Ad.Ventures In Marketing Indie Venues: Stephen Sternschein & Mikey Lee Launch Brand Partnership Agency
– Mikey Lee and Stephen Sternschein
co-founders of Ad.Ventures
Stephen Sternschein has been involved in plenty of entrepreneurial endeavors in his career, but his most recent – as treasurer of the National Independent Venue Association – provided him with what he calls the “coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Sternschein organized the massively successful, livestreamed #SaveOur Stages Festival, raising more than $1.8 million for NIVA. In addition, with the help of partners including Spotify, Google and YouTube, Sternschein’s efforts helped raise more than $10 million for NIVA during the pandemic shutdown of concert venues.
“We did the Spotify campaign around the end of the year, had a giant billboard in Times Square, and Google talked about how they could put #SaveOurStages on the search bar for [the festival]. That was probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my life,” Sternschein says. “For a show like that, you can never put a poster in a better place than on the front page of the Google search bar.”
He says the lesson he took away from that campaign, and his NIVA experience, is that volunteer advocacy can provide opportunities to provide commercial benefits to non-profit clients and colleagues “just by being in the position to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have to talk to everybody individually, you can talk to us and we’ll handle the rest.’”
The result is his latest endeavor, Ad.Ventures, which he founded with partner Mikey Lee. Ad.Ventures acts as an agent for independent venue clients, matching them with brand partnerships.
So far, Ad.Ventures has more than 40 clients and counting in just a few short weeks’ time, including Levitt Pavilion in Denver; Boulder Theater and Fox Theater, in Boulder, Colo.; Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins, Colo.; The Mayan and Regent Theater in Los Angeles; and Center Stage and The Masquerade in Atlanta.
Ad.Ventures, like Sternschein, is based in Austin, Texas, where the onetime musician cut his entrepreneurial teeth by first running a venue, and then creating Heard Presents that now operates central Texas venues including Empire Control Room & Garage and The Parish. He later founded Prism.FM, a booking software company, which he departed last year in order to join NIVA’s board.
Sternschein and Lee were developing a program that would work for independent venue operators much the way Salesforce works for organizing sales teams well before the pandemic struck. But when Marauder managing partner and co-founder Rev. Moose reached out to him to join a town hall with other independent venue operators, he realized that “everybody had the same values, the same set of experiences, but no one had ever really been talking to one another.”
More than a year later, NIVA’s accomplishments are well-known: getting hundreds of venue owners and operators on the same page to create, lobby for and win legislation to help financially rescue their shuttered businesses as COVID raged. With Shuttered Venue Operators Grant money largely disbursed, and venues beginning to reopen, Sternschein and Lee returned to their idea of a brand partnership agency for independent venues – with, among other things, an additional mandate to aid indies in developing new revenue streams to fill depleted rainy-day coffers and help weather future storms. An additional benefit is the continuance of a community created from pandemic adversity.
Ad.Ventures may have some of its roots in the lessons of NIVA, but it is a separate entity and a for-profit company. But Sternschein says the need for it has been apparent for some time and will provide clients with the flexibility to choose programs and partnerships that best fit their needs. It will not offer “one size fits all” programs but will customize marketing and brands as diverse as the indie venues themselves.
“The two organizations are completely separate,” Sternschein stresses. “There’s a difference between NIVA and Ad.Ventures. Primarily, we’re representing each of our clients in a one-to-one fashion, just as an agent for an artist. There’s an agency that represents many artists and has the opportunity to work on the collective national scale with their roster. But the commitment is to each of those clients individually. That’s something that couldn’t happen in a business association, because the primary focus is the greater good; what’s best for everybody.
Referring to NIVA, he says, “There’s 3,000 folks who are all in the same situation. We have to do what’s best for all of them. We can’t look at how that affects one or two particular clients or members in that case. And that’s the ultimate difference between the for-profit and non-profit approach. I see myself as a representative of the client first, the network second and everything that we do follows.”
Ad.Ventures, Sternschein admits, gives him the opportunity to keep the kind of work he’s done for NIVA alive, even as the heavy lifting of emergency organizing, lobbying, fundraising and getting legislation over the finish line appears largely done, at least for now, as the group moves forward as a trade organization.
“It’s an opportunity for me to continue to do the work that we were doing during the pandemic, in the worst of times, in better times and ultimately provide great representation and advice and opportunity to independents who have been kind of cut off from that for so long,” Sternschein explains. “It’s great to have more dollars an hour and more partnerships and partners to work with as a small local business, right? But it’s also the expertise and the attention of folks who typically would be working on Live Nation, AEG or corporate partners that are able to pay better on your business and on the problems and the challenges that you’re facing.
“So when we put all of that together, it really comes down to delivering a kind of democratization of economy of scale to the independents. That’s my ultimate goal and starts with partnerships and branding,” Sternschein says.
Another goal Ad.Ventures aspires to is to capitalize on the recognition of the independent venue ecosystem as an economic engine of far more value than was previously thought, and ensure it has a proper valuation in the larger entertainment and media landscape.
So what happens when a venue signs on with Ad.Ventures as a client? According to Sternschein, the first step is an inventory assessment and onboarding.
“We go through and look at what they’re doing currently, what kind of shows they’re booking,” he explains. “It’s a pretty involved process of identifying the opportunities for that client that exist currently with programs that we’re already working on or specific needs of that client that we can help with. For example, every one of these rooms has a bar, so there’s pouring rights and sampling. On-premise concession is something that everybody can use. But not everybody sells food. So if we’re talking to a room that has a food program, that’s going to be attractive to qualify for different types of opportunities that involve food service.
“Same goes for things like naming rights,” Sternschein continues, recognizing that putting a corporate name on an independent venue’s marquee may not be “on brand” for many buildings.
“It’s not like we’re planning to change everyone’s name from, say, Empire Control Room to the Best Buy Control Room or something like that!” he says, laughing. “But we could have programs that are focused on what your VIP space looks like. Maybe we’ll have a naming partner for that space, or a category-specific partner. Like, maybe Jagermeister is the official shot of independent music. The first step is understanding what’s there to sell. And at the same time that we’re doing that, we’re having conversations with our potential and existing brand partners to figure out how much and how we’re going to execute against those assets.”
Sternschein is quick to add that it’s not Ad.Ventures’ intent to foist names or programs on individual clients as one big, homogeneous group.
“We’re serving at our clients’ behest,” he emphasizes. “If they don’t want to do a deal, or they don’t like the brand or whatever, we don’t do it. People are opting in and out of programs that they like or don’t like, depending on what their specific tastes are. We’re not interested in doing the same old cookie-cutter stuff.”
But he’s confident that, for example, what works for his venue in Austin will likely work everywhere else, “because I’m a lot pickier than most people when it comes to who we work with.”
Sternschein says Ad.Ventures will be making partnership announcements in the coming weeks, and “I’m certain you’ll see the difference between our approach and the other stuff that you’re seeing in the space.”
Ultimately, Sternschein believes that the independent venue space has a more substantial impact on their local communities than they’d realized prior to the pandemic, and brands and venues alike can benefit.
“If we can convince brands that haven’t been connected to this particular segment of the creative community to direct their dollars to these rooms, the impact on all of these communities is going to be fantastic,” Sternschein says. “One way is to advocate at the federal level and create the grant program. Another way is to advocate in the halls of corporate America and say, ‘This makes sense for you. But on top of that, you’re also supporting a really important segment of every community. And that’s more meaningful.’”