Keeping an Eye on the MirrorballNovember 29, 2012 By: Steve Lewis
Nightclubs and bars directly employ a great deal of people. Bartenders, waitrons, security teams, cleaning crews all come easily to mind but there are many other people, companies and industries that feed off the night. Examples are the cab drivers who take patrons to and fro. Public relations firms that cash in on the action, refuse companies that pick up the mess also come to mind. Michael Blatter is the Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Mirrorball, an award-winning marketing agency that fuses Social Media with Live Experience.
Mirrorball analyzes and understands trends in nightlife as well as the culture nightlife operators bring to their clients. Mirrorball has been able to expand brand awareness and impress a crowd that is not easily impressed. Although Michael Blatter left the industry years ago he has run a parallel course keeping his eye and his imagination on the disco ball.
Nightclub Confidential (NCC): How did you get into nightlife and make it a career?
Michael Blatter: When I was 16 I used to go to Studio 54 and Xenon every weekend. I craved the energy those places generated and early on I knew nightlife was something I needed to be involved with. In my freshmen year at college in Boston I did an internship with nightclub legends John and Pat Lyons of the Lyons Group and their clubs Spit and Metro. After a couple of months interning at Lyons Group I dropped out of school altogether and made the internship a full-time thing. I guess John and Pat loved free labor! John and Pat ran a progressive organization with a massive marketing staff and it was in these early days where I learned basic marketing and promotion skills in addition to concert and event production.
After interning for over a year my parents cut off the cash and I had to move back to NY and find a real job. Lucky for me I found an ad in the Village Voice. Some Sony Executives wanted to use Sony Video Projectors to do Movie Premiers in Video Stores. I cut a deal with these Sony guys to run their premier parties in exchange for letting me use their projectors at my own mobile VJ Gigs. Needless to say the Mobile VJ exploded. Having a big inventory of new video projectors helped wire me into the epicenter of NY Nightlife. Quickly, I became invaluable to the management of Limelight, AREA, the Palladium and many others. One day I was renting a truckload of video equipment to the seminal nightclub AREA for an art installation by Nam June Paik. During the middle of the Install the club manager Howard Shaffer (now head of F&B for Standard Hotels) got in an argument with owner Eric Goode and walked out. Just as Howard was walking out of the office I was walking in. One of Eric’s partners asked if I knew anyone who wanted to be a nightclub manger… and that’s how I landed my first gig in nightclub management!
I worked at AREA for about six months while having the amazing privilege of working some of the most important A-List events in the golden age of NY nightlife. It was at AREA where I learned anything is possible if it can be imagined. AREA changed themes every six weeks and created elaborate sets and immersive experiences for their guests. It was here I first began to understand the importance of influencers and their impact on popular culture. I also witnessed and learned the ability to move people’s emotions while creating an infectious energy among a crowd that is rarely seen in nightlife now. Even today over 25 years later, I push my team to achieve that energy with every event and consumer experience we create. Following AREA I landed a management job at the brand new mega club 4D.
NCC: What were some of the events you created?
Blatter: We saw in the Wall Street Journal that Hormel was about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SPAM. What an idea for a party! We contacted Hormel’s PR dept. and they sent us 100 cases of SPAM. Then we hired the Weather Girls to sing “Its Raining SPAM” We had a line around the block! A couple of months later I matched up Capt. Morgan a new imported Rum with a new caffeinated cola called JOLT and created Americas very first energy drink event. Jolt had no promotional materials or no mascot so we created one for them. Who knew we were pioneering energy drinks in nightlife back in 1987.
NCC: Tell me how you landed in Chicago and started the first influencer and nightlife-marketing agency.
Blatter: With my success in NY I was sought out and recruited to takeover The Riviera in the dilapidated uptown section of Chicago. The club was a couple of years old and needed a refresh. I moved to Chicago for I what I thought would be a couple of months and turned out to be 12 years. I brought the NY style of event content creation and promotion and turned around the club in six weeks! It’s crazy but in my first few weeks in chi-town I made friends with some people who would go on to do amazing things in Nightlife and entertainment! Michael Morton who became the founder of the Nine Group.
Another new friend House Music pioneer Vince Lawrence introduced me to a group of guys who wanted to build a real NY Style nightclub in Chicago. They were enamored with my NY nightlife pedigree and they hired me to get the project moving! One year later Shelter was born! I dreamed up all sorts of crazy promos for Shelter including a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Lava Light. The event was such a PR success that the company tripled production and credited me with growing their business by over 5 million dollars! (I of course never saw a cent of that – but I did get 2 free Lava lights.)
NCC: How did you wind up with Kenny Smith and Cal Fortis of Crobar?
Blatter: After a succession of management positions at clubs and lounges all over Chicago I landed with Kenny Smith and Cal Fortis of Crobar fame. These are two of the greatest guys I ever worked for! They rode Harley-Davidson’s and they insisted I ride with them. We used to park our bikes in this empty warehouse that eventfully became the first Crobar. I became very passionate about motorcycles because of Kenny and Cal and now years later Harley- Davidson is a client of my marketing agency Mirrorball.
