August 25

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Editor in Chief Rises to CEO of Whalerock Industries

By Mimi MacLean

August 25, 2020


Anne Marie Image
Whalerock Industries CEO Anne-Marie O’Neill

Anne-Marie O’Neill, CEO of Whalerock Industries

Anne-Marie O’Neill is the CEO of Whalerock Industries, a highly acclaimed Hollywood production studio, and entertainment business consulting firm. Whalerock consultants create and execute transformative digital content and marketing strategies to help their clients innovate and grow their businesses. Anne-Marie started working at Whalerock Industries as editor in chief in 2011 and rose to CEO in 2019.

Find Anne-Marie O’Neill and Whalerock Industries

Episode Contents:

  • Working Her Way Up In A Male-Dominated Industry
  • You Have To Be Ready For Accountability and Responsibility
  • Managing and Operating Whalerock Industries

Working Her Way Up In A Male-Dominated Industry

whalerock industries
Mimi:

Anne-Marie, thank you so much for joining us today. I really, really appreciate it. And I can’t wait to hear everything that you’re gonna tell us about your journey. Thanks for having me. Yeah. So I would love for you to start out about how you started out at People magazine and you’ve worked your way up in a male-dominated industry, and being a CEO at Whalerock industries.

Anne-Marie:

Well, um, it’s quite a long story. I came over from Australia in my twenties to work at People. I’d been working at Time magazine in Australia as a writer. And the guy who hired me at time was American. And he came back to work for his Time, inc, as a more senior guy at Time, inc invited me to come over for one summer and worked for him at People which I did. And, um, it all worked out and I wound up moving, thinking. I think almost every Australian you ever hear about who moves overseas says, I thought I’d move for two years. Two years seems to be the ticket, uh, and I wound up staying. So I had a great ride at people. I was there for eight years and then I stayed after having kids, I stayed at timing and worked for Real Simple, which was a little bit of more, um, a monthly schedule, which was easier than the weekly. And then in terms of getting to LA, my husband and I made a decision after our twins turned five and we were living in a fourth floor, walk up in Brooklyn that, that life wasn’t sustainable for us anymore. So we made a real lifestyle decision to move out to the West coast. So that’s how we got to LA. And then I took some time working for myself and then wound up consulting for what was then Bevin Braun. And it was a company founded by Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman, both very big Hollywood names and, um, Lloyd wound up buying out Gail. I ended up working full time for the company and wound up at the end of last year, becoming CEO. That’s a short version.

Mimi:

That’s a short version. That’s great. So how will your skills that you were doing at People and Real Simple being applied to your current job, or was it a complete rework of what you were doing and all those skills?

Anne-Marie:

It’s quite different? But also very useful. I think that having come up in a creative pot of, of the industry was very, very useful in running a team and running a business. So I learned about running a business on the job. So my MBA came from running a bunch of businesses for Lloyd and running a bunch of different businesses for Whalerock and really asking a lot of questions and learning that way. And so I think if you’re steeped in what it is your industry produces in my case, content, digital products, digital media, digital commerce, if you’re steeped in how to do that, and then you learn the business side of it, I think it’s much easier than if you are steeped in business and have to then learn the creative side, if that makes sense.

Mimi:

No, it definitely does. I mean, cause look at how much the industry has changed over the course of your career, right? I mean, when you started out there, wasn’t really the digital aspect, as much as there, whether it is important and your industry has completely flipped on its head in the past six years, seven year.

Anne-Marie:

I don’t even know what that year is, but Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s really being pivotal die in media in the last several years. And I think that those small companies like us that have come through have pivoted regularly. So being able to look at what’s happening, anticipate what’s coming and adjust and adapt. It helps to be small in that environment. And I think it helps to be either very, very big as you’ll see with all the media conglomerates that just keep eating each other up. Um, it happens it’s, you’re on a very, very big or you’re small and nimble in our case. Small and nimble has been working pretty well.

Mimi:

That’s great. Now, when you started out originally as a writer, did you ever think, okay, I’m going to be CEO of a company someday of a big Hollywood company?

