Image is everything. It determines the success and failure of nearly everything fighting for our attention: singers, actors, movies, sodas, you name it. Marketers are sculptures of said images, the entities behind what makes the consumer consume. Shanté Bacon, founder of 135th Street Agency, runs one of the top agencies in the country. With a client list that includes the Oprah Winfrey Network, creating successful campaigns for Oscar-winning films like Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street, Bacon and her staff are building a budding “experiential marketing” empire.
Competition for marketing representation is stiff to say the least. Bacon and 135th Street have been able to rise above her competitors by not sticking to tired traditions and concentrating on the particular needs of their clients.
“If you want to break through the clutter of all your competitors, you have to create a custom experience that will translate into a sincere testimonial,” Bacon explains. “If you’re a true marketing professional, you know the landscape has to evolve constantly so that you can stay on par with the times. So these days, because we are in the digital age, every consumer on the planet is bombarded with information morning, noon and night, literally.
“The challenge for any marketer is, you have to create a new way to connect with the audience you’re going after. Whereas years ago, you were able to just do an ad campaign, some radio advertising, outdoor advertising, maybe possibly do an event, these days you have to come up with a campaign that is actually going to engage.”
Bacon and her company’s marketing and public relations savvy helped Disney’s Tangled earn over 200 million dollars in 2010. Tasked with marketing to the African-American audience, she and her staff used the natural hair movement to help African-Americans relate to the blonde Rapunzel character. That same determination helped get director Spike Lee high-profile media exposure for his 2012 indie film, Red Hook Summer.
Though she’s a successful Black business owner with many prominent Black clients, Bacon insists that the success of 135th Street is hinged on not allowing itself to only be a Black business.
“We definitely are not an agency that only targets Black people; we just market pop culture.” Bacon continues, “At the end of the day, I want to be able to be competitive the same way people can be competitive in the general market and not have to feel like, ‘Oh, well, if it comes to Black-owned agencies, there’s only room for one.’ I’m not about that. This is business and we are competing. We should push each other and compete.”
One of the ways Bacon was able to build such a roster of clients was thanks to those testimonials. In other words, her reputation preceded her to the point where companies where coming to 135th Street rather than the other way around.
“If you have people out there willing to say, ‘I experienced it and I’m telling you this is where you need to be,’ that goes so far, whether you’re selling vacation, cups, mugs, orange juice, an experience, an event, whatever it is. Anything where you need people to buy into something, testimony is what it’s all about.”
Shanté Bacon seemed destined to become a marketing giant early. When most children dreamed of becoming astronauts and doctors, she recalls her dream job as a kid growing up in Queens: “When I was a kid, I used to say to myself all the time, ‘I know what I’m going to do when I get older: I’m going to dress the windows at Macy’s 34th Street.’ ”
Her fascination with commercials and ads manifested quickly, often giving her entrepreneur mother ideas. “My mom, when she was doing her business, I would say, ‘Why don’t you do a Christmas promotion where you have a 48-hour time period when anybody [who] registers during that time gets a free registration for their friends?’ She looked at me like I was nuts, and said, ‘That’s a good idea. Little girl, where did you get that from?’ ”
She took that intuition and drive straight to Hampton University. Working for Def Jam Records in 1996 proved to be the turning point of her career and life. “For a little girl who grows up in Jamaica, Queens, during the 1980s-1990s ‘crack era’ and the true birth of the hip-hop music industry, Def Jam was like Camelot.”
Bacon continues, “It was a cultural icon of a bunch of young, talented, creative, business-minded professionals that all conversed into one place, putting out music that was only supposed to appeal to a small group. But it ended up changing the world, music and pop culture, changing people all over the globe.”
She received mentorship from labels executives Kevin Lyles and Lyor Cohen, and soon she was moving up the ladder, thanks to innovative marketing campaigns (for Jay Z’s Blueprint Tour and the release of Kanye West’s College Dropout, among others). Moving herself up to marketing director, Bacon scored her dream job. But she had her sights set on another dream.
In 2004, at age 27, she resigned from Def Jam and founded 135th Street Agency. “I always had intended on running my own company even when I was in college; I just did not expect to do it so soon. Was there fear? Absolutely. There was fear I was giving up this dream job. A dream job is only a dream for but so long. [laughs] I don’t know if anybody else can agree with that, but I can say that every dream job comes with not so dreamy things, like politics and personality conflicts.”
Her risk has paid great dividends. Bacon’s 135th Street surges ahead, acquiring new clients like Sean Combs’s Revolt TV. She states that her ability to leave a comfortable situation (while applying the wisdom of her mentors) is the best advice she could give to young aspiring marketing reps.
“You’re going to be molded when you are pushed out of your comfort zone and you feel like nothing you ever do is good enough, and that is just the child in you who is protesting,” she says. “Trust me, anybody who is taking time out of their schedule and making time to invest in you to push you further, appreciate that lesson. Those who are not pushing you are the people who don’t care if you grow or not.”
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.