For sisters Miatta David Johnson and Massah David, their long migration to Hollywood originated from an atmosphere of terror and uncertainty. Descending from a family of Liberian political leaders who suffered enormously from a bloody paramilitary coup that deposed the national government in April of 1980, they came to the United States as child refugees with their immediate family miraculously intact after several years of captivity. Settling in Silver Spring, Md. to forge new lives, the pair grew into enterprising adults who developed as young professionals in the demanding environs of New York and L.A.After leaving posts in the media and recording industries to harness their shared passions for music and marketing, they've collaborated to run the West Hollywood-based creative marketing agency MVD Inc for over a decade. Hired to help enhance the brands of music and tech giants like Kayne West, Mary J. Blige and Samsung NEXT through event production (i.e. the curation of social functions) and integrated marketing, the firm's hip, sophisticated touch can be felt at various A-list parties and more in Hollywood each year--including Common's annual pre-Oscars celebration, "Toast to the Arts."
I spoke with MVD Inc co-founder and principal Miatta David Johnson about her unique line of work, the handicaps of identity in Hollywood and how she handled a bizarre crisis involving Outkast as a young publicist back in New York.
Russ Espinoza: How would you describe the work that you do?
Miatta David Johnson: We’re a creative agency, so we specialize in integrated marketing, event production and strategic partnerships. And that basically entails helping our clients tell meaningful stories through various avenues; whether it’s through event marketing, through strategic partnerships, or if they have an issue or project that they’re looking to launch, we help to craft that narrative.
Espinoza: You and your sister had other careers before teaming to build this agency. What motivated the decision to undertake this type of business as entrepreneurs?
David Johnson: I was a financial reporter for Dow Jones and I was working there for a couple of years and was really fascinated with emerging markets and the U.S. markets and covering technology. But after a couple of years there I just kind of lost my passion for economic reporting, and I always had a love of music. So at the time, while I was working at Dow Jones, I was also helping a couple of friends in the music industry; they were managers, a couple of them were artists as well, and they just couldn’t find a footing into how to publicize the music they had coming out. So I started moonlighting as their publicist… and after doing that for quite a few months, almost a year, a friend told me to explore doing something in the P.R. space--particularly music P.R. [Then] I did some research and decided that this is definitely my calling. So I left Dow Jones, took the little money I had in my 401(k) and kind of just stepped out on faith.
Espinoza: Your family background is very unique. Take me through the details of how you and your sister wound-up in America.
David Johnson: There was a coup in April of 1980 that basically changed our lives. Our father was the first elected mayor of the capital city of Liberia—Monrovia, he was the first mayor of Monrovia (1975-79)--and our great uncle was the president of Liberia. There was a coup that overtook the government: our uncle was killed, quite a few of my family members were killed as well, and our dad was jailed. He was placed in a camp for about 18 months and my mother worked rigorously to get him out. Once he was released from camp we sought political asylum in the states, [but] unfortunately we couldn’t get the entire family out at the same time. So I came to the states in about ’83 with our two brothers and our dad, and our mother followed a couple of years later [with Massah].”
Espinoza: Your first major client was Outkast—how did you attract their notice?
David Johnson: A lot of hard work and a lot of hours—I volunteered. The manager for Outkast at the time (Blue Williams) was one of the people that suggested I open the firm. So once I left Dow Jones, basically I was already working, unofficially, as their publicist for their management company (Family Tree Entertainment) and I was landing placements left and right for some of his smaller acts; so he saw my drive, he saw that I was willing to work overtime. You know, I’m a firm believer in ‘There are no coincidences,’ and because of my background as a reporter, I understood how to pitch, how to land [features in] some of the major publications… So because of that and because of my connections, I kind of understood how to market Outkast to those publications—so they just gave me a shot. And with my first shot I landed quite a few of these placements for them at the start. And with that they said, ‘OK, you’ve shown us you’re working for free for six months, non-stop’; they gave me a chance and said, ‘I want you to work on Outkast clothing and do the publicity for it.’ Like I said, it was a lot of hard work, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of closed doors—but it was worth it.
Espinoza: MVD did press and events for their clothing line (Outkast Clothing Co.), so I have to ask: From a P.R. standpoint, how challenging was the damage control after André (3000) was quoted saying he wouldn’t wear any of the clothes?
