Today’s my birthday, when Facebook reminds people I’m still alive. With that in mind, I figured it was time to answer a question I know people will be thinking when they see my name pop up in the birthday reminders – what have I been up to this year?! In short, 2013 turned into a year off the grid for me, filled with travel and lots of behind the scenes work. This blog post attempts to share what I’ve been up to.
The last formal job I had ended at the end of 2012, when I left my role as head of Social TV Strategy for Viacom. The amicable departure allowed me to spend much of this year away from traditional work, corporate America, job hunting and the like. I was able to travel extensively with my awesome wife (about eight countries, three continents, 20 cities) and meet with a vast array of people. These meetings were unique because I wasn’t looking for work, wasn’t pitching myself and wasn’t soliciting anything other than genuine conversation and exchange of thoughts.
In this time I met with former colleagues, mentors, friends, peers of all kinds and many friends of friends. It was refreshing not having any agenda other than getting to know people while talking about issues and trends we shared passion for.
In the course of over 100 such exchanges I was astounded to discover a large amount of folks that had either already left their jobs or were about to leave their jobs. This surprising trend has continued and it seems like every other day I learn of another relation who’s left her or his job. What’s even more intriguing is that the majority of these unemployed left where they were without having their “next thing.”
To make it clear, 2013 appears to have been the year for really talented, well-connected and successful people to leave their jobs even without knowing what they were going to do next. As a quick anecdote, over half of the thirty participants I invited to a high level, digital think tank-type gathering I organized in January, 2013, are no longer with the jobs they had while attending The St0ry. There seems to be something in the air, and it isn’t a “millennial” or any other generation-specific trend.
What I’ve noticed, in conversation after conversation, is that really smart people started seeing the writing on the wall. The first type, those who succeeded in doing great work from a more senior position, recognized they are more valuable as independent contractors and creators – where they could own more of their work, intellectual property, monetization and the like. The second type, VPs and below who are promising up and comers, on the fast-track in their careers, recognized there are intractable barriers to innovation at most large companies and they’d be better off on the outside (I wrote elsewhere about Web 1.0 executives in a Social 3.0 world).
This has caused an amazing reality, where talent is both needed and available but the truly talented want more. Figuring out that “more” has been my mission for 2013. My peers and I know we have a lot to offer. We have trophies, great contacts, experience and passion but are tired of old-world org structures, titles, bosses afraid to innovate themselves out of jobs and an obsessive focus on the next quarterly report to investors. We want more and that’s why we’re checking out of old paradigms.
Unsurprisingly, as the year progressed, I had to make decisions about earning an income once again. In trying to describe my desire and answer that question of “what’s more?” I eventually stumbled on to what has become my mantra, “I want to work with people I like on projects I care about.”
It’s a simple idea that has empowered me to make decisions I otherwise wouldn’t have made. Its focused my thinking, opened new horizons, attracted like-minded superstars to want to work with me and given me space for the kind of contemplation needed when embedded in such a frenetic industry.
So what am I actually doing now? Because I’ve mostly been working behind the scenes, with people who know me, I’ve decided to be more secretive than usual about my work. Generally, I’ve worked with a major network on strategy around their biggest event of the year; I’ve worked with several agencies on thought leadership ideas for their clients; I’ve consulted for one of the most interesting Social TV experiments to launch in 2014; I’ve mentored startups and entrepreneurs. Luckily, I have a super supportive wife who is happy to be on the ride with me.
One thing in particular that I’m excited about is applying the ideas and strategies of media companies to individuals, specifically celebrities. Like media companies, celebrities create content regularly that they own the rights to (think Instagram, blogs, podcasts, web series, etc.) and control their own, direct-to-fan marketing channels (social media, newsletters, etc.)
With me on this adventure is the actress, producer and activist, Eliza Dushku. Together, we’re working on several projects that explore the evolution of what it means to be a celebrity with content creation, ownership and marketing strategies (case studies include Soleil Moon Frye, Adrian Grenier, Zooey Deschanel, Kevin Smith, Lauren Conrad and many others).
Something else that’s interesting is my evolving role as an advisor to people thinking of leaving their work and as a connector for newly-extricated superstars. I’m thinking of creating some sort of unemployment club. Seriously. The first rule of Unemployment Club? You can’t have a job. The second rule? You can’t want a job.
So what am I actually doing now? Stay tuned. Or, better yet, say hi! (bonus points for wishing me a happy birthday by means other than the Facebook wall!)
