How an Agency Stats Guru Uses Data to Measure Talent's True Worth
"We should not have to fight unfair fights," says WME's Keith Friedenberg, who arms agents to argue for higher pay and is trying to force streaming players to reveal their numbers: "I think the wall will collapse at some point."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Tucked inside a fifth-floor office suite that looks more like a Wall Street accounting firm than a Hollywood talent agency sits WME-IMG's secret weapon, Keith Friedenberg. As head of the agency's global insights group, Friedenberg and a worldwide team of two dozen staffers arm the 5,000-employee company with as much data as possible to help it make better deals. It's a tough but necessary job. There are more ways than ever before to quantify a person or project's reach — overnight ratings not great? How about social media footprint?! — and WME-IMG has allowed Friedenberg, 47, to spend aggressively on measurement tools.
"When I started in this business 25 years ago, I was that guy in the windowless office buried in the basement somewhere with Nielsen books," says Friedenberg, who worked in media research at such companies as Disney and Warner Bros. before joining Endeavor (now WME) in 2008. "Now we're in development meetings and talent meetings long before there's a final product."
Friedenberg's team — considerably larger than UTA's four-person squad and CAA's dozen or so — fields requests from each of the agency's divisions, from TV and film to sports and fashion. "Having a 360-degree view and understanding of shifting consumer engagement is vital in today's rapidly evolving world," says former colleague Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer at Warner Bros. TV Group, against which Friedenberg's data often is used in negotiations.
They rely on a growing cadre of metrics, including more than 65 data systems from 40-plus vendors (Simmons, Scarborough, Rentrak, TGI) as well as their own focus groups and fan-engagement studies. When Dwayne Johnson is negotiating to star in a tentpole film, Friedenberg loads up agents with the actor's latest global favorability scores. An IMG collegiate sports client can use Friedenberg's brand-awareness research to determine which regions of the U.S. to stock with merchandise. Streaming services Netflix and Amazon decline to reveal viewership numbers, hampering WME in its talent negotiations, so Friedenberg comes up with his own data to demonstrate the impact of shows. And when cable networks try to lowball stars, he can build a case for anyone's value to a project.
Take Duck Dynasty's Robertson family. During the show's most recent renewal talks with A&E, Friedenberg provided the Robertsons' reps with the number of books and albums the family has sold, the power of their Walmart collection, the scope of their appearances business and so on. "The network might view their world in a very myopic way: 'How does the Robertson family or Duck Dynasty perform on my air?' " he says. "But my job, contextually, is to say, 'Well, there are all these bubbles around the sphere of the Robertson family, and TV, quite honestly, is only one of them.' "
It's all part of evening the playing field in negotiations, though Friedenberg acknowledges the streaming players present the greatest challenge. "We should not have to fight what I consider unfair fights or uneducated fights because someone's hoarding data," he says. In his view, bringing statistics to the streaming services would help both sides by making the pitch process more efficient. "There's plenty they could share that would let us know, hey, is horror doing better than comedy? Are off-network dramas and comedies doing better than original content? If we knew that, then we actually would educate our client base and say, 'Make more of this.' "
Friedenberg insists WME has no plans to measure streaming viewership — he believes a third party is needed for credibility — but he admits he has been "dabbling" with outside vendors that are trying to do so. His group gathers available data from elsewhere, too. When TV projects cast high-end film talent, for example, he often provides stats including territory-by-territory box office to show global appeal and awareness scores that illustrate brand relevance.
"We're trying to contextualize as much as possible given the fact we have a huge void from actual integral numbers," he says before adding his belief that the streamers ultimately will agree and drop their reluctance to release them. "I think that wall will collapse at some point. I think the industry will just force it."