Inside Sanctuary LDN, UK Rap’s New In-Demand Creative Agency 💫

Words: Ajay Rose

There’s an argument to be made that billboard advertisements are best used to generate a buzz around an upcoming release. Back in 2017, Stormzy plastered billboards around London with the album’s title, ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ shortened to ‘GSAP’, leaving fans guessing what ‘GSAP’ stood for. It generated plenty of pre-release attention and those billboards served their purpose. Social media advertising is effective in helping an artist’s work reach a wider audience, as paid advertisements and collaborations with TikTok creators can help broaden a song or album’s appeal. But how do you serve an artist’s core fanbase once a new record is released? In today’s world, that challenge is becoming increasingly difficult, as the focus around marketing in music, perhaps understandably so, is quantity over quality.

Sanctuary LDN—a creative agency founded by Esinam Akpalu-Mark, also known as Esi—are taking a fresh approach to marketing, one which puts loyal supporters at the heart of any campaign they create. Sanctuary LDN began as an events company six years ago but has recently evolved into a creative agency that has worked with a range of artists, including Potter Payper, Burna Boy, D-Block Europe, Central Cee, M Huncho, Digga D and Nafe Smallz. Powered by their successful pop-up shops (among other things), Sanctuary LDN have worked on four Top 5-charting campaigns in under a year, and they’re only just getting started.

Their marketing campaigns target that sweet spot of helping artists secure physical album sales while providing fans with an enriching and memorable experience. If 250 people buy an artist’s album upfront at a pop-up shop run by Sanctuary LDN, that’s the same as that album getting 250,000 streams, using the industry ratio of 1000 streams = one album sale. Therefore, finding a way to get fans to purchase albums upfront is like gold dust in today’s streaming era. Having worked in the music industry for nine years with brands including Link Up TV, Westside Radio, No Signal, Chelsea and Adidas, Esi is a veteran radio presenter and DJ whose know-how and experience has helped smoothen the transition into turning Sanctuary LDN into a fast-growing creative agency.

TRENCH caught up with Esi for the full lowdown.

TRENCH: You have worked in music for almost a decade now, but let’s throw things back to where it all began for you and your entry point to the industry.

Esi: Link Up TV was how I first got into the industry, as I wanted to be a music writer at first. I used to love J. Cole when I was in college and I used to go on J. Cole blogs and forums, so that made me want to become a writer. Then, my very good friend at uni, who lived in my student halls, her brother is [Link Up TV video director] Ade OG. I told her I really wanted to write for Link Up and I was able to have a meeting with Ade in their old office. Things just grew from there, really.

How did you transition from being a writer at Link Up TV to having your own show on Westside Radio?

Whilst I was at uni, I used to sell tickets for events, but I was never a DJ back then. I held my first Sanctuary show after uni, we had Big Tobz perform, as well as some spoken-word artists and we ran games too. At the same time, I wanted to be on radio and our first show was on Climax radio. Then, I went to the Westside studio with another DJ and I told them I wanted a show. The station management at Westside asked me to do a demo and, obviously, I’d never done one before, so I was at home with my iPhone headphones just chatting into the mic—but they invited me in. So radio and Sanctuary happened at the same time, back when I was around 21. I’ve been on Westside for about five years and been doing Sanctuary for six years.

You’ve now got a show on No Signal called ‘SL Radio’. How did that opportunity come about?

No Signal is run by Jojo and his brother, and I’ve known Jojo since I was in uni. Last year, in lockdown, they were doing radio broadcasts and he asked if I wanted to do a one-off show and I was like, “Yeah! Sure.” So me and Suave pre-recorded all of our mixes and stuff and then he asked me if I wanted a permanent show. So now we’ve got SL Radio, which is Sanctuary LDN's show, which happens every other Wednesday of the month. Then they did a house party for Wray & Nephews last summer and I DJ’ed there, which was sick, and I DJ’ed at their Recess party as well. I feel like radio is definitely something you do out of love. With certain career paths, you know you can progress if you get this degree or that qualification, but with radio, and even music in general, nothing’s guaranteed—you have to keep working. And obviously, radio is free, unless you’re at a certain point.

