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Fashion Rocks: Big Ideas

The man who turned a marketing idea into a music, fashion and media extravaganza.

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Special Issue
WWD Music issue 09/04/2008

The man who turned a marketing idea into a music, fashion and media extravaganza.

This story first appeared in the September 4, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

It’s less than a week before Fashion Rocks will kick off at Radio City Music Hall and Richard Beckman, president of the Condé Nast Media Group, chief marketing officer of Condé Nast Publications and executive producer of Fashion Rocks, has just introduced a little something to sweeten the deal for viewers — and advertisers. In addition to airing the program on CBS a few days after it happens, Beckman has raised the stakes this year and will air the finale of Fashion Rocks live on CBS, ABC and NBC on Sept. 5 as part of the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s “Stand Up  to Cancer” special, which will air simultaneously on all three networks. Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds came up with a song, “Just Stand Up,” which will be performed as the finale by Ashanti, Carrie Underwood, Ciara, Fergie, Keyshia Cole, Leona Lewis, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Natasha Bedingfield and Sheryl Crow.

The hard-driving Beckman is clearly pleased with the news, as Fashion Rocks has certainly come a long way since it began five years ago. Looking back, he’s the  first to admit that the marriage of rock and fashion wasn’t exactly a novel concept, adding: “It’s a B-plus idea with A-plus execution.” But part of his job is  to take risks, and, “if you stay in the safe zone, nothing ever gets done.”

Fashion Rocks made its debut in 2004 on Fox, with musicians such as Usher, Blige, Beyoncé Knowles, Faith Hill and Alicia Keys performing. “It was a leap of faith, that first year, but as long as you do what you say you’re going to do, you’re able to develop a certain reputation and power in the marketplace,” says Beckman, a former music producer. The second Fashion Rocks moved to CBS and featured performances from Gwen Stefani, David Bowie, Diddy, Joss Stone and Destiny’s Child, which ended up being the trio’s final performance as a group. The event also had David Bowie step in as front man of one of his favorite indie bands, Arcade Fire, and their live collaboration became one of the most downloaded songs on iTunes in 2005.

Among Beckman’s favorite performances from past productions are duets between Santana and Keys (“Black Magic Woman“), Carrie Underwood and Lindsay Buckingham (“Go Your Own Way”), Joss Stone and Rob Thomas (“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”), the Bowie and Arcade Fire collaboration (“Wake Up”) and a medley of classics from Usher and Mary J. Blige. Blige’s rousing rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” also ranks high. “The house went nuts, just nuts,” he says.

And Beckman always will have a soft spot for the fi rst performance in the inaugural Fashion Rocks, the aptly titled “Let’s Get It Started” from Black Eyed Peas. “That was one of those moments of relief,” says Beckman, who admits to having many sleepless nights that first year. One heart-stopper: when Gwen Stefani dropped out. “It was the end of the world as we knew it. It wasn’t that last minute, but it felt last minute because I was a novice at this thing,” says Beckman, who adds that Stefani participated the following year.

Another moment of doubt: spotting 400 crew members just hanging out on the first day of load in at Radio City Music Hall. “I’m going up to the guy with a doughnut going, ‘Fix the set!’ And you’re looking out at this beautiful theater with 6,600 empty seats [and you think], how on earth am I going to fill this with people?” he recalls.

But when he saw Knowles rehearse on that legendary stage, his doubts dissipated. “You hear her sing and you think, wow, boy did we do something great,” he recalls. “That was an epiphany.” And, by the second year, when Hurricane Katrina hit in the middle of rehearsals, he had a whole new perspective on what defines disaster. “We wrote the show to become a fund-raiser for Katrina, and we persuaded a lot of our sponsors to make big contributions. I was very proud of that,” he says.

To get his idea off the ground, Beckman needed more than just talented artists. Advertisers, sponsors and an alliance with a TV network were also musts. For the first Fashion Rocks, Beckman set out to find sponsors but found it difficult to secure them without having talent committed to the event. Citi, Chevrolet, Motorola and P&G Beauty came through for Beckman, and Chevrolet and Citi have remained sponsors ever since.

“We thought it would be a good way to reach out to women, since we tend to be very male focused and we wanted to balance our promotion portfolio,” says Kim Kosak, general director of advertising and promotion at Chevrolet. “There are guarantees associated with every deal, so Richard had to deliver, and he did.” She adds that Fashion Rocks has become a “cornerstone” in Chevrolet’s promotional plan to reach women and, thus, has no plan to stop sponsoring the annual event.

