Jay-Z’s record label-turned-sports agency, Roc Nation, has been growing its marketing offer with a range of high-profile athletes. Now it is coming to Europe to target the World’s favourite sport, soccer. Here’s how it's going to work.

Michael Yormark cut a strange figure in the genteel surroundings of St John’s Wood. The man was a coiled spring, all sinewy energy in a sharp plaid suit, strutting along the left flank of the conference room. Next to me, a chatty German man called Sacha who had a tendency to start clapping at the drop of a hat, gazed up at Yormark’s tough swagger with a look of unreserved wonder. Here was a man who meant it when he said he’s “done so many deals”. Sacha would have got his chequebook out, then and there.

We were in Lord’s Cricket Ground, whose sleek mixture of tradition and modernity framed the subject of the meeting nicely. Attendees were here to talk about the business of sport, and specifically how it related to brands.

But Roc Nation, where Yormark is President & Chief of Brand & Strategy, did not begin in this space: most people know it as a record label representing not only the founder, Jay-Z, but also the likes of Rihanna, Shakira, DJ Khaled, and J. Cole to name but a few. With such names in its roster, the company is able to put together a compelling offer to brands. Its clients are, as Yormark puts it, “premium, exclusive, superstars.” 

Then in 2013, Roc Nation barged its way into the world of American sport, representing athletes. Now its ambitions are outgrowing the US, and the company is training its crosshairs on the world’s favourite sport, the one Americans call soccer, but almost everybody else knows as football. It will open an office in London in January 2019, says Yormark, to focus on football. He will personally be in charge of its expansion into the sport. Sacha whooped.

Roc Nation’s foray into football began back in 2015, when it announced that it would begin representing the flamboyantly dressed Bayern Munich and German international defender Jerome Boateng.

In April 2018, the firm made a second signing with Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku – starting centre-forward at probably the biggest club in the biggest league in world football – apologies for parroting the pundits. Yormark calls him “Rome”. He also calls football “football”. The new signing brought into view a model of a sports agency that wasn’t just about PR or brokering deals; its aims are far more strategic.

Roc Nation’s advisory goes both ways. Its strategic advice is not only for the athlete or artist but also for the brands with whom they work. Its marketing component, as one Washington Post piece puts it, is “high end”, and it has a family feel. But is it more than just a sports agency with an extremely famous CEO?

Arguably, the offer is a pretty traditional: get superstar athletes and brands together to do stuff. Its selling point, however, is the exclusivity of its stars, one that has an uncanny relationship to the stories that got them there.

In Lukaku’s case, Roc Nation’s first act was to get the athlete’s story out there. A major interview with the Players’ Tribune resulted in the piece I’ve got some things to say, which tells the story of his family’s grinding poverty when he was little, the racism that he endured on the pitch, the intensity with which it made him fight to become a professional. It is, in a nutshell, why brands align themselves with athletes: they’re more than role models. Part of Roc Nation’s brief is to make them icons.

For more insights on how Roc Nation is entering the football space, read WARC’s in-depth report: Jay-Z’s Roc Nation tackles soccer.