David Johnson: As you can imagine, it was very challenging being a new publicist in that realm. I leaned a lot on the label publicist Chris Chambers (Arista Records) to help with crisis management. I think when things like that happen, the approach was to be transparent and to kind of talk about the differences between Big Boi and André, and why they make such a dynamic duo; and I think [that honesty] resonated with a lot of their fans. André eventually explained why he wouldn’t wear the clothes, which basically boiled down to his personal style being avant-garde; but he was very involved creatively on the look of the line. It was definitely challenging nonetheless, but we got through it.
Espinoza: Lately, though, MVD is focused more on event production and integrated marketing, as opposed to P.R. What are some rules of thumb for curating a successful event?
David Johnson: We don’t believe in the cookie-cutter system; every event is unique: [it’s] figuring out what’s authentic and what’s going to connect with guests. We like to think outside the box, we like to always look for that common thread and figure out what the client is looking to achieve. Like with ‘Toast to the Arts,’ we wanted to bring a new narrative to Hollywood, and Common was the perfect person to bring folks together as sort of a homecoming every year. I think when we look at each event, we always make sure that it’s authentic to that particular brand and client.
Espinoza: You’ve put together parties and events for some of the biggest names in hip-hop (Kayne West, Common, A$AP Rocky). What’s the coordination like between the agency and the artists themselves when planning something for them?
David Johnson: I think it varies. In our experience with Kayne, he’s extremely involved and is hands-on in every detail. He’s involved in everything as far as creative, aesthetics and even logistics. Then you have other clients like Common and Mary J. Blige, and they allow us to be creative and trust the arc of what they want to come to life, and we kind of hit the ground running. So like I said, it varies: some artists like to be extremely involved from A-to-Z; others prefer to give us an idea [of what they have in mind] and we run with it.
Espinoza: Whether it’s a birthday party for Kayne or a launch event for Samsung: How does the money move around and what does MVD generally make per project?
David Johnson: Because we do event production and we do marketing, it’s structured differently for both. In the event production business we work on a percentage, so it’s normally a percentage of the overall budget. For our marketing clients, like Samsung, we’re basically placed on a retainer for the year—or it might be a multi-year or it might be monthly. So it’s pretty standard: as far as the agency, that’s more of a retainer-based structure and with event production it’s more percentage.
Espinoza: In sizing up your direct competition in Hollywood, is it safe to say you and Massah are the only black females heading-up a business of this kind?
David Johnson (answered via email): I’m not familiar if there are any other African-American women-owned agencies that converge in all three—the music, film and tech space. I would say there are quite a few event planners but not creative experiential agencies. The difference is we approach our experiences as campaigns and not just one night. Our experiences have been used to launch marketing campaigns and set trends.
Espinoza: What are some obstacles, or perhaps even hardships, you’ve encountered in your line of work on account of your gender or race?
David Johnson: I think being a black woman, especially in the entertainment space and in Hollywood, many people have an idea that it’s very glamorous, but the real of it is that it can definitely be a cutthroat business. You have to have a lot of grit, you have to be persistent and resilient; and because we’re underrepresented in this field, the opportunities come far and few between. So a lot of what we had to do was to constantly show and prove, even when we provided stellar work and worked with the A-list talent. Quite a few times there were questions [about] why we were granted ‘this account,' or why we landed such a huge client as far as their event production business. So it’s definitely been challenging in the respect that you’re constantly showing and proving that you are where you’re supposed to be. We’ve had to kind of demand that we were supposed to be here, in a sense. I would say, it’s a very cutthroat business, and if we weren’t resilient and always kind of pushing the envelope and not accepting people saying, ‘Why would you guys want to move into this industry?’ or ‘Why would you guys want to come do things outside of hip-hop?’ we wouldn’t have landed the clients like Samsung NEXT.
Espinoza: You’re quoted in another outlet as saying, 'When you don’t have a lot of females in your industry, you have to create a tribe. That was extremely important, and I don’t think we would’ve made it without having that core girl gang to help us go through the murky waters.' Can you elaborate on that thought a bit?
David Johnson: I think that [for] every business owner, it can be extremely lonely; and you deal with so many aspects of growing a business, that if you don’t have a sounding board and you [don’t] have people that are cheering you on, it’s going to be very difficult to get to the next level. With our tribe, as I call it, I look at them as our board of directors.