Anne-Marie:

No, I think it’s safe to say no. You know, that was not part of the five, 10 or 20 year plan for me at all. Um, I’ve been very fortunate, um, in working for places where I’ve been able to learn a lot from the people who’ve come before me and really learned on the job as I mentioned. And I think it was a natural evolution, as you said, the industry changed and the line between the creative side of the industry and the business side of the industry, which once was very clear, began to blur, I think about 10 years ago. And if you’re working in a small organization, you’re inevitably going to be having to take on those business roles as well as the creative roles, especially as you move into leadership. So if you’re leading a creative team, you’re inevitably going to be making business decisions. And so, you know, that evolution I think is, um, is something that’s characterized the media industry and the entertainment industry over the past several years. So I think I just evolved along with that and fortunately, you know, developed the skill sets needed and developed the relationships needed to get into this position, which I really enjoy, but it was not something that I kind of had earmarked for myself early on.

You Have To Be Ready For Accountability and Responsibility

Mimi:

That’s great. Now, what do you think is the hardest part of being a CEO?

Anne-Marie:

COVID that was my next question, but, um, so the hottest pot, I think, you know, so I was CEO of the company before this, so I was really kind of operating the day to day. So I was very familiar with, you know, everything top to bottom that was going on in the company really in the weeds. Um, but also at the top, making those big decisions along with a former CEO and a CFO. What changed is that when you’re CEO it’s on you like that, the buck stops with you is very true. And I think being ready for that accountability and for that responsibility, especially when difficult times hit as they’d have in 2020, that is, that is the hardest thing for me. It’s the hardest thing is really being responsible for the jobs and lives and, and professional happiness of a lot of people.

Mimi:

Now, since you brought that up, what, um, COVID what, how have you guys adjusted or how has Whalerock adjusted with the covid? I mean, obviously you guys are not at all making content like you used to and just what else has changed.

Anne-Marie:

So, you know, we have a few kind of major parts of our business at the moment. One is straight traditional TV production, and the other is a consulting business. And the consulting business came out of our experience in building developing and operating digital and content products or brands and celebrities, um, over many years. And so that, that part of the business is kind of in one corner. The production business is probably easiest to describe when it comes to COVID because it basically shut down. So the business is still going, but production has shut down. So we’ve had to really adjust the way we operate that business so that we are heavily developing new content and heavily developing new shows to sell because there’s an incredible appetite in the marketplace for new content, because what’s everybody doing right now, they’re sitting at home watching TV. So there’s a lot of new development happening in our studio and we have a couple of very big productions and it has been really interesting logistical exercise to try and work out how we get those back on track during covid. One show we run as BattleBots, which as it sounds is a massive arena show with teams flying in from all over the world and building robots and then fighting those robots, you know, in a huge competition, figuring out how to stage and produce that show during this period of time has taken a lot of thought and effort. Um, it’s really tricky.

Mimi:

So you are actually in production again for some shows?

Anne-Marie:

We’re in where I’d say we’re in preproduction. So we’re, you know, as the waves have changed in California. So we had, I mean, I guess we called it the first whistle in the first wave, but we’re in a second surge. So when it looked like the first way was going to end, we had put a production date on the books. We were going to produce this show. We were going to shoot it in April terrible timing. So we had to pause that, pushed it. It was going to be August. We’re now looking at September. It may push into next year. Um, the show will go on. It’s just, you know, we’re just in this limbo period. And I think a lot of production companies are dealing with that. Fortunately we weren’t in a position where we had a giant production staff that we have to lay off or, or pause. We were still, we’ve got a very small core team in our studio. Um, and I think that’s one thing I’ve learned over the years is if you can maintain a very small core team and Constantina up and down as needed, particularly in production, then you’re going to be able to weather these kinds of storms as they come along.

Mimi:

I mean, it probably won’t go back to normal as far as normal production for everybody until after the new year, I would think, is that what people are thinking?

Anne-Marie:

Yeah. I mean, some productions are up now. I think it depends on the size and scale of the production. If you, you know, the more you can do outdoors, obviously the better, um, there is one production, another production that we’re doing aside from battle bots it’s that we are intending to do this year because we think we can stage it outdoors. So yeah, there’s a lot of, uh, strategizing and thinking and planning and testing and it’s, and that’s a whole new world right in for everybody.

Managing and Operating Whalerock Industries

whalerock industries office photo

Mimi:

It’s very difficult. I can’t imagine running a company and doing all that, um, and dealing with uncertainty of what’s gonna happen. Um, okay. So I have a question. What, what is the best thing that you enjoy being a CEO?

