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Industry Innovators 2024: Kelly Markus

The chief visionary officer and owner of Hunters Point wants to find the streaks of originality within each event.

Markus' firm produced Mighty Dream Forum, an event founded by Pharrell Williams, who wished to create a conference inspired by the World Economic Forum but focused on American subject matters, with access to a wider business public.
Markus' firm produced Mighty Dream Forum, an event founded by Pharrell Williams, who wished to create a conference inspired by the World Economic Forum but focused on American subject matters, with access to a wider business public.
Photo: Courtesy of Hunters Point

Kelly MarkusKelly MarkusPhoto: Courtesy of Hunters PointKelly Markus is chief visionary officer and owner of Hunters Point, with two offices in NYC and Pennsylvania. She's based in New York.

How she got her start: "As an NYU drama graduate back in the '90s, I started a nonprofit film and theater production company. Our first big hit was the Phat Shorts Film Festival, selling out shows for six years, which featured short films from around the country and the world, and gained sponsorship from HBO, RĂ©my Martin, Kodak, IFC, Skyy Vodka, and more. I also kept being asked to produce short films and theater and discovered I enjoyed it and it came naturally to me. I transitioned to the independent film world and started to build a career that had opportunities to transition to studio feature film work, but I missed the experience of a live audience. So I took a position at a corporate event production company as a creative coordinator working on million-dollar projects for companies like IBM and Pfizer. 

After five years, I was eager to get back to more entertainment-focused work and created a Lower East Side multimedia festival called Crown Point, which took place over 22 nights; featured more than 200 artists; and had sponsors like Nokia, Maker's Mark, Stella Artois, and Whole Foods. Right after that, I was asked to produce the 40th anniversary of the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency and, from there, I applied to become the head of events at Shecky's for their Girls Night Out shopping events. I was then referred to MKG and became a senior producer working with Coca-Cola, Justin Timberlake's William Rast, Delta Air Lines, Hyatt, Syfy, and JCPenney. 

After I left MKG, Coca-Cola reached out to me directly in 2010 and asked me to produce their activations. For the first time, I was running a production company and making a full-time living at it with clients like Coca-Cola, Univision, and the NYC Wine & Food Festival. One client was the PR firm DKC, and that led to discussions about me creating the first event division within their agency. Starting with just me and my laptop, I turned the division into a 10-person department with clients like Jaguar Land Rover, Kawasaki, Monster, Sega, New Era, and Epix. 

I left DKC to pursue bigger events and was recruited into INVENT specifically for my consumer and original events experience. I served as the creative executive producer for the Intel Developer Forum and the executive producer for Intel's activations at NYFW, and also created the business model for Entertainment Weekly's POPFEST and served as the executive producer for the Time100 Gala featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj.

I was asked by Rubik Marketing to serve as the executive producer for the Game of Thrones U.S. immersive tour, and toward the end of that, was contacted by Refinery29 as they were looking to improve and expand 29Rooms and the events department as a whole. After nine interviews and apparently some internal conversations rooting very adamantly for me, I became the vice president of experiential at R29.

In year one in that role, I was given the goal to take the department from $6 million to $8 million in revenue. I built a completely new event business model for 29Rooms and changed the department structure and workflow. In the first year, we did $16 million in revenue, hit our profit margin goals, expanded 29Rooms into LA, and grew our overall business. In year two, I did it again and hit $24 million in revenue, and my department was named Adweek's Hottest Event Business in Media, along with many other industry awards and nominations.

At the very beginning of 2019, I left R29 feeling I had gone as high as I could there and wanting to have the flexibility to work on projects across myriad industries and audiences. And Hunters Point was born."

What innovation means to her: "To me, innovation means pushing to find the streaks of originality within each event, and that's vitally important to me. Many times, clients will refer to other work they have seen as a reference point—'we love what this event did,' 'we love the look of this,' 'we think this technique is cool.' That's all fine, because we have to start with some common language and goals.

But we work across a lot of different event types, industries, and audiences—some events seem very straightforward while others are specifically to shake up a void. We look at every event and find the natural touchpoints, the program flow, and audience engagements, and (where we can) find details and areas to shake it up that will still deliver the desired results but in a different way. We do not believe in gimmicks for the sake of having clever moments of ingenuity—rather we double down on how are we delivering multiple goals and benefits for our clients with a unique perspective, starting with the entry experience, and then going into the seating plan, how the food and beverage are integrated and served, the manner in which we are propelling attendees to engage in the space in real time, how we are integrating digital elements, and so on.

Even the way we approach events is a bit radical and aggressive. We don't have a creative director on staff at Hunters Point. Instead, everyone who works here is expected to bring creative thinking to the table, and each project team is expected to manifest and hold the creative vision together. It not only keeps us accountable as a team, but it turns us into a well-tuned think tank, project by project, with a high degree of production and design efficiency and execution.  

