2020 Grammys

Night After Night's Casey McGrath On His Innovative Brand Partnerships for Quavo, 21 Savage & More

ISSUE 1 2020 - NOT OUT YET!!! OUT ON JAN. 13, 2020 - DO NOT USE YET
Heather Sten
Casey McGrath photographed on Dec. 18, 2019, at Night After Night in New York.

Casey McGrath is one of music's most sought-after matchmakers. His job: pairing brands with contemporary artists that of late have included Quavo, Anderson .Paak and 21 Savage. “We are the agency that runs the night,” says the 40-year-old Trenton, N.J., native. “That’s when consumers are the most open, which is the most exciting time to connect with them.”

McGrath dropped out of college and entered film school -- a precursor to co-founding then-fledgling production company Night After Night in 2005. Around that time, McGrath became intrigued by the field he had once eschewed as major brands began investing in online campaigns in innovative ways. Experiential advertising was taking off, and McGrath wanted a piece of the business. Night After Night secured its first formal agency gig working on Super Bowl XLI in Miami Gardens, Fla., staging celebrity go-kart races in the Hard Rock Stadium parking lot for General Motors.

“We had no eye on ever working with brands directly or becoming an agency,” says McGrath. “We entered the business through a side door.” Night After Night has since been involved in a plethora of branding campaigns involving hospitality, sexual health (Trojan) and the spirits/cocktail industry, allowing McGrath to marry his day job with his love of music. Rockers Kings of Leon have been a client since 2008; McGrath is also the band’s creative director, overseeing concert visuals and the launch of the 2016 album WALLS -- the group’s first to top the Billboard 200.

In 2019, McGrath helped major liquor brands work with rap artists. The “Love Thy Neighborhood/#LoveThyBar” campaign for Jameson Irish Whiskey featured singer-rapper .Paak; Migos’ Quavo appeared in the “Make Your Statement” campaign for Martell Cognac; and Avión Tequila’s “Depart. Elevate. Arrive.” starred 21 Savage.

According to Night After Night, since it began working with Jameson six years ago, the brand has nearly quadrupled its sales (moving 3.5 million cases in the United States last year, up from 1 million in 2014), and Martell’s platform experienced a 30% increase in domestic growth. McGrath launched a new Quavo/Martell spot in December and is planning further evolutions of that campaign and Jameson’s “Love Thy Neighborhood” platform. He’s also in the midst of organizing the first music program for new client TX Whiskey. Night After Night recently brewed its own spirits brand, Barking Irons Applejack, distilled from upstate New York apples.

What makes Night After Night so unorthodox as a creative agency?
At Night After Night, it’s all one point of contact. That allows us to streamline the strategic, creative, negotiation, casting and directorial processes. Everybody on our 25-person team has a similar multiheaded ability and industry relationships, coming from unlikely places from which you’d staff an agency: producers, directors, editors, artist-entertainers, comedy writers. Because our team has relationships with the music industry as well as with brands, we can sit down and have real conversations with both sides about creating new models for how brands and artists can work together. That’s the secret sauce.

People often view branding and marketing as synonymous. Why is it so important to understand the distinction?
It’s the difference between using your gut and relying on data. Art versus science. Marketing is about finding and maintaining consumers, listeners or whatever. We’re about connecting. But data is super important. For instance, it might say people like red a lot more than blue, so make more red. But why people like red is the other part [of the conversation]. When you combine those two elements in the right way, that’s how you win. If you’re just completely relying on data, you’re missing an opportunity to tug on a heartstring.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to matching artists with brands?
That success begins with casting. A brand wants to connect with consumers on shared values. But it’s very hard for a brand to have a conversation with consumers and convince them that they actually do embody those values. The artist needs to embody the brand’s values when they’re not working with the brand. Quavo is probably one of my favorite examples. Martell really wanted to promote the idea that in order to succeed in life, you don’t need to change the way you speak, dress, how you think, what you believe -- and that isn’t the message everybody hears growing up. Even at the product level, Martell is pushing against the traditional model for a successful cognac. They’re saying, “We’re going to break these rules and succeed because of it.” Then you find someone like Quavo: He’s succeeding absolutely on his own terms, making no concessions. It’s powerful when a brand can simply say, “Look at Quavo’s story, look at what he’s about to do next.” Having a shared passion is the best way to communicate to consumers. This is not a “sip, this-tastes-great” type of influencer program.

How do you convince rule-breaking artists to meet the demands of a commercial brand?
Skepticism and doubt about what the platform is going to be is the heart of the struggle, and the lack of trust is completely legitimate because brands still want certain things from the artists that aren’t necessarily what artists want or should be doing. And artists are still fighting for the biggest check and against the biggest logo -- that’s how they enter the conversation. But the biggest joy is when artists realize this isn’t what it’s about, that we’re actually interested in supporting them and hearing about what they want to do and achieve, ideas they’d love to put more money behind that the label wouldn’t be interested in but perhaps a brand could come in and help. When that light switch flips on, we’re off to the races.

What trends are you keeping an eye on in 2020?
The trend of brands bringing creative teams and agencies in-house is ridiculous. People are moving away from brand-out messaging to consumer-centric, which is good news for everybody. So moving creative partners inside the brand to find efficiencies and save money is counterintuitive to the way the business is moving. It’s going to become very clear very soon that doing everything in-house is unsustainable. Those brands are going to start losing.

How do music influencers compare to actors and athletes in terms of consumer engagement?
We like to say that if a brand is willing to put one-tenth of what it spends on sports sponsorships into musicians, it will receive 10 times more passionate consumer results.

Having worked with Kings of Leon for years, why are rock bands so allergic to big consumer brands -- or vice versa?
Pop and hip-hop are kicking rock’s ass on the charts and benefiting from additional media dollars, which leads to more messaging about tour announcements and album releases. Rock acts can benefit from what we do, but some of them carry the old baggage about not wanting to shill for a brand. That’s my next big goal: to make those feelings go away and create the freedom for a rock act to thrive in popular music with the benefit of brand support. A lot of things need to change in order for that to happen. But we’re on it. 

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 10, 2020 issue of Billboard.


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