Anne-Marie:

Hmm. Um, I quite like being in charge it’s, um, it’s, it’s got its pluses and minuses. It really does, but you know, I think at this age and stage of my career, it’s, I, you know, it’s not something I shy away from. I feel like, especially, you know, I don’t want to say especially as women, but it’s probably true. Um, there’s a tendency to, you know, to be collaborative to a fault. And I do have a very collaborative management style, but at some point someone has to make the decision. And I think that I feel at this age and stage of my life and career, that I’m ready to be the one making that decision and it feels comfortable to me. It feels really comfortable to me to be the decision maker. And I have an amazing team, which also makes it, you know, a pleasure to do my job. So I’m not in a situation where there’s a lot of angst or conflict. I really have worked with the people I work with for a long time. Everybody’s really great at their jobs. And everyone’s, especially in this tricky time, everyone’s just really united to get the job done. And that’s exciting to me to be able to work with people who are motivated and, um, you know, crave success, but are also really collaborative. That’s, that’s a great environment that makes it a fun job to do.

Mimi:

Now are there any books or podcasts that you’ve looked to for insight and inspiration as you lead a company?

Anne-Marie:

Yours!

Mimi:

Uh, you’re so sweet.

Anne-Marie:

You know, it’s, it’s funny because I’ve never been on a really, really big reader. Um, I love fiction. I, um, I use reading as I use book reading as a real outlet to escape and relax and reset my mind. I, I do read a lot of business materials online. I’m a real omnivore. I tend to, you know, find a lot of people to follow whose opinions matter to me and read what they’re sharing. So for example, I’ll, you know, my daily diet of business reading is probably to jump on LinkedIn and see what all the people that I admire are sharing. And that often tends to be something from, you know, anything from business insider to Forbes, to Digiday, to ad week to, you know, so to wall street journal from time to time, not the political stuff. It’s funny because I come from traditional media, but I now consume media in the modern way. You know, I really do. I do graze across different publications and, and choose what I want.

Balancing Everything from CEO to Mom

Mimi:

That’s great. Thank you. That was good advice. Now you have a family, like you said, and I think a lot of listeners also try to juggle it all. So do you have any advice of how to be a full time working CEO, staying at home during covid with your kids, but also having children? Like, is there any, um, any tips, any apps, anything that you would suggest that helps you manage it all?

Anne-Marie:

I think it’s different for everybody. I also acknowledge that it would be harder for me to do this job if my kids were younger, you know, I’ve got 15 year old twin boys. I had always worked in some capacity, whether it’s full time, part time, you know, at home from an office, there’s always been something going on, but you know, at various stages of their lives, I’ve managed to drop it down as needed and pick it up again. But I’ve always had my I’ve always had my hand in somewhere. Um, I feel like for me, that’s been really important, I think, um, for younger women who are, you know, pursuing a career and have kids and are conflicted over how much time they’re spending with their kids and how much time they’re spending on their careers, you know, it’s tough. And it’s, I would say two things, one that it’s really individual decision and don’t listen to people like me because what was right for me, it’s not going to be right for everybody else. Um, the other thing I would say is kind of coming out the other side of the equation is try really hard, not to judge yourself because your kids probably aren’t judging you. And that’s right now with my kids, I was constantly torturing myself with our youngest. Should I be home? Or, you know, are they getting enough from me? Am I too focused on what I want to do? And at some point for me, I really hit a point where I was like, you know what? I’ve tried to staying at home. I’ve tried to working part time. I am someone who needs to work. I am someone who needs some kind of career. It doesn’t have to be being a CEO of a company but I have to be doing something. And that I believe for me makes me a better parent because I think I would literally drive my children crazy if I was with them 24 seven, and now they’re 15. They don’t want to be with me. I want to be desperately here. Like I get a break in work and I’m going into their rooms and they look at me like, I’m creepy. Like I just want to be here together. Isn’t this great. I just want to be around you. Or they’re like, Oh, crazy lady. Get out.

Mimi:

Now it’s more about policing them, making sure they’re like on track and not doing anything they’re not supposed to be doing.

Anne-Marie:

I know! Like now I’ve turned into the needy mother. It’s terrible.