That’s very true. I think it’s worth diving into the mindset you have to have to pursue a career in music because, as you said, it can often involve a lot of free work whilst you build your name, which can be tough. How have you managed to overcome that challenge?

With events, it was harder. With radio, I feel like you’re going to get where you’re going to get to, eventually. Nowadays, when I get setbacks and maybe don’t get certain opportunities, I can say “Oh, it’s fine, because when I’m ready for it to happen, it will happen.” But with events, it’s harder. You think, “All I need is 100 people to come, £10 a ticket and I’ve made this much money.” And then only 12 people come, and you’re like: “Oh my days! I’ve spent all this money on marketing and this and that.” Sometimes it just doesn’t bang, and that part is difficult. Even with some of the shows we’ve done, we’ve all taken financial losses over the course of doing Sanctuary. If you chat to any promoter, they will tell you there was always a certain point when they started making money from events. Everyone’s had an event where nobody’s turned up, but then they’ll have another event and it’s packed. But I learnt to get over that, eventually. Maybe in, like, my third or fourth year of doing events, I was like, “If no one comes, no one comes. We move!”

How long did it take you to reach a point where you actually got to work with artists you wanted to work with?

I wanted to work in music so badly, and I wanted to work with Black music in particular, but I never got those jobs. So I’d always do random admin or marketing jobs, or I’d work for The Jazz Festival—which, of course, is still Black music, but I wanted to work in rap. So I was still in the music industry, but I never got to work with the singers or rappers I wanted to actually work with. The last job I had was working for a management company and booking agency, and they did have a rap roster, but it was small. So even with that, I felt like I was fully in the industry, but at the same time, I’m not. Getting turned down from jobs in my early 20s, that used to be the worst! I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do creatively, but I had to make money. It’s like you want to do radio and events, but how are you going to pay for it without a job? I hated a lot of the jobs I had. In hindsight, if I got those jobs, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Working in a management company, I probably still have traits of working in music on a corporate level—it taught me about different practices, processes, how to talk to agents and how to talk to brands, so it was beneficial.

Sanctuary LDN began as an events company—how did you manage to grow your team from a brand you just started into the machine we see today?

At first it was just me, and then Abbi joined. She was studying music business at the time, then like a year in, she asked to help. I just kind of dragged my brother, Enam, in as well, then it became us three. He’s got nothing to do with music, but I dragged him in, and he’s been very integral to the journey. Me and Abbi are now business partners, and we have a wider team. Right now, on the team, we’ve got Selecta Suave, who’s been involved from early on. Anna-Marie, who’s a presenter as well and currently runs her own skincare company, she left Sanctuary last year to focus on her company and her show, but we love her and she’s still close to the team. And then we have Nathalie, who does all of the financial stuff. After we became an agency, she started implementing invoice techniques and all of this stuff—she’s just sick! Then there’s Natalia; she sent me an email with her CV last October and I had a phone call with her and was like, “Yep! Perfect. We need you.” The first events she worked on were for DBE and M Huncho, back-to-back. She’s got a job at a major label now, but I’m not letting her go! Then there’s also Ropa and Chris, who do all of our visuals.

How did you go from putting on events to transitioning into a marketing agency? Talk about the first marketing campaign you did for Sanctuary LDN and how that came to fruition.

It was Burna Boy’s Twice As Tall album launch in August 2020. We pitched for that and we got it. With that one, we did the creative side, so the drive-through event was already taking place, but we handled the creative. We had a 3D boot, a 3D fist, we had a comic book theme and we created fly-posters, we made custom stamps, and then after that, we invited some people down who worked with other artists. Following that event, we had conversations about doing M Huncho and Nafe Smallz’s campaign in October, and at the same time we were discussing Potter Payper’s campaign. After that first one with Burna Boy, we haven’t had to pitch—people have come to us—but we’re going to start pitching again because there are some artists I really want to work with.

