The Wild West – Part II

(originally published in Screen Magazine 9/12/12)

About seven months ago, I wrote a little blurb about how the creative industry was starting to look like the Wild West. The thinking behind that article was that If you want success you have to go out and claim it. Nothing will be handed to you. There is no map or trail that will guide those working in the creative industry. You have to draw up your own map.

I love history, and I often wish I lived in the Wild West. It must have been pretty scary for those early settlers, but exciting at the same time. But can you imagine if everything had already been established, lines drawn, and then erased? That is where we are now.

Twenty years ago, everything was clearly defined. Advertising agencies provided specific services, event agencies played a defined role, PR firms applied their trade, and marketing shops tied up all the loose ends. Back then, talent agencies and their famous acting clients didn’t really concern themselves with the advertising world, because there were bigger fish to fry. Recording artists were considered “sell-outs” if they collaborated with a brand, and no one was talking about product placement or interactive agencies back then.

Everything was right with the world. Or was it?

I currently hold a position that didn’t exist twenty years ago. If I told my high-school guidance counselor that I wanted to be a Director of Branded Entertainment when I grew up, he would have said, “Really? What the hell is that?”

So I’d like to expand my Wild West analogy to include the entire entertainment industry. That’s right, I’m here to officially announce that we are all working in one big industry called the entertainment business. In fact, I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome those working in the direct mail sector, as well.

Seriously. Everything is a part of everything now. TV networks are looking to include interactive and potential branding components. Record company execs are talking about how to best brand their artists. Event agencies are producing some of the most visually creative work out there. Interactive agencies are taking the lead on many campaigns. Dogs and cats, living together – it’s mass hysteria!

But don’t let all this change scare you. In fact, embrace it. I think it’s great for everyone involved – especially the brand. Where others may see a duplication of service, I see a creative challenge. Exceed expectations on this assignment, and you’ll get another one. Earn the client’s trust in one discipline, and the door will open to another. But the key is this. If you put yourself out there and offer services that you haven’t offered before, you better be good at it. You better be ready to perform beyond the level that everyone has come to expect. You better improve on client relationship skills, and not just execute the boards. You better be prepared to live up to – and exceed – all of those promises. Because if you don’t, there is someone else out there that’s expanding their services to include your specialty. The Wild West just keeps getting wilder.

The Slope Towards Complacency

I hate the word content. More specifically, I hate both the noun and adjective uses of the word content.

So as of today, I’m on a mission to remove this word from the creative industry’s vocabulary.

First, let’s talk about the adjective: content. As in “He doesn’t feel the need to be more creative, more innovative, or do anything differently. He’s content.”

Is there anyone out there who feels they have accomplished enough, learned all they can learn, and helped all those who could use some help? If so, please step aside and let the rest of us do our best to kick ass and keep moving the industry forward. Please don’t misunderstand me. I highly recommend being happy and satisfied with your work. Just don’t be content. Contentment is a slippery slope towards complacency. Followed by mediocrity. Ending up at “average.” And as anyone who has worked in this industry for more than a week knows, “average” just doesn’t cut it.

Now then, let’s move on to the noun: content. I see and hear this word everyday. The client is looking for content for their website. We need more content that appeals to our social media audience, etc… I understand why everybody uses this word in the creative industry. It simplifies everything. But I think it oversimplifies. You might as well say we need corporate “stuff,” or “bland wallpaper,” or we need “un-interesting visual material to fill up some space.” In this industry we can’t allow ourselves to be content (the adjective) with mere content (the noun.)

Content (the noun) doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it has the potential to be fun, informative, innovative, and yes – even entertaining.

From here on out, I intend to use the word entertainment in place of the noun content. Doesn’t corporate entertainment sound better? Doesn’t it sound like the goal is to produce something more innovative, creative, and engaging?

So please help me with my mission to remove both “content” and “content” from the creative industry’s vocabulary. Together we can do this. I for one won’t be content – uh, make that happy/ecstatic/entertained, until we do.

