Three years ago I made a fairly unorthodox career transition; moving from booking bands and DJs to building learning and education programs (amongst a couple of other things).
Those who know me are probably aware I like to look at seemingly disparate disciplines and explore the connections between them. I like it so much I run a podcast series on it.
But other than the obvious and slightly contrived lines of DJs ‘telling a story’ and ‘taking a crowd on a journey’, I hadn’t really seen any parallels between these two paths – until now.
A couple of weeks ago I had breakfast with the founders of a company running professional development courses with a number of prominent brands and corporations.
As it was our first time meeting they asked me to tell them my story. When I mentioned my background in music, and specifically electronic music, one of them lit up with interest.
He’d lived in Germany for a while and had arrived there with a deep loathing of electronic music. A year or so later and he found himself a huge house and techno fan.
I asked what caused the change.
As he explained we looked at each other and realised we were thinking the same thing. (And no, not drugs).
One of the main things we loved about electronic music was what we loved about facilitating and teaching.
Placing and Pacing
One of the albums that shaped me in my teens was the Sasha Global Underground San Francisco compilation. I’d try and copy the mixing style; these gradual transitions from one track to another, perfectly EQ’d and aligned in key. I didn’t make a great job of it.
I remember reading a comment Sasha made in the liner notes  on his move from smaller clubs to playing both longer sets and at bigger venues. The main shift was having to place the big records really carefully and pacing the set based on lots of variables that changed each time and weren’t that predictable.
I’ve noticed the same thing when building a course or running a series of activities with a group of people.
The hard stuff isn’t necessarily knowing the material itself. This in itself isn’t easy, but it’s a baseline. 
The hard stuff is allowing space.
Being able to pace it right.
Drawing attention to that one specific thing you want people to notice, even if it seems small or inconsequential.
Making smooth transitions from one to another.
Reading an audience, and connecting with one that looks like it couldn’t care less.
Bringing in heavier or more leftfield material at the right time.
Knowing when to freestyle and when to stick to the plan.
Making the choice to cut your losses and move on.
Knowing what to do when you’re running out of time and the flow’s starting to ebb.
Dealing with technical problems when they inevitably happen.
Having a solid backup plan when you get caught out.
Picking up the baton and then handing it off.
They said DJs were the new rockstars.
Then they said they were the new celebrities.
I wonder if teachers may be next. And not just school teachers, but anyone out there who’s sharing knowledge and connecting and empowering people to learn and level up.
Does this sound grandiose? Maybe.
But aside from the shared skill sets, it’s worth looking at the second and third order effects of the rising profile of DJs and electronic music.
Just like only the top 0.1% of DJs headline festivals, a whole new generation of passionate and talented people can now build their skills and hone their craft through a creator ecosystem powered by tools like Mixcloud, Splice, Soundcloud and Ableton.
I believe we’ll see the same for teachers, knowledge sharers, facilitators and connectors.
And just as electronic music has evolved, grown and accelerated with a plethora of internet-driven tools, services and communities built to support its ecosystem, a similarly huge opportunity is going to appear for the new generation creating and delivering lifelong learning for passionate people around the world.
It’s really exciting.
Time to get in the mix.
 These were great pieces of work in their own right; really visceral and colourful, and just a touch pretentious of course. Most of them were written by a journalist called Dom Phillips.
 Great DJs are able to make average material good, good material great, and great material…blow your socks off. Carl Cox has long been a master at this, taking seemingly average techno tracks and somehow making them sound incredible.
If you’ve spent any time around the startup space in the last few years you’ve probably come across a raft of advisors and mentors.
Many of them are highly capable and experienced people who can help founders and their businesses enormously.
There are also some who, whilst very much in it for the right reasons, misunderstand the value they bring and what the person at the other end of the dialogue really needs.
In fact, there are so many people now out there with Advisor or Mentor on their resume that these descriptors are in danger of becoming the new Growth Hacker or Consultant, where their original meaning becomes bastardised and the practice itself risks becoming somewhat devalued, tainted and commoditised.
Meanwhile, as the Counsellor and Consigliere, like the original advisors and mentors from ancient Greece, have been around for centuries, other roles have emerged in recent years.
For example, executive and life coaching has experienced considerable de-stigmatisation and a rapid growth in popularity. Whilst there are a number of accredited programs to becoming qualified there’s nothing really stopping anyone calling themselves a coach. Aside from the debate on how important accreditations are in this area, a risk is present that where many rush in the understanding of what these practices really mean becomes lost.
