But she had misunderstood the ad: It wasn’t for an acting role, exactly. The job was to be a “brand ambassador” at marketing events. And it paid, in her words, “extremely, extremely decently.”
Malone, 27, had stumbled into a thriving industry that seemed ideal for people like her: the world of experiential marketing, which aims to create emotional connections between people and brands through real-life interactions. These happenings rely on temporary workers who function as something between event staff and human billboard.
Called brand ambassadors, or BAs, they’re the smiling (and suspiciously attractive) people greeting visitors at product launches, handing out free samples at music festivals, signing in guests to fashion shows, or appearing out of nowhere to chat whenever a long line forms, making sure people don’t get bored.
New York City’s role as a center of both theater and marketing has resulted in a convenient pool of professionally charming brand ambassadors. And with brands and marketers now producing lavish, over-the-top events akin to full theatrical productions, the line separating the two is starting to blur a bit.
“Brand ambassador work is the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Sean Hankinson, a 30-something from Tucson, Arizona, who has appeared in the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” and toured the country in the off-Broadway production “Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man.”
Hankinson was an apprentice at an off-Broadway theater in 2016 when he met a recruiter who said he’d make a great BA Like Malone, he’d been struggling to find good day-to-day work that could accommodate last-minute auditions and gigs. Up to that point, he had supported himself by working as a personal assistant, and cleaning or picking up laundry through an on-demand errand app called Hello Alfred.
He signed with a staffing agency and found himself in Times Square, handing out fliers for $20 an hour. “It’s soul-crushing, and you think, Everyone hates me,” said Hankinson. “But I kept doing it because the recruiter had told me if I kept at it, I would start getting better gigs.”
He eventually graduated to costume-character jobs, like dressing as a mummy ($75 per hour) or being the wrangler who keeps rambunctious children from hurling themselves at other costumed characters ($50 an hour). For one job, Hankinson wore NFL-branded clothing and chatted up guests on the rooftop of a Midtown hotel, earning $700 for just an hour of work.
Hankinson books his work through Mustard Lane, one of many BA staffing and production companies that have cropped up to service “brand activations,” as such events are called. (Nearly every brand ambassador at Mustard Lane is a professional actor or performer, according to the agency’s founder, Kristal Mallookis.) Adam Hollander, who founded his company early enough to snag the name Brand Ambassadors, estimates that since his agency started 20 years ago, more than 30 other BA agencies have opened in New York City.
The rise of social media has vaulted event marketing — what is now called experiential marketing — from an afterthought to a top priority for brands. And according to Stephen Papageorge, president of the creative agency the Loveshack, spending has followed suit.
Part of this is owed to the success of “Sleep No More,” a free-form immersive theater production that opened in New York in 2011. Audience members were sent wandering through a former hotel, stumbling upon scenes and interacting with performers. It was a hit, and kicked off a craze for all things immersive, both in theater and in marketing.
By 2015, Papageorge’s previous agency, Mirrorball, was creating elaborate productions like Motel No. 7, an event for Jack Daniels strongly influenced by “Sleep No More.” It also had a budget, Papageorge said, “in the many millions of dollars.” The immersive motel-themed party featured more than 100 actors, including bellhops who sent guests on mysterious errands and a bachelorette party that sang karaoke all night. After kicking off in Brooklyn it toured the country like a Broadway production.
It also paid on par with one. Jesse Patch, a producer for the event (and a former theater major), said that to ensure Broadway-caliber talent, he paid Broadway-level rates — at the time, $1,750 per week or higher.
Mayte Natalio, a dancer from Queens who has toured with artists like Kanye West, and used to support herself by teaching dance and leading 6:30 a.m. fitness classes, heard about one of Patch’s events through her agent. She was cast in Bazaar Noire, a touring event for the beer brand Dos Equis. She played “a vendor in this crazy street bazaar, trying to make people eat these weird foods.”
She estimates that sponsored brand events now amount to a quarter of her income. She even started an immersive event company called Minute Zero with five fellow performers. “There are very few artists these days who can afford to just do one thing,” she said.
Like any job, being a brand ambassador has its downsides. “Giving out free things brings out the ugly in people,” said Hankinson, the onetime mummy. “When you’re standing in the park handing out free Popsicles, you experience the most manipulative, lying, negative side of people. And you have to be able to keep smiling and laugh it off. Even when you’re like, Ugh, I know you’re not really allergic to strawberry because, Honey, I just saw you go over there and eat the strawberry Popsicle, then come back and ask for a coconut one.”
He also noted that lately, as more staffing agencies have cropped up, he’s been approached to do the same kind of work that pays $30 to $50 at his current agency, but for $16 per hour instead.
Malone, for her part, worries that her BA gigs are becoming less accommodating. One agency she works with has begun requiring commitments of up to five days at a time, making it harder to schedule last-minute auditions.
For now, she feels upbeat about the future. In March, she performed in a play about Harriet Tubman. In April, she landed a small role in an Amazon docuseries. “They put us all up in such a fancy hotel,” she said. And the past few months, she’s been working as a BA at a Dolby audio “pop-up experience” in SoHo.
Hankinson, on the other hand, recently relocated to Atlanta, drawn by the boom in film and TV production there. But he is always ready to return to New York for work: his BA gigs certainly beat working in restaurants, he said, and still pay so well that he finds them hard to turn down. At least for now.
“You don’t want to be a waiter when you’re 45,” Hankinson said. “I don’t know if you want to do BA work either, but you could.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.