By Jeff Klingman, theBluntness Feature Writer
“Cannabis creative agency” is the sort of novel phrase you hear one day, seemingly out of the blue, and just know its about to become unescapable in the years to come. (Had you heard “influencer” 10 years ago?) L.A.’s Green Street Agency has established the concept in California’s weed world, as an agency entirely devoted to the creative needs of growing cannabis companies. They’ve made their name so far by introducing brands to hip-hop royalty, rappers eager to partner on new canna-biz ideas or launch mini-bud empires of their own.
It’s not surprising that Green Street’s founder Rama Mayo’s first success came from the music industry. He created Big Wheel Recreation, a Boston record label who’d go on to put out albums by big-selling 1990s punk acts like Jimmy Eat World and At the Drive-In. Big Wheel got Mayo into rooms with record biz titans like Beats’ Jimmy Iovine and veteran manager Pat Magnarella (who’s roster has included names like Green Day and Goo Goo Dolls).
“Those guys wanted me to merge my music stuff into theirs and be part of their teams and they wanted to take half. I thought I was competing with those people, that’s how young I was,” recalls Mayo. “I didn’t realize that I wasn’t really competing with these giant, fucking icons of the music industry, I just thought I was.”
The business came from a working partnership Mayo and founding partner, attorney Josh Shelton, brokered between West Coast rapper, The Game, and vape heavyweights, G Pen (where Shelton was handling compliance). It went well enough that The Game asked if they could find him more cannabis deals. They said yes. Green Street was born. Since, they’ve worked with stoney celebs like Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Rae Sremmurd, and Waka Flaka Flame. Most recently, they helped Atlanta’s 2 Chainz launch GAS, a full product line devoted to premium pot.
Last year, famed investor Gary Vaynerchuk acquired a 50 percent stake in Green Street. Vanynerchuk’s rep as a prescient early backer of digital juggernauts like Facebook, Twitter, and Venmo, has set up great expectations for the agency as they shoot for rapid expansion. Big ambition is easy to see. They launched Hall of Flowers, a giant B2B trade show for cannabis, in 2017. They were a cornerstone partner in the purchase of an 70,000 sq. foot office complex in Downtown L.A., designed to become the epicenter of the state’s weed industry.
We talked to Mayo about the parallels between his label past and his Green Street present, the reason why rappers are the most omnipresent weed influencers of the moment, and the celebrity cultivators and music festival weed gardens that might mark a next phase of American cannabis culture.
In the California, is the “cannabis creative agency” concept becoming a standard, or do you consider it a brand new business model in the industry?
I don’t know. I don’t care or look at what anyone else does. I have blinders on, like a racehorse. I’m not sure, but I haven’t seen anyone do it. I think we’re just years ahead.
[With the record label] it wasn’t like, we’re gonna sell a million records, it was let’s sell 5000 records, now let’s sell 10,000 records, let’s sell 50,000 records. That was the approach here. Let’s survive on making two bucks an hour for five years, so we can be positioned, because trust would be at a premium.
Is what you are doing mostly matchmaking, using music industry connections to set cannabis brands up with celebrities who might raise their profile?
If you are a brand, in general, and you are going to do any kind of celebrity partnership, it’s not going to become any more affordable than it is today…ever. This is the time to come in and do deals that you can kind of dictate more and control more. The problem is, we always use the LeBron and Nike comparison. Everyone is looking for their LeBron, but no one knows how to be Nike yet. That’s the truth.
We have to explain to a lot of the cannabis brands, you know, LeBron doesn’t take his shoes off in the middle of a game and say, “Go Buy Nike!” Beyond signing a celebrity, you have to bring Green Street or another agency along with it to execute. You have the exclusive rights to one of the most famous people in the world, but what are you going to do with it? It’s up to the brands, but the brands have never done advertising, because they’ve never been able to. They don’t know how to do this stuff. It’s just still advertising. A LeBron deal, it’s an endorsement but it’s still all just advertising to Nike.
What do you see as the most effective method of leveraging a celebrity artist’s profile to the best advantage of a cannabis brand?
It’s word of mouth.That’s the strongest form of advertising/marketing anyway, undoubtedly. We use the events, we use the experiential, the concerts, the tours, as the ability to talk about it.
Our approach is like death by a thousand cuts. It can’t just be one post by the celebrity, “Buy a weed brand now,” or here’s my face on something, or one concert. What works is continuing the conversation and starting it up as many times as you can.
Why has Green Street so far been so focused on hip-hop? Are those the artists cannabis brands want to work with most? Are they the artists most likely to want to get into cannabis? Or is it just your own personal passion?
If I were to pick who we would be, I might want a Lagerfeld [type] over a rapper, or Gagosian over street art. But it’s who will take the risk. I’ve sat with some of the biggest celebrities on the planet, and they’re into it, but their management and their lawyers and their agents are always so scared, because it’s federally illegal. One penny from me going into the account of whoever it is [in cannabis], that’s scary to them.
The second phase of it is that the budgets aren’t big, so there isn’t the money. I can’t approach a celebrity actor with a budget of $10 grand a year and some points on the company that mean nothing. The exposure and the risk is the number one thing, that’s a broad version, but that’s my example.
But the hip-hop guys, they rap about it, they’ve just been in it more, they’re less scared around it. Everybody wants to launch their own strain, their own product. And if they don’t, they certainly want to invest and be making money from it, no matter what. Everybody out there knows this is going somewhere, and wants to make an investment in some way, or really wants to reap the reward from an investment.
