Michael Skolnik, co-founder of Soze Agency, a social impact agency selling compassion, equity, and authenticity, believes that, if his company is going to build creative campaigns about these values, then the company itself has to operate internally according to these values. How is that implemented?
Soze Agency is a worker-owned cooperative. Vacation time is unlimited. What? How does that work?
Soze employees are deeply vested in the success of the company . . . because, to varying degrees, they own it. Michael gave 62% of the company to his workers in the first 3 years and divests himself of 8% more of his ownership every year. In 7 years, he will be out. It is, he says, “an experiment in compassionate capitalism,” a model he would like to see in many more companies. He wants to see everyone win . . . and believes this is one way to make it possible. Employees at Soze don’t take unlimited vacations because they know the company they own and the bonuses they receive depend on their being there and doing the work.
Michael started his career and attended his first South by Southwest conference as a filmmaker, which is a medium for storytelling. Today, his company is rooted in storytelling. At South by Southwest’s March 2019 conference, he participated in a panel, “Moments, Momentum, Movement,” which addressed how cultural “moments become movements, what’s happening now in America and where we are, the work that we do and how that correlates to this temperature rise in the heat of this country, and how we hold onto that for the long term.”
Michael feels this country is in a “tough spot,” uncertain about where it is going and what it wants to become. In the marketing world, this is reflected in brands’ insecurity about how to interact with their customers in critical “moments.” Younger people, in particular, are demanding that companies respond. Michael emphasizes the importance of authentic and relevant communication.
Michael can be reached on his company’s website at: https://www.wearesoze.com/, on Twitter at: @WeAreSoze, on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-skolnik-4998365/, or on FaceBook at: https://www.facebook.com/wearesoze/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today, live at South by Southwest, with Michael Skolnik. He is the Co-founder of the Soze Agency based in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to the podcast, Michael.
MICHAEL: Thank you, Rob, for having me.
ROB: It’s great to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about the Soze Agency and what you do amazingly well?
MICHAEL: Good question. Every day we try to get better, and I think part of the evolution of my life in particular has been based in storytelling. I come from the film business. I spent 13 years making movies. I actually used to come here as a filmmaker, so it’s great to see this festival evolve and grow over the past decade plus. I was here in the mid-2000s.
So I come as a storyteller. About 4 or 5 years ago, we saw an opportunity to build a company that was rooted in storytelling, rooted in authenticity, rooted in compassion. We saw a lot of companies, a lot of brands, a lot of nonprofits trying to create some narrative campaigns, which is also story and how you tell a story. We built this company.
I decided very early on I wanted to try something different with regards to the structure of the company. It’s a worker-owned cooperative. I’m giving the company away to the workers over the course of 7 years. I’m giving them 62% of the company in the first 3 years. Every year I give them 8%, and then I’m out.
We have six co-owners of the company. We have no investment, we have no debt. We have about 25 employees, and every day we go to work trying to build compassion.
ROB: Not to get too down in the weeds of this, but it is an interesting capital structure for a business and foreign agency, this cooperative model. How does that work when someone new comes in and when somebody leaves? How does the ownership adjust as people come in and out of the company?
MICHAEL: We’ve put it into the bylaws of the company. The company can never be sold, and you can never take any equity with you when you leave. When I depart or I exit, I’m not taking anything with me. You can become an owner after the first year of being in the company. There’s no level or position you have to hold; it’s just a matter of how much time you put into the company.
Leadership and ownership go hand-in-hand. How do you have someone who’s in their twenties as an owner of a company making decisions on behalf of the entire outfit? We teach a lot, we train a lot. But ultimately, this is an experiment in compassionate capitalism.
You can’t see because you’re listening to this on a podcast, but as a white man who’s consistently over the course of my lifetime been given opportunity after opportunity, I thought, how do I be involved in a company that can uplift equity amongst women, equity amongst people of color, where they actually own something and can make decisions?
We have unlimited vacation. People say, “You can’t do that. How can people go away for three months?” Well, no one will go away for three months if you love your company and want to help build your company and you own your company. We put a tremendous amount of power in the hands of the employee.
ROB: When the company is profitable, then, are the owners sharing in the profits of that? Is that part of it?
MICHAEL: Everybody shares in profit. We share profit to every employee in the company at the end of the year. The owners decide how they share profit, the 62% that they have. They meet every November, they look at the end-of-the-year profit, and they decide how that is shared.
So far, what they decided is basically based on that calendar year, how much you’ll get of the profit. If you were there the entire calendar year, you get one share. If you were there half of the calendar year, you get half a share. They start over every year.
