Issa Rae's Ensemble Connects Brands and BIPOC Creators

We chatted with company president Ian Schafer

Issa Rae is helping underrepresented creators reach their full potential in the brand space via Ensemble, an entertainment company she co-founded with Ian Schafer and Matt Berger. The former is well-known in the ad world as the founder and original CEO of Deep Focus, while Berger held posts at Barstool Sports and Bleacher Reports' House of Highlights.

While Rae is a major star and the mogul behind production house Hoorae Media, management company ColorCreative and the music-focused Raedio, "Issa, lest we forget, got her start by making content on YouTube," says Schafer, who serves as Ensemble's president.

In 2011, Rae created and headlined the breakthrough YT comedy series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. A showcase for her talent and creativity, the show launched Rae into Hollywood, where she landed a deal with HBO to develop and star in Insecure.

"So, by definition, modern definition, she is and was a creator. She was a digital creator and is now a multi-platform creator—but a creator nonetheless," Schafer says.

Through Ensemble, Rae is providing more than 50 creators from multiple platforms with the tools and resources, including mentorship and production support, that they need to work with marketers, publishers and platforms to make content that cements brands in popular culture.

Schafer stresses that Ensemble is a branded entertainment venture. "It's not a creator agency. We don't manage or represent the talent individually," he says.

@leogonzall #PopeyesPartner Never stressing over a potluck again thanks to the new Honey Lemon Pepper Wings at @Popeyes #popeyes ♬ original sound - Leo González

Currently, Ensemble works with creators including Drew Afualo, Leo González, Mark Phillips, Dallas Turner and Jesus Zapien.

"Issa has curated this group," Schafer says. "So, we do not work with creators that haven't passed muster. This is someone who's not only great now, but is capable of doing so much more."

Ensemble is championing BIPOC talent because they face more barriers to brand deals that their white counterparts. Schafer cites a 2023 study by MSL revealing that white creators are twice as likely as their BIPOC counterparts to land sponsorship in their first six months as influencers.

There is also the issue of marginalization. "We know that creators from underrepresented communities tend to receive a disproportionate number of brand briefs around specific months like Pride Month or Black History Month," Schafer says.

Yet, he notes, "Creators from underrepresented communities are often, especially in 2024, creating content that's shaping the pop culture narrative as opposed to reacting to the pop culture narrative. Their content is, most notably, for general audiences."

So far, Ensemble has fostered connections and collaborations between its federation of creators and brands including Chili's, Popeyes and Pepsi, with an eye toward creating long-term partnerships.

"The creator economy has typically worked more transactional," Schafer says, "and we're more relationship driven."

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