Mimi:

But yeah. Oh my God, that’s funny. That’s true. Now, do you have a specific morning routine? Like read these books that people get up at 4:30 and they conquer the world before 7:00 AM.

Anne-Marie:

I hate those people.

Mimi:

I don’t. I really try every day. I’m like, okay, I’m going to do it. And then by the second day it just doesn’t happen.

Anne-Marie:

That’s an interesting one because I think there’s the before times right and the now. And my routine has completely altered with working from home and with my kids being at home. So in the before times I had really forced myself into being a morning person. I’m not a morning person. I love to stay up late. I’m really productive late at night. But you know, at some point for one thing, having children, but also doing this kind of job, especially on the West coast, um, where you have to get up really early to make your East coast calls. I have forced myself into being a morning person. So my four times morning routine was to get up early exercise, get everybody fed, make lunches, get everybody off to school, get in the car and drive and start at the office. And somewhere in there, there are always one or two calls because of the East coast thing. So that was my morning routine. Now it varies literally every day. I am not one of those, I get up at 4:30 AM CEOs and I only sleep four hours a night. I really prioritize sleep. I love sleeping. Um, I also have a special talent that does not work Monday through Friday to me, but I can really sleep in like on the weekends. My kids know not to come near me. I sleep in for me is 8:30, but I mean, I can do that. Some people I know are like I’m up at seven and I can’t or six and I can’t go back to sleep. I can go back to sleep, but I can’t do a noon, but on the weekend, like I really prioritize getting some sleep.

Getting Into the Entertainment Industry

Mimi:

That’s great. Do you have any advice for anybody who wants to get into your industry?

Anne-Marie:

So what, what I would say is our industry right now is a number of different things because we’re doing a number of different things as a company. So on one side, it’s just straight entertainment on the other. We’re, um, really a consulting company, creating digital and creative and content strategies for big brands and helping them get through. And we do have another little company in the works that we’re about to announce that I can’t talk about yet, but, um, but that’s coming in the next couple of ways. Um, you know, in terms of, and I think the world of media and entertainment are very different. So entertainment, I think, is having a boom time right now with all the streamers. If I’m assuming a time beyond COVID and beyond lockdowns, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people who are creative, talented creators and writers and producers, and even technical folks on the entertainment side of the business. I think that the whole way we consume content has changed and where, where the streaming was that everyone keeps talking about are really developing a huge market and appetite for that kind of content. So I think it’s an exciting time to be entering that world. Um, I think on the pure media side of the business, you know, what I started in was journalism. What I evolved into as we started developing websites and apps and things like that was more, you know, it’s kind of a 90s word, but infotainment, if you like, I, I wouldn’t class, it necessarily as journalism, we took a journalistic approach whenever we were reporting on something. But, um, you know, a lot of website content is entertainment. It is, um, not held to the same kind of rigorous standards as I believe journalism should be held to. Um, I think that journalism is having a resurgence. Thank God. I think that, you know, for a long time, you know, between the politics of fake news and the realities of the ad economy and the competition developed by the internet that journalism and the principles of journalism were really, really eroded. I just have a sense and I have nothing really empirical to base this on, but I really have a sense that that’s coming back. I have a sense that people are beginning to really value even handed reporting rather than the constant commentary that goes on. So I think journalism is a tough road. I think if, if a kid came to me and said, I want to be a journalist, I’d have a lot of questions for them, but I’m hopeful that it’s still a career.

Mimi:

Well, you know, it’s good that you brought that up because someone who graduates with a journalism degree, they don’t even have to just think about being a journalist. They can think about entering the world that you’re in, where you’re building, you’re writing content for media and entertainment companies.

Anne-Marie:

Yeah. And that’s, what’s expanded, I think is that there’s a skill set in being a generalist that is useful for your entire life. So whether that skill set is being able to distill and communicate information, or whether it’s being able to be a good reporter and ask the right questions and elicit the information you need, those are skill sets that work all the way through your career and can take you in a multitude of different direct actions. They certainly helped me every day. I think being a, you know, I’ll often draw on the, I’ll look back on the conversation and think, well, I got to where we needed to get to because I don’t have a recorder or I’ll look at a document that we’re trying to get out there or a piece of content that we’re trying to get out there. And being an editor is still a skill that I use every single day. So I do think that education is a really good one.

