Longtime creative partners Nicky Balestrieri and Luigi Tadini bring another meaning to content-driven experiential marketing. Their editorial backgrounds are obvious from their storytelling expertise and constant research on what's new across the lifestyle space. The team behind mega projects including Refinery 29's 29Rooms and The Studio by HBO shared their creative process, tips for creating the perfect party and their predictions for the future of experiential.
How did you come to start the business in which you are partners? What were you doing at the time?
NB: Luigi and I have been creative partners for most of our careers. We met during our seven-year tenure at PAPER Magazine, and our creative affinity was evident from our very first project together – the opening of the Lanvin Flagship with Alber Elbaz in 2009.
My background was in event design and nightlife, which is where I learned the foundation of my skill set. As the founding Creative Director of Extra Extra, I was able to transform the (then) back-of-house consulting business into an award-winning experiential company that counted Target, American Express, HP and Mattel as clients.
LT: I began my career as a style consultant for GQ magazine and as a contributing editor at Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar Brazil. In 2009, I joined the editorial team at PAPER to lead their fashion department where I produced countless fashion editorials, monthly front-of-book pages and covers that included Pharrell Williams, Duran Duran and Mariah Carey, to name a few. I was always interested in storytelling through various different mediums and the extension into marketing seemed like a very natural next step – an expansion of what I had done creatively in the past.
Nicky and I knew pretty immediately that our work at PAPER was only the beginning of what we were meant to do together, and over the course of a few summers dreaming in the sands of our home-away-from-home, Provincetown, MA – we dreamt up the Gathery.
Were there any elements or sensibilities from your background in media that carried over to this business?
NB: There are two things that really stuck with us as we built the Gathery – one structural and one creative – that still remain foundational to our practice today.
We started out in a time when big agencies were proven top-heavy, trying to service everything to every one of their clients with mastery in only some of their services. Learnt from our time in magazines, we prefer a table full of experts (just like our fondly-remembered monthly editorial meetings); and so, we only practice what we’re excellent at. The rest of our clients’ needs are serviced through strategic partner agencies that we love collaborating with to deliver the best results for our clients.
LT: There are many agencies who can develop tasteful branding, execute events and craft well-rounded messaging for consumers. What makes The Gathery different from all others is our ability to apply a curated narrative approach and a directional eye to everything we do. Our background as editors and founders of the content-driven experiential movement has provided our team with the skill set to identify the “red thread” that ties complex marketing stories together in a way that other experiential agencies simply can’t. The story always comes first.
What are some of your sources of inspiration for the events you produce?
LT: Nicky and I share an insatiable curiosity for finding what is new. We were editors after all, constantly searching for the latest trend, new sounds, undiscovered destinations or local treasures. That curiosity is still what drives our creative work today as we strive to be hyper aware of the cultural landscape around us, seeking inspiration in the most unexpected places, re-interpreting and reimagining them in our own distinctive style.
NB: The Gathery means a home for gatherers, and as such, all of our programs are founded in this core practice of curation and pastiche of things that interest us. Today, we remain inspired by makers, artisans and artists and dedicate our practice to connecting them with brands and offering them opportunities through our programs. So, we are constantly traveling, researching and finding new things to fold into our work – whether it’s emerging fashion designers in Marrakech, culinary trends in downtown LA, or holistic beauty from Paris.
What are some of the event trends you’re liking at the moment?
NB: Honestly, we aren’t impressed with much these days. Events are a rubric for sure, but that doesn’t mean they need to feel formulaic. There isn’t a client who doesn’t want a “photo moment” and designs must always be “Insta-worthy,” which is consistently limiting because we are only appealing to people’s most basic instincts and not the element of experience that is most critical – that of community.
LT: What inspires us is people who want to take risks, like our clients at HBO. Upon completion of a first-in-class research project on the LGBTQ+ community in 2017, they asked us to come up with an experience that would answer the single most requested thing from their research: a place for the community to meet as a whole. The Studio by HBO was created to answer just that and was an eight-week pop-up community center that celebrated queer stories and characters in America’s premier LGBTQ+ destination: Provincetown, MA. We won a Clio for our work on this, and it remains one of our proudest moments.
Can you walk us through your creative process, from when you do your first briefing with the client?
NB: We still apply the editorial approach to everything we do. When we made the Art issue back in our magazine days, we didn’t write simply about art and artists. We wrote about food and fashion and music and celebrity through the lens of art. So, we take the theme out and place the brand in the center. We ask ourselves – what is Brand X if it were music? And so forth. From there, we construct a world of ideas that help contextualize the subject matter through a cohesive narrative that helps the consumer/guest/participant understand what we want about the brand in a meaningful and seemingly organic-to-their-interests way.
LT: Editing is a big part of what we do. It is almost instinctive. When brands come to us with convoluted or complex messaging, we typically have an immediate reaction. After understanding their objectives, we usually help simplify the headline, the story. From there we generally create a universe that sustains that narrative while allowing people with different interests to be compelled and intrigued by it. This makes our programs and initiatives rounder and more appealing to wider audiences. We believe in speaking up to our guests and letting them discover a new brand or product through channels that are interesting to them.
