Living the Brand

Maneesh Goyal '97 turned a knack for throwing a great party into a marketing powerhouse by understanding one thing: how to make people want what they never knew they wanted.
October 2, 2012

The skeptics are cordoned off by white drapes at the north end of Milk Studios in Manhattan, while the targets of their awe and ire, Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning, scramble to prep their latest, super-secret tech venture for its unveiling. The details surrounding Airtime, Sean and Shawn’s first joint effort since Napster, have been sealed in silence, and though dozens of leading tech journalists were invited to Milk today for the launch, Airtime is rumored to be unnervingly glitchy. The event’s scheduled start time has long past, and the journalists smell blood. But for the moment, they’re mollified—audibly gushing to one another— by a platter of banana-bread peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

The effect is that the patience of the mob is buoyed. There’s less milling and rocking on heels in the holding tank. Which makes it easy to spot the one figure slicing through the horde who’s both in control and plenty at ease. This is Maneesh Goyal ’97—tailored blazer, wrist-width tie, and a stern of sculpted black hair. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in action at an event his experiential and digital marketing firm, MKG, has produced. “The pb&js? Yeah, that’s us,” he says, when I suggest the overwhelming enthusiasm. “Every bit of logistics from there on up.”

MKG—both Goyal’s initials and a useful vowel-less contraction of “marketing”— occupies a specialized edge of the advertising industry. Its prerogative is in creating an experience—not a tagline or image, but an event or environment, a real-life opportunity to interact with whatever it is a client wants to sell. (Goyal is quick with bits like this: “The CMO of Starbucks says you can’t build a brand if consumers aren’t experiencing it.”) Since entering the experiential-marketing business in 2003—an industry Goyal says he “didn’t even know existed until I was working in it”—MKG has quickly become one of its biggest players. At first a one-man shop, Goyal now has forty-three employees, fifteen of whom are moving from one behind- the-scenes corner of Milk to another like shadows, nailing down the million moving parts of the event.

“My team’s done a great job, but I’ve got to be honest: I’m a little stressed,” Goyal says coolly. “The technology is still a little sticky. The Airtime guys were writing code at 3 a.m. last night. And Parker’s intense. We work with plenty of talent, but when you’re dealing with that cult of personality…Sean’s back there working on it right now, taking issue with the temperature of the room. He’s kinda freaking out...” He pauses—though not long, never long—“for reasons that don’t have anything to do with us.”

After an hour delay, the curtains are pulled aside and a junior MKG staffer relays via headset that “the audience is loading.” Martha Stewart skips up to the stage from her seat in the front row to take a photo of the full house. Jimmy Fallon, whom the journalists had heard from their side of the curtain running through his one-liners—“even Lars Ulrich can use Airtime”— dashes out and hits them with the funny. Airtime, it turns out, is a video-chat website built atop your Facebook network that makes it easier to talk online with friends. Once Fallon has warmed up the crowd, Parker “Airtimes” with Olivia Munn, who in turn Airtimes with Snoop Dogg, and so on, in a baton-relay of celebrity chatter. By the time we reach Joel McHale, though, things have fallen apart. Connections fail, images freeze, audio garbles. It’s a testament to the comic dexterity of the actors— McHale: “Who are you going to fire over this?”— that the presentation doesn’t rupture irreversibly.

As audience members begin to mutter, Goyal offers, perhaps a little too willingly, that Sean and Shawn’s event is “really their baby.” He recognizes that the snags offer journalists a chance to seize on the notoriously prickly Parker, which is probably exactly what they’d hoped for. But on the other hand, the vision of the event is expressed articulately and executed immaculately. The guest list, the venue, the stage construction, the fashion-show lighting, the hand-crafted birch-and-maple stations available for Airtime demos, and the pb&js—these are the instruments of MKG’s influence. For all its technical problems, Airtime’s launch has an atmosphere of glitz and polish that softens its rougher edges.

By the time he’s forking calamari at the members-only Soho House in the Meatpacking District, Goyal’s attention has turned to other things on the coming weeks’ schedule—the Whitney Art Party, the meeting with Google, the event for Persol. He chats casually about MKG’s new office in Los Angeles and the lucrative acquisition offer he just fielded, and I get the sense that Airtime’s rocky demo will effect about as much pause on this guy’s momentum as a peanut on a track would a train’s.

