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Industry Innovators 2024: Michael Barclay II

The executive vice president of experiential for ESSENCE Ventures leads the company’s experiential practice, overseeing ESSENCE Communications, AFROPUNK, Beautycon, and ESSENCE Studios.

An event that holds a special place in Barclay's heart: AFROPUNK. 'I'm honored to shape the brand's experiential future,' he says of the festival.
An event that holds a special place in Barclay's heart: AFROPUNK. "I'm honored to shape the brand's experiential future," he says of the festival.
Photo: Courtesy of ESSENCE Ventures

Michael Barclay IIMichael Barclay IIPhoto: Courtesy of ESSENCE VenturesMichael Barclay II is the executive vice president of experiential for ESSENCE Ventures. He's based in Chicago.

How he got his start: "During my undergraduate years, I pursued a degree in finance while also diving into event production and party planning as a Def Jam Records College representative. After graduation, I initially followed the finance path, securing a role as a financial analyst in a prestigious financial leadership program at a major institution. However, my passion for bringing people together, cultivated during those unforgettable college nights, led me to pivot my career.

Guided by a mentor at the NFL, I became involved with Take the Field, a nonprofit founded by then-New York Giants co-owner Bob Tisch. As marketing director, I supported fundraising endeavors by orchestrating various events, from press conferences to field openings. Seeking new challenges, I transitioned to the agency side, joining Alloy Marketing, where I refined my skills in guerrilla marketing, buzz marketing, nontraditional marketing, and events—what evolved into experiential marketing.

Throughout my career, I've continuously expanded my marketing expertise across PR, experiential production, and advertising. I've led teams in developing impactful brand strategies, creating Shorty Award-winning content, crafting Cannes Lion-winning advertising campaigns, and executing numerous award-winning experiential activations.

A pivotal moment came with a chance encounter with the chairman of ESSENCE Ventures, altering my career trajectory. Despite my recent role at a leading experiential agency, he offered me the opportunity to lead the company’s experiential practice, overseeing ESSENCE Communications, AFROPUNK, Beautycon, and ESSENCE Studios. While I initially hesitated and declined the offer multiple times, I eventually embraced the challenge—a bold decision that has brought me immense fulfillment and growth."

What innovation means to him: "A quote that deeply resonates with me is, 'You’re only as old as your ability to process new information.' This philosophy guides both my personal and professional life. In the realm of experiential marketing, the demand for the 'new next' is constant from clients, partners, and stakeholders alike. This desire stems from the necessity to remain relevant in an ever-evolving landscape of consumer experiences—a landscape that moves at an increasingly rapid pace.

Innovation becomes the cornerstone of delivering on these demands. Recent challenges to our industry have underscored this imperative. Despite obstacles, people persist in seeking ways to come together, compelling us to continually reimagine how we facilitate these connections. The capacity to process and integrate new information, to innovate, has been instrumental in driving ongoing success throughout my career."

Where he finds inspiration: "I draw inspiration from a multitude of creative expressions, be it a captivating visual art exhibit, a timeless song, a viral social media phenomenon, or a gripping sci-fi novel. Early in my career, I recognized the essential need for a compelling element to unite people. This allure varies depending on the campaign or experience's objective, but more often than not, it revolves around creativity or a shared passion. Observing these diverse forms of creativity and witnessing others' reactions to them frequently ignites inspiration within me."

'It's been a remarkable journey watching AFROPUNK expand into an international festival, becoming the ultimate embodiment of inclusion, creativity, and Black futurism,' Barclay says of AFROPUNK."It's been a remarkable journey watching AFROPUNK expand into an international festival, becoming the ultimate embodiment of inclusion, creativity, and Black futurism," Barclay says of AFROPUNK.Photo: Courtesy of ESSENCE Ventures

Memorable moments: "I've had the privilege of contributing to numerous memorable events throughout my career. While it's challenging to single out just one, there's one that holds a special place in my heart: AFROPUNK. My journey with AFROPUNK spans over a decade, during which I've been involved in various capacities. I first experienced AFROPUNK as a spectator in its early years, attending the vibrant gatherings right in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Witnessing this magical convergence of diverse creative expressions—music, skate culture, art, and fashion—transform from a humble block party to a multistage festival with an array of food and goods vendors was truly inspiring.

As my admiration for the brand deepened, I had the privilege of supporting AFROPUNK by bringing in clients as sponsors. Transitioning from a spectator to a supporter, I was awestruck by the event's evolution in both scale and experience. Fast-forward to my current role, where I'm honored to shape the brand's experiential future. It's been a remarkable journey watching AFROPUNK expand into an international festival, becoming the ultimate embodiment of inclusion, creativity, and Black futurism. From its roots in Brooklyn, AFROPUNK has spread its wings to cities and countries worldwide, including Paris, South Africa, and Brazil, while still holding its annual festival in the storied borough. I'm incredibly excited to see where AFROPUNK's journey takes us next."

His vision for the future of experiential: "The future of experiential marketing will witness an ongoing and comprehensive fusion of real-world experiences with emerging technologies. From AI and AR to VR and other yet-to-be-determined two-lettered technologies, these innovations will propel our capacity to connect with audiences across boundless dimensions. They will empower us to deliver personalized, unforgettable experiences at scale, captivating and inspiring audiences in unique and meaningful ways."

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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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