NCC: How did you make the jump from Nightclub guy to marketing guy?
Blatter: Well I guess I was always a marketing guy I just didn’t know it at the time and I definitely was not getting paid for it. In 1994 I was running the Chicago branch of the world famous China Club. I was doing all my promotional stunts and packing the club every night. I had become very good at getting beer and liquor companies to pay for our promotions and frequently they would ask me for advice on their marketing. Kevin Berg an advertising executive and entrepreneur was an active investor in the club. He took notice of my marketing abilities and suggested I make a career of it. I told him he was crazy and I would never get up early or ride in an elevator to an office. Kevin wasn’t taking no for an answer and one day he presented me with a unique opportunity that almost made me vomit! A friend of his at RJ Reynolds Tobacco was looking for ways to get Camel Cigarettes popular with smokers in bars and Kevin suggested he talk to me.
Reluctantly, I took the meeting and without really trying I sold RJR the world’s first Influencer Marketing program. The concept was simple: get Camels in the hands of bartenders and other nightlife influencers and support the entire nightlife scene with mountains of cash! Kevin and I formed a partnership, I quit China Club and within a year we had over 100 employees in 6 cities, within three years we had over 1000 employees in 30 cities. Nike, Audi, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Diageo (then Grand Met) had signed on as clients and the rest is history. We sold the company to Interpublic Group for millions of dollars in 1998 and I stayed on for five more years.
At the end of my contract I had a non-compete for a year so I decided to brush up on my nightclub skills and I rejoined Kenny and Cal and helped launch Crobar in NYC. Also during that time I help a very young Noah Tepperberg and Jason Strauss launch the promotional arm of Strategic Group.
NCC: So now you have Mirrorball who are your clients and do you still integrate nightlife strategy in your marketing programs?
Blatter: Mirrorball is almost nine years old and we have a variety of clients including Dos Equis Beer, Patron Spirits, Harley Davidson, Bayer Health Care and Perrier to name a few. We specialize in creating consumer engagements that weave social media with live experiences. One of our proudest achievements is the global nightlife program we recently crafted for Perrier. We noticed that the acceleration of social media around the world has made nightlife, art, music, fashion and DJ culture much more accessible to people everywhere. This is both good and bad. Fresh ideas spread more rapidly but unfortunately at the expense of deteriorating underground culture. We took advantage of this global social media convergence and positioned Perrier to become the catalyst for everything emerging in culture by creating Societe Perrier the first global blog to cover nightlife culture around the globe. We are currently translating into multiple languages and we have correspondents reporting from over 20 countries. Perrier is back on the map in nightlife and mixologists are incorporating it in cocktails around the world!
We are also proud of our experiential work we do for Dos Equis Beer and the Most Interesting Man In the World. We lean heavy on our nightlife experience to create those emotional connections that I first learned about at AREA in 1985. We also work with the current crop of influential nightlife promoters to hand pick guests for our “Most Interesting” events around the country. Just last week we hosted “The Most Interesting Academy” at the Historic Masonic Lodge in NYC. It was the first event of its kind in this 100-year-old venue and we choose it because of its recently discovered virginity! So just like a new club in a new space we strive create that infectious energy! We also produce a tremendous amount of events on-premise throughout the US. We are always looking for venue partners that can help us market brands. It’s become somewhat unfortunate that a lot of nightlife operators have their hands out looking for a sometimes-illegal payday for large branded promo events. We avoid those operators at all costs and prefer to have long term relationships with loyal venues that see the benefits of working with our brands over a longer period of time.
NCC: You have an awful lot of beautiful women who work at Mirrorball is that some sort of policy?
Blatter: Sometimes people confuse beauty and style. We do have an abundance of people with great style at Mirrorball and that stems from our strategy to recruit only candidates that bring some bit of unique culture and strong personal style to our team. Getting a position at Mirrorball is not easy and most if not all of our employees are referred from friends and associates. We make it a major priority for all of our employees to be part of the nightlife scene and we encourage everyone to go out and stay in touch with what is emerging in culture. A lot of our employees are also DJs and part-time bartenders. A marketing degree is low on the criteria checklist for new employees at Mirrorball.
NCC: Do you still go out and how are you inspired?
Blatter: I myself continue to go out as much as possible and more importantly maintain contacts with nightlife influencers around the globe. Besides going out in NY I also try to hit global cultural events around the world. I go to Art Basel and SXSW Interactive and Music every year. This past August I made the pilgrimage to my first Burning Man something I plan on doing eve year from now on. I was overwhelmed with inspiration at Burning Man and it should be a pre-requisite for anyone in nightlife or the creative field. After seeing the spectacular installations created at Burning Man my tolerance for mediocrity was reduced to Zero. It’s unbelievable what can be created in the middle of the desert with no power, running water, or nearby deli or hardware store and in the middle of a fierce sand storm! After going to Burning Man I truly know everything and anything is totally possible!