When you’re looking for professional guidance this opens up the questions of knowing what you need and why you need it.
These 4 roles of Advisor, Mentor, Coach and Counsel are more than just semantics or trendy titles to buff up a LinkedIn profile – there are clear distinctions.
Here’s a brief overview of my understanding of each one to help you think about making the choice that suits you best.
Advisor: the subject matter expert
A lot of companies have advisory boards. Take a look at any good advisory board (note: this is not the same as a board of directors) and it’ll include a raft of subject matter experts. For example, a biotech startup will likely have senior biologists on the advisory board, and an ad tech platform may have a former Google Adwords exec involved as an advisor.
An advisor provides advice – they say what they think about the subject at hand.
Mentor: the footsteps to follow
I’ve written about mentoring a few times before. Contrary to some advice (ahem…), mentors don’t need to come from your industry, they don’t need to be older than you, and you can have more than one.
Whilst dictionary definitions vary, I believe what’s most important is they have trodden a path that follows a similar direction to the one you’re taking, and they’ve encountered some of those same hurdles and challenges first hand.
I like to think of mentors as a sherpa or a guide, shining light on the path or paths that can be traveled, but the person being mentored chooses and decides on the direction they want to take.
Coach: getting the best out of people
When you think of the word ‘coach’ you probably first think of sports. What do the best sports coaches have in common? Simply, they’re excellent at getting the best from the people they’re working with. How they do that can vary hugely but the end result is the same – they enable people to unlock and fulfil their potential and produce their best performances on a consistent basis.
A coach doesn’t need to be a subject matter expert nor have left the footsteps to follow. This may sound counter-intuitive but many of the most successful coaches weren’t great players. Some didn’t even play professionally and so aren’t true subject matter experts in that respect.
Great coaches tend to have the ability to lead, to visualise a positive future, and to strategise how to get their charges to realise that future.
Counsel: helping to work out what you’re thinking
What’s the difference between providing advice and counsel? Advice is saying what you think. Counsel is helping to work out what the other person is thinking. It’s an important distinction.
Counsellors often tend to be either lawyers or mental health practitioners.
Good advisors, mentors and coaches will also be adept at helping to work out what you’re thinking, but be mindful of their credentials if a problem is more deep rooted.
They should be able to admit where they’ve reached the edge of their circle of competence and refer you to a specialised counsellor (whether for legal, mental or another kind of assistance).
Some people are able to confidently straddle more than one of these four functions, but generally it’s best not to automatically expect your advisory board member to be brilliant at getting the best from your team, nor a mentor to be an expert in your field.
Take some time to first understand why you’re looking for help and the outcomes you seek.
From there it should become clear which specialism you require. Then it’s about finding the person who’s right for you. That’s a big topic on its own of course, and one for a future post…
Shout out to Chris Howard at The Rattle for providing the initial catalyst for the article.
As part of on-boarding for a new project I was asked to put together a quick 10 minute introductory talk on a business-related topic of my choice.
I chose innovation. It’s no doubt a buzzword right now but do we really understand what innovation means and how, when, and why we should apply it? Like a lot of concepts it can be over-complicated and mystified, often by people who want to look smarter than everyone else (and get you to pay them accordingly to explain).
After I took the group through what I’d prepared (slides included below), there was a brief Q&A. Questions ranged from how corporates could innovate when the pervading culture goes the opposite way, to how ideas can be tested quickly and easily.
The one question that jumped out was around knowing when to kill ideas. Killing your darlings is hard to do. Startup and innovation culture tends to lean towards killing ideas quickly. I believe it’s often important to do so, but my thinking has now moved towards the freezer rather than the morgue.
Putting our ideas in the freezer (perhaps a cryogenic freezer of sorts) means they’re still alive and visible rather than being buried or cremated.
We can choose to bring them back later in their current state, or use parts of them to enhance our future endeavours.
Perhaps having them around also just lets us remember their best features and also their failings – both good fuel as we explore the adjacent possible.
On a number of occasions I’ve thought about parts of old ideas I wanted to reference or repurpose and kicked myself that I’d buried them – they’d decomposed or just completely turned to dust.
So rather than kill your darlings, place them in the freezer – you never know where you may need them next.
Why it’s worth knowing which role you’re best suited for, and how valuable it can be when looking to join a new community.
