Two Men Walk Into a Bar – The Story of WPA

imageTwo men walk into a bar. Ok, not a bar. Two men walk into a lunch place on Sunset Boulevard.  They talk for twenty minutes. The conversation stops when one glances out the window and notices a competitor stumble by drunk as hell.  They debate for a minute if it’s really him.  They concur that it is.  They continue talking. Before the competitor can weave around the corner and out of sight, the two men in the lunch place realize that they are inextricably linked to each other for the rest of their careers. And here begins the story of WPA.  Admittedly, before they walked into the bar, er.. lunch place, both had been thinking of getting out of the business.  One to be a Lawyer in Europe, the other to be a Luthier. I know, no one knows what a Luthier is. I’m tired of explaining it, Google it here for Chrissakes.  Anyway, they talked about the agency business. They agreed it could be done better.  They agreed that they were now working in a global marketplace. They agreed, boutiques didn’t work anymore because the big agencies now used them in Hollywood and abroad as talent farm teams to be shaken down when clients reached a certain level.   They agreed a global brand presence was possible. They agreed the big agencies treated their employees like nothing more than chattel to be traded upon. They agreed there was room in between for an agency with the roster size and power of the big agencies, but with a culture that allowed for humanity, development, free flow of information and closer relationships between agent and client and agent and agent.  They agreed on a lot. They walked out of the lunch place with a lot to do. The next weeks were a blur of activity.  One had gone out on his own 8 months before.  He had to convince his clients that it was a good thing to double the size of the agency.  The other had to dissolve a dysfunctional partnership and move on.  He had to convince his clients to free fall with him.  They met on a Saturday morning two weeks later and in 90 degree heat, loaded furniture into a horse trailer.  Yes a horse trailer.  They set it up in 3 tiny rooms on a back lot.  Why a backlot?  some say smarts, but the reasons were more practical.  It was free.

Molly manning the books.

Molly manning the books.

There were other intrepid warriors, Kristen, Trevor, Louiza and Molly.  Young, full of energy, passionate and ready for the fight.  Kristen named the place Worldwide Production Agency when we couldn’t come up with a name.  Trevor had left marble encrusted ICM just a few months before and now found himself smashed into a corner with his face plastered against the window wondering WTF. And Louzilla, well the name says it all. In the early days, Richard had dinosaur roar sound effects on his computer that he fired off liberally whenever Louiza made a deal. Molly, well Molly kept the unruly crew in line and finances headed in the right direction.

Trevor moving his elbows.

Trevor moving his elbows.

We started signing, we started booking, we started building. Megan, Derek and Amber joined us. The studio decided to move us across the lot to a bigger office.  Now instead of 3 tiny rooms, we now had 3 small rooms. Trevor wasn’t plastered against the window anymore. Now he could even raise his elbows when he worked. It was tight, but our culture was born there.  Everyone could hear everything anybody did. How could you not?  No matter where you sat, there was somebody literally 3 feet away.  We developed a style and working rules based on transparency, free flow of information, honesty and respect. We realized we were different.  Starting humbly had bound us together as a tribe.  We had our brushes with each other, sure. But, there was no door slamming,  because in truth, there were no doors to slam.

Kristen & Derek on Derek Appreciation Day.

Kristen & Derek on Derek Appreciation Day.

We also found we all had another thing in common.  An appreciation for Korean Bar-B-Q.  We started having appreciation days for whoever was the low man on the totem pole.  We had them for interns and receptionists.  If there was a reason to appreciate someone, it was off to Korean Bar-B-Q.  To this day, one of the interview questions for potential employees is the direct question: “Do you like Korean Bar-B-Q?”  There is only one acceptable answer. We grew and we grew.  We outgrew the 3 small rooms.  There were now 9 of us and and Trevor’s face was plastered against the window again.  We had been looking for an appropriate space for months and months and finally we walked into a space that all made sense.  3500 square feet with no walls.   Plenty of room, floor to ceiling windows, a garden courtyard on one side, a proper reception area, a conference room

Louiza on the BBQ

Louiza on the BBQ

and did I mention no walls?  Working right next to each other had become our trademark and our comfort level.  why not scale it? You see, the big thing with big agencies is that information disappears behind closed doors.  Everything we’re against. Our philosophy demanded the open space, the honesty and the 24/7 discussion that had brought us this far, this fast. Enter Adrienne. imageAdrienne worked tirelessly building us the open space, that all at once is serious and elegant, while at the same time being welcoming and comfortable.  In August 2012 we moved in and things really took off.  I mean REALLY took off.  We will forever be in her debt. Was it us? Was it the space?  Was it the philosophy?  Was it a commitment to client centric service without the Hollywood bullshit? In truth, it is all of it.  One thing led to another, fed into the next.  The openness bred imagesomething bigger than the sum of it’s parts.  The space Adrienne gave us was more than a space.  It tied it all together. It defined us.  It gave us confidence.

Frank Balkin

Frank Balkin

But, something was still holding us back.  We felt out of balance.  Something was missing and we knew it.  We were always strong in Features and strong in Commercials, but weak in Television.  We needed balance.  We needed Frank and Brian.

Brian Goldberg

Brian Goldberg

Like the mate who you chase for years knowing that you’re destined to be together, we pursued them.  They were the perfect fit and we knew it. Finally, they made the jump.  Things exploded, we had balance.  Barely a year later, it’s all humming along nicely.  But, we have never trusted nicely.  We have never trusted status quo.  As I’ve said before in this blog:  You’re never standing still.  You’re moving forward or backwards.  Status quo is an illusion.

Barnaby Laws

Barnaby Laws

So, here we are. What’s next is here. London. Meet Barnaby. Substantial and social, I met him first last November at Cameraimage in Poland. It was the same feeling as when I walked into the lunch place and met Richard. I could just tell. When I talked to the others, they could just tell also. I would say it was strange, but it’s not. We’d been here before and we knew the feeling. Richard was on his way to London to visit clients. We agreed he should look up Barnaby and ask if he might be interested in working with us at some point. It turns out that his contract was up and he would be available as of February 1st. When you build things correctly you have options. Lots of options.  You have to have criteria for culling through them. Our criteria have always been to look past the opportunity and directly at the people involved. Options will show you opportunities for fast money, for fast growth and power in the marketplace, but you have to brush all that aside and look at the people. Are they a fit?  Skill set is teachable, market knowledge is teachable, deep seeded philosophical values are not.  So we don’t ask: are they like us? That’s far too low a bar as you can always find something in common. The correct question is: do they have the same basic values and life philosophy that we do? imageBarnaby was a fit.  We had figured maybe Barnaby and London in a year, but in a month?  We go by the maxim: Go slow when you can, go fast when you must as the right fit is very rare.  As of today, WPA-United Kingdom is in operation. There will be more adventures, for that’s what it is, an adventure.  We’re not just building a business.  We’re building a lifestyle together.  Our clients, ourselves (we’re 16 employees strong now and growing) and our philosophy.  We’ve done it better, the marketplace is global, there is room for humanity, honesty and transparency. There is room for power, flexibility and exponential growth. So, that’s the story of WPA and it all started when two men walked into a bar, I mean a lunch place. image

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