Breaking into the Media Biz: 10 Tips for Aspiring Moguls

Illustration by Barzak“In this very real world, good doesn’t drive out evil. Evil doesn’t drive out good. But the energetic displaces the passive.” — Bill Bernbach, advertising legend

I recently spoke about media careers to college students at the National Broadcasting Society AERho Convention. We were in the heart of the Disneyland Resort, amidst thousands of tourists wearing Mickey Mouse ears and celebrating America’s greatest media brand. It was the perfect place to discuss the future of media and how these aspiring young professionals could rule it. It also was a great demo of the difference between old school and new school mentalities…

On the panel with me were a couple of senior execs from traditional ad agencies. They were successful older men with really nice ties. (Yes, I was tie-less.) One exec was cheerful and the kind of guy I’d love to work with. The other was a complete corporate conformist straight out of my Atomic Tango trailer. He harumphed about his agency’s internship program, the importance of dressing correctly in the interview, and how coming too early for your interview was just as bad as coming late…

Way to excite the kids there, pops. And thanks for reminding me why I started my own business.

Yes, I know, all that was perfect advice for the aspiring account execs and other suits in the audience. If you need a job in corporate media, follow the rules of decorum. (Then again, when I wore a suit to my interview at MCA Records eons ago, I was ridiculed by my future boss, and MCA was the most corporate label in history. And if you’re a designer or writer and show up to an ad agency in your Brooks Brothers finest, you better have one hell of a creative portfolio.)

What that exec was myopically ignoring was the fact that many media success stories today don’t even involve a single job interview. And that the corporate media jobs he so proudly promoted are becoming fewer and fewer and fewer…

Welcome to the New Media World Order

Today, an aspiring media professional has two choices: Your traditional corporate gig — and it certainly helps to have names like MCA Records and Saatchi & Saatchi on your resume. Or your century 21.0 media gigs, where it’s all about you and your talent.

To illustrate, I mentioned to the students that I would be meeting with a brilliant comic book artist whom I found on the Internet. (That’s his drawing at the beginning of this post.) I don’t know where he went to school. In fact, I don’t even know his full name, since he simply goes by “Barzak.” All I know is that I dig his work, and that he took the initiative to promote his killer talent on CreativeHotlist.com, MySpace, and a few eye-wrangling websites. He and I had spoken on the phone, and he seemed like a nice guy. And did I mention that I dig his work?

Indeed, after we met that afternoon, we decided to work together. And neither of us wore a tie. In fact, Barzak’s cool goatee was a far better accessory.

Another example is multi-talented film director Dane Boedigheimer. I stumbled across his clever online videos, which featured some impressive low-budget special effects. He recently graduated from film school, but he let his videos posted on various sites do the talking. Now he creates videos for JibJab and other clients — including me — no internship required.

What I’m describing is obviously not for everyone.

This approach works for Barzak and Dane because they’ve got immense talent and relentless drive. For everyone else, there are the corporations. But note this: corporate media giants are hiring fewer people than ever. Just try getting a job at any big city newspaper.

Indeed, even in the fat old days, corporate media didn’t hand out a lot of glamorous jobs, even to those who schlepped coffee and distributed mail for years in so-called “internships.” Most corporate media gigs are good for the resume, not so good for the soul.

And now, more and more media companies are relying on independent contractors with the talent and the reliability to get the job done. It’s the way Hollywood has produced movies since the old studio system collapsed. Actors, writers, directors and even most below-the-line pros go from gig to gig, and have to promote themselves or, if they’re lucky, have an agent promote them.

Internships? You don’t need no stinkin’ internships. It’s 2008, with hundreds of Web 2.0 companies creating free apps and giving away their server space to help you promote yourself. True, it’s not easy and there’s no guarantee of success — but this business has never been easy and there’s never been any guarantee of success. (Want guaranteed income? Become a car mechanic.) Today you simply have more freedom to be yourself and let your talent do the talking — you just have to buy your own health insurance.

(Update 3/27/8: I just learned about The Freelancers Union, which provides health insurance to freelancers.)

So what about those damn tips?

Nearly 900 words ago, I advertised tips for breaking into the media biz, so here they are. I think they apply whether you’re going corporate or striking out on your own — do let me know what you think…

1. Become an expert in one area, good in two: I was given this great advice by David Carter, my sports business professor at USC. He made his expertise sports, and now has a thriving consultancy as well as the MBA teaching gig. He’s also frequently interviewed for stories on sports business. I made my expertise marketing, which led to an MBA teaching gig and my own agency and the occasional interview. Your expertise can be a subject matter or a skill, but learn everything you can about it — and stay on top of trends and theories. Never stop reading or learning!

2. Develop unique creative talents: A lot of low-level media jobs are going overseas, particularly in design and programming. So don’t just be a designer — become an artist with a distinct sense of style. Don’t just be a programmer — become an application developer. I personally endorse creative writing skills, because it’s difficult to replace an American writer with a foreigner (thanks to the anemic dollar, even the Canadians are too expensive). And unless you want to find yourself staying late at the office coding, don’t bother learning HTML. Focus on the creative skills that will differentiate you in a crowded global job market.

3. Learn sales: That’s one mandatory skill they didn’t teach me in business school. Even if you’re not actually selling something for money, sales skills are invaluable in selling your ideas to a client, to your boss, even to your teammates. There’s also always a demand for sales people (or business development professionals, as they’re more euphemistically called), regardless of the economy. Sales jobs are easier to get for people just starting out. Plus, if you become a company’s “rainmaker,” there’s no way that company would ever lay you off.