Last week I received an email from someone in London asking how life in NYC was going for me, and what I thought of The Met museum.
They knew I’d had to wait a while for my work permit and so naturally assumed I’d spent a fair bit of my enforced sabbatical visiting museums. Guiltily I replied I had not. I’d barely gone north of 75th Street, let alone explored Museum Mile.
Amends were made and yesterday I spent a couple of hours exploring the huge Metropolitan Museum of Art space next to Central Park.
I decided to travel roughly in chronological order, starting with Ancient China, via Dutch 16th portraits and 19th Century American furniture, and ending up in 1920s cubism.
In the final room of my visit something caught my eye – a painting by the Japanese artist Bumpei Usui.
The work itself didn’t appeal to me greatly (it didn’t help it was also next to a bunch of work by two of my favourite artists, Gris and Leger), but the placard next to the Usui piece was what grabbed my attention.
Bumpei Usui immigrated to New York from Japan in the late 1930s. Rather than integrating into the city’s art community as a painter, he operated instead as a frame maker, and through this practice became popular with many leading contemporary artists. 
Two things about this very short synopsis jumped out at me.
First, he was a recent arrival in a new country, seeking to integrate into a particular creative community. I could relate to that.
Secondly, he decided to focus on one of his multiple skills, and rather than aiming to directly become a member of that community, he instead built his reputation by providing its members with a valuable service they could trust. A wonderfully simple yet effective strategy.
I instantly saw the persona of the frame maker in other areas of work: operating relatively unnoticed; there to provide structure, protection and context for the artist’s work; yet also with their own value, tools, craft and language.
Of course, some paintings have no frame at all, and some are certainly best without, but for many others the frame is a crucial part of the work as a whole.
And just like in other creative industries, whilst a rare few people can become accomplished as both frame makers and painters, more often one tends to complement the other.
A few hours after my museum visit I went downtown to meet with an advertising creative embarking on a new venture. We got along well.
After he told his story he invited me to tell mine by asking ’so what paintbrush do you use?’.
I smiled. I’d never heard someone use that phrase before.
I told him I didn’t really use a paintbrush.
I preferred to be the frame maker.
 During WWII, Usui was saved from incarceration by his many friends who spoke up for him in New York. For the duration of the war, his large collection of Japanese swords (over 120) was stored at the homes of his many friends and was returned to him when the war was over.
A former colleague of mine visited NYC recently. I consider him a friend and we’ve shared some good times together over the years we’ve known each other.
This year he’s had a very good year – some great successes at work and good things happening in his personal life too. He’s really happy right now – I’m pleased for him.
A few of the work successes have been very public – accolades and awards. His social media timelines are firing.
It would be easy for him to bask in the glory, especially around this time of year as things wind down and we take stock of what’s happened over the past 12 months. And why not? He’s worked hard for all of this.
Given how much has happened, I asked him what he’s learnt this year.
His instant response:
‘forget it even happened’
He knew that the moment he got caught up in the success was the moment he let his guard down, got complacent, added just a little too much arrogance to his confidence.
Once that night’s sold out venue has turned the lights on, once everyone’s read the article about your funding round, once your boss has congratulated you on a job well done – it’s onto the next one.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t celebrate success. In fact, celebrating successes, however small, are a key part of positive habit change, building self-esteem and all sorts of other good stuff.
However, the moment we get caught up in a success and think we’ve got it all figured out is when we probably…haven’t. And that’s when you get caught napping.
‘Too big to fail?’ Forget about it.
‘Got it licked?’ Forget about it.
‘Crushed it?’ Forget about it.
The truth is we never truly master it.
Even the masters haven’t mastered it – the world is changing too quickly now for that.
The secret to my friend’s success? Forget about it.
Think about co-working in 2017 and one of the first names on your mind is likely to be WeWork. The company is valued at $20bn and is about to become London’s biggest private office tenant. Bear in mind WeWork only launched 7 years ago – that’s phenomenal growth by anyone’s standards.
In the last few months they’ve acquired an education company and a community marketplace, launched in Asia, started a gym chain and got into the apartment business. Questions remain over their valuation and ability to weather a downturn in the real estate market, but right now they’re showing little sign of slowing down.
With WeWork seemingly making all the headlines, what else is going on in the business of workspaces?
Here are 8 of the key trends I see continuing to take flight in 2018.
