Feb 21, 2019
Spike Lee on picking fights, Mona Scott-Young on empowering minority creators, and more.
In the parade of panels and workshops that kicked off Viacom’s global Spark summit, employees were able to hear directly from stars of the screen (who work behind and in front of the cameras) on how they’ve charted their paths to success. Their perspectives revealed how the creative struggle never ends, but they did impart some sage advice on navigating the industry and the pressures associated with it. Here are some of the top lessons culled from their on-stage statements:
Master the basics.
Martha Stewart, lifestyle mogul and co-host of VH1’s Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party, said that everyone needs to have a foundational “repertoire.” Whether you’re a stand-up comedian building your tight five, an animator perfecting a cast of character, or just learning how to cook, you must begin with a solid foundation of skills. Only look to add to your skillset once you’ve mastered what’s already on your plate. For beginner cooks, Stewart suggests starting with 10 recipes you reliably count on and cook with your eyes closed. Because as technology, culture, and the world around us rapidly changes, having a solid foundation will help you feel more grounded.
Be willing to fight.
Legendary film director Spike Lee mentioned his fight with the Teamsters in New York City while filming Malcolm X, following his request to have black teamsters drive production trucks. “I was told ‘there are no African American teamsters.’ I said ‘well, the Fruit of Islam will be driving the trucks, and if you want to talk to the Fruit…’” said Lee. “The next day they found five African American teamsters. But I had to take that stance.” When the panel moderator, producer and author (and Lee’s wife) Tanya Lewis Lee, asked if was afraid to take them on, he replied: “Afraid of what? ... This is my life. There were certain things I was not going to tolerate. Because of racism. Because of prejudice. Because if I tolerate that, that would prohibit me telling the stories I wanted to tell and I continue to do them today. And nothing in this country has happened without a fight.”
Use your power to enfranchise others.
Lee’s sentiment was echoed in a panel of female creators, featuring Sarah Babineau, Comedy Central EVP and co-head of talent and development; Akilah Hughes, writer and YouTuber; Farnaz Esnaashari‐Charmatz, creator of Nick Jr.’s Shimmer and Shine; Jen Flanz, co-producer of The Daily Show; and Mona Scott-Young, creator of the Love & Hip-Hop franchise. The women discussed the winding paths that took them to their current careers and that despite improvement—it’s still hard for females and minorities to break into the business. When Hughes discussed struggling to find a black female director, Scott-Young explained that there are “more jobs than women who have had the opportunity to learn those jobs.”
Scott-Young advised the audience to “try to provide those opportunities, surround young women with ambition and desire. The convergence of being a woman, and a woman of color, is finally working in our favor. We’re finally hot right now,” she said to cheers and laughter from the audience. “There are opportunities for us to take advantage of that, but we have to take advantage of that.”
Embrace change to make great work.
Viacom’s Head of Ad Solutions Sean Moran said the advertising industry has seen “more change in the past three years than in perhaps the last 20 years.” Moran and Louis Carr, president of media sales at BET, said they’ve learned to embrace how quickly and constantly the world of business moves and use it to their advantage. Now, instead of waiting for clients to come to them with their needs, their teams are anticipating their client’s needs and offering them solutions to problems they didn’t know they had. For example, when McDonald’s approached Velocity in 2018 with a desire to launch their first brand campaign in more than three years, the team cut to the core of what the brand sought to say with their new message and delivered a docu-style series that resonated with audiences and resulted in more than 47.5 million impressions.
Authentic representation has real power.
When thinking about a new show or film, content creators need to make sure they’re thinking about diversity and inclusion in everything from planning to execution. Drag queens and stars of VH1’s hit show RuPaul's Drag Race Peppermint, Dusty Ray Bottoms, and Alexis Michelle each emphasized the importance of authentic representation in the media and entertainment industry and how it’s played a role in their own lives. “I remember I really responded to the role of Angel in Rent,” said Peppermint, explaining that seeing someone she identified with on-screen changed how she saw herself as a performer. The stars of tomorrow need to see themselves in the screens of today.
Recognize all the facets of your audience.
Chris McCarthy, president of MTV, VH1 and Logo TV, admitted that MTV is best when it’s “celebrating young people.” Today that means honoring their activist streak and indulging their need for fun. The brand, which has returned as the number one leading total day cable network for the 18 to 34 demo, is tapping into both sides of their target audience with the launch of brand-new shows. For example, there’s Siesta Key, which provides viewers the ultimate escape into the lives of young adults living in the Sunshine state of Florida, as well as Border Life, which spotlights the struggles of young people living in Nogales, a city divided by the U.S.-Mexico border.
Build a boardroom that can see the story.
When Jesse Collins, an executive producer for several BET projects, pitched The New Edition Story mini-series to networks, he often had to explain who New Edition was. However, when he came to BET, the network didn’t need a backgrounder. “You can’t have a hit show without the entire machine behind you,” said Collins. “It could be the greatest show in the world, but if everybody's not excited it’s really hard for it to get there.” Creating content for underserved, niche, or minority audiences isn’t just about valuing the needs of a particular audience—it’s also about developing talent and opportunity for creative communities behind the scenes to flourish. Said Collins, “BET was the first place to give me a producer title… We came up together. I don’t know any other network that would have that type of patience.”
Maintain your curiosity.
In a panel discussion devoted to being a content entrepreneur, Rob O’Neill, SVP of content, acquisitions, and promotion strategy for Comedy Central, Paramount Network and TV Land, responded to an audience question from a new employee asking for advice on navigating the demands of being creative. O’Neill advised her to lean into curiosity. “Your curiosity will carry you to very far places within this company. The more curious you can be, the further you can go.”
“Viacom is really rolling deep in how we’re going to fix it, how we’re going to win this thing. It’s been an exercise in change management, taken every muscle that I have to figure out how to get our arms around it and I know that’s just me, but it’s happening everywhere here,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time to be at this company but we need curious people.”