Making it click: Goyal offers a last few words for his staff before an event. "I believe in my team," he says, "that we're capable of so much." [Credit: Yunghi Kim]

The shortest distance from the elevator bank to Goyal’s corner office near the rear of MKG’s SoHo headquarters is past a white porch swing, a London phone booth, a bank of non-cubicle cubicles, and a blackboard with MKG’s core values (postulates like “Bring your funky self”). The 10,000-square-foot loft buzzes, and not just on account of the electricity passing through the office’s many neon features. There’s a heightening, a hum, a palpable current. There’s current in Goyal’s furniture, his ice-water decanter, in the emphatic presence of his hands, and in most things he says. He believes in stuff. Answers are often framed as declarative philosophies: “I create experiences for people”; “I am a consummate social creature”; “I am an agent of change.”

I get the sense during our hours together that Goyal has worked his way through his story—that early chapters of a memoir have been drafted. And then he comes right out with it: “But when I write a book it’ll be about building a business, not throwing a party.”

The first part of that book would be a narrative of unchanneled ambition. After Duke, where Goyal says he had a pretty fulfilling four years on both the academic and social fronts, the idea was to devote himself to nonprofit work. (He first describes the goal as “wanting to work for an NGO,” but later suggests it was really “wanting to become the executive director of a cool, progressive, possibly international nonprofit.”) A master’s degree in public health from Yale was followed by a string of low-level posts in organizations he summarizes as “helping others.” But the work felt small and unsatisfying.

Four years after graduating from Duke, Goyal found himself a little jobless and a little directionless, and so he started picking up shifts at events. Ten bucks an hour moving boxes, that sort of thing. “I would come home, and I’d think, that felt good,” he says. “I knew enough to know that I wasn’t always going to be making ten bucks an hour. And then the P. Diddy thing happened.”

The P. Diddy thing—how Goyal ended up as a part-time party planner for hip-hop mogul Sean Combs—is more or less MKG’s chiseled origin myth, and it goes like this: “The week before 9/11, when I was twenty-six, I was asked to work on Puff’s MTV Video Music Awards party. I wasn’t hired to do the party—there were several layers above me—but I was still engaged. At that point I was trying to get as much work as I could. I made a couple hundred bucks for the project. It was fulfilling, it was cool, whatever. The next week, 9/11 happened. I was living in SoHo, and there was the curfew below 14th Street, and if anything it kinda gave me fortitude to eschew foundation work and commit to something I felt passionate about.

“A couple months later, I get a phone call from Puff’s office saying, ‘Hey, we want to talk to you about doing this New Year’s Eve party in Miami.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, you called the wrong person.’ I wasn’t the guy, I wasn’t in charge. But they were like, ‘No no no, we know who you were at the event, and we want you.’

“I think they’d latched onto something that I credit for why I’ve been successful to date”—and here he commands the shades down with a remote control shaped like a stone. “It’s an uncanny connection to client service and humility in an industry that’s overrun with really aggressive personalities. Because I knew I was gonna be the first one kicked out of contention to work this party, the only one who didn’t belong at the table, I didn’t need to over-prove myself. Puff started calling me ‘Yalie’ just because he was so impressed that someone around him went to Yale.

“This was when Puff was at the top of his game, when he was the consummate party. I had never been to Miami before. Every place I had ever been in my life, it was cold in December, including Dallas, where I’m from, and even North Carolina. And so I brought turtlenecks and sweaters to Miami, and everyone was laughing at me. I was in over my head. But it turned out spectacularly, that event I ended up doing at the Shore Club in Miami. And it started me down the path.”

Goyal worked with Combs for three years, planning VMA parties and other special projects. But he was careful to resist becoming a “hip-hop guy, a music industry guy.” With the new visibility and a proactive pursuit of back-scratching partnerships with big-time PR firms, he began to draw billings from corporate clients. Vitaminwater. Estée Lauder. And perhaps most critically, Delta, for which he started working in fall 2003 and now oversees the strategy and execution of all sponsorship marketing and event-based marketing.

"Some people groan when they think about my schedule in the evenings. But for me, coming off a big night of hitting a few events and meeting a bunch of people, I'm fueled up."

