Updated: Nov 17, 2020
For the second installment of Broad Cove’s Experiential Experts series, I sat down with the incomparable Kelly Markus, Founder and CVO of Hunters Point and the former VP of Experiential for Refinery29.
Twice named to BizBash’s annual list of the top individuals in the U.S. events industry, Kelly brings a unique combination of artistic vision and nuts-and-bolts tactical expertise to her brand experience work.
In our interview, Kelly shares how her love of theater, music and art translated to a deep passion for the experiential industry, what sets Hunters Point apart from its competition and – true to the theme of this series – why it is essential that brands rely on experts for their experiential campaigns.
Brad: It is such a wonderful treat to talk with you, Kelly. I have been a huge admirer of your work since we first collaborated on a project nearly a decade ago. Tell us a little about your journey to the wonderful world of experiential.
Kelly: My first love, even as a child, has been theater. It’s one of the most magical things on the planet to me. To be immersed into a world, a time, a story and a variety of characters physically roving around- but here’s the special part of theater: it’s a live, real time, organic spell! Great actors know how to not only manifest these characters but, way different than film, or like a super talented film editor, they read the room. The audience is part of the show – not because we put them on stage – but because they are heard and felt – like this super powerful ghost in the room. It’s the magic in a way an actor knows just the right balance to let the joke be heard before going to the next line without milking the moment. When that epic kind of ride happens and the audience and the production team give and take their laughs, each gasp, a moment of utter silence or anguish, it is a transformational experience that sears into my very soul.
Brad: Wow. You are going deep early! I love it.
Kelly: Right? Now that I’ve lightened the room (ha!), here’s another thing about me and this bizarre experiential industry: I love music, and filmmaking, and dance and art. I love pop culture as much as I love experimental theater like The Wooster Group. I love De La Soul as much as Kacey Musgraves. My favorite museums are the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Art & Design. What I found in the discovery of experiential marketing was a way to fuse all of the art forms I love into one career that is LIVE.
Brad: That really resonates for me, Kelly. I have a performing arts background and experiential was instantly attractive to me in large part because of that fusion. How did you get turned on to the business side of experiential?
Kelly: It all started before I graduated NYU’s Tisch School of Arts theater program. If you read my diary, I didn’t want to be a famous actress. I wanted to be an Artistic Director for a regional theater. So, when I graduated from university, I founded my first non-profit film and theater production company with other graduates. We produced films, plays and a short film festival called Phat Shorts, where I got my first exposure to selling in brand sponsors. And this is a big thing – because I often hear how younger generations hate feeling played by brands: I understood keenly how beneficial those sponsors were to making our magical nights happen. Those brands helped us keep tickets affordable, provided parties with free drinks and amazing musicians, brought so many different people together for deep, interesting conversations and much more. I believe that brands don’t have to be The Boogie Man if they are genuine, respectful, considerate and we work together – like the actor leaving room in a line to let the audience react - and be a part, and the audience experiences a brand as a benefit.
The magic of human experience is what I chase and experiential feeds my desire and taken me on an amazing ride and I’m not planning on leaving the roller coaster any time soon.
Brad: Let’s talk about Hunters Point. You actually formed your own agency a while ago, stepped back into corporate life, and then re-started your agency. What sets your agency and your team apart from the rest of the field?
Kelly: The origins of Hunters Point started in 2010 – and in fact, in 2011, that’s how we met on a project! You know part of the steps - and how that lead to some great opportunities – but I always kept my LLC in case I decided I ever wanted to go back to being a business owner.
In the past 4 years I have never seen experiential, especially consumer, explode like it had. But when I re-launched Hunters Point, I looked around at the myriad of experiential agencies big and small and knew how we were different:
First, we are super nimble across Creative, Strategy, Production, Tech and Event Business Models, as well as size and scale, and project development. The expertise and actual work we have under our belt that is applicable to so many projects I simply do not find often. Sometimes people have a creative idea they need us to bring to life, and other times we need to be the one to come up with the ideas – and every scenario in between – we check our ego. This is not about us; it is about the client, the project and what serves the need.
Next, we have “trifecta talent” in our team. We never hire just a tech director or just a creative director or just a producer. We hire folks who have likely served in multiple roles. While on a project we each will serve in a specific role, the team works together from the start to fully understand and leverage all the expertise. We waste no time ideating creative that can’t fit a budget or can’t get permitted – because everyone on that team has some exposure. It makes us highly efficient and cost effective.
We believe in KPIs and ROI from the beginning and fit the strategy to hit that from the start. Our clients are often taking a big leap of faith, and we want to support them by knowing before we all sign on the dotted line what will be delivered at the end of the project. We want to support them so the top management knows: this was worth it.
Because we also have so much experience, we want to leverage everything for max results. We may get a project that is supposed to generate press, but we will often come back to the client saying, hey, we can integrate a consumer sales program in this to generate actual revenue. We know that experiential is a lot more lift than other forms of marketing, so we feel a responsibility to deliver as much bang for the budget as possible: press, social, sales, content and more.