Be responsive to the needs of your clients. Orange soda anyone?

(Published in Screen Magazine 8/22/12)

In 1989 I unofficially started my sales career.   I was duplicating radio commercials, when my boss asked me to go get fitted for a tuxedo for the next day’s sales event.  I wasn’t sure why he was asking me to do this, I had 1,000 public service announcements to duplicate and ship by the next day.  My boss explained that he wanted me to walk around and act as the host of the office.  “Just be you,” he said.  That was my first taste of sales and how important it is to simply be nice and approachable to the people you work with and want to work with.

Fast forward through six years and a variety of post-production roles at Editel/Chicago before I transitioned my hobby of building client relationships into an official sales representative role.  I only asked for one thing before I started this new job, and that was orange soda.  Yes, orange soda.  I explained to my boss that it was important for me to be responsive.  If a client had a concern about any or all of our services, I wanted to be in a position to address those concerns.  My examples of potential client issues ranged from big things like staffing and technology upgrades to having orange soda in our refrigerator.  I always kept a case of orange soda in my office at Editel as a constant reminder to be responsive to the changing needs of my clients.  Do you need a reminder?  Is it time to buy some orange soda for your business?

Are The Unwritten Rules Being Thrown Out?

(originally published in Screen Magazine 7/11/12)

If you’re not familiar with the unwritten rules of production and how they relate to getting advertising work, don’t read the rest of this column. It seems silly to fill you in on a set of rules that are becoming obsolete. Maybe you’re better off not knowing. You know what they say. Ignorance is bliss.

If we were talking about sports it would be a different story. For example, the unwritten rules in baseball are legendary. As a matter of fact, by writing down the unwritten rules of baseball I’m pretty much breaking the rules, but what the hell. Here they are:

  1. Don’t talk about a no-hitter during a no-hitter. Don’t even think about talking about it.
  2. Don’t stare at a home run when leaving the batter’s box.
  3. When your team is winning by more than 5 runs, you shouldn’t steal a base or bunt.

Recently, Major League pitcher Cole Hamels broke an unwritten rule. He hit rookie Bryce Harper with a fastball on purpose to welcome him to the big leagues. This in itself is fine. Actually, it’s accepted as an unwritten rule. Someone had to throw at the kid. No, Cole Hamels broke the unwritten rule when he admitted that he hit the player on purpose. He broke the unwritten rule about regulating the unwritten rules. It gets very complicated.

The most accepted unwritten rule in the production community has been around for years. It has long been understood that all vendors should get their work from the advertising agency or marketing firm on record. At no point should the vendor call the client directly for work. This rule makes sense when a company or person is hired as a sub-contractor. For example, I just hired a cameraman for a three-day shoot. I expect him to be approachable, professional, and courteous to my clients. I also expect him never to contact my clients directly for work in the future. The cameraman I hired understands this unwritten rule, so I expect we will work together for many years to come.

But what if I never hired him to begin with? In that case, can we both pursue work from the same client? Can I really expect him to stay away from all my potential clients? What if my company decided to put some cameramen on the payroll, and I never engaged his services again? Is he still expected to stay away?

The answers to these questions used to be much clearer. Back in the day (about ten years ago) everyone’s role was defined. There was the client, the agency, and then the vendor. Just like the Army, we all followed the chain of command. No one seemed to challenge the workflow, because there seemed to be enough work to go around. But things have changed since then.

Four years ago, I sat next to the President of HBO for an event. He asked me directly if there was any possibilities of using the music I produced in the future. “Could it be part of a larger campaign? How would you take this to the next level?” he asked. My response was, “Isn’t that a question for your agency?” I knew the rules. I was just a music guy who did his job. My role was not to develop the ideas, I was limited to just executing them, right?

A week later I sent along an estimate for turning the :60 song into a 3:00 minute piece. The estimate also included the lead singer and actor from the video touring the world (12 cities)promoting the cause at both local high schools and nightclubs. The bid total was over one million dollars. I had just broken an unwritten rule, by presenting an idea directly to a client. But he asked me for it directly, so that made it okay, right?