1. Snacking & Space Hopping
For freelancers and soloists in particular there are usually 3 components to a typical week; doing the work, talking about the work, and finding the work.
The latter often means traveling to meet people. Face-to-face tends to be most effective, but shuttling back and forth between meetings is definitely not most efficient.
For those hopping between locations or just wanting to utilise a workspace for a few hours of focused time as and when they want it, new services have arrived to serve this need.
One example is Croissant. For just over $100 they’ll give you 50 hours per month to be used at spaces across a number of US and European cities.
Whilst their supply of workspaces is still a little sparse at present, and the nature of their pricing model appears to be weighted more favourably towards the user than the workspace provider, the increasingly competitive co-work industry means a growing number of spaces will be likely looking at alternative ways to generate interest and revenue.
Perhaps snacking will become a key part of our (work) diets.
2. Keep it in the family
London headquartered Second Home are shortly opening a new space in the ultra-trendy* Hackney borough of East London.
The area already has a number of co-working spaces available (including a sizeable WeWork offering), so how are Second Home going to stand out?
Easy. They’re installing a fully operational creche service so members can have ‘bring your kids to work’ day, every day.
With terms of parental leave high on the agenda of employers and HR departments, and an ongoing shift towards a more flexible work/life balance, will the in-office creche become a fixture of companies’ perks lists?
It’ll be interesting to see whether the trend of more young families moving away from cities (as has happened in London) will affect demand too.
* I was a long-term resident, which perhaps negates this.
3. Values-based workspaces
NYC startup The Wing have raised both eyebrows and capital (from WeWork amongst others) with their female-only workspace and members’ club offering.
I’ve had a couple of interesting discussions with people recently around balancing the need for safe spaces vs. providing bridges and access for others to better understand the the challenges that caused these safe spaces to be created in the first place.
Personally I hope they’ll find a way to allow admittance to men from time to time as there’s plenty for us to learn. Maybe that’s for another article…
In either case, we’ll see more spaces appear built on values, interests and passions.I referenced this in a previous post here >
The challenge for these operations will be balancing niche focus vs commercial viability as it’s unlikely most workers will hold memberships to several spaces at once.
Expect The Wing to be one that keeps flying.
4. The excess capacity opportunity
Airbnb is the most notable example of a business built around leveraging the excess capacity of an asset class.
Spacious are taking this approach to co-working, operating around the hospitality sector. The NYC-based startup work with bars and restaurants to fill their often sparsely-populated weekday downtime with laptop-wielding workers. Just like Airbnb, it’s one of those concepts that at first glance feels like it shouldn’t work, but Spacious are growing at a fair old clip with a presence in NYC and San Francisco so far.
The recent New York launch of London retail pop-up startup Appear Here plus a glut of ecommerce fashion and lifestyle brands scaling up in the city makes me feel we’ll see Spacious’ model appear more in 2018; less agile bricks and mortar businesses will be looking for new revenue streams as they feel the strain of rising rents, lower occupancy and a continuing shift to ecommerce.
Where else could there be excess capacity to utilise?
If anyone fancies working out of screen 1 at the Union Square cinema next week, I’ll bring the popcorn.
5. The branded hangout
Working out of the local coffee shop? Forget it. Next year will see the rise of the branded hangout space.
On opening in June this year, Ian Schrager’s new ‘Public’ hotel instantly became a destination work and meeting spot for the knowingly cool set around NYC’s Lower East Side.
The Ace Hotel chain have been in this position for a few years of course. Rather than booting out the posse of people taking up the hotel’s lobby space all day for an average per-head spend of 1 cup of coffee, they’ve happily turned a blind eye. Presumably keeping the place vibrant post-check out and pre-check in gives them a nice bump of extra social proof, street cred and the potential for serendipitous collaborations that their brand will be inextricably linked to.
Quickly building their own work/hangout spaces are retailers like Lululemon and Dr Smood. Usually quietly stylised offerings in the basement of their retail operations, there’s definitely still an element of discomfort and confusion around utilising these places to spend a working day. However, they tend to be completely free of charge and in desirable locations – very appealing to the early-stage freelancer or startup founder. Also, anything with a stigma which is starting to disappear is well worth paying attention to, and I’d class these spaces in that category.
What’ll be interesting to see is which other brands jump in and how happy people will be to nail their colours to those office-shaped masts. Not everyone is going to be keen to be hanging out at American Apparel’s co-work, even if the coffee is good.
