Talking diversity and the future of corporate partnerships with the music biz’s branding guru.
These days, MAC Presents president Marcie Allen is known for orchestrating some of the highest-profile brand partnerships in the music industry. But she had to pivot across several jobs over more than a decade to find her true calling.
Straight out of college, at the age of 21, Allen began her career as director of marketing at Cellar Door Concerts (since folded into Live Nation), before transitioning to an assistant position at WME Nashville. Realizing the agency world wasn't for her, she founded her own event production company, MAD Booking & Events, and produced over 100 concerts and festivals over the course of six years, including Voodoo Music + Arts Experience in New Orleans and the weekly free concert series On the Bricks in Nashville and Atlanta. Most importantly, Allen was able to fund all her projects with MAD Booking & Events through corporate sponsorships, which triggered another pivot: serving as the bridge between the music industry and corporate America.
"My grandmother always told me that the key to success in life is to figure out the one thing you’re really good at, and then home in on that thing and be laser-focused in your energy," says Allen from her office in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood. "It might take you a long time to get there. It took me until I was 31 years old."
In 2004, Allen founded MAC Presents from her dining room table. The company has since crafted award-winning music campaigns for brands like Citi, Capital One and Southwest Airlines, elevating acts from Metallica and Foo Fighters to Taylor Bennett and Judah & The Lion. Through a strategic partnership and shared office space with Cara Lewis’ booking agency
Cara Lewis Group, Allen has been at the helm of some of the most-discussed music campaigns of the past year, including a 60-second Khalid-Uber commercial that aired during the Grammy Awards.
She also has been outspoken regarding female empowerment. Women account for 80 percent of MAC Presents’ employees, and both Allen and Lewis were among the 20-plus female executives to sign an open letter calling for Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow's resignation, after his statement about women needing to "step up" for better representation at the Grammys, a comment for which he has since apologized.
Allen is serious about her commitment to diversity and nurturing future leaders. She teaches two undergraduate courses as an adjunct professor at New York University (NYU) and recently picked up the tab for a class trip to Garth Brooks' show at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
"People ask me if I’m going to pivot again from brand partnerships, and my answer is no," says Allen. "I was fortunate to be at the forefront of the brand partnership movement when it was the redheaded stepchild in the room. Now we have a legitimate seat at the table."
What is your approach to brand partnerships?
People often ask us whether we represent the artists or the brands, and I always say, "We represent the deal." And if it’s not a win-win on both sides, there really isn’t a deal there. One thing brands often forget is that they have to bring real value to the partnership. Very few artists nowadays are just looking for a check; they want to make the experience better for their fans. Brands can make artists and consumers genuine ambassadors by capturing the passion that goes into making and enjoying music.
How do you make a partnership authentic?
At our heart, we’re storytellers: The first thing we do is figure out the story we want to tell. In 2011, we were working with BlackBerry, and Foo Fighters were gearing up to release Wasting Light. They recorded the whole album in a garage and wanted to preserve that lo-fi environment on their tour. BlackBerry gave away the opportunity for eight fans around the country to host a Foo Fighters show in their own garage. [They] got millions of impressions and supported Foo Fighters in doing things on their tour productionwise they might not have been able to pull off previously.
What is the biggest misconception about the work you do?
Closing the deal is just 5 percent of the work. The remaining 95 percent is all about bringing that partnership to life across multiple touch points. Otherwise, it’s just a really expensive secret. I get upset if there’s a deal in the music industry between a brand and an artist that I don’t know about. Half of our team at MAC spends nearly their entire day doing research, leaving no stone unturned. So I’m baffled when people walk into a room and claim a deal is "massive," when we can’t find any content or press articles or follow-up online.
What is the next big evolution for brand partnerships?
I think it’s all about more integrated campaigns. You’re seeing more and more of these brands leveraging artists in global campaigns across all types of real estate. I also think you can’t understate the significance of cord-cutting. I recently asked students in both of my NYU classes to raise their hands if they had a TV in their apartment. Out of 80 students, only four raised their hands. If I were an advertiser, I would be freaking out. That’s why I think there’s such a big opportunity for experiential partnerships, where you use the power of music to create a deeper, one- on-one relationship with the consumer.
Why is there a gap between music and sports when it comes to brand sponsorship dollars?
With sports partnerships, it's very easy for brands to measure their return on investment. Their approach is much more data-driven. It’s more difficult to do that in music. If you’re involved with an artist over the course of six to 12 months, sometimes you don’t see that added value immediately. You might see an upswing in sales year- over-year, but otherwise you’re judging by social media activity and press impressions.
What other industries do you see as instrumental to MAC’s success?
Fashion has been huge for us. I strongly believe retail is the new media. How great would it be for an artist who’s virtually unknown to have their face across 800 stores? With the Khalid-Forever 21 campaign, we started having that conversation before [debut album] American Teen even dropped. Khalid was looking for exposure, and Forever 21 wanted to demonstrate they were on the forefront of music by introducing customers to a new artist before anyone else knew about him.
Can you comment on the open letter to Neil Portnow, and diversity in music?
The Grammys need to have a transparent overhaul, like the Oscars two years ago, that results in a Moonlight moment. No one’s arguing the Grammys didn't recognize the right nominees this year, but they need to explicitly share how they’re making changes to award the right winners. We need our industry leaders to lead by example, to show that no matter your race, sexual orientation, gender or background, you have an opportunity to be successful.