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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Louis Marino
Louis Marino

louism Louis MarinoEVP, Executive Creative Director

“I thought I told you that we won’t stop, I thought I told you that we won’t stop.”

This popular line from four out of five Puff Daddy songs is not just a catchy refrain, it could also serve as a personal motto to Louis Marino, ECD at New York’s experiential advertising shop MKTG (and former creative director in Puffy’s Bad Boy empire). Louis has had over twenty years of experience in hovering over a Venn diagram with circles marked “Advertising” “Design” and “Music”, worlds that are both vastly different, and yet more similar than you’d realize.

We at IHAVEANIDEA had a chance to chat with Louis about his career,  from KISS to Kanye West, and how an adolescent dream of designing album covers not only came true, but also paved the way for Madison Avenue.

IHAVEANIDEA: How did this whole crazy ride through music and advertising begin for you? When did you first get that inkling that your life was going to head in that direction?

Louis: I keep looking back and see the different things that I did as a kid and in doing so, there was clearly an indication of what I wanted to be as I grew up.  I started getting interested in interior design when I was a child.  I used to watch TV shows like Family Affair and The Brady Bunch, and I was more interested in the mid-century modern houses and apartments that they had lived in. I was looking at the stairs and the paintings on Bewitched.  It was funny because I was so into the mood and vibe of the environments that sometimes I would not even pay attention to the stories.

Once I started getting old enough to buy records, I became extraordinarily interested in album art and the people that designed it.  My first big record that I bought was probably Asia’s self-titled album. Asia was this 80s super-group, but I was more interested in the album art which was done by Roger Dean. From there, I started listening to the group Yes for the same reason, because Roger Dean had done many of their album covers.

While I was into Yes covers, I picked up their album Going for the One. That album cover was designed by Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgerson, who were famous for doing a lot of Pink Floyd covers. That got me into looking at more of Pink Floyd. So basically I was really interested in album artwork, trying to replicate it and stuff like that.

This love of album art carried on into high school, John P. Stevens High School in Edison, NJ. The school had a really great art program, and going to art class really helped me find applications for all of the things that I was doing. I started getting into car design, sketching out my own cars. I also had a little side business where I would trick out people’s sneakers with electrical tape, I would put logos on things, as well as adorning different things that students would give me with album art and stuff like that.

My art teachers really turned me on to all sorts of things, including logo design. They also told me about different institutions to consider after high school. There was the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which had a really great auto design program.  There were also all of the major art schools in New York City, such as Parsons, Cooper Union, and the Fashion Institute of Technology. I went with FIT.

IHAVEANIDEA: What drew you to FIT over all of these others?

Louis: What I liked about the school was that they had a really good approach to teaching. They felt that in order for a student to really get the most out of the profession they were going into, they had to see the art in terms of commercial arts, as a real career. They were very keen on getting their students to land jobs in the field that they were studying.  And again, being a senior out of high school I’m thinking “What would be a great way for me to learn the ropes about how a company works so I’m not just learning about how to hone my creativity?”

What I ultimately got out of FIT was the education: the teachers that taught there all had current experience, they were all active professionals in their field, they brought us to their places of work, it really was kind of a de facto internship.  It’s like being in an ad agency or a design shop.

I also took a lot of classes outside of FIT. I took a night course in ad concepting, I spent a semester abroad in London at Middlesex Polytechnic, learning about Public Relations and Communications. It’s funny, I look back and it’s kind of amazing how at that age I was touching upon things that would really serve me well when I did graduate. It made me more than just a creative guy, but a strategic guy and somebody who can blend the line between art and commerce.

IHAVEANIDEA: Clearly it wasn’t just about drawing pretty pictures for you. So what was it like to first step into the great big world after graduation? Did you have your heart set on a particular job, or were you just seeing what stepping stone you should take next?

Louis: Graduation was pretty huge. It was 1991, we were in the middle of a recession, and everybody was scared about graduating because there were no jobs out there.  My senior class was a very proactive bunch, and we decided to hold a senior show.  Other schools were already doing this, but for some reason FIT did one show for all the grades.  We wanted to hold a show just for the senior class, to invite the industry and showcase what we were capable of.

At the time I had landed an internship at Kirshenbaum & Bond, who was right in the middle of doing their famous Kenneth Cole ads at the time.  At that point I was really, really interested into getting into advertising and becoming an art director at an ad agency. I had interned there for probably a year before graduation, leading up to the senior show. It was here that met Jeff Weiss of Margeotes Fertitta & Weiss. Jeff saw my work and asked if I would be interested in working with him for the summer. That was my first paying job in advertising.