And yes, this is again connected with filling Excess Capacity…
6. Airport lounges
Like a lot of people I find the air travel experience trying at the best of times.
After flying a lot for business, I slimmed down my travel a little and found my loyalty cards getting demoted extremely quickly, along with my air miles being of little value for any of the routes I really cared about. No bueno.
Monocle magazine have long been suggesting the growth in kiosk-style cafes, and they’ve made inroads in a few cities with this idea.
It appears there’s huge scope to serve airport visitors with an alternative to the business lounge, especially as rewards points tier are being jacked up and airport usage is on the up.
Don’t be surprised to see WeWork at JFK or Heathrow in the very near future.
7. The work club
Football club, member’s club, night club, jazz club. If it’s a club, expect to see it start offering business services to members old and new.
Soccer (football) clubs in the UK are putting community-focused workspaces high on the wish-list for their architects, with English Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace both with new stadiums in the works.
There’s a ceiling on match day ticketing revenue (especially with serious fan backlashes against recent price hikes – we’re looking at you, Arsenal…), so clubs are exploring everything from VR to branded offices to keep their fanbase engaged and coffers full.
MoS are now actively positioning themselves as a shared workspace provider, and have already been using the cavernous ‘Box’ room of the club for a number of alternative live events. Perhaps there’s another joint venture on the horizon…
8. Return of the cubicle
The office cubicle. It’s almost a poster child for what today’s workers abhor; grey, closed, isolated, made of non-breathable fabrics. Surely its death should be cause for celebration?
Maybe not. A number of recent studies have shown that open plan offices have significant drawbacks, one being the difficulty for people to focus. In the days before Slack, WhatsApp and fluctuating Bitcoin prices this may not have been such an issue. Nowadays there’s a very strong desire from a lot of people to mute the noise and do focused work.
This study from furniture brand Haworth digs deeper. Broadly speaking, they recommend a mix of private and open spaces, encouraging recharging, and giving people control on where they spend their time.
We may not see the resurgence of the original office cubicle, but there’s plenty for architects and designers to set their minds to. All they need is a private space to do it…
And for your life outside of work…
Just as Marriott hotels are building apartments to compete with Airbnb, luxury residential real estate developers are moving towards the models of WeWork and Soho House – offering full workspaces, libraries, basketball courts, coffee shops and various other perks as part of your ‘living experience’. All at a price, of course.
One of the notable examples here in New York is The Eugene, next to the burgeoning Hudson Yards development.
In many cases these extra amenities are used as a clever hook to bring in tenants, but in reality get relatively low utilisation. Whilst the financials probably hold up, no one wants to see a bunch of empty common areas in a building, and some of the new build towers already have a ‘investor safety deposit box’ feel as it is.
Will this mean another case of excess capacity ready to be exploited?
It’s meta, but watch out for the workspace provider taking over the running of the workspace.
Got an opinion? Want to continue the conversation?
Let me know in the comments or drop me a line here.
A few years ago I heard a prominent figure was leaving one of my company’s big competitors.
He wasn’t leaving amicably. There had been tension for a while. Furthermore, he wasn’t leaving the industry for something new – he would become a competitor to his now former employer.
If you were the boss, what would you do in this situation?
Put them on enforced leave?
Shut down their access to all company IP and communication tools?
In this case, the boss openly suggested he take the entire customer list with him.
Why would he do this?
Surely this is one of the prized assets of a professional services business?
The boss knew the list itself was worth practically nothing. The relationships behind it were where all the value was. The cost of allowing the customer list to leave the building was, in reality, tiny.
Sure, to build the list again from scratch would take a while, but did it really matter?
In that business (like many others) you were really only as good as the service you were selling, and whether customers wanted to buy at a mutually agreeable price.
I wish I learnt this lesson earlier.
When I was starting out I would spend hours trying to find contact details for potential buyers of my company’s services. My analytical brain loved the quest and the sifting of the data. I’d leave no stone unturned – I’d know the name of every relevant person from Slovenia to Sydney. My mind was playing a trick on me that volume would generate returns.
This shotgun-style approach did work to a point, but became drastically less effective over time, especially as the industry consolidated, the value of the services being offered were more measurable, and I realised the importance of segmentation and buying power.
One other piece of advice I received around this time was to only focus on the top 3 relevant buyers in one location, and if none of them were interested, to ignore that territory and move on.
