November 1, 2020

For business leaders in media, this moment is a marathon

The Fast Company Impact Council, an invitation-only group of corporate leaders, entrepreneurial founders, and other leaders from across industries, gathered on June 30 to share their insights.

In this roundtable discussion, led by multimedia editor KC Ifeanyi, top executives discussed what the future of media might look like amid the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and global protests against racial injustice.

Participants in this session, in alphabetical order, were Christa Carone, president of CSM Sport and Entertainment; Alan Fleischmann, founder, chairman, and CEO of Laurel Strategies; Sarah Harden, CEO of Hello Sunshine; Michael Hermann, president and CEO of Wicked Cow Studios; Gigi Pritzker, cofounder and CEO of Madison Wells Media; and Samantha Skey, CEO of She Media.

Alan Fleischmann: I think the new normal is this. In some ways, I do Zooms from dawn to dusk. We probably all do. I’ve been dreaming of being in a different chair at a different table since March 13 and it hasn’t happened yet. And in some ways I’m grateful for it because I think it’s advanced this ability for us to connect in ways that our schedules wouldn’t allow maybe as much. And I think we’re more focused than we ever had been. In some ways, I think these Zoom calls prescribe much more of a back and forth than you would if you were in a gathering around a table where you might be on your iPhone.

Christa Carone: We talk about the new normal and I worry that we’re normalizing this way of existing. I hope that this is not sustainable because I just think we’re human beings and we require that IRL interaction, if you will. And I think about how Michael [Hermann] and I first met over pancakes for breakfast. And that’s why we’re able to have a little bit more of an identification and association here. I can also provide a bit of a perspective of leading a brand-new organization: I was only in my new job for about six weeks, and so I didn’t have an opportunity to get to know people in the way that you normally would in a management situation. And within two weeks as we were starting to experience postponements and cancellations and this really incredible financial impact on our business, I found myself in a situation of having to communicate very difficult decisions relative to the future of the company. You realize the value of having established relationships and having shared experiences in a workplace that you draw upon during difficult times. And Zoom wasn’t enough in order to kind of build that type of connection that you need to have with people so that they trust you. So while this is all new, I hope it isn’t our new normal.

Michael Hermann: The one thing that we’ve learned as a small company is that we’re having a seemingly better time than big companies right now. And we’ve been able to be very agile and nimble. A case in point is since the beginning of March, we’ve created an audio studio and we’re working with some of the biggest content creators in the world to develop premium audio, which is something that we can do remotely. And it’s something that we can produce.

Christa Carone: I think these proverbial pivots are really requiring that everybody become entrepreneurial even in large companies. So in the live events business, every single live event is first having the conversation about whether they can produce something virtually. And it’s a very different experience in terms of concepting and creating, and ultimately producing and acquiring an audience and engaging an audience and measuring that impact. It requires everybody to kind of lean in and identify those entrepreneurial attributes that they have. I think the word pivot has become exhausting in this time, but it actually is incredibly relevant. I probably say it 15 times a day because you are asking people to work outside of their comfort zone, and you’re seeing the best really rise to the top. And you’re not able to do it in such a way where you are gathering around a table and everybody is super clear on the direction. This is a lot of self-starting that’s going on. And I think it’s amazing how we’re seeing some people, whether it’s in bigger companies or small companies, really embrace this opportunity to be much more entrepreneurial.

Sarah Harden: Reese [Witherspoon] was supposed to be shooting for these six months. She’s literally shooting 70 hours a week when she’s in production. All of a sudden we weren’t in production. She’s like a full operating partner in the business, so it was great to have some additional time. But I will say we’ve done some things: We had a premium unscripted series called Shine On With Reese that we shot a couple of years ago that’s on Netflix right now. We did Shine On at Home. She was like, “What’s the best use of my time in this moment?” So she’s just very intentional about that, but I would say she’s being overwhelmed with requests. She’s had the capacity to do things that she might’ve done all that.

Michael Hermann: What we’re seeing is talent really wants to make sure at this moment in time, more than ever, that their message is authentic, not just as talent, but as activists. I think more than ever, certainly in my lifetime, there is as much a desire for legacy of character. And that’s what we’re encountering right now: People are bringing to us ideas that they want to do, that they believe in, that they want to articulate.

Samantha Skey: One of the things I’d love to hear from other people is how to avoid what could very much be a moment instead of being a marathon. I’m trying to put into practice the published goals, the accountability metrics that will keep us from being “tokenistic.” How do we not be that? So I’m trying very hard to do this with the entrepreneurs that we represent, which is about 700 independent websites of which about 200 are Black women-owned. At the same time, small businesses are getting crushed. So there’s that kind of purpose versus profit. The other is within our company we’re looking at a combination of auditing our staffing and auditing our management teams. We’re doing review, report, commit, repeat. So the review is the third-party audit of all aspects of our company composition, then reporting that publicly, regardless of whether it’s attractive or not. And then commit to designing your strategy plan for hiring, for promotional pathing, recruitment, all those things.

Gigi Pritzker: I think we all feel the need for authenticity right now. We’ve been working with a young woman in Texas who started her own web and merch business. It’s called Adorn by Chi, and she’s kind of fought the fight on our own. A lot of her work deals with mental health and the perception of mental health in the Black community and the inability for young Black women to express their own mental health challenges. So she’s been really fighting the good fight and all of a sudden in the last three weeks, it’s like the whole world discovered she’s there. And that’s great, but it’s also really challenging. I watch her struggling with, “Oh my God, Hello Kitty wants to do a promotion with me, and all these gigantic brands that wouldn’t give me the time of day a month ago suddenly think I’m really important.” It’s very interesting in this moment where the pendulum swings really far. But this is a marathon—this isn’t a sprint. And I think we all have to take a minute and think, and listen and reflect.

Sarah Harden: I do think this is a moment of true accountability. I think true accountability starts with deep self-reflection and the willingness to examine all of it. It’s one of the things we’ve certainly been thinking about with our employees: How do we do better? How do we be better? But it starts with, if we’re going to address systemic racism, systemic discrimination, we really have to go back and really unpack the systems—even ones that we’ve been thoughtful about and with good intention. It’s not enough. I think the marathon is unpacking those systems.

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