With such a storied career in luxury fashion and brand experiences, we weren’t surprised to learn that Blake Kotenbrink’s event motto is the “sky’s the limit.” As the President of Black Flower Agency, Blake and his team – who he credits as his greatest source of inspiration – have worked with many of the most well-known brands (think: AMEX, Gucci and Versace, to name a few) on some seriously innovative experiences. We spoke to him about how he got his start, where he sees experiential going, plus his top five tips for creating the perfect event.
What’s been your career path leading you to the role you have today?
I caught the “fashion bug” during a college internship with Louis Vuitton. I was thrilled to have this opportunity. I learned to work fast, work hard and to do everything under the sun. It was the first taste of what my career would be like. Hit the ground running—and figure it out. Later on, as I grew in different roles, I was fortunate to spend time with fashion designers and senior level management at luxury brands. These people exposed me to all facets of the business — public relations, marketing, and events—and got me started on my path.
With not a lot of experience, but with plenty ambition and energy, I was hired by Saks Fifth Avenue to work in the company’s PR and Events Department. These were my formative years and when I came to understand that a career is so much more than “a job.”
After Saks, I took a four-year assignment in Europe and pivoted to the agency side of the business, expanding my working knowledge outside of fashion. One of the first accounts I managed was American Express (AMEX), a client I still work with today, at Black Flower Agency. When I began working with AMEX it was on their Platinum and Centurion Card business. My role was developing strategic partnerships across all luxury categories—from fashion to spirits, food to travel, that transcended into exclusive offerings and experiences.
Through AMEX I was introduced to Coulter Companies, a company largely focused on producing events. I’ve always found event production one of the more compelling parts of my work and when Coulter’s Founder and President, Tom Gibson, asked if I’d join him to expand the company’s corporate events division, I jumped at the opportunity.
Based on my existing relationships, I developed Coulter’s luxury business. In 2015, Coulter was sold to MCI Group. An event management company with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, MCI had 60 offices around the world and a stellar reputation, but until the acquisition, no connection to luxury.
After discussions around how my clients would be integrated into MCI Group, the decision was made to develop a new business unit specifically focused on the luxury sector. That’s how Black Flower Agency came to be. MCI’s company logo—literally, a black flower— provided the inspiration that would become our name.
Since launching in February 2016, Black Flower Agency has expanded its clientele and capabilities in event production, marketing and sponsorships, experiential events and guest hospitality. It’s been a fast and wonderful ride, growing our footprint, and our revenue, in the luxury corporate events sector.
Did you have any mentors or people who inspired you along the way?
The pleasure I take from my career comes from the amazingly creative people I’ve met along the way. That said, there are two people, specifically, who I’m proud to call out as special:
At Saks Fifth Avenue, I worked for Jaqui Lividini (President and Founder of the amazing brand strategy agency, Lividini & Co), a dynamo of energy, intelligence and creativity. Jaqui instilled confidence in me, just as I was learning the ropes in PR and events. For that, I will always be grateful! Many of the lessons I learned from Jaqui I still apply to my day-to-day work life—in-turn, I now share these with my staff. Happily, I can still knock on Jacqui’s door for advice. Now, that’s a relationship!
Tom Gibson, CEO MCI USA, has been a deep source of encouragement and empowerment. Not only has Tom given me the opportunity to develop and manage Black Flower Agency, he’s been with me every step of the way— as a solid sounding board and a thoughtful advisor. How rare, in today’s world, to find a CEO like Tom.
What does your day-to-day work entail?
Days are never the same and often quite unpredictable, which keeps my job interesting. This, I think, is the upside to working on the agency end of our business.
Between creative brainstorming, new business development and always lot of travel—my days are full to overflowing. Through it all, I keep myself integrated in project activations because this allows me to remain aligned and in-touch with our clients and with what the agency staff is planning on behalf of our clients.
What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?
The launch of Black Flower Agency is definitely one of my top career highlights. In terms of client projects, I have been involved with some amazing adventures taking place in Cuba, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Dubai, and other locations.