Can you share your tips for creating the perfect party? How do you orchestrate the best guest experience?
NB: I believe strongly in what I call “event ergonomics.” The study of space and how people move through it has been a real, life-long study of mine and I find it critical to understand if you wish to elevate an event from something beyond just a pretty room or fun entertainment or good food. I imagine the floor plan of a space like the book: a cover which only entices you in, an introduction that primes you for what is to come, a series of chapters that each have their own surprising story to tell, the crescendo of the feature and then a whimsical goodbye.
LT: I start with the tone. The understanding of how I want the guest to feel. From there I craft the story and the ebb and flow of the experience to ensure guests remain entertained throughout an evening. You always want an element of self-discovery and surprise where you help hint and guide your guests by creating environments that provoke or evoke a feeling – much like a painting or an art installation.
It really feels like events & experiential has boomed in recent years. To what do you attribute its rise?
NB: Millennials. Of all the extensive research that is done on this rising influential economic force, we understand that they crave experience above all things. And not only that, they want to discover it themselves. So, discovery, experience, surprise and sharing with the intent of reward is critical to any piece of marketing you are constructing for them. That last part is of course about social media and the role it has played in justifying the investment on behalf of brands in experiential.
LT: I think the second part is the reaction to the digital world. The alienation of our humanity for the convenience and immediacy of everything at our fingertips has created a yearning and demand for things IRL. To give back a sense of community through experiences is the antidote to technology. People are looking to gather more than ever. This has led to many trends in and outside of our industry including the virality of niche summits to the growth of shared workspaces and the reemergence of independent media companies.
Is there anything you wish marketers understood more about what you do?
NB: That the most personal thing a brand does is offer experience. You can shoot beautiful ads, put them on billboards, create clever integrations on social feeds, artfully place them into the media we are consuming; but the moment the consumer touches the product for the first time – that’s when they understand it. For this reason, we think experience should be the framework for how we market to the consumer – not simply a tactic.
LT: We believe in the analog and the tactile, understanding that senses are the quickest way to create an emotional connection to a product or a brand. That’s why we believe experiences are the cornerstone of marketing. While a social media campaign can have an impressive reach, brand loyalty is far more effectively built through physical experiences.
How closely do you work with your clients’ communications teams and how should events and communications work in tandem?
NB: We’re all in the pursuit of the same goal, so in the best of worlds, we are writing strategy collectively and merging our plans in the pre-planning phase. Typically, the Gathery proposes the product or story we are going to work on for the client and then the communications team vets our ideas for mediability and helps us fine tune the product itself. It helps that we used to be the editors they are pitching!!
What have been some of the highlights of your careers thus far?
NB: In 2011, I visited Sleep No More’s press preview and was inspired by the then completely-new and virgin territory of “immersive theater.”
Having designed mere events since 2000 in New York, I started employing these experiential tactics I learned from that evening to our design practice. Venues were switched out to photo and film studios, decor was replaced with set building and prop styling, and functional staff became actors with scripted performances. It was also the beginning of my creative partnership with Luigi, who in turn had extensive knowledge of how immersive theatre, when employed tactically, could really impact an experience and drive storytelling as a front-row observer in the fashion industry.
This fundamental shift in design moved the industry from “event marketing” to “experiential marketing,” and when Instagram gained global popularity it created an opportunity for this design approach to further transform the guest experience into a palpable marketing tool. We created Dream Closets for Barbie, Parisian streets for Jason Wu for Target and a choose-your-own-adventure book-styled excursion to the UK for British Airways, amongst countless other experiences. These experiments culminated in our behemoth that would forever change the world of marketing – Refinery 29’s 29 Rooms. By combining our newly minted form of immersive design with a photo opportunity that each guest circuitously yet purposefully discovered, we had created a new genre.
LT: Essentially, we combined a content-inspired experience, the ever-growing demand for digital sharing and the omnipresent role our phones play in our daily lives to innovate the way an audience experiences content. We won our first Clio in 2015 for the culmination of this work in 29 Rooms.
Where do you think the industry is evolving to – what are your future trend predictions for it?
LT: Experiences are here to stay, and what we want brands to do is to use them to enrich the lives of their guests and their surrounding communities. If you can demonstrate true purpose of a product that is meaningful, emotional and educational, you prove that the product has a place in the market. Most of the brands we choose to work with not only believe in the importance of their products, but this commitment to make something better and a responsibility to their communities. It has been really gratifying to see a shift in that mindset recently aligning our values even further with our clients and collaborators.
What can we look forward to from your company in the future?
NB: We’re interested in creating a permanent space where all of our collaborators can live under one roof, creating an ecosystem of creators who proliferate work amongst each other.
LT: Finding new ways and tactics to approach storytelling and marketing that efficiently and genuinely connect communities.
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