The pop-up shop for Potter Payper’s Training Day 3 mixtape was a big success.

Potter was actually the first pop-up shop we did. That was going to be an exhibition at first. We found this spot where the floor was a screen, and we were going to have a burnt-out car in the middle, but then there was a new lockdown rule introduced so we couldn’t use that space and the only thing that wasn’t closed at that point, was shops, so we found a shop. We rented a shop in Chelsea, and this was turned over in the space of a week because we had to react fast to the new lockdown rule. Inside, we recreated the project’s vibe, things like money, chains, cassette tapes, tyres. Then we had a ‘Dear Mover’ corner, where fans can write letters to Mover, then we had a photo corner, we had money hanging from the ceilings, merch—it was sick!

Given that it was the first time you’d run a pop-up shop, how did you handle the sense of uncertainty that may have come with branching into new territory?

At the store, there was a strong focus on sales. On social, things might look great, but there’s no point in doing something if the sales aren’t there. So it was important for us to focus on making sure he sold a good amount to reflect his worth. With Potter’s fanbase, with the old-school rap fanbase, they’re going to buy physicals and they're very loyal. I know what it’s like to be a fan; I used to queue up at like 8am to buy J. Cole tickets, so I know the lengths they’d go to. So I thought like a fan; if I was a fan, what would it take for me to engage with my favourite artist? This is why Potter was one of the best ones we did, and it was one of the first times I got to work with an artist whose music I fuck with a lot—it was easier to put together because I’m actually a Potter fan. He’s got a song called “Purple Rain”, so we had purple notes coming from the ceiling; small things like that go a long way. We had merch on offer, a place for people to take Polaroid’s with Potter, a corner for people to buy all three of Potter’s Training Day mixtapes, as well as Mover’s mixtape, and then a space for fans to personally interact with Potter himself. He was taking pictures with people, chatting with them, doing videos. Some people were like, “I’ve come from Cardiff to be here,” so I knew it was going to be a great event.

You then worked on M Huncho and Nafe Smallz’s campaign for DNA. How do things differ when you work with a record label compared to working with an independent artist like Potter?

When a company or label is involved, things are sometimes more stressful. Not necessarily because the job is more stressful, but because there are more cooks in the kitchen. With Nafe and DBE, we had the same connect and he is so sick. He rang me and was like, “Esi, can you do what you did for Potter, and do it for D-Block Europe next week?” So we only had like a week to actually turn it around. With Potter, Nafe and DBE, it was nice. The only stress was ordering stuff, the suppliers, and figuring out the creative side. There are pros and cons to working with independent artists and artists signed to labels. Obviously, the labels have more money, so it’s easier to say something like, “Security is going to cost this much” or “I need this much just to buy bags.” Even with DBE, we ran out of bags—we ordered like 600 bags and we had to buy some bags off a corner shop in central London.

How much of a focus is there on sales at the pop-up shops you’ve put together?

We track their chart positions before and after the activation. I think, for D-Block Europe, their chart position for The Blueprint: Us vs Them was No. 5 before we started, but after we did the two pop-ups, they went up to No. 3, so we know that this isn’t for fun and games. I was surprised because I wasn’t sure if a younger fan would buy a CD, because what are they going to do with it? But they’re super-fans of these artists, so they did. It was sick. DBE had more merch than Potter, so fans were like, “I want to get my CD, my lighter, my gaming skins—I want to get everything!” It wasn’t as hard of a sell that I thought it would be. But in terms of working with those guys and their teams, it was fun and I want to do it again.

More recently, you worked on Central Cee’s Wild West mixtape campaign, which charted at No. 3 in the UK Albums Chart. What was that like for you?

We did a takeover with Chicken Kitchen because, obviously, Cench is from [Shepherds] Bush, so we did a custom menu, goodie bags, window stickers… It was just nice to have everyone in his hood come and get free food. It wasn’t too stressful either, and because it was so local—he’s from West, I’m from West—it was just a good time all round. He’s a lovely guy to work with.