When it comes to conceiving events, I always shoot for “sky’s the limit.” My favorite example of this: zero-gravity training hosted by former astronaut, Buzz Aldrin. Truly a once in a lifetime moment to “catch air” with Buzz, this was one client event that really was, “out of this world.”
How has Black Flower Agency differentiated from other companies in your field?
The agency staff is definitely a differentiator. They take enormous pride in their work. The level of dedication and work ethic here is…beyond. The attitude and culture have been like this since the agency’s inception.
Where do you find inspiration for the creative work you do?
It's not difficult finding inspiration when you live in NYC. The city is an unending catalyst for innovation. Also, we’re constantly traveling to unique cities and locations that organically spark creativity.
The team and I are also fortunate to work with the most well-known luxury brands and share in their inspiration and evolving strategies. Collaborating creatively with our clients is such a pleasure. Though, this said, my greatest inspiration comes from the amazing team I work with daily. It’s hard not to be inspired by such talented individuals.
Are there any indispensable tools that enable your team’s event planning & execution process?
The agency’s greatest tool with its event planning is undoubtedly its staff; such creative minds, tenacious problem solvers, hard workers, and detailed activators. Black Flower Agency is also very fortunate to be a part of a larger global company with MCI’s 60 international offices to support our events.
In addition, MCI has business units specifically focused on key event related sectors. These include: digital and audio/visual, technical builds, destination management, data collection and CRM methodologies. Having such an expansive global footprint, along with a variety of event field experts, is invaluable.
To what would you attribute the rise of experiential and events in recent years?
Companies now see the impact of adding an experience to their event and how that helps them to achieve an assortment of goals, including: client procurement, increased customer loyalty and better ROI with lower investment.
The well-executed “experience” solidifies the relationship between the brand and consumer. Essentially, an experiential event should be a one-stop platform for advertising, marketing, and PR—a brand’s best bet for amplification and return on investment. For these reasons, more companies are looking to bring their brands, services, and products to life via the exquisitely conceived and executed event experience.
How do you ensure a brand and its activation objectives are effectively communicated via an event experience?
Our approach at Black Flower Agency is to initially understand and clearly define the end goals and objectives of our clients. Only then do we begin to brainstorm ideas.
Once we land on a direction, we flesh out the event component and imbed the surprising elements designed to clearly convey specific messaging.
The experiential concept normally goes through several iterations, brainstorms, and evolutions until all stakeholders have really embraced it.
What are a few of your current projects you’re excited about?
We just finished working on three fashion shows for cruise—one in Rome, in Berlin, and in Los Angeles. They were held within weeks of each other and the excitement building-up to all three was over the top. Simultaneous to these we had a team in Monaco for the Grand Prix, activating a multi-day experience for a client on a mega yacht – hard not to be excited about that. Tennis plays a huge part in what we’ll activating for a few clients across the summer months when we travel to Wimbledon and the US Tennis Open. We also have a two large, complex and very highly anticipated high jewelry events we are planning in London in June and Paris in July. For me, I get excited by all the remarkable events we have in the pipeline. The experiences the team is now planning are nothing short of amazing.
Top five tips for creating the perfect event?
1. Adapt to change. Remain flexible and anticipate modifications along the way. Things will inevitably change many times over and expect to troubleshoot when on-site. Pre-organize your resolutions and think through in advance all back-up plans.
2. Over communicate with vendors, staff, and event stakeholders. If everyone is in-sync, less risk for problems.
3.Don’t promise if you cannot deliver. Manage client expectations upfront so you’re not set-up to disappoint later. This especially applies to budget management.
4. Great hospitality. You can create the most flawless and amazing event but if the staff do not implement white-glove guest hospitality, the experience is diminished and forgotten. A smile goes a long way. No one likes sassy check-in staff – it’s the first point of the guest experience and sets the tone for the rest of the event.
5. We've all heard it many times before and it still applies – it’s all in the details. Guests do notice.
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