In April, Goyal had just returned from a week in L.A. for a project called Delta Day with the Los Angeles Lakers, part of his plan to position Delta as L.A.’s hometown airline. For the event, MKG constructed a court on the plaza in front of the Staples Center where fans could shoot from spots on the hardwood that corresponded to free trips. (Drain a jumper from the top of the key and fly non-stop L.A.-to-Tokyo, and so on.) “Our directive is to integrate Delta and that city. We’ve done some important things with some key properties that Angelenos will care about. Using sponsorship and passion-point marketing as a way to kind of get to the people. Getting into bed with the Lakers and becoming their official airline was one big key component. But that’s not enough: We can’t just have your logo out there and rely on that. You’ve got to actually do something physical, and that’s obviously where we come in, to help create programs that will live from an experience standpoint.” Love equals Lakers equals Delta—a set of links familiar to their retainer- based client.

MKG works with project-based clients, too. Say, for example, Jaguar wants a one-off showcase of its new line, but in a more memorable manner than on the Auto Show circuit or a dealership lot. In that case, MKG constructed a giant snow globe (at the height of summer) near the High Line in New York—complete with free iced coffee and snow cones. “The Chill Zone” brought consumers out of the heat, and into very close and cool proximity to Jaguar’s new goods. Or there’s the pop-up store in Times Square MKG created for Wired this past winter. Does a reader, or a stranger on the street, feel more connected to a magazine’s brand after stepping inside those walls? Wired is betting on it.

And so are many others. Goyal still was running the operation out of his apartment when he hired his first employee in 2005—a deputy who’s still with him. Now he has staffers on both coasts, including four at MKG’s new office in Los Angeles, where Goyal spends typically eight to ten days a month. Executing individual projects and tethering new brand clients was never as much work-work as most would consider it. The “new business” business, the client service, the face-to-face—that’s what Goyal lives for.

Which is how he’s often able to make it to two or three events each night, every night. “Some people groan when they think about my schedule in the evenings. But for me, coming off a big night of hitting a few events and meeting a bunch of people, I’m fueled up. Whereas other people would be depleted and need a week to recover, I’m ready to go the next day. That’s just my DNA.”

The energy thing—it can’t be overstated. It’s like a switch rusted stuck in the on position. Each time we meet, Goyal’s rundown of what he’s been up to seems to suggest that even by boundless, rich-person standards, he’s capable of building a month’s worth of highlights into just a few days.

Peak performance: A self-proclaimed "office culture acolyte," Goyal focuses on touches that keep MKG's vibe electric. [Credit:Yunghi Kim]

And yet, since the t-crossing and i-dotting of MKG’s day-today are now executed mostly by staffers, Goyal is left with calendar space to scribble in extracurricular busyings. Things like devising morale-boosting initiatives for his employees (“I’m an office culture acolyte,” he says), or hooking up with foundations connected to high-import causes (he served six years on the board of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the group that effectively sparked the marriage-equality debate in New York), or, most recently, flexing fundraising muscle as a newly anointed Obama bundler. “Wariness, a sense of being overstretched,” he says, “it’s just not part of who I am.”

Above all, though, that fuel seems to burn most efficiently when socializing. He pushes a “never eat alone” mandate, preferring whenever possible that breakfast, lunch, and dinner be slated in advance. And in early April, when I’m buzzed up to the Union Square loft Goyal shares with his partner, he’s got a couple of assistants and a chef from the West Village cubbyhole Recette doing prep work in the kitchen. Goyal’s hosting a dinner party—one of the “salons” he likes to pull together at least once a month. In addition to his partner when he’s in town (Andrew’s a group vice president at Macy’s; “an accounting nerd,” Goyal embroiders it affectionately), he likes to invite new and old friends from unlike industries, most of whom are strangers before that evening “and all Facebook friends by the end of it,” he says. Throw ’em in the deep end together, is how Goyal sees it, only the deep end is a 2,500-square-foot second-story corner unit with wall-to-wall windows, gutted and renovated, and decorated with reflective silver balls and mixed paisley patterns. It’s tricked up, too. Electronic sensors on the bedroom door. Roman shades. A hotel bar’s cache of fancy booze squirreled away in kitchen drawers. (There’s a tour of the apartment on YouTube.)

When we sit down to talk (the leather lump I’ve planted myself on is wrapped in fabric from one of his mother’s old saris), the conversation hangs close to the dinner party, and Goyal runs down tonight’s guest list: mostly brothers or mothers of famous people I’ve heard of, plus that brunette from the omnipresent T-Mobile campaign. They are all “my close friend,” or at least “a friend.”

MKG seems to stitch "doing well" and "doing good" more thoughtfully than you'd imagine. Almost like the two halves of a baseball hide, sharing a border at all points.