This is effectively the Pareto principle at work. 80% of the peas in the garden come from 20% of the plants. 80% of the output comes from 20% of the input. 80% of the problems come from 20% of the clients.
I still see many early stage companies using the shotgun strategy – amass email addresses of prospective buyers even if they’re outside the key target audience, perhaps slightly customise a sales pitch and then pull the trigger.
When you’re starting out it seems logical – you just want, need, to get out in front of people.
But if you’re in a relationships business, and the vast majority of us are (if you don’t think you are then ask yourself again), forget about frantically building about the customer list.
Focus on building relationships, and if in doubt ask what Pareto would do.
There’s a lot packed in to just a few sentences: ego, aloofness, self-deprecation, humility.
Tiga’s post got a huge response. This was likely in large part due to his sizeable fanbase as well as his eloquence, but it was also because of its rarity. You just don’t see people in the entertainment business talking this way very often.
I really respect him for sharing his off-night publicly but it made me think this kind of thing shouldn’t make such a large impact.
It should be seen as… well, normal.
None of us like to admit we were wrong, we failed, or we just didn’t perform well. This is especially uncomfortable when it’s concerning our trade, profession, or something else we hold close as part of our identity. It makes us feel vulnerable and questions our value. But we should do so more often.
Whether by coincidence, fate or the law of attraction, a series of tweets by the author James Clear got my attention the very same day as I saw Tiga’s disclosure.
1/ The success you see others experiencing is rarely as sexy as it appears to be.
The results of success are usually public and highly visible, but the process behind success is often private and hidden from view.
When your screen is filled examples of the strongest, richest, and smartest, it’s easy to overvalue the outcome & undervalue the process.
I believe a lot of us are guilty of this. I know I am.
However, I’d extend this message to cover the process that leads to both success and failure.
Recently I’ve been investing time into building web apps using Ruby on Rails. I’ve been following a few video tutorials to help me build ropey clones of Reddit, Pinterest and several other of your favourite websites.
Where I’ve learnt the most is by failing (i.e. my app throwing an error or some kind). I have to rewind the video, re-trace my steps a few times over, and find out what caused the error before trying to fix it.
It’s slow and painstaking but the process towards understanding failure makes me more likely to either fix it more quickly in future or avoid it completely.
A web developer known as Levels (who has a pretty sizeable cult following) recently took this a step further by documenting an entire startup build via broadcasting it on Twitch.
Maybe the process isn’t very pretty to watch in its entirety, but making an impressive outcome more transparent enables others to learn, develop and get comfortable with failing and making mistakes. We can better respect and understand the process, rather than just marvelling at or dismissing the outcome. It encourages us to appreciate the practice and sometimes even think ‘I could do that’.
I believe we’ll see transparency around the process appear more in everyday life — from the way food is produced to how laws and legislation comes to pass.
Where this transparency may have the most fascinating impact is in the creative industries.
A lot of people in this area seem to be very afraid of opening up the process rather than just showing off the (selected) results. A previous post of mine touched on this in a slightly different but connected context — hunkering down or fronting up.
By being transparent we may expose some of our tricks of the trade, but to paraphrase an old adage “it’s what you do with it that counts”.
We now have platforms taking us inside the processes to learn to play video games, code websites and even build houses.
Maybe the world’s top DJs could take us deeper inside their process: away from the selfies, hotel suites and big tracks dropping at a festival; to the filtering and preparation of the music, the practice and honing of the craft, and knowing where, how and why they may have made mistakes along the way.
Despite what may show on the surface we all have times when we’re not killing it, whether as a rookie starting out or as a seasoned professional.
Openly sharing and learning from each others’ mistakes will improve our aptitude, help us find new ways of doing things, and relieve some of the status anxiety that’s everywhere around us in an connected age when we only measure outcomes rather than valuing the process.
A few months ago, James Andrew Miller released his new book telling the tale of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s most renowned and powerful companies.
Coming in at 707 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read. There are definitely a few flaws and some sections feel like a slog, but the snappy talking heads style works well and plenty of juicy anecdotes can be found.
If you don’t want to work your way through the whole thing, here are seven key lessons from the company’s 40 year history.
1. Think Long
One of the best passages in the book describes how CAA founder Ron Meyer began working with Sylvester Stallone. It’s a great example of the benefits of forgoing the short term gain for the longer term opportunity.
At the time, Stallone was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world but didn’t have an agent, only management.
