Marketing Whiz Ileana Diez Wants to Help Artists Grow Their Empires

Ileana Diez
Illustration by Ollanski

Ileana Diez

This story is part of Billboard's annual 40 Under 40 list, recognizing the music industry’s trailblazing young executives.

Ileana Diez
Marketing executive

After leaving a career in label publicity to join the management side, the 30-year-old former head of marketing for Roc Nation — where she worked with artists such as Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Big Sean, Kelly Rowland and more — is embarking on a new chapter with a familiar mission: “Empowering women of color and building next-generation brands that are going to shift cultures.”

What inspired you to switch fields after starting in publicity?

There has been a shift from record labels having a lot of say in the construction of campaigns to management really taking it upon themselves, making all the creative and going back to the label with a finished product. I felt limited being just a part of an artist’s career, because the only aspect I worked on was music.

What drew you to the marketing side of management?

When I joined Roc Nation in 2019, they were getting ready to launch Fenty Maison, Rihanna’s company under the LVMH umbrella [which has since closed]. Rihanna was a dream come true for me. When I was traveling [between jobs], people would always ask, “If you could manage anyone, who would you manage?” And without thinking, I would always say Rihanna.

One of the first things I did was conceptualize and produce [Fenty Maison’s] first out-of-home campaign, which ended up winning an OBIE Award. That was the moment I realized the power of what I can do. It’s thinking about each client as an individual brand, with Rihanna being an incredible example — the essence of Rihanna has allowed [her to expand into] the makeup industry, the lingerie industry. Of course, the artist is the vehicle, but the ideas can be so much larger than music.

How do you build a brand for a newer artist?

First, getting to know them. Who are they? What do they want to represent? How do they want to speak to their audience? With philanthropy, what’s their personal passion? Because if you’re not building from authenticity, you’re going to have a really hard time continuing. I think fans are now used to more of that transparency. With someone like [Roc Nation’s] Kaash Paige, for instance, she loves cartoons, so from day one, I was like, “Let’s start building things in that direction, let’s start working toward a Cartoon Network show. Who’s to say what we could do?”

During Mariah Carey’s time at Roc Nation — she moved to Range Media Partners for management earlier this year — her already-giant Christmas business got even bigger: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100, and the following year, she had an Apple TV+ Christmas special. How do you elevate what already feels like an empire?

It’s taking a step back and asking, “Where haven’t we spoken before? What haven’t we done?” We were thinking about partnerships she’s never done, doing things with DSPs in ways she’s never done before — we did a mini doc with Amazon. It’s also not always focusing on [getting bigger], but on what little individual moments could be special to people, especially for Christmas, which has such an emotional connection. My benchmark of success is: How do I get local news talking about something? Because if local news stations are talking about something, it becomes this ripple effect.

You also oversaw Carey’s 2020 merchandise and grew sales roughly 500% over the previous year, according to Roc Nation. What’s the key to a good merch business?

Getting to know your audience really well. What are their buying habits? What are the items they wanted from us last year? Sometimes people just throw a picture on a t-shirt, but we paid tremendous attention to detail to make sure people would be proud to wear what we were putting out.

For Mariah, we had a lot of campaigns running last year: the 30th anniversary [of her debut], the memoir [The Meaning of Mariah Carey], Christmas. It was about frequently putting out fresh merch that tapped into tentpole moments — it wasn’t just general Mariah merch. And we released all her titles on vinyl, some of which had never been released on vinyl before. They all had color variants selected by Mariah. We were making sure we had those details that told the story of the record and of that moment in time.

It seems like there are a lot more opportunities to get creative with catalog artists now.

Yeah, but you also run into danger as well. People who have a catalog will just throw up their vinyl because vinyl is selling well and [call it] a box set. So it’s about having a little more attention to detail with the buying audience — not everyone wants to buy a $200 vinyl box set.

Artists need to be sensitive to the fact that you’re constantly asking fans to buy things, so merch needs to feel special, collaborative and inclusive of them. I would never want to push products for the sake of pushing a product. And that’s why last year was the year we chose to release all these vinyls [for Carey], because that’s when it made sense to the story. Fans are smart as hell. They’ll see when you’re trying to do something for a money grab.

Some of the artists you’ve worked with are ones you’ve been listening to since you were a kid. How does that shape what you do?

I think if you don’t love your artists, if you don’t love their careers, [there’s a difference]. Passion is what drives me more than anything else, and I’m so passionate about what I do and the clients I work for — to the point that if they want to quiz me on B-sides on the phone, that’s something I’ll be willing to do. And it’s happened! I don’t put it past any of my artists.

In your career, you’ve worked with Rihanna, Mariah, Christina Aguilera, Normani — are you the diva whisperer?

(Laughs.) Listen, I come from strong women, I have strong women ancestors — that is not lost on me. I am the best me because of the strong women tribe I come from, and [artists] continue to bring the best out of me.

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 28, 2021, issue of Billboard.