And finally, we believe in a positive inner culture. I know, that may sound like, that’s about us, and what does the client care. A better agency culture means a better client experience – if we want to look at it that way.
Brad: Right on. That’s the service-profit chain in action. A great employee experience leading to higher employee engagement leading to higher quality work leading to higher customer satisfaction and retention. So important.
Kelly: Yes and just as importantly, no cliques, opportunities for growth, a place to incorporate activism. We are fun, caring people who work our butts off – so when the days are long and hard, it’s great to know you can grab a coffee with the client, joke with your friends at work, make it fun.
Brad: Let’s talk a bit about expertise. As a producer, you are intimately familiar with all of the elements of the production from start to finish. Amongst those elements, what are some areas where expertise is critical?
Kelly: Permits are the low-hanging fruit to this question – and I have pulled permits directly in so many markets and on so many things… But I think the nuances to experiential can get pretty complex pretty fast, so that proven wisdom is invaluable.
Venue selection and negotiation expertise is crucial. There’s the time a client got what they thought was a steal on some real estate for the rental on a pop-up store and had secured that outside of us. I’m in Boston doing the walk through for technical and design, and I discover a construction crew gutting the inside of the space. They tell me, oh yeah, this has been rented by a bank long term and we’re building it out to open. Turns out the vendor had rented only the window displays to the client for the event, not the actual space. So, we had to jump in and find them a new venue – which is fine – but all the costs and time lost in designing and prepping for that space… yeah.
Or going into a space and knowing the rules around union and non-union crews, or if a property campus will only allow some brands to be there and others not because of shops or pouring rights. Or how to integrate the social media campaign into the event marketing to actually get registrations vs just likes. Or when and how to do giveaways in a public setting so as not to create a crowd control mob scene.
I think my biggest point here is, I’ve been on the side of being the financier, the promoter. I feel a responsibility to find all the ways to save you money. If there are things I feel the client should do directly, I will work with you to do exactly that and I have so many examples of that -which is why we stay nimble for our client. But there is a real value in folks like me who have been doing nothing but producing events for years. As my dear friend and colleague, the amazing Exec Producer Eve Cohen says, we have skinned our knees the hard ways to help save you from doing the same. Let us.
Brad: I’m definitely stealing that line. You point to the important issue of value for the client. Expertise comes at a cost and some brands get so focused on the budget and aren’t evaluating the potential risk of using an amateur.
Kelly: Right. This piggybacks on what we were just talking about. It’s so important to “look under the hood of the car.” Clients need to probe deeper, especially in the age of COVID: What kind of insurance does that amateur shop carry? What variety of riders and coverage and at what level? I was on a call in January for a small event, they wanted a beautiful, not too big scenic piece. They were concerned about some of our budget costs vs going directly to a small scenic vendor. I’m always happy to talk through a budget, and what came out was: that vendor had never produced something to be out on the streets for 24 hours for 3 days straight, and hadn’t factored in the event permit, the fire department inspection and resistant application, the building permit and so much more. The scenic builders said to me, we will put whatever weights you want us to put on this; my response: that’s not for me to tell you; that is for an engineer that understands code, wind rates, rain pressure and so much more – so it is a red flag when a vendor starts saying, oh we can do this for so much less.
Brad: Let’s talk about some real-world examples. Can you share an example of how a project clearly benefited from subject matter expertise or an example of outstanding collaboration between multiple experts?
Kelly: Sure – the one that popped right into my brain: we were doing a pop-up installation on the High Line in NYC. I’m working with some of my favorite production people: Aform Architecture on architectural review, Marty Barnes on Security, Square Design for fabrication. The legal department outside of my hands didn’t sign a form for the Department of Building permitting office until late in the date and we had been begging for it for days. By the time we got it, the permit office was closed and this is the night we are loading in. We have heavy gear ready to crane in the scenic for a 3 am load-in and practically no buffer time, as we want to load in when no pedestrian foot traffic is around to be extra safe. I have been working with Aform and Marty Barnes for over - my – is it 15 years? Let’s just say we made some calls, all of us, and within an hour we got the OK. But again, all of these teams, working together, with years of experience and a reputation for being buttoned-up, safe, smart and more – it’s not that we knew someone at some office – this wasn’t anyone paying off anyone, somebody is related to so and so in the office. It’s ALL the years that the permit office actually knew we had gotten in everything right on ALL the projects that gave them the ability to trust us.
Brad: Such a great example. I think folks really underestimate how much reputation matters in crunch time. Permitting folks – and in-house compliance teams - remember those that can be trusted to get it done and they also remember those that made them look bad. You’ve already shared some of these, but how about another example of when a project was clearly harmed by a lack of expertise?
