vermont, but people noticed its work and I can’t tell you how many times suitors asked me about Fuse’s people and culture. Despite the offers to cash out, the timing or the fit was never right. Now, Carter has agreed to sell, and he and Smith wanted a clean handoff to longtime colleague Sawabini, who is bringing in industry veteran Julie Jatlow as a new partner. “We weren’t going to hang over the company like a cloud or be intrusive,” Carter told me. “Issa has played a major role in the company for a long time and is perfectly suited to lead it for many years.”
I told Carter I admired his decision, leaving to enjoy life with his wife and two teenage daughters. But he quickly stopped me. “I never thought about my age, actually. I have a lot of work left in me,” he cautioned. “I have some creative ideas, and I will continue to work.” I have no doubt about the creativity of ideas — Carter has long been one of the most creative trend-spotters in the business. I know his love of education, young people and sports, but when I pushed, he wouldn’t budge. “All I’ll say is I have an idea,” he laughed. “And I am going to pursue that idea.” Bill Carter understands the trends, and I’m betting his “idea” is one we’ll all be following.
First Look podcast, with Abe’s segment at the 20:38 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.