When Refinery29 turned 10, its founders had an idea for an epic birthday celebration: partner with artists, brands and nonprofits to bring the publication to life in 29Rooms. About 10,000 people came to that first event, but more astounding was its social reach: one out of every six Instagram users saw it. Four years later, 29Rooms is a juggernaut that has expanded to five cities, set trends in experiential marketing and cemented Refinery29 as a progressive media brand, both in content and business strategy.
Co-founders and longtime creative partners Piera Gelardi and Christene Barberich are major forces behind the event’s success, and they’re among Adweek’s Creative 100—the most inspiring and innovative people in marketing and media in 2019. Their partnership began 20 years ago at design and fashion magazine CITY, where Barberich was the editor and Gelardi was a photo intern. Now Refinery’s editor in chief and executive creative director, respectively, the duo spoke with Adweek about how they spark creativity in themselves, each another and their staff.
Adweek: How would you describe your creative partnership? When did it begin, how has it evolved, what is the dynamic like?
Christene Barberich: Piera and I have worked together in varying creative capacities for nearly 20 years … I can’t believe it when I say that! We met in the late ’90s when I was the editor of a very special local design and fashion magazine called CITY, and Piera worked in the photo department as an intern. I think the most important and special aspect of our partnership is our admiration and curiosity for each other’s skill sets, and our respective disciplines have really rubbed off on each other as a result; Piera is a wonderful writer now and I’m super passionate about photography and graphic design. If I had to sum it up, I think our creative partnership works because we trust each other and mutually put Refinery29 as a brand ahead of any other personal agenda.
Piera Gelardi: Over the years, our partnership has taken many forms—from the early days where we handcrafted every project together, to now, where, by necessity, we often divide and conquer. As we grow the brand and the business, our respect and shared purpose keep us connected and help us to co-pilot. Ever since we first landed in career cahoots, we’ve always complemented one another creatively and made each other better. No matter what I am working on or where I am in life, Christene will forever be my sounding board and the person I know will add that extra sheen to make an idea truly dazzling.
Why do you think 29Rooms took off the way it did?
Gelardi: I think 29Rooms really struck a chord with people because it helped them to tap into the creativity within themselves. So many events place you into the role of spectator, and 29Rooms puts the audience at the heart of this wondrous, interactive world where they can touch, hear, smell, taste, create and truly be the experience. It opens people up in this beautiful way, and our fans constantly tell us they feel transformed after coming through 29Rooms.
We also saw the event amplified hugely by our fans who use it as a stage to express themselves and share their stories on social. So, even though the first year only had 10,000 physical guests, one in six Instagram users saw content from 29Rooms. People went through 29Rooms and did fashion shoots, shot music videos, took engagement photos, and used the content they captured to talk about everything from body image to LGBTQ+ rights to encouraging their followers to vote. It’s truly a living, breathing expression of the topics we cover on Refinery29, but where the fans become the authors of the content.
29Rooms set a benchmark for experiential marketing and inspired myriad imitators.
There are many activations out there now that seem to be inspired by 29Rooms. How will you keep evolving 29Rooms so that it feels fresh and uniquely yours as a brand?
Gelardi: Anything you create that’s worthwhile will have imitators; that’s a sign that it’s resonating. And over the years, we’ve definitely seen a lot of events popping up that are inspired by 29Rooms. We pioneered this new type of event and with every new show and tour, we will continue to push our boundaries further, aiming to unlock imagination, provoke thought and dare people to dream bigger.
As we continue to evolve, what’s key is staying focused on our intentions and our values of inclusivity, imagination, impact and individuality. There is always more we can do to serve our audience and create truly meaningful moments of connection and discovery for them. I have always found that when we root our creation process in purpose, things continue to expand and we never exhaust our imagination.
This event started as a complete experiment (it’s truly wild that it’s grown to where it has!) so it’s critical that we continue to experiment, explore, and take risks as we wind our way into the future.
What are your methods for sparking a creative culture at Refinery29?
Barberich: From the beginning—and this is what really inspired us to start Refinery29 in the first place—we’ve encouraged everyone to participate, use their voice and feel a sense of freedom in expressing themselves, whether that was through their style or their storytelling. When you continually remind your teams that they operate in a safe space to share and exchange ideas, it cultivates a certain energy that really helps foster creativity and a certain degree of risk-taking. Not every idea turns into something tangible, but it’s the practice that makes it possible for important, culture-defining work to happen.
How do you harness staffers’ ideas for 29Rooms?
Gelardi: 29Rooms was created as the physical manifestation of Refinery29: a space to explore the topics and creative voices that inform our content every day. Our creative process always starts with our own team, tapping into the deep well of knowledge about audience and contemporary culture that lives within our own walls.
We get briefed from our strategy team with audience and cultural insights. We speak with editors to understand what’s resonating with the audience and particularly what interesting trends or pockets of conversation are bubbling up. We host a company-wide Lunch & Learn where we invite folks from all departments to join, to hear about our show theme, have pizza and dream up concepts for 29Rooms together.
Great ideas come from everywhere, regardless of rank or title. It’s our job to set the stage for those ideas to be seen.
This issue is all about creativity. With that in mind, where do you get creative inspiration from? Do you have a practice for generating or capturing ideas?
Gelardi: I think one of the most invigorating things you can do as a creative person is to get outside your comfort zone. So often we’re trying to draw from the same well of inspiration over and over again, and it loses its potency. You have to get new synapses firing and shaking up your brain.
For me, taking classes outside my day-to-day work has been one of the most invigorating sources of creativity. I’ve also seen that being a mom has really stirred up a lot of original thinking. Creativity is all about the unexpected connections that come from nurturing your curiosity and growth as a whole.
In terms of idea generation, I love doing word association, physical warm-ups, speed brainstorms with Post-it notes … really anything that helps bring energy and improvisation and gets out a lot of ideas—the antidote to the anxiety of a blank page. I’m a big believer in generating a high volume of ideas and editing later. Expansiveness before constraints.
I was moved by your Fertility Spectrum project. How did that come together? What has the reader response been?
Barberich: Personally, I have been thinking about this concept of a spectrum for the past four years. My own journey to becoming a parent was long and circuitous, but also incredibly enlightening in that it’s opened my eyes to the degree to which millions of people are dealing with fertility issues. We wanted to introduce new, more intentional language that better frames how unique and individual each of our own paths to parenting, or not [parenting], really are.
Medically, we are told we are either fertile or infertile, and in truth, most of us are somewhere on the spectrum between those two extremes. And, as with anything Refinery29 does really well, we wanted to start a conversation that would help redefine a very limiting and outdated concept while also providing a sense of community with real tools to help readers on their journey. I personally felt so alone on that journey and once I came forward, so many other people did as well. That told us something really important about a critical need for this kind of information and dialogue.
Really, when we choose to take on a topic or issue—whether that’s body image and inclusivity through the 67% Project, or through Unbothered, a celebration of black voices for and by black women—we do it with the intention to shift perception, expose something hidden and help better understand the complexities of women’s lives. And, ultimately, make women feel less alone in those experiences and more hopeful as a result.
View the full Creative 100 gallery for 2019 to discover more about this year’s honorees.