I have to give a major shout-out to production director Eve Cohen and design director Jackie Requeima, because their level of expertise, and their commitment to quality and turnaround, is extraordinary. Eve and I have been working together at Hunters Point since 2019, and Jackie joined in 2022. Between the three of us, there is a fine-tuning that is so lock-solid right now that when we lean in as a group, it feels like no one can stop us. It’s a gorgeous thing to behold that level of trust, partnership, talent, and desire to crush it on every project. 

Part of my starting Hunters Point and building a solid foundation with our unique structure and approach is to set us—and our clients—up for major long-term success, not just easy likes on Instagram."

Where she finds inspiration: "Funnily enough, I think we get it mostly from life and not from other events. The Hunters Point team certainly brings a ton of event experience to the table. So I often find when we go into brainstorms or creative and design sessions, we are often talking about our own lives and all the aspects that make it well rounded—from how someone may be doing TRX, to how I work in my garden, to what senior production coordinator Mars Khan knows about the music industry.

We've gone through explorations that might start with a swatch of cloth or a textile or the review of a strange, small public park and then turn it into a way to explore and manifest new forms of event production. We're not afraid to get very abstract and deconstructive in some parts of our work in order to then build and find the kernels we want to take forward. That said, we try not to be pretentious about it. When something at an event needs to be thoughtful, functional, and straightforward, it is. Some key areas that have been intriguing for us lately have been food and beverage trends, community pockets of artistic people doing their thing exceptionally well, music, and all things in the natural world. Ask me in six months and this will evolve again."

'Pharrell told us the story of how Jamie Diamond said no one wants to go to another trade show or economic conference—they want the DJs, style, and culture that is part of the artistic life from a leader like Pharrell,' Markus says. 'So we designed Mighty Dream to feel like an immersive event.'"Pharrell told us the story of how Jamie Diamond said no one wants to go to another trade show or economic conference—they want the DJs, style, and culture that is part of the artistic life from a leader like Pharrell," Markus says. "So we designed Mighty Dream to feel like an immersive event."Photo: Courtesy of Hunters Point

Memorable moments: "There's a lot on my mind lately as we have been so busy, but I think of what we created for Mighty Dream Forum—that process, experience, and the event building blocks—will be seared into my memory forever. Mighty Dream Forum was conceived and founded by Pharrell Williams, who wished to create a conference inspired by the World Economic Forum but focused on American subject matters, with access to a wider business public. 

For Mighty Dream, Hunters Point built the event business model; supported booking, programming, and sponsorship; then produced every aspect: production, design, technical, event marketing, and sponsored brand activations. There were many special aspects of Mighty Dream but two that stand out on the topic of innovation.

First, within the building of the event business model and the structure around the audience, we know C-suite and business execs have a cookie-cutter set of expectations around structure and seating—and that limits opportunities for engagement with new, fresh-minded contacts, like the varsity college and grad students we knew would also be attending. So, we created special seating formats and unexpected events inside our events—like the Business Block Party—to create multiple areas where a C-suite from Google could rub shoulders with a college grad, creating real yet valuable access. 

And then second, the look and feel overall. Pharrell told us the story of how Jamie Diamond said no one wants to go to another trade show or economic conference—they want the DJs, style, and culture that is part of the artistic life from a leader like Pharrell. So, we designed Mighty Dream to feel like an immersive event, infusing innovative tent structures to reenvision what a keynote main stage could be. We had real trees in our main stage—and I'm not talking in planters! And in all eight venues throughout the city of Norfolk, we programmed food, music, and engagements that allowed people to really feel immersed in the activities."

Her vision for the future of experiential: "The trend we are seeing now is how much B2B formats are embracing experiential and immersive techniques—and we love that. I also think media, particularly digital media, is going through a very much-needed shake-up and a rebirth of events and experiential. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of that and also where partnering with teams like Hunters Point makes sense versus having an internal events team.

Overall, the future of experiential is looking very bright right now. We have been incredibly busy this year and continue to see the expansion of talent investing in new types of events that expand their platforms. Two examples of this: We have been asked to execute all sponsorship and brand activations for the new Cousinz Festival featuring Pusha T. This event dives into all aspects of Cousinz Culture and isn't structured like a standard, big music festival. Another is our partnership with Ryan Seacrest to create RedX, a red-carpet immersive experience built from our event business model and something that I have been working on with creator Woody Thompson for four years. 

Overall, I'm loving events that feel more intimate versus 55,000-attendee festivals. Don't get me wrong; I love a big fest and lots of foot traffic! But audiences seem to be responding to quality time out, not feeling overcrowded, and to premium and special touchpoints in a post-COVID world. And I do feel it's at that level of scale we can push for more innovative thinking."

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This feature is sponsored by Gladiator Productions, a new kind of production company igniting magic in the arena of live events, entertainment, and experience. We consistently partner with our clients by providing high-touch service through every step of the production process. 

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