I worked for Jeff until the fall when I landed a job at J. Walter Thompson. This is where both Jeff and Richard Kirshenbaum worked before they started at their own agencies, so I figured I would retrace their steps in hopes that I’d find a similar sort of success.

IHAVEANIDEA: It’s interesting how you went from loving album covers to pursuing a career in advertising, and after finally breaking into the ad world, you switch over to the music business to do album covers. How did that come about? I suppose you couldn’t get it out of your system!

Louis: (laughs) That’s right.  Well, breaking into the music industry was the ultimate thing for me after advertising. Those covers had such an emotive quality to me and really resonated with me.

At the time I had already left JWT and started working at Donna Karan in their in-house creative department. From there I just kept trying to get into that bubble that existed in the music business. It was one of those deals that you sort of had to know somebody to get in, to get a meeting. I finally got a call from somebody that referred me.  I got a call from the woman who ran the creative department at Mercury, and she asked if I would come in for an interview, and if I was looking for a job. I was like “Yeah, I’d totally love to meet with you!”

I met with her, and we really hit it off. She had a position for me and I took the job.  It was pretty great.  It was one of those things where it was another dream come true. I wanted to work in the music business, I wanted to know what that was about, I wanted to actually experience what it was like to design album covers and music packaging and work with artists.

IHAVEANIDEA: Was it all that you imagined as a kid?

Louis: And more! The first big project I worked on was with the band the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. They were coming out with a new album and my boss wanted me to meet them and get to know them.  We went from there and I was able to create the packaging.

“I immediately went back to when I was a kid, where my babysitter’s boyfriend introduced me to KISS via his eight-track player in his Camaro …”

We also got word that the original members of KISS were reforming and putting their makeup back on.  This was in 1996 and my boss asked me if I would be interested in doing this project. I immediately went back to when I was a kid, where my babysitter’s boyfriend introduced me to KISS via his eight-track player in his Camaro and I was like “Whoaaa!”

It was really thrilling experience working with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, on the packaging, the artwork, the photo shoot, all of that stuff.  As a child, I thought KISS was awesome, but as an adult, I had a different appreciation for them.  I had kind of grown out of one aspect the music, but I learned what the music really meant to them.

I’ve worked with a lot of different artists, like Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Jay-Z, The Killers, all levels and genres of music. Some of the genres I was really into and some of the genres I really wasn’t. But what I found was that-and it was something that I applied later in my career-was that you find your passions and your alliances with the artists in different ways.  In the case of Mariah Carey, I’m not a huge fan of R&B but I appreciated her talent and I learned a lot about her and her background.  It was very similar to how about you need to know about a brand when you’re doing what we do today. We need to understand a brand’s DNA, and I needed to know the same with the artists.  I needed to know why’s Mariah’s doing what she’s doing. That’s the part that I thought was brilliant, and it actually made you like the music at the end of the day. You’re really getting an understanding of what that album meant to that artist: the artwork, photo-shoot, the imaging, the branding.

Every artist has the same type of dreams: they’ve all made an album cover of themselves, and no matter how famous they were or how famous they would become, they always would look back on that and they consider an important and enjoyable part of the process.

IHAVEANIDEA: You left the music world for a bit after all of the big label mega-mergers of the late 90s, and went on to dabble a bit at G2 and The New Yorker… only to find eventually  find yourself at Island Def Jam, into which Mercury had been folded. I’m beginning to think of that Michael Corleone line: “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

Louis: (laughs) Well It was the kind of an offer I couldn’t refuse.

I came back to the music world at a very interesting time. When I had first entered this world, the industry was going through a very sober phase. Kurt Cobain had killed himself, and there was a lot of introspective awareness in the business as a result of this.

But here we were, a number of years later. Island Def Jam’s hip-hop acts, such as DMX, Ja Rule and Jay-Z, were on a monumental rise. The culture of the company had changed for the better, and financially they were just swimming in cash. Artist after artist was selling a million records or more. It was unbelievable.

One of the things that I noticed during this time – other than seeing the industry drop the digital music ball post-Napster – was that a lot of these artists started realizing that the music record labels were not a winning proposition for them. Some of them, some big names but mainly smaller ones, started turning to brands to broaden their base.

“Bands are essentially brands, and they’re building equity with their consumers.  Now that sounds a lot more clinical than “I have a fan base,” but it’s the same thing.”