Kelly: There is a production company that came onto my radar for some cool stuff many years ago. Turns out they were the company behind a live branded A-list music event that went wrong: the permit underestimated the number of attendees showing up, with no way to prevent the crowd overflow. The police cancelled the event an hour or so before it started, and people not only became angry but there were several incidents of violence, like chairs being thrown off balconies onto people below. From what I understand they not only underestimated the security, but also the expertise of the guards for dealing with large, congested crowds vs. mall, store, loading dock experience. I have actually walked away from jobs, offers and contract work if I feel anything is unsafe.
Brad: What advice do you have for those that are early in their experiential career and are interested in becoming the next Kelly Markus?
Kelly: I apply a rule – to this day - I learned when I was growing up and my mom taught me how to play tennis at the public park courts: When I achieved a certain level, my mom said, ok, you’ve been winning these matches, now you have to go play someone better. That’s how you get better.
At any stage of career, starting out, mid-level, or working in this for a long time: to me it’s been about finding the expert or someone super skilled and passionate in what they do, and listening, learning, practicing – sometimes for months or even years. I take the position, this is an expert, what can they teach me, and I check my ego and I listen, pay attention, and I try not to take the easy fast route, but instead dig in and do the math, the calculations, the details. If I am going to understand how to create a consumer activation with a new technology from a company like Intel, then I have to actually learn what the software does and does not do, even when the SDK sounds like a Geek Squad manual. I think too many times we all want the cliff notes, or think yeah yeah, I got this, I’ve done this which is like that, I know best. Check my ego: do I? I find real value in the years –years – I spent as a coordinator, then as a producer, then a Senior Producer, then an Exec Producer – all that time working on so many projects.
Point is: I do not believe there should be a rush to be a Senior Producer right away. Rather, the ones who get in the trenches and have done all the small jobs, gritty jobs, unsexy jobs and more, they are the ones who save the most money, build the best crews, have the safest events and so much more.
Brad: I think that is wonderful advice. It is so crucial in experiential that, if you want to eventually be an impactful, sought-after producer, you need to put the time in to understand how all the pieces fit together and you need to have respect for the experts. Now, put yourself in the position of a brand or an agency that is looking for an outstanding event producer. What should they be looking for? What questions should they be asking?
Kelly: First, imagining the project, do you see comparable work in their case studies – the size, scale, locations, programming, talent level?
Next, what did that agency actually do on that project. Often there are many different agencies working together, holding different roles, for various different reasons, that go beyond expertise. Could one already be on retainer? Is one dealing with the video capture, edit and digital vs the onsite video needs? I find this unpacking of what each agency’s role to be super important and go beyond just asking.
Also, what do they bring up in terms of KPIs and ROI when you talk about the project? I think this is especially important. Having been on the other side of this, having an agency, consultant, producer, strategist be able to see the 30-thousand-foot view and the 3-foot view in terms of success results in so many benefits to the program.
Brad: Absolutely. And making sure that there is unanimous agreement on the definition of success for the program is crucial. Everyone needs to be rowing in the same direction.
Kelly: Yes! And finally, see if the agency doesn’t ask the question, “what’s your budget?” Reason being is, many of us have been doing this a very long time. We know how much things cost. Now, it’s not as easy as standard rates, because everything – and I mean practically everything – in an experiential budget is custom. You could be working in the same city, but a venue choice can affect a myriad of costs. My belief is: with my experience, it should be my job to show you how much it costs to do what you want to do, why it costs that much and how it is going to come together. I like taking the pressure off of clients and especially I don’t like them to feel like I just want to empty their budgets. If I needed to, I could reverse engineer and figure out how much it costs to do something like the US Open. Yes, it is nice to know a client’s budget, to make sure we are all realistic – as I can’t do a pyrotechnics show on the Thames for $10K.
I had one client who had a dream project and I let them know from the start the dream would cost $3M – I just knew because of all the work I have produced. But the next thing I said was, "I hear your goals, the audience and I have some ideas on how we can get you some options to hit exactly these numbers with the same wow effect but one version will cost $750K and the other $1.5M." And sure enough, we went forward with the $750K version. Does your agency feel a responsibility to be a problem solver to you and your project? I do.
Brad: It’s my view that expertise tends to amplify other expertise. Who are some experts that you work with that inspire you and amplify the value of your expertise?
Kelly: Oh – so many, and I know I have already mentioned some. My go-to video and photo production company is Very Rare Productions. DotDot is pretty extraordinary for experiential tech innovation and very budget thoughtful. Damon Johnson of Born & Raised Marketing is one of the smartest, most creative and connected strategists I have ever worked with in my life and I would chew through concrete for that guy.
Brad: This has been a really enlightening conversation, Kelly. Thank you so much for sharing your insight with us. Where can people find you and put your expertise to work?
Brad, you have been a real gem and champion – THANK YOU for this awesome conversation - you know I love talking shop with you!