ROB: Between the mission of the company and the structure, it sounds like you are built to attract certain types of employees who’d be tremendously attracted to what you’re doing. Are you seeing this alignment of people coming in who are on point with the mission and the structure? It’s just a different job. There’s not 10 other jobs like that, right?
MICHAEL: No, I don’t know any other company who’s doing what we’re doing in the way that we’re doing it. I would say that if we’re going to create creative campaigns that are about equity, that are about compassion, that are authentic in their storytelling for brands or for nonprofits or for campaigns, we have to practice that internally as well. So we decided to do this not just as an exercise for us, but as practice what you preach.
There’s also I think a horrible narrative around young people that they don’t want to stay in one place for a long time or they have ADD and they want to jump. I actually think it’s the employer’s responsibility to create a work environment that attracts someone to stay.
If you look at the growth of the middle class, especially the white middle class, after World War II, in the manufacturing sector you built jobs that were loyal to their employees. If you were a GM man, you bought GM cars. You lived your whole life as part of the GM family. You lived near the plant, and your kids would become GM kids.
I think we lost that in the way that we treat our employees. We wanted to create a company that created loyalty to the employee and also created a healthy work environment. We’ll stay there forever. Imagine a 22-year-old building their own company at 22 – with of course the support of people around them; I’m 40 – and they’re there for 40 years.
ROB: That’s a long time for a company. That’s pretty exciting. I think it will give us some insight into your company to talk a little bit about the session that you were sharing. You had a panel today, as I understand it, that was called “Moments, Momentum, Movement.” Tell us a little bit about the session and what you were riffing on with your panel and the audience.
MICHAEL: I was asked to join a panel a number of months ago by some colleagues at Precision Strategies, which is a great comms firm based out of DC. They all came out of the Obama world. They were senior seniors – head of communications, deputy campaign managers, head of digital for the former president.
I was on a panel with the co-founder of Run for Something, which now has 31,000 young people around the country running for political office. I think they’re 2 years old or 2-½ years old. On the panel also was a dear friend, Jess Morales Rocketto, who’s at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. She’s an incredible, incredible organizer.
We talked about how moments become movements, what’s happening now in America and where we are, the work that we do and how that correlates to this temperature rise in the heat of this country, and how we hold onto that for the long term.
I was impressed by the turnout on a Friday afternoon. We had a pretty full room. You come to these things, you never really know if anyone’s going to show up. I think Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is speaking, and Stacey Abrams is speaking – some big names who you know are going to get a turnout. But for our little panel, we had a great turnout.
A healthy, healthy, healthy conversation – but a brave conversation. This country, from a cultural perspective, is in a tough spot. We don’t really know where we’re heading as a nation, as a collective people. So a lot of really healthy questions about what’s going to happen.
ROB: I think a lot of folks coming from a cause and marketing perspective may not really know how to join in some of these moments sometimes.
I think today is National Women’s Day, and I am watching my Twitter feed scroll by with people mocking brands with their National Women’s Day tweets that are just a little bit off pitch. How do you think about moments that you can join in the conversation and how to do it well?
MICHAEL: I think a lot of brands right now – we work with some – are trying to figure out how they interact with their consumer during this moment.
It’s a challenging time for brands because young people are demanding a level of authenticity from their brands, and brands have no track record – that’s not fair. Brands have no history to look back on and say “that worked” or “that didn’t work” because this is a very unique time in this country that I think this country has probably never seen before, with the level of consumerism that we have.
My advice to brands is to listen first to your consumer. Bring them in in a real way. See what they want from you. Some consumers may want you just to sell them the products you’re selling them in the way that you’ve been doing it. Some consumers are saying, “Wait a second. You have to respond.” You’re not going to tweet your way out of it, and you’re not going to create gimmicky campaigns. You really have to be authentic.
If you’re not authentic to the people in your company, you may have to replace some folks in your company and look internally at how you’re a reflection of your consumer, because the folks in your company – if you look at Pepsi as an example, it’s a well-known mistake.
ROB: [laughs] Famously, yes.
MICHAEL: Famously. What happened in the room? I think people want to know what happened in the room. Were there folks in the room who would raise their hand and say, “This is not going to work”? Were there folks in the room who were like, “This is an amazing idea”?
As you build these moments that you’re responding to what’s happening in this country, make sure you have folks in the room who are telling you the truth and giving you honest feedback. Sometimes it’s your consumers, sometimes it’s your employees. Don’t be afraid of your intern.
ROB: You certainly put your money where your mouth is. You have your company, and you give a talk like you were part of today, and it’s polarizing. There are some people who are going to say, “I never want to work with Michael because of what they stand for.” That’s a weird thing, but it’s also what the brands can do over time. You’re showing that to people.
