A new media venture powered by Seattle’s burgeoning legal cannabis culture is hard at work on Capitol Hill in a space that was once home to an upstart campaign headquarters and an equally rebellious drag queen-inspired cosmetics company.
Top Tree, a marijuana-focused culture magazine and digital advertising agency, has quietly moved into the overhauled retail space at Pike and Boylston formerly home to the Bernie Sanders campaign’s Seattle headquarters and, before that, Jen’s House of Beauty. Glimpses of the now-bustling office can be seen through the art wrap-coated windows. A new keyless security panel guards the front door that had become a favorite camping spot for people on the street in the months since the campaign workers departed earlier this year.
“It’s definitely changed,” Top Tree director of operations Benito Ybarra tells CHS of the neighborhood he grew up hanging out in. “But to be represented on Capitol Hill and on Pike Street specifically, we’re very proud of that.”
While its office space is secreted away, Top Tree’s presence on Capitol Hill is unmissable. The company has been responsible for the series of large murals on the E Pike wall of Neumos since summer — including a recent edition featuring Mariner great and Seattle icon Ken Griffey Jr. Meanwhile, stacks of the free zine-sized publication with day glo colors, a healthy selection of local advertising, and trippy cover imagery can be found in cafes and shops across the neighborhood and beyond.
“I always believed in being physically real for people,” Ybarra said.
— Harry Wanger (@HarryWanger) October 8, 2016
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The media venture is cut from the new cloth of advertising-forward, full-service business relationships with the industry and culture it covers. “Top Tree Agency is focused on bringing top shelf content and fresh branding to businesses in the recreational cannabis market,” its site expounds. The corporation is owned by Texan Jonathan Lepow, listed as its “Officer,Partner,President,Chairman” in state records.
The entrepreneur tells CHS he came to work with a group of Seattleites on a pot magazine and media company thanks to his little brother’s connections and immersion in Seattle culture. Layne Schmerin arrived in the city to work on social media for Macklemore and eventually convinced his Houston-based older brother — “I know you personally appreciate the industry,” Lepow recalls from business pitch — to get in on the booming legal cannabis industry.
Ybarra and Lepow previously worked to build another weed infused periodical, PDA Magazine, and the Belltown clinic at its core with marijuana-focused entrepreneur Joshua Berman. Ybarra said the PDA clinic was a trailblazer in medical marijuana but got left behind in the green rush of I-502. “We weren’t lucky enough,” the tells CHS. “Opening a store would have been our primary goal.”
Instead Ybarra, Lepow and a team of around a dozen designers, artists, and producers find themselves on a higher mission.
“There are limitations to what marijuana companies can say or do,” Ybarra said. “People need creative ways to get the word, get their brands out.” Ybarra said Top Tree’s vision is to also help guide the industry to do things the right way and strive for the diversity and philosophical approach he says was more prevalent before the medical marijuana community was reformed and transitioned to mix into I-502’s retail framework.
“It’s important to have our voice heard and make sure there is some authenticity,” Ybarra said.
In addition to boasting of “80,000 weekly eyes on our mural,” Top Tree promises advertisers access to 50,000 email newsletter subscribers, attracts a reported “500,000 impressions” on its website per month, and distributes 15,000 copies of its monthly magazine, many lodged inside copies of Capitol Hill-headquartered The Stranger.
Top Tree is producing some interesting writing from area pros including Mike Ramos, a freelancer and DJ whose work has also appeared in the Seattle Times. Here’s his take on “Seattle artist/producer/visionary” Tay Sean in an interview “on life, music, marijuana, mushroom microdoses and his anticipated solo debut ‘Leavings'” —
Tay Sean turned up recently in Capitol Hill — just a few blocks away from the former home of Pine Street’s Capitol Club, once home to a weekly kickback called Jet Set. If you want to get historical about it, it was the unofficial hub of Seattle’s then-emerging next generation of hip-hop (dubbed the “third wave” of local rap by the Stranger’s Charles Mudede).
On any given week you could find members and supporters of almost every active hip-hop group or act under one roof, and Tay was right in the thick of it — rapping and producing in collaborative fashion with his Cloud Nice collective and his group Helladope.
“It kinda had a different energy back then. It was still the MySpace era,” he said on the topic.
Other recent pieces include a visit to “Bellevue’s elite recreational retailer” Green Theory and a “high-art nail salon event” held at E Pike’s LoveCityLove. Along with the text and pictures, the site also features music and video productions.
Lepow agrees the Top Tree model mixing content and advertising is the future of media. “In order to be able to do authentic journalism, we’ve got to make sure that the revenue sources add up correctly,” Lepow said.
Top Tree joins the Stranger as media entities adding to the demand for Pike/Pine office space among tech firms, design companies, and advertising and marketing concerns. Capitol Hill super developer Liz Dunn famously opted to focus on office space instead of more apartments in the creation of her latest project, Chophouse Row. The next big project in the neighborhood, meanwhile, will also bring more office development to Pike/Pine as the 11th Ave Value Village site is lined up to be transformed into a new office and retail project. Changes to that same project — forced when one of the buildings it would have mostly demolished was granted landmark protection — convinced Stranger management to end their search for a new home for the media company and stick around at 11th and Pine through at least 2020.
There is no word on the duration of Top Tree’s lease but, despite his Texas address, Lepow seems heavily invested in the city’s cannabis future.
“Washington State has an advantage in this industry in so many ways,” Lepow said. “From the head start to the climate… there’s no reason why all the Washington and Seattle based producers and processors can’t group together to create a Napa of Cannabis.”
With Top Tree’s palm tree imagery, we’re assuming the rest of the crew was thinking something a bit more tropical than Northern California, but we get the drift.
Top Tree is located at 617 E Pike. You can learn more at toptree.media.