Here are some of the people who, like me, have made big shifts in 2013. I owe each a huge thanks for their commiseration, inspiration and friendship (I linked to their news as well as Twitter accounts): Jesse Redniss (@JesseRedniss), Sharon Feder Hirsch (@Sharon Feder), Andy Ellwood (@AndyEllwood), Erica Berger (@GoodBerger), David Levy (@dslevy), Callie Schweitzer (@cschweitz), Mark Ghuneim (@MarkGhuneim), Rebecca Sinderbrand (@Sinderbrand), Greg Levey (@GregoryLevey), Amanda Slavin (@AJSlavin), Will Keenan (@WillKeenan), Morgan Greco (@MorganGreco).
Of course I also send warm blessings to all those I know about, and don’t yet know about, that are still stealthily planning their exits (let me know if I can help!)
And, even though he didn’t change jobs this year, I have to shout-out the ever-inspirational Ross Martin (@RossMartin1) – go watch his Poetry of Misunderstanding TED talk and read this amazing Facebook note.
And here’s an awesome article to read for additional insight: Build a Career Worth Having
Little know fact about me - back in 2002/2003 I would spend several hours a week flying on the trapeze. Despite not being very athletic, trapeze, for whatever reason, really excited me. Eventually I learned how to fly without a harness and even helped the Trapeze School build an upgraded website.
Its been nine years since the last time I flew on a trapeze. In that time, my good friend, Jonathon Conant, the founder of Trapeze School, has greatly expanded his business. They now have several rigs across America and have seen many students graduate to places like Cirque du Soleil.
One place he’s expanded to is Santa Monica, where I happen to be spending the week. It was time for my triumphant return to trapeze! But I didn’t want to go alone so I dragged two friends with me. Bringing total beginners would make me feel better about getting back on “the horse” after a nine year absence.
The trapeze virgins I managed to get are my good friends, Nate and Eliza Dushku. We’ve been working on a few projects together and this was like a corporate team-building retreat… sort of.
We had such a great time! Some of my skills came back, Nate was a total natural and Eliza eventually mastered the first trick of any aerialist (the knee-hang).
Here I am, all business! Check out those awesomely-pointed toes!
And here’s Eliza’s perfect knee-hang catch:
The funny thing is that Perez Hilton noticed Eliza’s tweet and blogged about her trapezing.
For more insight, check out Eliza’s great blog post.
I wanted to share this story because I have so many fond memories of my time actively flying and it was really special introducing friends to this whole world. It’ll be hard to resist going to the NY outpost and picking up this cool hobby once more. If you haven’t tried it, you’re missing out!!!
After spending over two years working across the brands of Viacom on the latest trends and insights surrounding social media and Social TV, I am on the job hunt for the first time in a while. In conversations with present and potential peers, friends, mentors and managers I am often asked a typical question along the lines of “so what do you think we should do in our company?” I find myself not responding with digital strategy ideas but rather a rant about corporate silos, misaligned reward structures, turf battles and the organizational structure overall.
The key bottleneck to growth of several large companies formed in the 20th century is their org structure. They’re leaving money on the table, not maximizing the potential of their resources, brand and intellectual property as key cultural-digital trends continue disrupting old ways of extracting profit from their core business (whatever the core business might be).
This is because the way many companies think of the “digital revolution” (to put it in as generic a term as possible) is via an org structure from at least 15 years ago. When the Internet was first coming into its own, companies knew they needed to build “digital” teams. This usually meant building websites and then mobile apps.
These “digital” teams were created away from the core business and are seen as marketing vehicles for that core business (many also report into heads of marketing). The money invested, the value extracted and the impact overall of these “digital” teams is usually small compared to the core business.
The problem is that these days its clear that the potential for “digital” to inform, infuse and impact the core business is much greater than it was last century and even last decade. The way society thinks of and uses the Internet and social media, the evolution of hardware, bandwidth speeds, storage space and so many more factors are affecting our culture and economy in massive ways. Strategies to understand and capitalize on these fast-changing trends can inform so much more than just marketing.
The typical corporate structure, created under a different understanding of “digital,” is very hard to shake up. These teams are run by senior executives whose career paths were charted by building scalable websites and associated technologies. Many (not all) are “web 1.0” executives in a “social 3.0” world. They know how to keep servers online and the web development process smooth. Justifying the continued existence of their teams and budgets, these executives survive by regularly redesigning sites, launching new apps and widgets and reporting to superiors on pageviews, ad inventory and increases in followers/likers.