Speaking from the front lines, Kosak is obviously well aware of the problems affecting the auto industry, but she says Chevrolet is not decreasing its media buy with Condé Nast titles this year — in part because of its 360-degree marketing approach. “Every year they add something new for us,” she says. “We did a mall tour over 20 markets and Condé Nast curated an exhibit for us. We have our own microsite from Fashion Rocks, and inside the pages of the magazine, ads have been shot with Fergie, for example, next to the Camaro.” The brand is trying to change the image of the Camaro, which goes on sale next year.

Condé Nast is a privately held company, so Beckman isn’t required to talk about the money behind Fashion Rocks, but he says that it brings in a considerable profit and the budget is three times larger than it was in 2004. “We are the first media company to have branded entertainment, and it’s had a halo effect on the rest of our business,” he says. “It has elevated the company.” Sources indicate that the franchise is worth an estimated $50 million to Condé Nast’s top line.

Last year’s event garnered three billion media impressions, a fact that hasn’t slipped by Citi, the event’s other longtime sponsor. Mark Ingall, managing director of global strategic media at Citi, says, “We get more and more value out of it every year. The first year was scary, but we knew by year three or four, we would be rewarded. We’ve built an evaluation of what it does for us — to see if people know we are a sponsor — and they definitely do.”

Levi’s is a new sponsor to Fashion Rocks this year, although the brand has a long history of advertising in magazines such as Lucky, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Details, GQ and Glamour.

Loreen Zakem, Levi’s brand president, wholesale division, says this is the right year to partner with Fashion Rocks because this fall, the brand wants to connect specifically with women “in  an exciting, culturally relevant way to introduce them to the range of beautifully fitting denim that Levi’s offers…. Fashion Rocks attracts a hip, music and fashion-focused audience, making this a perfect partnership.”

Beckman points out that his Media Group generates an impressive 83 percent of ad sales revenue that comes into Condé Nast. It’s no surprise that his influence at the company continues to grow, and individual publishers can often feel at the mercy of the all-powerful “group sale,” which can steer lucrative programs into any number of Condé Nast titles. But Beckman says he strives to play fair, not play favorites, and has no interest in taking advertisers from one magazine and moving them into Fashion Rocks, for example.

“My job is to increase revenue, not move it around,” says Beckman. For years, he has been a champion of multiplatform marketing, with programs like GQ Men of the Year, Fashion Rocks and its spin-off, Movies Rock. “It’s all about finding ways to engage the consumer, finding creative ideas, like Fashion Rocks, which can live on as a magazine, digital play and event on network TV,” he says. “For an advertiser, it’s onestop shopping. I suppose it’s very contemporary as an idea, but in the marketplace, this really resonates. My job is to help clients get more business.”

To further boost the show’s marketing potential, Beckman commissioned the creation of the Fashion Rocks magazine. Originally produced in-house by the Condé Nast Media Group, the show soon outpaced what the media group staff could provide. Not long after the second show, Beckman sat down with Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue. She told him that Fashion Rocks was a great show, but said the accompanying magazine was embarrassing. It made sense to have Wintour step in, but she warned Beckman that it would be expensive. “We were obviously thrilled to have her on board,” he says. “It’s now a real magazine.”

Today the magazine is produced by Wintour’s Vogue staff, led by Fashion Rocks editor in chief Jonathan Van Meter. The glossy is bundled with several Condé Nast titles, including Vogue, GQ, W, Glamour, Allure, Self, Teen Vogue, Details, Men’s Vogue, Lucky, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast Traveler, Wired, Architectural Digest, The New Yorker and Domino.

Those artists scheduled to appear at this year’s event, including Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey and Lil Wayne, already are featured on AOL Music, a dedicated content area. The site has Fashion Rocks video and photo highlights from previous years, content from the Fashion Rocks magazine, playlists and musicians’ clothing and beauty lines, and has a built-in function for readers to interact with each other about their favorite Fashion Rocks moments. Select sponsors for the event, such as Citi, Chevy, Verizon Wireless and Nivea, will advertise throughout on fashionrockslive.com on AOL Music and on Condé Nast digital properties including Style.com, vanityfair.com and glamour.com. Also new this year, Fashion Rocks has a Facebook Fan page, where users can download a “countdown to Fashion Rocks,” see past event coverage and click through to iTunes to download past performances.

Beckman expects this year’s event to be the best yet, promising unique collaborations between artists, such as Kid Rock with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and more that he prefers to keep a secret until the curtains go up on Sept. 5 at Radio City Music Hall. “With everything that we know now, and the people we have behind this, it is honestly a show you don’t want to miss,” Beckman says. He is obviously biased, but he is clearly onto something, and in some ways, it seems like he’s just getting warmed up.