Mimi:

And I love how in the Hollywood industry now how it’s evolving that an actor is not just an actor anymore, they’re taking on their own brand and persona, you know, like look at how, what The Rock has done in the past 10 years. I mean, it’s just crazy, you know, he’s become an entrepreneur, he’s everything right. And the number of followers, we were laughing the other day at dinner. Cause we love watching his videos. We were like, if you were to run for president, he probably would win because he has so many followers. I think he has like 300 million followers. It’s crazy. So I guess my question is how, um, you know, it’s amazing that these celebrities now have become complete brands, but why doesn’t everyone do that? Like why doesn’t everyone become The Rock. Or, you know, like these, like these personas instead of just being an actress or is it, is it, is it not as easy as it may look?

Anne-Marie:

That’s an interesting one because I think, you know, if you take, I think the way to analyze that, I’ve never really thought of the why everyone’s meeting, cause it’s really directly related to a popularity, right? It’s a popularity contest. Um, and it’s about being popular. And then it’s about being out there and working because if you want to grow a social media following of that magnitude, you have to be constantly communicating with your fans and you have to be putting yourself out there in a very personal way. I think he or whoever’s working for him has done a great job of putting his personality out there, creating the persona online and on social media that is very attractive to people at that makes his fans want to follow him. He’s funny, he’s sweet. He’s got a gorgeous family. He’s so cute with his kids. You know, like he’s really developing an online story about himself and that takes work. That just doesn’t that piece of it. Like he’s popular because of his movies and his career as a wrestler, et cetera. But the social media part, it takes work.

Mimi:

It was like 20 minute videos, right. That he’s putting on.

Anne-Marie:

I mean, you can be that popular actor, but that doesn’t immediately get you the following. You’ve got to have that constant communication with your fans. Cause it’s a relationship like anything on social media, you know, you interact with people and those audiences grow because you’re out there all the time. So he works it.

Creating Fanbases and Apps for the Kardashians and Tyler The Creator

kardashian family

Mimi:

Now, do you do that with clients as well? When I was reading your bio, it seems that you work with other celebrities to kind of create a fan base in that way.

Anne-Marie:

Over the years we have created digital apps for the Kardashian sisters does that we’re a direct consumer apps that we’re a subscription based. So over that period of time, we really developed a finely tuned skillset in that entire marketing funnel of creating an audience and a fan base using content to drive them, to take some kind of action, whether it’s to purchase something like a subscription, whether it’s to come back to the mall, whether it’s to go to a website and by KKW make up. So, um, you know, that is something that is definitely in our wheel house. We also created. We also created, uh, the app for Tyler the Creator, uh, which was a digital experience that brought together everything in his world. So he’s mentioned ice, who’s his videos, his concerts, uh, special access for fans. So yes. So really kind of understanding how to develop that fan base and then how to take your fans on a journey so that you’re not just giving them one thing, like your photo on social media, but you really giving them all of the different experiences that they want from their relationship with you, the celebrity, because as you said, nowadays, new celebrities and just, um, having a single career, they really, you know, expanding what it is they do, whether that’s making sneakers and selling sneakers or, you know, creating music videos or live events, you know, it’s true.

Mimi:

Um, okay. So to end the last question, is there any advice or anything you would give to somebody who, you know, their aspirations is to become a CEO? Is it better to kind of go through the system or to try to create your own company and do it on your own?

Anne-Marie:

Um, it’s interesting cause I, I almost see CEO is not like I want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a journalist it’s um, I want to, I guess it’s like, I want to run something I want to, you know, be in charge of my own destiny and help along the destinies of others. So I would say if, if you have that golden idea, then I think being a founder, CEO is something these days that is very attractive for the right kind of person, if you’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit. And if you are someone who is more part of a larger organization, you know, I think it’s more like a large, small thing. If you’re, if you’re already part of a larger organization and you want to make it to the top job, then you know, it’s a, there are a lot of different factors involved, you know, it’s about, it’s about working hard and it’s about really developing the right skills and, um, transparency and communication and leadership. There’s a, there’s a lot that goes into it.

Mimi:

That’s true. This has been great. I thank you so much for coming on. Um, and I really appreciate, uh, your advice and kind of looking at the industry right now during COVID it’s been very interesting watching from afar. Um, so I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Anne-Marie: Thank you.

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