4. Network before you need anything: Most of my business comes from referrals by various connections, friends and former co-workers. I can only imagine how much business I’d have now had I done a better job of making connections and building networks in college. When I was on my college newspaper, I never bothered to meet the chief editor, and he now happens to be the President & CEO of NBC Universal. (Hey, Jeff Zucker, I don’t suppose you remember me, the geek in the photo department…) So if you’re in college now, get to know your classmates and your professors, hook up on LinkedIn.com, and stay connected.

5. Exploit Web 2.0: When I got out of college, there was no such thing as the Web. To gain exposure, you pretty much had to be discovered, or go from interview to interview to interview… Now, there are actually too many options to promote yourself online. I recommend using the following to start:

LinkedIn for basic networking — no need to pay for it; the free service is all you need.
Creative Hotlist for your creative portfolio if you’re a writer or artist.
YouTube for your sizzle reel if you’re a director.
MySpace for total self promotion (upload your work, add friends, post bulletins and blog). Note: Treat MySpace as a professional showcase, and use Facebook for your social life. Facebook is NOT good for self-promotion because someone has to add you as a friend before they can see your profile. For that reason, MySpace is also much more search-engine friendly.
• Note: Although Facebook is safer for socializing and posting those wild vacation photos, the Internet is the opposite of Vegas: what happens here doesn’t just stay here, it can spread everywhere fast, and you’ll have a hard time removing those incriminating Spring Break photos when they come back to haunt you years down the road. As I heard one professional researcher describe it, “It’s like trying to remove pee from a pool.”
• Finally, BLOG. Write at least once weekly about the subject of your expertise — not a personal diary. If you can’t write, bribe a friend who is a writer. (Most writers are broke when they’re starting out, so they will work for pizza.) Keep producing articles that attract search engines, reporters, and corporate execs who troll the web for people talking about their companies.

6. Get household names on your resume. The business world is all about name dropping, so try to work with top execs, celebrities, or, yes, established corporations. Obviously, you can intern with them. Or you can find a small company that does work for big names. Even small magazines offer opportunities to reach out to big names for interviews or promotions.

7. Collect stories. It’s not enough to talk about your skills or responsibilities at various jobs. Over the course of your career, you need to accumulate stories that describe what you did and what you learned from the experiences. These stories will regale people in your cover letters, interviews or business pitches. While most of your stories should focus on your successes, you can also describe what you learned from failures. I often tell clients what NOT to do based on my dotcom misadventures.

8. Score press. Want to work in media? Show that you know how to work the media. Don’t do anything drastic like fooling around with the governor of New York just to score fame and fortune. Do enter contests in your creative practice. Do get to know journalists at the small publications in your city. And do contact bloggers in your field. A little spotlight can go a long way. I once helped a video go viral by discussing it on the director’s college bulletin board; that eventually led to the director appearing on Letterman’s show.

9. Work for a startup. Sure, startups don’t offer name value for your resume, and some appear to have the lifespan of a gnat, but startups do offer more responsibility than an internship. You’ll still get stuck with coffee duty, but you’ll share it with the CEO. In addition, startups are often launched by serial entrepreneurs who know other serial entrepreneurs, so if your company flops, you could find yourself at another in no time. The key is to get that vital experience in a startup, build a killer book or reel, then hop to a company with a bigger name. Several of my colleagues have recently landed jobs with Hollywood studios after brief flirtations with Web 2.0 startups.

10. Go beyond the call of duty. My buddy XDL, whose career as an independent director is taking off, once mentioned to me that L.A. is filled with talent… that spends most of its time partying. Media success stories are not always about the most talented people, but the people who do the most with their talent. They get together with other ambitious people to make short films. They connect with others at business events. They befriend bloggers and journalists. And once they get the gig, they put in extra time to prepare for the job, prove easy to work with, and even give their employers more than what’s expected. Hence the quote that begins this article: it’s truly the energetic who displace the passive.

Wrapping it Up

So that’s my perspective based on my career experience. I’d love to hear the perspectives and experiences of other professionals in the media industry. How did you get started? What was your “big break”?

For more advice, I recommend the book Career Warfare by David D’Alessandro. He’s not a media guy, but he knows a lot about branding and success in the workplace. More importantly, he’s not some academic speculating on what it takes to succeed based on multivariate analysis; he actually did it. I can only imagine the time and effort I would have saved in my career had I read this book when I was younger.

Finally, I close with my obligatory Steve Jobs quote. My regular readers know that I’m a Jobs worshiper. That’s because he didn’t accept the way things are done — he set out to change them. He’s the personification of the saying, if you want to rule the waves, you gotta waive the rules. So in closing, here’s the career advice that Che Jobs has to offer:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

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Like that? Click this: Comic Relief: Dan Pink Takes On The Crappy-Job Blues

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5 responses to “Breaking into the Media Biz: 10 Tips for Aspiring Moguls

  1. Thanks for the tips. Great article!

  2. Fantastic article, It sounds a bit like what I am doing. I can defiantly relate to this article.

    I might just go and take up that book you have just recommended

  3. lubricatingtherevolution

    sooo true!

  4. Great post, I’m looking forward to more.

  5. I stumbled across this post from a Facebook link and didn’t even intend to read the whole thing. I’m glad I did, though, this is some sh!t that rings true to me. At the very least I found out about Freelancer health insurance! Win!

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