The management company were very wary of their client being wooed by a talent agency and strongly advised him to keep Meyer at bay as they felt he’d just be looking for cash, even when he hadn’t earned it.
Whilst not (yet) his agent, Meyer had been informally advising Stallone on script matters around ‘Rambo: First Blood’, and upon a deal being closed for Stallone to star in the film for $5m, the star decided to test his would-be representative.
Knowing that the then-fledgling CAA was in need of cash, Stallone called Meyer to offer him 10% of his fee as a commission. Without Meyer being aware, Stallone had one of his management team listen in on the call so they could both gauge the reaction.
Meyer declined, feeling he hadn’t done enough to earn the $500k, and that he wished Stallone the best of luck and hoped they’d work together down the road.
With his manager red-faced, Stallone knew he had his man and signed with Meyer and CAA, knowing the long game would always be front of mind.
2. Get in the centre of the action
There are many examples of this throughout the book, and a few cases that veer into nepotism territory, but either way the chances of success increase hugely if you’re in the middle of the industry you want to be in.
In the late 80s a young writer moved to LA to study at UCLA and write movie scripts. Via a friend who knew someone at CAA, the writer got a meeting with a CAA agent and one of these scripts (which had been left in a bin for the previous 6 weeks) piqued the agent’s interest.
Within a few days it had sold to Warner Brothers for $250,000 and became one of the biggest hits of the decade — Lethal Weapon. The writer, Shane Black, went on to write some of the biggest action and adventure movies of the last 20 years.
Without being in the middle of an industry, that kind of rapid breakthrough is far more difficult.
Once you have picked an industry, get right to the center of it as fast as you possibly can. Your target is the core of change and opportunity — figure out where the action is and head there, and do not delay your progress for extraneous opportunities, no matter how lucrative they might be.
3. Know the numbers; data can make deals
Kevin Huvane and his quartet of fellow ‘Young Turks’ rapidly rose to take over the running of the agency in 1995. However, whilst they were very capable agents, they realised running the business was a completely different proposition and that the numbers were key.
Huvane admitted to having never looked at a spreadsheet before. The realisation of how much the company was spending on fruit was the wakeup call that he needed to get a proper handle on the numbers if he was going to be able to lead the agency.
A deal where data modelling helped persuade the doubters and make its principals rich was for the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito film ‘Twins’.
Sandy Climan (aka ‘The Briefcase’) and his team modelled out how the deal could take shape, persuaded the studio to run with it, and also convinced the stars to give up their usual advance fees in exchange for a big chunk of the back end. The result was the biggest pay day Arnie & Danny had ever had.
As a footnote, several sources quotes on the book allude that one of the reasons CAA founder Michael Ovitz’s AMG venture crashed after he departed the agency may have been because he didn’t have a strong enough handle on the numbers, particularly in the TV business.
4. Client service should go beyond the direct field of expertise
Throughout the book, Michael Ovitz gets a pretty rough ride from a range of people (seemingly justifiably on more than one occasion), but one of the things he excelled at was knowing when and how to go above and beyond the expected level of service.
Ovitz understood that client service goes past core expertise; an example of his all-seeing eye being very much in the interest of his clients was that he made a point of knowing all the best physicians, schools, architects and other service providers across LA.
Calculating it may have been, but connecting his clients with these people was all part of the service. By getting them what they needed when they needed it, the perception of him being at the very centre of their universe only increased. Very quickly he became the man who could make things happen.
5. Put together packages
CAA arguably built their entire business around packages. The concept certainly isn’t new, but they were the company to make it their calling card and turn it into a huge operation.
In the case of the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, all the casting was done within the CAA office rather than at a casting agency office or studio. CAA agents outside the deal were able to easily get wind of a casting opportunity for their clients, while agents outside the building had a hard time getting anyone in. Michael Ovitz pushed for Sydney Pollack, another client, to direct despite the animosity between the two men, and then shoehorned Bill Murray into the cast at the last minute.
The agency were able to position themselves as a purveyor of through-the-line talent, able to put together directors, producers, lead roles and small supports all under one roof.
The package CAA put together for Jurassic Park in 1992 included a piece of the action on any by-products created off the back of the movie. The movie itself did very well, but Jurassic Park was a real winner because of the sheer breadth of the franchise spin-off package. CAA got paid every step of the way.
