Migos cross the Finish Line

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Credit: Universal Music Group

If you're an A-list rapper or a pop star in 2018, your portfolio of moneymaking efforts just isn't complete without a sneaker deal. Kendrick Lamar, for instance, has created two different signature shoes for Nike. The Atlanta MC Future works with Reebok, while Rihanna helped drive her fashion-obsessed fans to Puma. And then, of course, there's Kanye West, who boosted Adidas as a legitimate rival to industry leader Nike with his beyond-hip Yeezy line.

But when the hip-hop trio Migos—preparing for the release of their much-anticipated third studio album, "Culture II"—sought a sneaker-world deal, they went a different direction. Last summer, the crew approached Finish Line, the Indianapolis-based purveyor of athletic shoes and accessories with more than 950 outlets in malls and Macy's stores across America, and a partnership was formed. For the rap trio, a huge part of the appeal is the authentic, lifelong affinity all members have for the brand.

"It's a childhood dream," says Quavo, the oldest of the three. (Migos is a family band: Quavo, 27, is the uncle of Takeoff, 23, and cousin of Offset, 26.) "Growing up, we'd always shop at Finish Line. We'd go to sleep outside the store to get the new shoes."

With the deal, the crew became the retail brand's creative directors. It's more than a ceremonial position; Finish Line says it genuinely wants their input, both for their intensely of-the-moment taste and because the more ownership of the work they feel, the more likely they are to promote it on social media and in interviews.

"The nuance of them coming to us, rather than us coming to them, it's really important," says Paul Diehl, senior director of content, social media and consumer trends for Finish Line. "These are all their ideas, their vision. They came early on and said they wanted to be part of the creative direction. In the contract, we established moments when they would come in and direct photo and video shoots for us."

For Migos, beyond the payday (none of the players were willing to discuss the financial terms of the deal), the element of creative control was key; the trio legitimately wanted to pick up some behind-the-camera skills. "The big question in our minds was how to make this more of a holistic, true partnership rather than a transactional one-off approach," says Nathan Ledesma, the director of brand partnerships at Migos' label, Capitol Records. "What does that look like on a multi-month basis across several different campaigns? And how will this help them further take over the culture?"

"We've got great ideas," says Quavo. "Once we start something, it becomes a trend. If they have a new shoe that they aren't sure people are going to rock, they can let us promote it and everyone's gonna rock it because we're the cool kids on the block."

Their contributions have formed what Diehl describes as the "pointy end" of the chain's marketing over the past six months or so. Migos styled and appeared in the company's online lookbooks for the past three seasons, selecting the products and styles that they thought were the most of the moment. "We brought in a whole truckload of product and said, 'Hey, how do you like it?' " Diehl says. "They were literally the stylists and creative directors on the shoots. You'd see them kneeling down and getting the roll of a model's jeans just right."

But more important, they helped conceive and starred in three high-profile TV ads that have rolled out during big sports events including the NBA playoffs. These ads have been a major part of the promotion of "Culture II," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart on Jan. 26. Each spot was scored by a different track from the album, and each tune was touted by an MTV-style chyron indicating the name of the song so that fans could easily seek it out on Spotify or YouTube.

Migos manager Coach K—who, along with Ledesma, has orchestrated similar deals for clients including the rapper Lil Yachty—singles out the second of the spots as particularly potent. Co-starring Caleb McLaughlin, one of the "Stranger Things" kids, it debuted during the NBA's All-Star Game in February, two weeks after "Culture II" dropped. Migos and Finish Line made the spot with Thousands Creative, based in Portland, Oregon.

"When that commercial hit, it was amazing," Coach K says. "It was such an important piece of content for the rollout. It helped a whole lot."

Quavo adds that the broad reach of a television ad helped Migos connect with new fans. "Being on TV, your parents' [generation] will see it, because they aren't on their phones [like younger fans]," he says. Whatever impact the spot had, though, was largely limited to TV viewers who caught it on the air. It's not exactly a viral smash, with just 47,000 YouTube views.

Capitol Records is part of Universal Music Group, the world's biggest record company. Each of the conglomerate's sublabels, which also include Def Jam, Island and Interscope/Geffen/A&M, has a brand manager overseeing similar deals, like Ledesma does for Capitol. But in a sign of how crucial these kinds of partnerships have become in an era of profound transformation in the music industry, Universal has also established Universal Music Group and Brands, which functions like a creative consultancy, helping brands develop strategy around Universal's artists and catalog.

"The idea is to help build out longer-term platforms with brands that help multiple of our artists to gain exposure and get paid and liaise with brands," says UMGB head Mike Tunnicliffe, an ad-world veteran who came to Universal from GroupM, where he was head of marketing and global growth. "We're really trying to develop relationships with brands that go on over years." The group was established in 2014, and has since grown to 25 staffers—a mix of ad-industry vets and music-biz lifers—split between offices in New York and Los Angeles.

One of the bigger ongoing deals UMGB has worked on is with Marriott (other clients include Honda, American Airlines and M&Ms), for which the group revamped the hotel giant's loyalty program.

"We were tasked with helping make the program more appealing to millennial consumers," says Tunnicliffe. "We put in place a program of experiences that money can't buy." Rewards members can, for instance, get access to everything from private performances by artists like James Bay and Gwen Stefani to an invitation to Universal CEO Lucian Grainge's legendary pre-Grammys party. Says Tunnicliffe, "These are amazingly exclusive experiences."

For everyone involved in the Migos deal, the most exciting element (besides, perhaps, the TV ads), happened last December, when Quavo rolled up to his old high school in a white McLaren. He was back at Berkmar High School outside Atlanta, where he had been the starting quarterback before leaving school in his senior year, to surprise every member of the basketball team with a pair of custom Nike LeBron XV sneakers. His Instagram video of the moment, in which he shouts out "the Finish Line way," got millions of views; seemingly every sneaker blog and hip-hop site on the internet picked up the story. It made such an impact that Coach K has since taken meetings with the marketing heads of "at least 10" NFL teams to discuss working with Migos on a similar project, he says.

For Finish Line, it was ultimately the perfect demonstration of the unique reach a hip-hop group as successful and cool as Migos can have.

"Quavo puts the story out on social," Finish Line's Diehl recalls, "and then LeBron tweets it and invites them to come to a game to give him a pair of the shoes.

"Migos helped push us to another level of our evolution," Diehl says. "What it represented was that perfect crossover of hip-hop, sport and sneakers, and we were at the center of it. It just showed us that, 'Wow, we're onto something big with these guys.' "

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