A few weeks later, I attended an AICP event at the Park West in Chicago. It was a roundtable discussion about the state of the industry. The heads of the top five agencies were the speakers, along with a chief McDonald’s strategist. Wouldn’t you know it; the topic of the unwritten rules came up. The McDonald’s representative said, “I don’t care where the idea comes from. If a 15 year-old kid on YouTube has a clever idea, I’m going to take a look at it.”

Of course this didn’t sit well with the Leo Burnett representative. I stood up and asked, “What if the vendor is approached by the client directly? Doesn’t the vendor have a responsibility to his company, employees, and family to pursue that work?” The answers were mixed. One of the members of the panel walked up to me afterwards and said that if the agencies aren’t already doing editorial, audio, and graphics in house, they will be soon. He put it like this. “We’re already getting into your line of work so there’s no reason you can’t get into our end of the industry.” It was an honest assessment of the state of our industry. Whoever has the best relationship with the client will control the work.

Fast forward 4 years, and it’s easy to see the playing field has leveled even more. Of course there are still agencies of record, and I continue to respect that protocol. But there are also many more clients who are controlling their creative in house. In fact, the demand for content across so many platforms suggests that potential clients are everywhere. Or maybe I should say relationships are everywhere. Anyone, and I mean anyone, might have leads. The music producer, the graphics guy, the editor, the sound mixer, or even your dentist might have a relationship that leads to work.

My suggestion would be to pursue every possible lead. If you are aware that a potential client has a relationship with an agency or another shop, you have to determine if the risk of losing potential work from that agency is worth the reward of landing a project directly from the client. It kind of reminds me of being single. When you approach someone in a bar, you have no idea if they’re seeing someone, if they could be happier with you, etc…

The same goes for the production community in today’s world. If you’re unaware of any pre- existing client relationships, there should be no risk. So go for it. Frankly, the unwritten rules are losing ground in this economy. I’m sorry I even had to write them down. Ignorance may be bliss. But work pays the bills.

How Much Money Do You Want To Make?

(originally published in Screen Magazine 6/6/12)

In early 1996, I was sitting in an accountant’s office discussing new business strategies. Towards the end of the meeting, the accountant asked, “how much money do you want to make? At the time, I thought it was a stupid question. Two weeks after the meeting I finally realized the point that accountant was trying to make. How much are you willing to spend/risk in order to achieve your goals?

A few months ago, I made an appointment with a frustrated employee who was thinking about starting his own creative editorial shop. He had several questions for me, like: How important is it to have a downtown presence? Should I seek out a partner or angel investor? What is the right number of initial employees? After listening to his questions and concerns, I had only one question of my own… “How much money do you want to make?”

The great thing about starting your own business is that you have the opportunity to set your own goals. You can set out to build a national chain of auto repair shops or, like my mechanic, choose to have one small garage and refuse to open your doors on Fridays.

I have great respect for both types of business owners. Those who have unshakeable ambition, and set no limits to what they can accomplish, and those who have a clear understanding of what they need to be truly happy.

When I first started a business, my annual sales goal was a million dollars. When I reached that goal, I set my sights on two million a year. I never reached that two million annual sales goal. In fact, I fell well short of it. In retrospect, I wish I would have been honest with myself and picked an obtainable business sweet spot. I should have kept updating my annual goals to reflect my changing priorities, but I didn’t. It’s kind of like sitting at a blackjack table with a solid goal of how much you want to win. When you hit that point, it’s best to walk away. If you don’t, you’ll find your stack of chips dwindling before your eyes. In business, I chased a number that didn’t exist, and ultimately couldn’t exist.

So my advice to those of you who (by choice or not) are starting a business of your own would be… Find your own sweet spot. Understand your personal priorities, your goals, and how much money you need to have the life you want to live. Once you have that number, you’re better suited to answer those hard questions that face new business owners. Best of luck, be bold and experiment. Above everything else, enjoy the ride.