6. Know when you’re a principal and when you’re not
“I had a slogan I used: ‘No conflict, no interest.’ We were constantly getting the back of our hand slapped with a ruler and told, ‘Hey, you can’t be a principal. You can’t produce commercials.’ But we did. We got around it. I don’t believe that today’s environment is hostile to that. Creating jobs is all anyone cares about.”
Conversely, CAA’s long-time head of music Tom Ross recalls an incident when he was in rehab for weight loss and met a famous rock star. Ross knew his job wasn’t to be the principal, it was to be their representative and by default be at least one step back in the shadows.
Tom Ross: “I was there a month, and one day I ran into Steven Tyler, who was there for drug rehab and sexual addiction. They arranged for us to spend an afternoon together and Steven said to me ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I just can’t imagine going to a gig and not getting laid or not getting a few blow jobs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Try being an agent for a few years. You get used to it.’”
Agent Paula Wagner realised that the role of the agent was to be the representative of the principal, not the principal themselves. She left CAA to become a principal — in this case Tom Cruise’s movie production partner.
Trying to become the principal when not it’s the part you were originally supposed to play can be dangerous territory — although in recent times the boundaries have become far more fluid.
It’s going to be interested to see the progress of WME’s moves into new spaces.
7. The power of 3
A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.
There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.
They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.
And with the Young Turks having been together for over 20 years, CAA co-founder Bill Haber’s words also ring true;
“In any business on earth — I always say to people — nobody will leave you for the money, and nobody will leave you over titles. People will only leave if they have no loyalty to you.”
In February 2009 I left a promising career in advertising to build a music company.
My vision, albeit partially formed, was to offer a new way of serving exciting independent artists by simultaneously growing their prowess and profile across touring, promotion and publishing.
We’d do business in unconventional ways, use technology wherever we could, and be guided by our moral compass in an industry that has a reputation for its cut-throat nature. A sense of opportunity collided with youthful exuberance, naivety and a dash of idealism.
And so I swapped sleek studio space in the front end of Clerkenwell for a cold cluttered cupboard in the back end of Shoreditch. Reality hit pretty quickly.
The office was dank and uninspiring.
The toilets had the aura of a B-list horror movie set.
Our kettle was the very cheapest that Argos had in stock and needed a piece of cutlery levered under the switch in order to function.
The entertainment budget for a prospective client stretched to a couple of pints of average quality lager and possibly a Turkish takeaway.
We had no senior staff with their black book of contacts and tricks of the trade.
None of our team had operated in their role before and were all learning on the fly.
Hardly any of the main festival promoters would return our calls or emails.
Investors wouldn’t touch us (“you mean none of your clients have signed contracts?”).
The heating didn’t work, except in summer.
I was running the place, frantically trying to lay down enough track ahead of us to stop the train crashing into the side of the mountain.
Along the way we lost pitches, clients, staff, focus and VAT returns.
The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.
The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.
The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.
But despite the pain the company was alive, and despite all the setbacks were we still just about winning more than we were losing.
One Friday night in early 2011, something changed.
On face value it wasn’t much, just another date in the diary for some of the acts we represented. For me, however, it represented something far more.
One of the venues we’d worked most closely with since the very beginning of our burgeoning business had booked 17 of our artists to play across the venue on the same night.
We represented almost the entire lineup.
We’d never had anything like it happen before.
This venue had built a long-standing reputation for quality — whether it was the booming sound system, striking graphic design or talent programming that seamlessly blended big names with newcomers. It was great to have any client booked there, let alone 17 of them.
But that night it wasn’t about which of our agents had booked the acts. It wasn’t about the revenue it generated for our clients or us either (as much as we needed it at that point).
It was about the team who ran this venue recognising there was something about us and the talent we’d aimed to represent, nurture and develop, often from the very ground floor of their careers.
In my mind, this seemingly trivial milestone validated everything we’d been doing up to that point and helped pushed me on to keep going when we were deep in the struggle.
A few years later and I’d managed to make a successful exit, with our alumni moving on to hold key roles at some of the industry’s leading companies. I now think often of that tough period — what I did wrong, how I would deal with it now, and what helped me get through it at the time.
This Friday night, fabric opens its doors again after what must be the biggest struggle in its 18 year history.
Just like many others I’m very pleased to see its return.
Without it a whole cohort of creators, entrepreneurs, collectives and organisations may not have kept persevering through the struggle, or even have got started at all.