Having elevated Marcus Rashford to national treasure status in just 12 short — okay, long — months, Jay-Z’s management company is looking to repeat the trick with more superstar activists. Susannah Butter peeks inside a personal branding powerhouse that’s changing the off-the-pitch role of sporting heroes as we know it
A new chapter, let’s go,’ rugby player Maro Itoje wrote on his Instagram page. The England star was announcing that he had just signed to Roc Nation, American rapper Jay-Z’s management company, in November.
Talented, eloquent and politically engaged, the 26-year-old Itoje is a perfect fit; Jay-Z’s juggernaut agency also represents footballer Marcus Rashford. Since Roc Nation expanded into European sport six years ago it has steadily been disrupting the way sports stars are seen and the impact they create.
Last week, Itoje lived up to the nickname he has among rugby fans — Super Maro — by launching a campaign urging the UK Government to give free laptops to the 1.78 million children who currently cannot take part in online lessons because they lack adequate computers at home.
Itoje, who went to Harrow School on a rugby scholarship, is supported in his activism by Roc Nation Sports International, a sub-division of Jay-Z’s agency, just like Rashford during his free school meals campaign. Since the start of the pandemic, the 23-year-old Manchester United forward has consistently put pressure on the Government to extend and improve free school meals for children who need them, sharing his own back story (he grew up in poverty, his single mother going without food so her five children could eat). Within a year, he has launched the End Child Poverty alliance, forced changes in government policy, become a national hero and picked up an MBE for his troubles.
‘What Marcus has accomplished is a blueprint for how you can impact change,’ says Michael Yormark, president of Roc Nation Sports International. ‘Roc Nation helped him with developing a strategy and executing it because no one can do all that on their own. We want to do the best for our clients, looking at what they can achieve on and off the pitch, to build their brand but also give back.’
‘Maro and Marcus are fighting for what’s right,’ says a sports branding expert who has worked with Roc Nation. ‘It is what Roc Nation does, using their leverage to do good deeds in a way that is genuine.’
Jay-Z’s company, which started out in 2008 as a boutique music agency, provides what it calls ‘career specialist management’. Of course it is also a business and, as one prominent sports TV executive points out: ‘All savvy businesses know that a social conscience is an imperative in 2021, especially in the sporting world that has huge reach and significant engagement.’ Roc Nation commands vast sums of money (it is worth about £55 million) but underpinning that is an ethos of changing the world for the better, often filling in the gaps where official channels, such as government, have fallen short.
‘We have never been driven by profit,’ insists Yormark. ‘When Jay-Z started the business it was to do good and help clients reach their goals. And if we do that and are successful ultimately Roc Nation will win and we will have big smiles on our faces.’
It’s working. Another talent agent I speak to says that government representatives and the London Mayor’s office are now frequently calling her clients to ask if they will work on official campaigns. The establishment knows that being aligned with a famous person is valuable.
So why do stars want to sign with Roc Nation in particular? ‘It’s more than a talent agency,’ says publicist Mark Borkowski. ‘They have a strong social conscience and that feels genuine. They are connected to the communities their artists speak to around the world. Yes, they are a business, too, and they have significant sums of money but they also do want to make a difference. And there’s the fact that celebrities now expect more from their agents than just money and opportunities — they want social capital but Roc Nation does this in a way that resonates.’
High-profile people have for years known the value of being associated with charity work (and on the cynical side, the tax benefits of donating money). But that has now shifted up a gear. This is more than just turning up to an event to promote a cause. Sports stars such as Rashford and Itoje are actually affecting change, using their platforms to galvanise politicians into action, and Roc Nation has form on helping with this. It has organised protests for wrongfully arrested teenagers in the United States and further afield, built schools in the Dominican Republic with baseball player Robinson Cano and helped with Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation to fund rapid responses to the coronavirus crisis.
Yormark and a team of 15 people have been working to expand Roc Nation Sports’ presence in the UK. In November 2019 they opened their first office outside of New York and LA, on Fitzrovia’s Great Titchfield Street. A limited-edition print of Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela hangs in the reception and, once it opens again post-pandemic, stars will be able to meet in the player’s lounge, which has table tennis and snooker tables, and a Playstation and an Xbox both loaded with FIFA 20.
The agency is making waves in the sports world and beyond and its 31 European clients include footballers Kevin De Bruyne, Jordan Lukaku and Reece James. The first footballer client signed was footballer Jérôme Boateng, who plays for Bayern Munich. ‘He came to us asking for representation,’ says Yormark. ‘And we realised the opportunity in football not only commercially but on the pitch; no one else was offering what we do, that’s doing our best for clients. Europe felt like a natural place to expand.’
It makes commercial sense to be seen doing good: the movement took off in 2018 when Nike made Colin Kaepernick, the American football quarterback who catalysed a protest movement over police brutality by kneeling during the US national anthem, a face of its advertising campaign.
‘Roc is smart,’ says a sports world insider. ‘They see behaviour like that as part of the overall brand of the individual. They see that it makes the star infinitely more marketable, more human and therefore more lucrative.’
While Roc Nation is wise to the image boost that good deeds give, its approach feels less cynical because at the centre of its work is Jay-Z’s own story. The rap superstar had a tough upbringing, growing up on a housing project in Brooklyn. His father left, leaving his mother to look after their three sons, and his older brother was addicted to crack. Jay-Z has said: ‘When one of us gets signed it doesn’t end our connection to the ’hood or the streets. Our lives are still there, our cousin still needs a lawyer, our mother can’t make the rent.’
‘His story inspires people,’ says an industry expert. ‘You can change your life but you do have to be excellent at what you do. Jay-Z is the best at what he did and Roc Nation wants to find those people but that happens in tandem with thinking about their role and vision and how they want to impact the world.’
Jay-Z founded Roc Nation in 2008 as a boutique label and artist representation company. At first the aim was to give artists agency and make sure they were not ripped off by major record labels. Its roster of clients includes chart-toppers Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Rihanna, and its annual pre-Grammys brunch is a who’s who of music industry power players. Over here, banking heiress Kate Rothschild is head of operations in Roc Nation’s music division.
The sport side of the company grew organically. Players with little experience of how the business of their industry worked were asking Jay-Z for advice on contracts and investments so in 2013 he formalised it, launching Roc Nation Sports, mainly representing NFL stars.
It wasn’t until August 2018 that the organisation’s social mission crystallised. Jay-Z was on his way to a meeting in the New York office and heard about a fight at a nail salon on his home turf of Brooklyn. An employee had attacked customers and Jay-Z wanted to help whoever needed assistance, by providing lawyers.
‘We should have a division where we can talk to things in real time — give money, get lawyers, try to help,’ he told his staff that day. ‘If something happens in Mississippi, we will get Yo Gotti [the Memphis rapper on his roster]. If something happens in Philly, we’ll get Meek Mill [another rapper client] involved.’ This philosophy means that when they are looking for clients to represent, they want people who stand for something beyond the sport they play.