Does the Creative Industry ‘Like’ Facebook?

(originally published in Screen Magazine 5/23/12)

Facebook’s recent IPO has got me to thinking… Does Facebook have anything to offer the creative industry? I know the ad industry has jumped into the Facebook game; I saw a clever McDonald’s ad the other day. I didn’t click on it, but it made me think about getting a Big Mac, and that psychological temptation came true this afternoon. A Big Mac and fries called to me. I chased it down with an old fashioned McDonald’s hot fudge sundae.

But I digress, just because McDonald’s takes advantage of the social network, does that mean that the vendors who seek their business should as well?

I refer to Facebook as a type of maintenance marketing for the creative industry.

Just like getting your oil changed in your car, it’s important to post updates (from your company FB page) every other day. Consider these posts to be very brief press releases. Most of the folks reading this column have been sharing their company news for many years now, so this may not appear to be life-altering information. At least I hope it isn’t. But, where some shops fall short is using Facebook to offer up a little bit of your corporate personality.

Of course, this is only my opinion, but I think clients may choose to work with you because they like you. Help these clients “like” you by branding your shop with simple Facebook posts.

I see great examples of this everyday. Utopic is one creative facility that seems to be doing the Facebook thing right in my opinion. The updates coming out of there are funny, professional, creative, and resourceful. When reading Utopic’s posts, I can’t help but think that these same characteristics carry over to the staff and speak of their over-all talent.

Other shops choose only to post recent project information on Facebook. Again, I think that kind of an update is very important, but ultimately not enough.

This next paragraph might rub some people the wrong way, but since I’m on topic of the utilizing a company Facebook page, let me make one quick suggestion for personal pages as well (as it relates to good business); take a look at the friends you have on Facebook and count how many you consider clients, work colleagues, or professional contacts. Keep that number of friends in mind when writing your personal posts.

Understand that people who can engage in your services can read everything that you put up on Facebook, so a slight hint of professionalism, or at least common decency, is not a bad thing.

I also like to see senior staff members post about the company they work for every once and a while. Many corporations ask highly visible employees to champion the cause of their employer on Facebook. I agree with this whole-heartedly. I know someone who has a key role in Chicago’s creative community. He loves his job, and is very good at it. But you would never know this by reading his Facebook posts. This person has a hobby that he obviously is very passionate about, which is great. But the absence of work-related topics, suggest to me that his day job is just that. Again, I’m not suggesting that everyone should be all business all the time, or that each Facebook post should have marketing spin. But when you hold a key position at a company, keep in mind that at some level you are reflecting your employer’s brand and personality.

I’ll get off my high horse now.

A Facebook strategy has to be considered when discussing your company’s marketing plan. It’s a great (free) tool for building your brand. So keep up to date with your maintenance marketing, and share your corporate personality with the world.

Do You Have A Road Map for Your Company?

(originally published in Screen Magazine 5/9/12)

Have you ever started out on a road trip with your family without a clue as to where you were headed? If the answer is yes, I have a follow up question. Are you there yet?

Have you ever started a business without setting some goals or knowing exactly what direction you were planning on taking? Again, if the answer is yes, are you there yet? In life or in business, if you don’t know where you’re going – or at least where you want to end up – you’re not very likely to get there.

I don’t want to take the fun out of running a creative shop, but how much planning and preparation have you done for your business? Many of you who own a small business (in the creative industry) embarked on a life of entrepreneurship because you were really good at your craft. Perhaps you were an editor with a few handfuls of loyal clients, and the time was right to head out on your own. Maybe you were a director with a fantastic gift for storytelling, and thought you would apply your trade in advertising. Either way, you started a company because you have a passion and a gift. But did you have a road map for success?