So are you actively finding cultivators and growers who want to produce those celebrity strains?
With the cultivators, we think there’s opportunities for them to become the celebrities.
We had this incredible opportunity to spend time with Shep Gordon. This dude is one of the most inspiring people of all time to so many people, including myself. He kind of really launched the celebrity chef world. He launched Emeril Lagasse and Nobu, everybody. He launched the Food Network. I think five years ago, he was telling us that he could see the cultivators coming out, claiming their throne. Really, who are the experts on the product anyway? Of course, to become a cultivator, you have to have done it for years and years when it wasn’t legal. It’s kind of like a Catch 22, to claim to have been the guy you have to have done this. We think that’s what will happen. These guys will come out of the woodwork, they won’t be scared anymore. They’ll take the reign so they won’t need the celebrities and the hip-hop guys.
But of course, we partner up cultivators and brands all day. It’s more of a new thing on the cultivator side, because as I always like to say, the marketing up until now has been, “Wait you have weed?” And that’s it. I lived in Boston in New York, you didn’t have a choice of 14 different indicas at the store. You were like, “You have weed? Great, I want some weed.” Never this crazy marketplace.
How do you execute big-thinking, national-scale brand strategies in a U.S. cannabis market that’s still functionally regional, or even local?
I think that’s exactly what it is, it’s strategy. If there’s a brand that we’re working with that wants to be national, then we have that bigger approach. If we have a project where we are helping one of our brands open up a dispensary in the midwest of the United States, then we’re going hyper local celebrity, local influencer heavy. Because we know, The Game, whoever it is, when they say “Go see these guys in Michigan!” the success rate for them in Michigan is probably less than some local guy who has 30K concentrated followers.
With New York legalization looming, do you anticipate the need to get bicoastal?
I’m already looking at property in Manhattan as well, for sure. The L.A. spot has a super famous restauranteur who took the ground floor, it has a crazy roof deck with a liquor license and a smoking lounge. This is going to be I think the epicenter of cannabis in Los Angeles, and then, therefore the world.
I think the only way you can be big in the world is if you are big in New York, or big in Los Angeles, or big in both together. I had the biggest shit in Boston, no one cared. I had the biggest shit in San Francisco, no one cared.
Are you talking with more East Coast rappers to prepare for that?
After we launched GAS [for 2 Chainz] we were getting hit up like every week or two. After we launched and things went really well for us with the launch, it was a cattle call. Everybody from the guy that might get deported back to England right now, to Wayne and everybody like that.
Immediately it brings to mind folks like Wu Tang, who were very identified with cannabis, but weren’t able to monetize their brand this way, for decades.
It’s so crazy. We met with them not too long ago. A couple years back, we helped Cypress Hill get going on some of this stuff. We were like, how is this possible? The managers, all the people who look after the money, they didn’t want to fuck up the real money. And as I said, the budgets aren’t there yet.
But 2 Chainz says, “I don’t give a shit about the advance, I want to own the fucking company.” You can wait on the sideline, and get a check later on. There’s [probably] no place for 2 Chainz to own Def Jam. He’s OK with that, I think. But as opposed to just being signed to the label, he could own his own [cannabis company]. He could have 10 people under Team GAS next year, like Diddy with Ciroc.
How long will it be until we see legal, open weed smoking at music festivals in the U.S.?
You’ll see it this year. The Hall of Flowers, the cannabis trade show, that has a consumption license and we set up a mobile dispensary through the state, all super compliant with them, for the shows. That really allows us to do that sort of beer garden opportunity, basically. There are a few other people who also went out and got these licenses that are going to use it for public facing events, so they’ll have vendors. Where we’re B2B, we’ll see some B2C things.
But I think by the end of 2019, you’ll see music festivals that have weed gardens. I don’t know how many there will be, but there will be a handful that happen this year. It’s happening now.
And will we see weed brands coming on as top-level sponsors for those events?
Right now, we’re working with a brand called Cannacraft, and they work with a brand called Cookies. If you’ve heard a rap song you’ve heard about [them]. Cookies is taking over the naming rights of the Warfield Theater right now in San Francisco. It’ll be the “Cookies’ Warfield”, which is insane. They have the rights already negotiated for the beer garden situation at a bunch of other festivals. They’re planning rights for 2025 now. I’d say it’s already there.
How important has it been to have Gary Vaynerchuk involved, in terms of legitimizing what is a pretty new category of business?
That was the whole point, absolutely. We think that the biggest brands and companies are going to be a true Anheuser-Busch story. Which is, the suit and the brewmaster kind of came together and created it. The lead singers are going to need great managers.We knew that ourselves we needed that.
I know that Green Street is not on the radar of Taco Bell and whoever else that’s out there that will eventually end up buying stuff in the cannabis space. We want the toughest big brother on the block. We want that suit, and it’s funny calling him a suit but compared to us, to help us scale this thing. He thinks we’re going to have 25 employees by the end of the year, and we could have 100 employees in the next couple of years. that’s crazy to me! That’s a lot of people.
With Pat Magnarella and Jimmy Iovine, not partnering with them because I thought they were aggressive in what they wanted, that’s not how we’re looking at the Gary opportunity. We wanted him to come in and be a huge partner with us. We realized it’s better to have half a watermelon than an entire grape to yourself.