Jason Stein is one of a select few digital media executives who chooses books over Cannes. He’s never been to SXSW, either, or hardly any digital media industry conferences, for that matter.
The CEO of 4-year-old digital media agency Laundry Service, recently purchased by sports and entertainment firm Wasserman Media Group, claims to instead prefer reading. Screenplays, news, books, humor writing, the scripts to old episodes of “Cheers” and “Seinfeld” — whatever he can get his hands on, really. But it was Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” that’s had the greatest impact on him during his brief tenure as an agency entrepreneur.
It seems to have helped. Four years in, Laundry Service is at 80 employees and now boasts brands such as Beats, Cadillac and Jordan among its clients. Other agencies have even hired Laundry Service to do social media production for their clients, and Laundry Service’s revenue is up 100 percent from the year prior, Stein said.
Stein, 30, talked to Digiday about how the book helped him become a better manager, learning to overcome his Type-A nature and delegate important tasks and why it’s so difficult to find older agency workers that are knowledgeable about social media.
Your agency is unique in that it combines creative, social and media buying in one shop. How’d that come about?
After college, I was producing branded digital video for companies I had found listing jobs on Craigslist. Our first $1 million in revenue was all from Craigslist, actually. I would search the video, production and media jobs listings, and about one out of every 200 would have a big enough budget to get me to apply. The brand would then ask for more views, but their media buying agencies weren’t helping them promote these videos. That’s when I realized content creation and distribution together was powerful.
Were people skeptical?
My friends in agencies said, “There’s no way you can have owned, earned and paid in one place. That’s not how it works, and you’ll never change that structure.” The more people I talked to, though, the more I realized I had to do this because they couldn’t give me a good reason not to, other than “That’s not how it’s done.”
Was there a moment when you knew your concept had proven it could work?
There were a lot of little moments. You work 10 years to become an overnight success. But it did quickly become clear that what we were creating was outperforming other brands — our cost per engagements were lower and our conversion rates were better.
Were you ever worried it wouldn’t work?
You’re not afforded the luxury of doubt when you’re a CEO, but you’re still constantly concerned, especially starting out. If one client leaves during your first year, you’re back to square one. But no one knew about those doubts except for me. It was important to convey confidence that first year because people here trusted me that we would grow.
Laundry Service is your first business. Was there a leadership skill you had to develop?
The leadership style I had when I played sports was very Type A — you can be full steam ahead and be hard on people. The business world is very different. I read “How to Win Friends and Influence People” six months in and realized I was doing everything all wrong. One thing I learned: Don’t ever criticize people. In business, tell people how great they are, what you want them to do and encourage them to achieve that. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But you telling them they’re not good at it isn’t going to help.
Reading seems to be a big part of your professional development.
Reading has definitely been the biggest contributor to our success. I don’t go to a lot of trade shows. I always spent my time just studying, reading, learning and applying that here. From self-help books to fiction to comedy to screenplays from screenwriting friends, I just read a lot. “Cheers” has the funniest scripts. It’s interesting to read them from a storytelling perspective. One of our biggest focuses here is taking traditional narrative paradigms and applying them to the most modern platforms. For our clients, there’s a beginning, middle and end to five Instagram posts, for example.
There are some who contend that social media is limiting storytelling-wise.
It’s untrue. It’s just another medium with photo, copy and video. People who love storytelling as it was are upset because they have this pristine view of how it should be presented. But that’s more because they want to win awards. If you do social right, you’re probably not going to win a lot of awards.
The big activations that win awards are cool, but that’s not an always-on relationship with the customer, which is the true value of social.
You’ve been critical of how holding companies structure themselves. Does that worry you for when you want to sell the agency?
No. I’m not criticizing the holding companies. I’m saying separating creative and media buying isn’t best for users or clients. It’s not best for the client to have to manage 17 agencies to get one fucking post out. Imagine if you went to lunch and went to a different deli for bread, meat, cheese and lettuce.
What do you think of publishers publishing directly to Facebook?
I’ve been saying that this was going to happen for a couple years now.
A $FB unit displaying article + ads in newsfeed. Pages can target publisher’s articles with ads. FB rev share w/ publishers.
— Jason Stein (@jasonwstein) December 9, 2013
People thought I was crazy. But it’s solving a very simple problem: publishers struggle to make money on mobile and it’s a bad user experience to have to click off the platform you’re on.
What would you say to skeptics?
It’s funny because publishers are so quick to criticize businesses — Yahoo, MySpace, Blackberry — that don’t innovate and evolve and put the user experience first. Publishers saying, “We know it’s better for the users, but it’s not good for our business” is very much the mindset Blackberry had about not wanting to replace its keyboard with a touch screen. To risk losing your entire business by not going on Facebook doesn’t seem right.
Do you interview everybody you hire?
Was it difficult to trust someone else with hiring?
As we’ve grown, giving up responsibilities has been extremely challenging and terrifying. But delegating is something you have to do to manage your time.
Do you care more about talent or culture when hiring, or is it 50-50?
It’s 100 percent for both. Talent-wise, you have to understand own and paid media. Culturally, you have to want to be the best at what you do. We have such a high standard for the quality of our work that any weak link can make a whole team of people implode.
How do you know if someone will fit in at Laundry Service?
People’s social channels are the biggest indicators as to whether they’ll be good employees. I can find out pretty quickly what kind of copy they write, their voice, what kind of content they share, whether they’re creating original content or curating and whether they’re funny.
Your staff is young. Is that intentional?
It’s not. But the older people are, the less they tend to know about social media.
Are you afraid you’ll ever fall out of touch?
Every day. That’s why I’m the jerk who’s on Meerkat, Periscope, Snapchat, Kik and seeing what the NYU kids are saying on Yik Yak. The only thing I can’t do is go on any of the cool new dating apps. I was so curious that I made my wife go on it and show me how it works.