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XLIVE Interview Series

XLIVE Interview Series: Kelly Markus, Refinery29

The next stop on the XLIVE Interview Series is with Refinery29’s Vice President of Experiential Marketing, Kelly Markus. Refinery29’s 29Rooms is an otherworldly combination of art, culture, music, brand and celebrities to create bold and unique, large-scale exhibitions that completely redefine the interactive experience. After hosting 29Rooms for three successful years in New York, Refinery29 has decided to add Los Angeles to the 29Rooms experience that will run from December 7-10 at ROW DTLA.

Tell us a little about Refinery29. What new initiatives we can expect to see in 2018.

Refinery29 is the leading digital media destination for young women —  Whether it’s our original video, trending social, or live experiences, we’re working to create content that makes an impact through diverse storytelling and perspectives across every platform.  For me personally, it is one of the most inspiring and supportive places I have ever worked – everyone I work, me included, is empowered to create — whatever that means — to our highest potential.

For 2018, we plan to come out strong, to expand our hugely successful live event franchise 29Rooms, and take it to new levels in programming and engagements.  We want to keep being leaders and that means taking some big risks.

You’ve specialized in event marketing strategy and creative direction for over 20 years, what was one of the first events you attended that inspired the direction of your career?  

My first love has always been the theater.  The live experience and exchange of the audience is like sheer magic   I remember tears running down my face watching The Urban Bush Women at BAM where they merged song, dance art and performance  – or how crazy The Wooster Group could get with video and pop music and TV references on stage. I realized that all those other loves I had – of live music, film – could all be expanded in a glorious live mash up.  The part that always rings the most true from any memorable piece could the lead singer of a band like Karen O pouring her guts out- the moment has to be filled with truth and the utmost passion in real time.  That is the buzz I chase for every live event.

29Rooms has enjoyed tremendous success since launching 3 years ago, share a little about the reason for the initiative and some of the program goals.

Refinery29 was looking to celebrate our 10 year anniversary in a truly original way and embody all we stand for while involving our audience.  After dozens of brainstorms and thousands of post it notes on walls, we came up with the idea of 29 Rooms that could each physicalize the different topics, issues and independent voices that make up Refinery 29 to celebrate and embrace them.  We wanted to stand for inclusivity, especially during Fashion Week, which is notoriously exclusive.We weren’t even sure anyone would attend year one – and then thousands of people showed up!  And by year two, we had people waiting in lines that lasted up to 7 hours.  So this past September, for the first time we offered tickets to help produce a better quality event and give back to non-profit partners the R29 audience believes in.  This meant everyone who got a ticket could get in,and they could take their time enjoying the space over 3 hours.  A lot of it is always about making it the best for the audience both creatively and experientially.

If you could meet one person, who would it be, and why?

Joan of Arc. A young brave woman who was not going to let a bunch of powerful men tell her what she could or could not do, and believed she could take on a noble mission, even when she had no training. She listened to her instincts and took a chance on thinking differently, far ahead of her time. She’s one of my heroes. Plus, she was French, and they have great food and a great lifestyle, so that helps too.

Billed as an interactive funhouse of style, culture, & technology with this year’s theme as – Turn It Into Art, 29Rooms like it may be your best year yet. Can you give us a sneak peek about what’s new this year?   

This has been such an exciting year.  We really played with scale, so we looked to have many of the installations soar in a new way – to see the scenic, lighting and overall landscapes really bend what the concept of a “room” could be. Our artist collaborators also helped to bring another interactive aspect to this year’s event – folks like Alexa Meade who really understand the interaction of the audience in art. Other artists like Benjamin Shine create these breathtaking tulle designs-to bring his work to life when so much has previously been off limits from runway shows.  And we are really pushing that theatrical fourth wall with our Dreamers Den where the singer is taking a dream an audience member writes down and impeccably singing the dream on the spot, cabaret style.

You’ve worked with some of the most prominent global brands including, Jaguar, Land Rover, Sega, Sony Playstation, Intel, Target and HP to name a few. What’s been one of the more memorable activations you created and how did you measure the success of the engagement with the brand?   