Most of the people overseeing “old world” senior digital executives aren’t savvy enough about cultural-digital trends to ask the tough questions that need to be asked. The questions they should be asking have less and less to do with those regular reports on pageviews and likes. They should be asking larger-scale questions and beginning to plan for the fundamental shifts of resources and processes necessary to align corporate plans and the core business for capitalizing on the true potential of the innovation economy.
The impact and potential impact of current trends on the core business of large companies born in the 20th century require analysis by people outside of the current corporate structure and especially outside of the current “digital teams.” I’m advocating for a new role of “Digital Consigliere" to help senior-most, non-digital executives, investors and board members understand, interpret and act upon what they should be asking and what they’re hearing.
From my experience at large media companies, I think we’re already seeing the birth of The Great Storytelling Revolution but strongly believe these trends have weight across industries. These were some of the key ideas that informed a think tank gathering I convened two months ago and summarized in The Story of The St0ry.
Within a few years we’ll find it quaint that there used to be separate “digital teams” who were responsible for “doing digital.” There will be a much tighter integration between digital natives and non-traditionally-digital teams responsible for the core business. Insights from the digital revolution will force a shift of silo and reward structures, as efforts will be aligned in ways that many current structures simply don’t empower. This is obvious within digital-first companies and start-ups but will become just as obvious to large, 20th century-born companies as well.
After many months of planning, my brainchild, The St0ry, came to life on January 5th in the overwhelming Real World Suite of the Hard Rock in Las Vegas. The single greatest achievement, the coolest part of the gathering, was bringing 30 absolutely fascinating people together in one room, for a shared experience and experiment.
The key theme was everyone’s passion for storytelling and the increasing importance of storytelling to everything. The language of storytelling is permeating more and more fields these days, as people begin to understand the true potential of digital and social media to impact our society. Every participant came with their own unique take on how our culture is evolving, the role technology plays in that evolution and how people, companies, organizations and governments should understand and evolve themselves given these trends.
From some of my prepared remarks, meant to kick off the conversations:
…I’ll leave it to all of you to interpret words like disruption, innovation, and social for yourselves. Our gathering isn’t about getting more Facebook likes or how much white space to include on your website. Our gathering is about meditating over the fact that we now live in a world with Facebook and Twitter, with Tumblr and YouTube, with iPhone and Tivo, with Zipcar and Kahn Academy, with MakerBot and driverless cars.
What does that mean? How does that impact the way we communicate, how does it impact the messages, feelings and stories capable of being communicated? How do we promote businesses, rally for social causes, run for public office?
How are the chefs, journalists, academics, artists and activists of 2013 different from those of 1980, 1880 or 80? And, not less importantly, how are they exactly the same?
Getting exposed to the insights and opinions of those doing similar things but from different fields was a key selling point. We had published authors, Emmy winners, C-level executives, artists, social activists, high tech folks and a star chef. Each committed to staying offline, maintaining confidentiality and offering their true selves to each other.
Through very generous grants from the Schusterman Foundation and Taglit-Birthright Israel, I had the budget to cover all expenses and arrange for a top-quality gathering. Given our intense, fast-paced, virtual, hyper-connected yet strangely disconnected world, Lynn Schusterman’s vision is that nothing replaces the power of in-person gatherings. She’s put her money where her mouth is and has funded amazing connection points for all sorts of people - and not just in the non-profit space. The St0ry follows directly from her vision of the value of highly-crafted, intense, offline, real-world gatherings. I encourage everyone to learn more about the ROI Community, which is how The St0ry was born.
In the run-up to Vegas I was intentionally vague about what would actually happen. I worked with the team from the Center for Leadership Initiatives, Yoni Gordis and Beth Glick, to craft a very specific agenda in order to create an intentional flow to the 2.5 days we had together. Throughout the days there were group-wide conversations, 10-person sub-groups and even smaller “pod” groups.
The first evening was focused on shmoozing and getting to know each other. I think the Real World Suite helped set a cool tone and the open bar certainly helped the socializing. Among other things, every person was invited to share a “playlist of me” that represented their thinking, interests, etc.
The next day we got down to business in the Vinyl space at the Hard Rock (their small concert venue). The day was meant to catalyze lots of ideas, insights, brainstorms and more. We accomplished this through guided conversation topics, an amazing workshop on creativity and misunderstanding with Ross Martin of Viacom’s Scratch group and then several hours of group sessions with Ross, Kevin and Eliza.