When an artist comes to you and wants to use Sanctuary LDN, how do you take things from initial consultation through to finished campaign?

We’ve really refined the way we work now, which is good. That’s why I feel really lucky that we were able to do Potter first because we worked so closely with the team. The way his team works is if something goes wrong, just fix it—it is what it is! You can’t cry, you just have to fix it. So when the venue fell through, they were like, “It’s fine! Just find another one.” So that taught us a lot about stress management and doing two events in one month. Some of the stuff we had to consider is things like security, waste, public liability, staff, food for staff, ordering stuff, storage. Because we’ve done events, and I know how to do events, I just applied the same principles. When I’m doing a rave, I look at everything—sound in the venue, where the speakers are, where the DJ booth is, how will it look on pictures, where the bar is, if the toilets are nice, where people queue—all these things you look at for events, you just apply to doing a pop-up shop. Budget is another one. We can work with literally any budget. If someone wants to get in touch with us, it’s a case of emailing one of us. I’ve learned a lot in the past six months since we became an agency, and one of those things is not giving away our ideas over Zoom. So it’s always good to get someone’s budget from the beginning and work out if they have any creative ideas or they want us to come up with the creative, finding the best ways of working.

1,000 streams is the equivalent of one album sale, so the value of getting multiple physical sales is critical in today’s world of streaming. What kind of album sale numbers have you been able to achieve with the campaigns you’ve run?

I think we can do close to 1k CD sales a day. I know I said sales is important from the management or label point of view, but I think the reason why the pop-ups were so successful is because we were looking at it from a fan point of view, so it wasn’t just a case of there being loads of CDs on a shelf like HMV because that’s dry [laughs]. We thought of things like, “What would a D-Block Europe super-fan want to see?” So we had a branded DJ booth, we got merch, we got the lyrics printed, blown up artwork, mirrors with writing on it, they’ve signed everything. It all goes hand-in-hand. If you’ve got a sick experience for the fans, they’re going to buy the CD. In the grand scheme of their career, DBEk have done sick things, but a DBE fan is going to be like, “I went to their pop-up shop, I hugged LB, I hugged Adz, I got my picture, and I got my CD signed.” We look at it from the fan point of view, but of course, management and labels are always going to look at the numbers. There are some people who’ve been to every pop-up shop they’ve done; a lot of these fans would’ve bought CDs anyway, even without the pop-up shop, but because there’s that interaction with the artist, it’s different.

How do you judge the success of a marketing campaign? What metrics are important to Sanctuary LDN, besides sales?

It’s definitely the fan engagement. When I see people crying in the queue, I’m talking to my team and telling them, “Guys! That used to be me.” We help a lot with sales; we’ve seen how much artists move chart positions when comparing pre-pop-up shop numbers to post-pop-up shop numbers. But, even if they didn’t do mad numbers, there are people who’ve come from far to see these artists. At Huncho and Nafe Smallz’s shop, there was a boy who was by himself, then some other people said, “This guy is young and he’s here by himself. Can he jump the queue?” We were like, “Yeah, sure thing.” We brought him in and it was so cute. Even if we don’t sell one CD, reactions like his make it worth it… He was so gassed [laughs]. Huncho and Nafe were so nice as well; Huncho would talk for hours, and it was really great to see his interaction with fans. Having been on radio for so long, you know that artists don’t really care about doing 20 interviews in a day, but when you see them with their fans, and they’re so grateful, and the fans are so grateful—for me, that’s a success.

What does the future hold for yourself and for Sanctuary LDN?

I want to produce more live shows, for sure. Sanctuary is going to get back into events soon. I just want to work with brands, artists, YouTubers, smaller artists, whoever. We’re going to diversify; being able to employ more creatives is important, and being able to give someone their first job in music is very important. A personal goal would be getting on national radio. I think it’s very important to work with artists in a caring way, not just saying, “You’re popping. I want to work with you and take all of the benefits.” I’m very grateful we’re able to work with the artists we’ve been able to work with.

Posted on May 06, 2021