It’s actually really humbling to have a brand – especially brands that work so hard to build up their credibility to trust and make a big leap of faith in whatever they do experientially. For Coca-Cola, I worked on a major pop up store in NYC and we went for massive ambition: size, design, programming – and it paid off.  We had amazing attendance and the Brand Manager was able to actually track how we moved the product needle in the market, which is fantastic for ROI.  That success led to bringing pop ups to another market like Boston –  the time is never better to take the best experiential beyond the LA’s and NYC’s – because people love it and really respond. That led to producing a Rihanna concert for Coca-Cola which was awesome.  To me – it’s about the relationship – with the brands and at each step of the initiative.  What’s awesome for me – I love variety and mixing things up-so to do runway shows, concerts, culinary events, pop ups, its keeps me young and I want to do it all.

What keeps Kelly Markus up at night?

Security. What I say to my teams – from the security, to the brand ambassadors, to the ticket managers, producers and coordinators – is that I want your biggest complaint at the end of night to be that you’re tired. I believe that if we plan, that if we do everything we can to be preventive, proactive, communicative and more, we can take care of each other.  And that means preparation, working on relationships, and being constantly vigilant to ensure a safe and successful event for everyone.

Creating engaging experiences for brand partners and community members is an ongoing goal for any digital publication. What are some of the creative ways you’re doing that at Refinery29?   

I think about what we did for International Women’s Day.  We combined thought leaders from non-profits like She Should Run and Girls Who Code with major talent like Allison Williams and Maggie Gyllenhaal to have really meaningful conversations led by our co-founder and executive creative director, Piera Gelardi.  It was hosted at TicTail’s great local store alongside a panel conversation that was broadcast on Facebook Live – so we could engage with the live and online audience.  We also immersed the store in the underscoring initiative with our brand sponsor Keds bringing R29 and brands together to form engagement across platforms and screens–those are the kinds of creative collaborations that excite us, and our audience.

How are emerging technologies impacting how you engage your audience both online and at 29Rooms? Are your brand partners demanding more with tech?

What’s great about how we work with our brand partners is that we really take that word – partner – to heart.  We build up that layer of trust with them as we also have built up that layer of trust with our audience.  And our audience loves and recognizes authenticity, great design and meaning. So that value alignment is key to creating results that both sides crave. It’s a really easy thing to point out the “bright shiny toy” of new tech but if it isn’t rooted in meaning, authenticity – it can come across as a gimmick  – and we want more than that, we want sense memory love.  So when we do play with high tech, it’s done in ways that always ladder back – like facial mapping the concept of beauty and transformation for one of our NY rooms.  We’re going to see a part of R29 events that takes that next layer of original tech design and innovation to another level – but always through an impactful lens.

In your previous role as the executive producer of Crown Point Festival, what ideas and lessons learned are you able to apply to your role at Refinery29?

So Crown Point Festival had its share of disbelievers  – people couldn’t possible envision how live theater, short film and live music could all live seamlessly on one stage.  I often find, just because others can’t imagine it yet, doesn’t mean it’s not possible.  And that spirit of innovative forward-thinking and risk-taking is what 29Rooms is all about it. We want people to walk into the space and say, “I can’t believe they did that” or “I never would have dreamed they could do this” — but we did, and we will continue to do the unexpected.

If you had take a different career path, what would you be doing?

I would be a music video director, hands down.  Music videos are such an imaginative dreamscape that blend art and music.  And they have running times of 5-10 minutes each, so I would make dozens of them with all different kinds of artists from my lifetime.

Countless brands and media properties have launched live event initiatives in recent years. How do you see event marketing and brand activations evolving over the next 2-3 years?

I feel like this is one of the most special times: we are, thanks to our team and all of our supporters, finding such amazing success with 29Rooms. That amazing response to our event, coupled with the rise of experiential within the industry makes us feels like the stars in the universe have all lined up.  As people are clamoring for connection, there is nothing like live events – and to be the most meaningful brand to a consumer, it requires that investment in a  personal relationship.  Experiential delivers that like nothing else, and that impact is even further amplified by technology. We couldn’t be more excited about where we are going as a brand and an industry. So, let’s all build the future!

Meet and hear from Kelly Markus at XLIVE 2017. You can check out her bio and speaking engagements HERE.


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