“I didn’t know it then, but I was studying to become an event producer,” says Tony Richards of his film and television days. Those days were back in the 1990s, when a Los Angeles-based Richards worked in production, first for 20th Century Fox and then Disney, handling everything from set construction to audience issues. Noting his production prowess, Disney higher-ups tapped the budding event pro to help client MTV Networks with several post-awards-show parties in the early part of that heady decade, Richards recounts. Within a few years, he had made a move to New York to work for MTV as a full-time event producer. He eventually set out on his own in 2001, scraping his way through the lean post-9/11 months and, finally, making a sustained success of NYC Tone Design & Production, his New York-based company.
These days NYC Tone counts among its clients such hot media properties as Blender magazine and People en Espanol, along with a host of corporate clients in industries ranging from beauty to technology. Richards says working within the corporate ranks of MTV honed his branding skills, enabling him to better serve his clients’ increasingly challenging demands. A challenge today: contending with what he calls the “NASCAR-ization” of events. “It used to be if you did an event, you had one sponsor, but increasingly you have a title sponsor, a liquor sponsor, a fashion sponsor," Richards says. "It’s like a NASCAR vehicle that has 50 logos on it.” To battle back, he has learned to be creative with event design.
He offers the example of the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards after-party he created for client Blender, the hip music magazine. With sponsors including Glaceau water and Cadillac, Richards eschewed a clutter of clashing logos, instead blending brand signage seamlessly into event venue TAO restaurant’s spare Asian aesthetic. Rather than getting the usual Fome-Cor or four-color-process treatment, logos appeared in subdued hues on delicate Japanese shoji screens, the producer notes. Meanwhile, Richards enhanced brand presence with distinct yet subtle nods, including illuminated cocktail tables made from Cadillac Escalade wheel rims. More brand boosting came from co-hosting hip-hop heavies 50 Cent and LL Cool J, who stayed long into the night and mingled with the crowd--a far cry from many events “where celebrity hosts are sitting up above and occasionally lean over the balcony and wave at people, like Evita Peron,” Richards notes.
While a strong celebrity presence plays a big part in many of Richards’ events, the producer explains that his planning strategy consistently hinges on putting himself in the “position of the most average attendees of the event--not the VIP, not the big-dollar client.” Why? “Because they’re going to go and spread word of mouth about the [brand],” he says. “The whole point is for them to have a good time.”
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“The explosion of the blog has affected events exponentially. A lot of these blogs are centered on what goes on at events — who did what to whom, who said what to whom, who passed out on whom. The celebrity gossip blog is like a dedicated TV channel for the event industry. Companies realize that, for better or worse, if they're going to play to an increasing celebrity-obsessed market, they have to pay attention to these things.”
“Five or ten years ago, a company's marketing or advertising department had 10 percent of its budget set aside for events. I've seen that climb significantly over past years. Now we have 400 digital cable stations, satellite radio, the Internet. Companies realize the strength of events, that they're much better at reaching a target market.”
BACK TO BASICS
“What's important to event guests is getting in relatively easily, getting a drink, finding the bathroom. As you're planning an event for your clients, those challenges are not in the forefront of their mind — clients are thinking about ad sales, media coverage, etc. But those challenges are the ones that make or break an event. You can do the most beautiful event in the world, but if people come away saying they had to wait an hour for the coat check, you're going to have a negative image for the [client's] brand.”