Highly recommended TED talk by Ross on misunderstanding:
Each of our three special guests represented a different “lens” on our main theme. Kevin spoke passionately and vividly about the evolution of creativity, new formats of expression, new ways of distributing and monetizing content. Eliza shared very eloquently how she uses her celebrity to champion the non-profit causes she cares about, how she embraces new tools for their promotion (CrowdRise, etc.) and how she tries to get specific causes the attention they deserve. Ross clued everyone in on the amazing impact of millennials on traditional business models, pointing to the work his group does with GM, among other clients.
After more intimate sessions, where participants were able to delve deeper into each lens with each guest catalyst, we took another group pic:
Our final day together was far less structured. The idea was to have all-day workshopping, where each person could propose a topic, pitch, problem, etc. for further input and expert consultation from the other 29 people. If the first full day was about embracing misunderstanding, generating lots of ideas and overwhelming the senses, the second full day was a chance to let each participant delve deeper into anything she or he wanted. We insured there was enough time to seriously consider how our time together could provide specific, impactful outcomes instead of just fun conversations.
After several rounds of workshopping, in various smaller groupings, every participant got 90 seconds on stage to give their own min-TED talk on their idea and its evolution (or whatever else came to mind).
We ended with a huge zoom-out, inviting groups of 5-7 people to share - using whatever medium or art form they wanted - a vision for “the story of our times.”
I’m intentionally leaving out lots of details because what happened in Vegas will stay in Vegas. It was a magical time, where people put away their devices and egos, didn’t have to play to an audience, got away from their responsibilities and engrossed themselves in the unique opportunity of being around 29 other truly interesting, accomplished professionals.
One of the coolest parts of the gathering was having a real-time graphic facilitator. Sophia, from Graphic Footprints, was able to capture the ideas being generated as they were discussed. Its an amazing talent and the graphic boards that came out were stunning. Here’s a sample, from one of our sessions:
I truly believe the first incarnation of The St0ry was an amazing success. My primary goal was creating new bonds between a unique group of innovators and that certainly happened. I am sure several collaborations will come out of the gathering. I’m trying to figure out the best way to recreate the magic that happened, increase its scope and impact, especially as I continue exploring the next chapter of my career (since leaving Viacom).
After over two years working on amazing, forward thinking projects, across all brands and levels of Viacom, its time for me to move on. I don’t yet know what the next full-time adventure in my career will be, but I couldn’t be more excited for what 2013 has in store.
Its been an amazing time, working at the nexus of such fast-moving trends in Social TV, social media and digital strategy overall. Within Viacom I served as a thought-leader on ever-changing trends and a facilitator, working across silos and levels to connect lots of dots, launch lots of pilots, arrange enterprise-wide deals and whatever else I could to insure we maximized our potential.
My famous wall of case studies in my office at Viacom about Social TV
Among external highlights, I’ve been a regular speaker and panelist at conferences about the future of TV, a guest blogger for LostRemote (the leading blog on Social TV), a subject for the book on Social TV, a member of the ‘top ten social media mavens in the media industry,’ and a resource for bleeding edge startups as they tried making the right connections across the complex landscape of such a large media company. I’ve built amazing friendships and professional relationships with so many people. No doubt these will continue and come into play wherever I end up next.
As far as what’s next, in my immediate future, the wife and I are embarking tomorrow on an amazing journey through America’s south. You can follow along as we #ShwirtzTheSouth (www.ShwirtzTheSouth.com)! The road trip spans from Savannah, Georgia to Las Vegas, Nevada, where I’ll be organizing an event I’m really excited about right before CES. Just to be clear, this event is not affiliated with Viacom.
An all-expense-paid, closed-door gathering that will span 2.5 days, The St0ry () brings together 30 of the brightest, most innovative minds, to discuss and strategize the future of storytelling and digital strategy. From C-level executives of hot startups to PhDs, Emmy-winners, published authors, film makers, artists, activists and managers of really successful YouTube content, this will be a one-of-a-kind event. I’ve also recruited Kevin Smith and Eliza Dushku to join the group as “guest catalysts.” This recent blog post best describes my inspiration for the event: The Great Storytelling Revolution.
That’s about all for now. Big life changes! Lots of excitement, lots of opportunities and I’m going to take my time deciding on next steps. If you have something interesting to share, don’t hesitate!