Mastering the Art of Celebrity Wrangling

In my role as co-producer of the Pollstar Live! Awards

From Seinfeld to Jason Momoa, From Lady Gaga to Gwen Stefani and more: How to Engage the Right Celebrity for Your Event

Celebrity involvement with brands, companies large and small, and with fundraiser events has become so commonplace that there’s even a buzzword that gets thrown around for it: “star-ups.”

From Jay Z and Tidal, to Jennifer Aniston and Neutrogena, and Jessica Alba and The Honest Company (celebrities love working with companies and projects that they resonate with, and in some cases — even owning them!).

But that doesnt mean getting a celebrity on board is easy. Struggling startups, for example, may not be ready. Even well-funded, established companies should have a strategic reason to partner with celebrities and be able to offer sufficient cash, equity, or something else that’s meaningful, hopefully relevant — and incentivizes the celebrity to want to participate. These days, alignment and authenticity between the brand, the venture and the talent matters even more than it did just a few years ago.

During my many years with Apple driving the company’s music and entertainment initiatives (and my many years working with musicians and celebrities as a talent producer for award shows and fundraiser events), I’ve developed a broad range of trusted relationships and strategic insights that allow me to engage all manner of talent for a diverse set of opportunities.

When Celebrity Partners Make Sense

Companies engage celebrities to generate buzz and attract more investors and social media followers online, to participate at launch or marketing events, milestones and anniversaries, sales conferences, or other events to honor and celebrate key employees and VIP customer appreciation events.

Brands engage them to endorse their products and bring visibility and awareness to help them reach a broader audience. High net worth individuals engage them for fundraising events and special celebrations.

For example, for Cisco’s 25th anniversary, then CEO John Chambers wanted a big-name comedian to surprise and delight employees, and Jerry Seinfeld was his top pick. Cisco is a well-known, well-established company, but it still took key members of the Cisco team and I many weeks of negotiations with his managers to get Seinfeld on board in a way that satisfied both parties.

It was worth it though. Cisco employees still recall it fondly many years later, and Jerry saw a great payday for his participation. Win-win!

Getting Real and Moving Past the Glamour to Engagement

So what are some practical steps to get in on the “star-up” game?

1. Define the rationale. Why are you engaging a celebrity in the first place? Determine whether this is a commercial relationship or a perk for an employee event OR is it a private fundraiser or special celebration. Then, think through the mutual benefits. If you can provide the celebrity with more than a paycheck — like exposure from a great event or something that’s tied into one of their initiatives — you’re on the path to a good deal.

2. Manage expectations. My clients (individuals or corporate) typically start with a list of talent they’d love to engage for a specific activity. I weigh in to help the client choose an artist or celebrity that’s a good fit for what they’re trying to achieve and offer my experience and insights from working with those celebrities. Then I ask about the project budget.

After that reality check, when I’ve given them feedback on their expectations, we identify the best talent options (those who make the most sense in the budget range) and finally, I begin outreach efforts to confirm interest from chosen celebs.

Remember that cash is king. In select situations, celebrities are open to taking equity in exchange for involvement, but this really only happens for the Apples and Airbnbs of business (or other sexy companies with a strong brand) — OR they may be willing to reduce fees for fundraising events when they’re focused on causes they care about personally.

Without momentum, visibility, resonance, alignment (fit) and/or impact behind your brand or initiative, the risk and time commitment may simply not be worth it for certain celebrities. However, there are often plenty who will accept the check when it’s offered!

3. Recruit the right talent. Not every celebrity is right for every event, so make sure the talent aligns with your goals. I once invited Kenny Loggins to play at an Earth Day event held at Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI), a hot tech company at the time. It was the perfect match because his music resonated with the environmental theme of the day.

Many years later, I invited Kenny to perform at a private fundraiser for the Walden West school in Saratoga focused on environment education and sustainability which I knew was a passion for him; again the fit was there so it was easier. The event was a big success and remains memorable for those who were in attendance.

4. Dealing with scandal. Like the brand sponsors that jumped ship when the Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong scandals broke, it can be a risk to align with a celebrity going through tough times. If you’re in talks with someone like R. Kelly and he gets into legal hot water, for example, it may be safer to consider other candidates until things cool off. On the flip side, Nike made a bold strategic decision to get behind Colin Kaepernick — a move that has no doubt strengthened their brand relative to the Black Lives Matter movement that has become more prevalent in recent years.

5. Secure an experienced celebrity wrangler. Respected, experienced celebrity wranglers are the middlemen between you and the star’s team. They’re knowledgeable, trusted by talent reps as industry peers, and worth their weight in gold. They’ll be able to negotiate better deals for an optimal strategic fit and ensure the whole experience runs smoothly. Without a celebrity wrangler, you’ll likely end up with the wrong talent for your event and will likely pay a whole lot more than you need to. NOTE: You don’t need to work through a major Hollywood agency and pay exorbitant fees if you work with an experienced, well-connected celebrity wrangler like myself and others.

How Celebrity Wranglers Work and Why to Engage One

In recent years, I’ve invited talent like Darryl Hall, Huey Lewis, KC & the Sunshine Band to perform at a private fundraiser event in Portola Valley run by called LymeAid (Stand4 Lyme Foundation’s annual benefit & dinner) by reaching out to the artist directly or to their managers. I explained the situation and how my friend, the chair of the event, was suffering from Lyme disease herself. In the case of Huey Lewis, we got Huey to confirm within 48 hours, and the foundation raised more than $600,000 at the event — and my friend accrued the ‘halo effect’ of securing great talent for her cause.

My experience, knowing the right approach, the ‘ins’ and outs’ of working with artists and celebs, and having long-standing trusted relationships with talent and their reps allowed me to create this win. And it’s something I’ve repeated many times over through the years.

Celebrities can bring loads of fun, energy, visibility, and impact to your event, and they can increase your chances of breaking through the noise by helping you and your company or event stand out and rise above the distractions we all experience every day. Just remember to sync your goals and vision with your budget to secure a strategic brand match made in celebrity heaven that results in a win for all parties involved.

KELLI RICHARDS is a seasoned ’super-connector’, a trusted advisor & a strategic bus dev exec bridging innovators & creatives. Learn more at “kellirichards.com