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When WME | IMG co-CEOs Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell took the stage at Fast Company‘s Innovation Festival, they were joined by WME client Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
But the wrestler-turned-actor hasn’t always been with Emanuel and Whitesell’s agency, leaving CAA for WME in 2011. He indicated Monday night in New York that the move wasn’t so much due to his CAA agents balking at him wanting to return to wrestling as it was due to his “global ambitions” in TV, movies, digital and other areas.
“I knew that I had to make a change because I had bigger ambitions, global ambitions at that time, and I felt like at CAA they just weren’t being met and I felt in my gut I needed a change,” Johnson said at a panel with Emanuel and Whitesell moderated by Fast Company editor Robert Safian.
“There’s just an inherent DNA with these guys and a culture at WME that’s very hungry and very aggressive. And I was able to sit with Ari down in Florida and talk about what I wanted to do, what I wanted to achieve and what I wanted to accomplish. And everything was met with open arms.’Tell me what you want to do and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.'”
Earlier, Johnson noted that he “wasn’t happy” at CAA, and while he and Whitesell pointed out that he was able to return to wrestling with WME, stressing that he did so in a quality way, Emanuel said he wasn’t looking to take shots at CAA.
“I’m not here to bash them,” the brash WME | IMG exec, who did just that at a Fortune conference in July, said of CAA at NYU’s Skirball Center on Monday night.
Instead, Emanuel stressed that at WME | IMG, he and his fellow agents are able to take clients like Johnson who are interested in various industries and allow them to have that “horizontal life” by working with partners like Droga5, the ad agency WME acquired in 2013, which also helped Johnson secure his new partnership with Under Armour.
“It was one of the biggest things in our first conversation, which was, let’s leverage partnerships, and these guys do that so incredibly well, obviously, so five years later, here we are today 2015, two or three big announcements, Under Armour, Ford, one more on the way, I can’t tell you because you guys will tweet it, but it’s coming soon,” Johnson teased.
Indeed, there were a few teases to an in-the-works deal involving Johnson, with Emanuel earlier starting to talk about “a situation with…” before he stopped himself and asked Whitesell if they were ready to talk about it. “Probably not,” Whitesell said.
Johnson did, however, reveal how before he got into business with Under Armour, Droga5 helped him understand his global value as a brand.
“Droga5 was very instrumental in our Under Armour deal, incredibly instrumental,” Johnson said. “What they did, which they do so well, is they did an incredible deep dive of research into me as a brand as an enterprise all of the businesses. It’s almost like a deep dive, and then going 50,000 feet into the air. Just doing this global research: ‘Here’s where you’re strong, here’s where you’re weak, here’s where you need to get better, here’s a future, here’s where we sit right now, in every single territory around the world.’ Take the movie business out of it, by the way. ‘This is how you’re looked at. How do you want to approach this?'”
Emanuel added that the ad agency is able to provide “a marketing, advertising perspective that Patrick and I didn’t have.”
Later, Johnson said that when he’s looking at a project, the first thing he thinks about is “how it’s going to relate to the audience globally.”
Droga5 is just one of many acquisitions WME has made over the past two years, including the Miss Universe Organization, Professional Bull Riders, Inc. and most notably, IMG, for $2.35 billion in December of 2013.
Speaking at the Fast Company panel on Monday night, Whitesell explained that these acquisitions are all part of the company’s plan to offer their clients more opportunities in different areas.
“We saw simply distribution was changing, content, premium content, premium stars; we’re going to be able to do more in the world as it evolves,” Whitesell said. “The more the world got disrupted, that was going to be great for us and be great for our clients and if we could attract the right clients who had the talent and identify them and help nurture that long term and create as many of these opportunities across the board, we could keep doing more and more…What [Johnson] talked about with Under Armour, six years ago probably doesn’t exist, so we kind of had to position ourselves along that way and that’s kind of been the central idea Ari and I have had is that we just felt that we could keep diversifying this base, first and foremost to service our clients and our clients’ changes.”
Johnson noted when WME acquired IMG, the deal was seen as providing new opportunities for him and the agency’s clients.
The Rock said, “First call: ‘Hey, we got this and how are we going to fit you into IMG and connect all of these pieces.'”
As for WME | IMG’s acquisition of Professional Bull Riders, Inc. in April, Emanuel explained that that also fit in with their other businesses and the company realized it could do more by owning PBR than it could by merely representing the brand, which they had done.
“We had made their new deal, realized that when they come into our platform, we can do more with them,” Emanuel said. “So we’re now doing, in Brazil, a show just for Brazilian bull riders with Netflix. We had a global licensing group, we thought we could do more there. We now have a sales and marketing team in college; we could use them as the go-around locally. We could add our music to their events. One of the things that we saw was because of the landscape changing, there was a platform that we could build that was unmatched.”
As for how Emanuel and Whitesell decide whether to buy or merely represent a brand, Emanuel explained it’s pretty simple, pointing out that not everything’s for sale.
“Well if something’s available to buy…,” Emanuel said. “If we feel like we can increase the value of it, of course you’d rather own it than not own it and some things you can’t.”
Whitesell added: “If you can buy ’em, you buy ’em. You don’t have to buy ’em, you can represent them and do it really well. That’s just kind of the balance you go through and we have a mix of both.”
Emanuel also briefly discussed WME’s venture capital business, explaining the process behind those investments.
“We’re entrepreneurs. We see opportunities. We meet people that are running these companies and if we can connect with them and believe they’re proper entrepreneurs, we put money in ’em,” Emanuel said. “How we’re going to do that in the future, I think we’re going to keep that process. And Patrick and I, one of the things that we’ve said to each other is, if we’re going to do that, we’re going to do it with businesses that we think are going to disrupt our current business, so we can still say ahead of the game.”
Whitesell also weighed in on the Hollywood hot-button issue of the pay disparity between men and women, but he stressed that the problem is that there are not enough high-paying opportunities for women.
“I think it’s been talked about a lot now and it should. There’s no question there needs to be higher-paying opportunities for women. It’s not that it hasn’t existed in certain categories: Certain women have made a lot of money…Jennifer Lawrence…is being paid a lot of money, rightfully so, for the franchises she’s in. Melissa McCarthy right now is getting paid a lot of money. The problem is there’s not enough opportunities like that for women. There haven’t been roles where they’ve been put in the center of movies that, frankly, have to make a lot of money. That’s what drives it. It’s all math…I think the push has to get past the bias that these roles have to be dominated by men…There’s got to be more movies and roles created for women to play those types of roles in bigger movies. And that’s where I think the work needs to be done.”
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