Any number of people can say they were around for the birth of what's become loosely known as influencer marketing, but Michael Blatter's claim stands up particularly well.
One of his promotion plans for R.J. Reynolds' Camel cigarettes is preserved by anti-tobacco organizations on any number of places on the Internet, often with words like "unscrupulous" attached to it. The Trend Influence Marketing plan, a 1994 internal document in which the marketer was advised to convert hipsters into Camel loyalists by reaching them directly in the nightclubs, restaurants and other places where they hang out, is viewed differently in marketing circles. There it's become a standard operating model for swaying hip, young consumers and is echoed in any number of campaigns, especially for products like cigarettes and spirits.
The 39-year-old Mr. Blatter, who sold KBA Marketing -- the firm he co-founded after a career as a nightclub promoter -- to Interpublic Group of Cos. in 1998, is still trying to crack those hard-to-reach groups, now with a new firm. Mirrorball, his eight-person boutique, has brought grassroots strategies to mass marketers such as PepsiCo's Mountain Dew and Anheuser-Busch, both looking for large swaths of consumers who are largely unreachable by TV ads always on the lookout.
Nightlife is only a small part of his new agency, which works in a number of disciplines including design, video-game marketing, media merchandising and urban and lifestyle entrenchment. Yet Mr. Blatter's formative years were spent making megaclubs such as Shelter and Crobar the talk of Chicago nightlife, and remain a big reason for his insistence on being at the cutting edge of marketing. "You're only as good as your last Saturday night," he said. "Nightlife is an incubator for pop culture and we're always trying to find the next big thing."
Mirrorball -- which is owned by Mr. Blatter and Jason Katz, who was also an executive at KBA-was launched about a year ago, after the principals left Interpublic, which had folded KBA into Draft. They spent a noncompete hiatus rounding up the management team that brought the Crobar nightclub, hugely successful in places like Chicago and Miami's South Beach, to New York. Now, they're back doing nontraditional campaigns for major marketers.
To aid Mountain Dew's push into skateboarding circles, Mirrorball developed an urban identity and video-game logo for Dew and supported it with ads in skater magazines that are tailored for the subculture, employing artists from a collective tied to the skate scene. The brand also co-sponsored, with a bunch of endemic skate brands, a series of films about New York City's skating culture called "Brick and Mortar," which just released its latest installment at a Brooklyn skating club.
Mr. Blatter referred to these strategies as "entrenchment," which differs from average sponsorship strategies in that it's a series of less expensive but targeted commitments over a period of time rather than a big, expensive one-off deal. "The idea is to really insinuate yourself into the scene," Mr. Blatter said. "The brand is entrenched; it is always there."
Having dropped out of college to work in the clubs, Mr. Blatter moved into marketing full-time after a few inadvertent successes that came out of his nightclub promotions. In promoting Shelter in 1991, Mr. Blatter helped trigger the resurgence of the lava lamp, when he threw a 25th birthday party for the 1960s artifact. The party drew thousands of media types to the club, which, for that night, sported a wall of lamps. And the event resulted in front-page coverage in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, leading to a spike in sales for a less-than-cutting-edge company that had to be persuaded that such a promotion would work.
"There's no option with Michael," said Christopher Baldovin, then VP-marketing at Lava World International. "Michael is the quintessential, assumptive closer. Until you're grabbing him and throwing him down the stairs out of your office, you're buying something or doing whatever it is he needs done."
Q. Do you still log a lot of time in nightclubs?
A. Yeah, my wife's going to kill me. But I don't spend much time in the mainstream clubs. I try to find fringe places in the middle of nowhere.
Q. Do you expect to get back into the nightlife business?
A. Yep. We have a lot of ideas. But if we were to do a club again, we wouldn't do one, we'd do 10. But Mirrorball is what we're committed to now.
Q. Do you have any advice on getting into Crobar?
A. Call me. Hire Mirrorball