Clients have asked for my opinion on the best marketing techniques for their services, and I always respond, “It depends, what are the goals of your company?” Unfortunately, far too many creative shops don’t have a specific answer to that question. That wouldn’t have surprised me seven years ago when the creative industry and economy was a little brighter, but it does surprise me now. You see, there seemed to be plenty of business to go around back then for good companies who had great talent. The only thing many companies needed to worry about was how to produce the work, not how to get the work. As long as projects kept coming in, it didn’t seem necessary to outline a sense of direction for the company. Now, it seems more important than ever.

So how do you put together a road map for your business? First, understand the direction you want to take your company and try not to stray too far from your planned route. If your goal is to drive from California to Maine, there is no reason to stop off in Alabama. Your final destination is like your five-year goal for the company, so imagine yourself there and understand what is required to get you to that point. Annual goals are similar to a how many miles you want to drive in each leg of your trip. You can’t drive 3,200 miles in one day, nor can you expect to accomplish all your business goals in one year. Knowing where you want to be at the end of each year of business keeps you heading in the right direction. Every decision you make along the way can have an effect on your business goals, so keep that in mind on your travels. Don’t do anything unless there is a good reason to do so.

I once asked a student music producer why he added strings to his rock track. He responded, “I don’t know, just because.” I followed up with the following stern business lesson, “Well, that seems like a good reason. You had $1,000 to produce this song, and by your own admission, you ran out of money and couldn’t mix the song correctly because you spent so much money on string players? Now, you’re not sure why you added the strings to begin with? I don’t do anything unless there is a reason for it; regardless of how much money it costs. You shouldn’t be adding a tambourine track to a piece of music unless there is a need or reason for it.” Perhaps I was too hard on the lad, but he got the point.

Of course things will happen in business and in life that you can’t anticipate, so every once in a while you will have to divert your attention and change your priorities. But if at all possible, keep your goals/road map in the back of your mind, and get back on course as soon as you can.

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” Stephen A. Brennan

Redefining Job Responsibilities {slash} The Employee Hybrid

(originally published in Screen Magazine 4/18/12)

Help Wanted: 
 I’m looking to hire a Director who also has mad editing skills.
 This person should be very capable working in After Effects, Cinema 4D, and Photoshop. He or she must have experience writing and producing creative content. This individual should be able to manage the financial aspects of projects and prepare all necessary Quickbooks and Excel reports. A working knowledge of Pro-Tools would be appreciated, and of course you should be able to speak at least four languages, fluently.

Although this ad is completely made up, it’s not too far from the truth. There seems to be a shift in the creative industry where employees are expected to do more by expanding their individual capabilities, and help employers get through these rough economic times by adding a {slash} to their job title.

Yes, the {slash} has become the most important piece of punctuation in the creative industry. I think it can be both good news and bad news.

The good news is:

• Employers might be able to save money by merging responsibilities.
• Clients can contract one creative person to perform two traditional services.
• It’s obviously easier to start a company with less upfront expense. If your Executive Producer can also be responsible for all things Quickbooks, you can hold off on that hire.

The bad news is:

• Qualified candidates have less of an opportunity to get hired.
• Focusing on two jobs might water down the employees’ core strengths.
• Clients could get short-changed in an attempt to save money.

Recently, I responded to a client’s concerns about his company’s productivity by suggesting he follow this industry trend. Can your receptionist help the marketing department when she is not busy? Can you reduce your IT maintenance costs by giving a raise to an assistant who has shown interest in that area?

So, if you’re considering bringing on new staff members or want to increase productivity with your existing staff, think about the implementing the {slash}. The new employee hybrid is all the rage.

Jim Olen – Consultant/Executive Producer/Business Developer/Columnist/Neil Diamond Impersonator

The Day Space Invaders Saved My Company

(originally published in Screen Magazine 4/11/12)

Several years ago on a Thursday afternoon, I walked through my music studio and noticed that my employees seemed to be distracted. By that I mean it was obvious that no one wanted to be at work that day. My receptionist was surfing the web, my composers were talking about upcoming gigs, and my sales representative seemed completely uninspired.