One particularly interesting combination of artists and brands I worked on was with the band Hoobastank, who was releasing an EP to be sold exclusively at Target. They were not “selling out, ” they were creating a really interesting and cool relationship with a brand that would enable them both to profit. That was the first time I started thinking about taking what I knew from the music business and its creative and strategic process, and seeing how I could transfer that to brands.  Bands are essentially brands, and they’re building equity with their consumers.  Now that sounds a lot more clinical than “I have a fan base,” but it’s the same thing.

IHAVEANIDEA: I suppose it’s this line of thinking that drew you to your next gig…

Louis: Yes, I thought I’d try my hand at working with an artist that had a large brand, that had a brand umbrella to work with, and that was Sean Combs, “P. Diddy”.  He had a music career, a hugely successful clothing line that he started from scratch, he had a huge licensing deal with several companies, most of them were associated with Sean John, he had a lucrative deal with Estée Lauder for Sean John fragrances, and so many other things.

A mutual friend had introduced us and he had asked if I would be interested in taking a meeting, as he was looking for somebody to be the steward of his brand. I met with Puff, we hit it off really well, and within a two year period we launched two fragrances together, we launched Ciroc vodka, we did a few seasons of Sean John, we did fashion shows, I shot a Burger King commercial, I shot commercials based on the fragrance. It was a whirlwind, but he’s the type of guy that really gets the whole idea of how one person can be representative of so many different brands.

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IHAVEANIDEA: And from there you brought your branding experience back to the ad world, to MKTG, where you are today. What was it like to return? I mean, much like differences you found between a post-Cobain music biz and a Jay-Z world, I’m sure you’ve noticed the ad world of today is not like your early days at JWT.

Louis: I feel like I’m at the right part of my career to be at an agency like this doing the kind of work that I’m doing… if that makes sense. (laughs) It’s interesting, when I look back I feel like I made some very smart moves in terms of being able to evolve my talents, my skill set, my ability to talk to clients and handle pressure. I love getting into character when working with brands and people because you really do have to get into a whole different persona depending on your client.

But you’re right, this is a very different agency and a very different time. We find ourselves in competition with the big companies.  They have a lot more resources. We’re facing the same kind of challenges as any other independent agency would. But I think that we have a tremendous and very immediate human connection from a physical point of view, we have networks of people that we hire that interact with the brand and consumers every day.  We don’t have to do focus group stuff because we are the focus group. It’s what we live, you know right away whether or not something is going to work or resonate and I think that’s a really good place to be, where you’re on the ground.

That all said, in getting back into the ad world at the time that I did, I was very fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with some of the harder things that I’m sure some other people in my industry had to deal with. There are some clients where it’s like “How do you get emotion out of something that is not emotive…at all? How do you create that when there’s nothing there?” We’re very lucky here, we work with great brands who understand how the media landscape has changed and how talking to consumers has evolved.

I don’t forget for a minute that I’m very fortunate to have worked with great, great people, both here at MKTG and over the years. Through that I have been able to really elevate the way I do things, where I think that if I did have the opportunity to do something where I have nothing at all in common with a brand, I’ll be able to figure it out because of all of the different things that I’ve known throughout the years, and the businesses I’ve been in and the industries I’ve worked in. Solving a problem won’t be completely luck. I feel like I’ve really gone through a really good learning curve, how to work with brands and people.

IHAVEANIDEA: Did any one artist say or do anything that really shaped how you think about your job today?

Louis: I can remember the very first conversation I had with Kanye West. It wasn’t even about music, it was about art, it was about Hipgnosis, Storm Ferguson and Roger Dean. It turned out that all of those great iconic album covers had resonated with him too, and he was very adamant about “I don’t want to be on the cover. I want this to be about the sound, I want this to have an emotion and I want this to resonate with people on a level that a photograph of me is just not going to cut it.” That to me was a great experience, because I started to learn that artists were very much the same when it came to the way they saw themselves in the world, and brands are no different. Brands have a perception of what they think they are.

IHAVEANIDEA: So, looking back on your whole career, is there anything you would have done differently, or is it one of those things that you look back and say that all of the planets were just aligned?

Louis: Well looking back, I think my career has been a little bit of talent and luck and a lot of effort and hard work. If I didn’t have meeting after meeting after meeting with my school administration about putting on a show with the rest of my colleagues, we wouldn’t have had that student show.

It’s the drive, it’s the intensity, it’s the willingness to do what it takes to evolve and to never rest. I think it’s one of those things where I have a little bit of a creative ADD. I like to work on a variety of different things, and the music industry offered me that because of all the music genres that I was exposed to.  But there are commonalities within them too, same thing with brands, they want the same thing: they want people to buy their shit.

Interview by:

brettcreditpic Louis Marino

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

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