At one point, back on the business, I ask him the question I’ve been eager to press upon an advertising exec: Why wouldn’t clients just hire their own in-house team of marketing geniuses and cut you out? “It’s the age-old question, right? Do you do it yourself, or do you outsource it?” Goyal says. “And I think that in this particular business landscape, you just cannot build brands without partnering with real strategic think tanks. Every brand does it. They have people in-house who do what we do, but they’ll always partner with agencies because you get critical thinking, and because basically we’re doers. I believe in my team, that we’re capable of so much. We end up doing a lot of the doing on behalf of the client.”

There are brief stretches of diligent answers—answers that it sometimes seems have been written and rehearsed and edited—when I start to drift. Music mists from the speakers (“I hire someone to program my iTunes for the parties,” he mentions) and spring light comes low through the windows, reflecting off the lettering on some Art Basel Miami coffee-table-book spines. I’m really flagging, it’s been a long week, I could use some sleep. And in that moment, amidst the luxe toys and the preparations for yet another social carnival, I realize this thirtyseven- year-old will never feel the way that I do now—and this is why he believes anything is possible.

The money, yes, but never just the money. It shouldn’t surprise that Goyal cares about the bottom line; he’s a founder and CEO of a business that sinks or swims by the machinations of moneymaking. And yet for all the evident transformation since college, there still seems nothing more authentically critical to Goyal than philanthropy. He requires his employees to do community service and to donate a hunk of their annual bonuses to charity, but “executive director of a cool, progressive, possibly international nonprofit” he is not. It’s just MKG seems to stitch “doing well” and “doing good” more thoughtfully than you’d imagine. Almost like the two halves of a baseball hide, sharing a border at all points.

“This is totally the gateway to doing more and more,” he says. “I’m so much more capable in my agent-of-change work from where I’m sitting. Someone once told me you want a triple-net benefit: You want to help your bottom line, you want to help others, and you want to help the planet. I really responded to that.”

Recently, Goyal has been fleshing out this idea, what he calls a “platform” for a life philosophy. He’s constructing a framework and—naturally—branding it. “I’ve come up with this phrase, and I want to build it into something. Maybe op-ed pieces or speaking engagements—perhaps do a South By Southwest presentation or a TED talk on it. It’s called ‘Live in the Grey.’ ”

“Live in the Grey” boils down to this: There are more paths—or, fitting the metaphor, scales of light and dark—available to you than you might imagine. For much of Goyal’s time at Duke, for example, there seemed a stark choice between a life of money and one of altruism. He soaked up an ethos that said if you wanted a nice, comfortable existence you chose paths to either professional schools or finance; the alternative, for Goyal at least, was underpaid righteousness. “Live in the Grey” suggests there’s no need to choose between being compassionate and being successful—that everyone’s got an off-center sweet spot for living.

It’s a nice idea, if a little inchoate. What Goyal plans to do, though, is put it through the wash as he would the new lie-flat business class seats for Delta. That is: purchase URLs (for both “grey” and “gray”), build a Twitter account, hire a publicist, pair the message with inspiring stories from real-life liveinthegrey/gray types— “John Legend, for example, who’s a friend”—and carve out a content pool that could lead to viral campaigns, television, events, and ultimately a national competition. Crown a LitG winner, some young person who resists the pressure to find a safe career and instead lives blindly, following his or her passions, feeling around for a job that doesn’t suck. “This is just such an important aspect of who I am,” he says, “because if I’d listened to what people were telling me I was supposed to be doing, I’d be a miserable doctor right now. And not a very good one.”

Instead, there is MKG. And what MKG does really, really well is create experiences. Fun, memorable experiences that make you want to hang out with—or buy, or use, or whatever—the things those experiences were designed to promote. Experiences that make you wonder whether you’re truly content with your bicoastal carrier, or if there’s perhaps a better alternative. A version of yourself, maybe, that flies to L.A. for twenty-four hours, works in SoHo by neon light, hosts salons with the T-Mobile girl, and gets—this is the cherry—your corn knifed off the cob for you at members-only clubs in Manhattan. It’s a life that looks good. And the way it’s been presented to me—each of these experiences—I kind of want that life even though I’ve never wanted anything like it before. Though working for MKG isn’t exactly for me, I sure could get used to being the boss. In other words: I’m sold.


Riley ’08 is an associate editor for GQ.