We were going through a slow period at the time, so there wasn’t much work they should have been doing. More important to me than keeping everyone busy was my desire to have everyone excited to be at work. I decided that afternoon that I needed to inject some much-needed enthusiasm into my business and staff. I announced that I was giving everyone Friday off, and planned to spend all day at the studio by myself to brainstorm a new direction for my business.

I showed up at 9 a.m. the next day with a sense of purpose. The empty studio allowed me to concentrate on the task at hand. The first thing I did was go to my upright video console to play a quick game of Space Invaders. I convinced myself that I would just play one game, and then get right to work.

Three hours later I was getting really good.

After realizing that I had wasted the whole morning, I yelled at myself and then sat down to order some lunch. I swore that after eating my Thai food, I’d focus on figuring out what was wrong with my employees’ enthusiasm.

After lunch, I went right back to Space Invaders. Every time I tried to walk away and think about business strategy, I found myself turning back around to play just one more game. The end of the day arrived, and nothing was accomplished. I was pissed. As I drove home, I continued to yell at myself for not getting anything done. I finally shouted out loud, “If I’m not excited to be at work, how can I expect my employees to be?”
And there was my answer. Right in the middle of the Eisenhower Expressway, I realized that the problem wasn’t with my employees’ productivity or enthusiasm, it was with my leadership. I needed to put my business on a course where my enthusiasm would lead by example. I worked through the weekend on a new business strategy, and on the following Monday morning outlined to my employees the changes they should expect to see at the office. In the weeks and months that followed, I saw new energy in the employees, improved sales numbers in the books, and a revitalized passion for the industry on my part. In retrospect, none of the positive changes would have occurred without Space Invaders. Eight relaxing hours of seemingly pointless video game playing not only saved my business, it taught me two valuable lessons all entrepreneurs need to know.

  1. Sometimes the only way to fix something is to step away. Once your mind is clear, the answers will come to you.
  2. When killing aliens, always shoot from left to right. It opens better firing lanes for attacking the spaceships.

The Creative Industry: People Skills Required

(originally published in Screen Magazine 4/4/12)

How important are people skills on your company’s priority list?

I know a guy working in the Chicago post-production community who is a fantastic salesman. He’s really an audio mixer by trade, but a fantastic salesman never the less. I’ve sat in on sessions with him and watched him work. In the middle of an edit he’ll turn around and explain to his clients what he’s doing and why. He not only engages his clients with his professional and likable personality, he includes them in on the process.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with another sound mixer who rarely turns his chair around during a session. The only time he expects to hear the client’s input is after he says (in a monotone voice)… “Here’s playback.” Both engineers have a fantastic set of ears. Both engineers have the resources and technical capabilities to make any commercial sound better than you ever thought possible, but whom would you rather work with?

I’ve been on a set with a director who thought that yelling at everyone might be the best way to optimize productivity. On the other hand, I’ve worked with a director that was so charming and approachable, I overheard the client say… “This hardly feels like work.”

Again, with which person would you rather work?

I think the competitive nature of the creative industry has forced companies and individuals to improve on their people skills, but they seem to have fewer opportunities to put those skills to the test. Far less edit, transfer, graphic, and audio sessions are being supervised these days.

Once more, young creative students aren’t being taught the value of people skills. I hired a freelance artist (fresh out of college) a few months ago, and told him that the clients were on their way to review the project and sit with him while he made changes. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable sitting with the clients. Is there any way I can avoid client interaction?” he asked.

I thought he was going to have a nervous breakdown. I really appreciate the fact that schools are teaching students how to use the latest technology and software, but can’t they take a one-day break from technology and teach them how to have a conversation with potential clients?

Well, I’ll get off of my high horse now. It’s not like the value of people skills is lost on everyone. Several creative shops haven’t seen the level of supervised sessions fall at all. In fact, they’re really busy and have a steady flow of clients in and out daily. I wonder what they’re doing right.