MICHAEL: We’re unapologetic about our belief in compassion. If you think that kids belong in cages, we don’t want to work with you. We are a triple bottom line company. People, planet, profit, in that order. We’re a for-profit business; of course we want to make a lot of money. But people come first, and if we’re hurting somebody by the work that we’re doing, or hurting a community or hurting the planet, it’s not for us.
I’m not chasing money. I’m chasing happiness. They’ll say money can buy you happiness. I think happiness buys you money. If you go home every night from your job and you’re selling something you don’t believe in, money’s not going to solve your problem.
I’ve been there. I’ve been there with folks who’ve come in and asked for raises in other companies I’ve been part of or run. You give them more money, they come back the next month, they’re still unhappy. I know billionaires who run Fortune 100 companies and they’re miserable. They come home, they call me, “I’m lonely, I’m depressed. I’m a billionaire, but I have no friends.”
We are in the business of compassion, and we believe that corporations in this country want that. Just some of them are afraid to make their move.
Yeah, I’m sure there are many folks who look at my Twitter feed and are like, “Don’t work with him.” [laughs] But there are many folks on my Twitter feed who say, “Whoa, we need that. We need that level of authenticity in our business.”
You look at the ones that are working – the businesses that work are the ones that are most authentic. Ford I think today announced they’re going to build the plant in Mexico. They’re going to expand their jobs in the United States, an additional 700 jobs. Ford will build loyalty with their community wherever that new plant is, their expansion with that plant. If they close that plant for more money to build it in Mexico, you’re going to lose some loyalty.
ROB: Yeah. It seems to me – and you probably have your own many opinions about this, but Nike did capture – it sounds like you’re living out the Stand for Something, even if it costs you everything. You’re saying that, in a different way. You might’ve done the campaign a little bit differently, or maybe not, but it sounds like what they said is resonant with how you feel and how you live yourself.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Look, the number one shoe Nike sells is not the LeBron or the Jordan brand. It’s a shoe that is predominantly bought by women. Over 25% of their business is one shoe.
ROB: Wow, I did not know that.
MICHAEL: When they made that Serena ad 2 weeks ago, they know what they’re doing. Wieden+Kennedy is damn good at what they do.
ROB: [laughs] There’s a big grin of admiration that you can’t see while we’re listening here.
MICHAEL: They’re a phenomenal, phenomenal agency. When they made the Kaepernick piece, they know what they’re doing. Nike has a product that’s a great product.
If you disagree with Colin Kaepernick because he’s kneeling on a football field against police brutality and criminal justice reform, and that makes you not want to buy Nike, chances are Nike probably is okay with that because they know that they’re still going to sell that 25%+ shoe to women regardless of a few people who are upset over Colin Kaepernick because it’s a great product. When you have a great product, you can have confidence you can speak your truth.
When you get that first haircut, you come out of the barber shop, you feel good. For 24 hours you have confidence. You can do whatever you want. [laughs] So I think there is a level of confidence these brands have to take those chances.
ROB: On that topic, the Kaepernick/police brutality, but tying back into the talk, your talk description talked about a number of these different situations, different people who’ve been involved and have been treated very badly, sometimes died, like I think Eric Garner.
It felt to me like there were many of those moments, but it doesn’t feel like those moments are catching the public consciousness as much now. Am I out of tune now with something that’s going on, or has something in that conversation changed? Is there a higher level of base energy around it that makes it less of an event when another police brutality incident happens, another shooting, etc.? I don’t know. You’re close to it, so I’m curious if you have insight into what we can think about there.
MICHAEL: When I started the Justice for Trayvon Martin page in 2012, the first day I started the Facebook page, I had two people press the Like button. My partner, my girlfriend of 20 years, the mother of our child – we’re just not married; we’ve been together for 20 years – she liked it and my mother liked it. It took time to get people. Then 300,000 people liked it within 6 weeks.
At that time, I was running a website that went from 10% mobile consumption to 88% mobile consumption when I sold it in 2015. The mobile device changed this country in the same way television changed the country, in the same way radio changed the country, in the same way print and newspaper changed this country. The way to communicate with the people changed this country.
It wasn’t necessarily the issue. Black people have been killed by the police or have been killed by lynchings, been killed by the state for hundreds of years, since the moment they were put in the slave ships. It wasn’t until recently that we, especially white people, began to see it on the mobile device.
ROB: Ferguson made a big difference in my own consciousness. I was watching livestream, Chromecasting to my TV at home, just watching with my own eyes.
MICHAEL: Authentic storytelling. Coming from the source, no filter. The impact that that had on this country is tremendous. It led to what I said today, to a much larger youth movement. Between Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, LGBTQ, Standing Rock, Women’s March, Science March, March for Our Lives – all these things are a product of youth energy that is emerging because of communication.
Trump, Obama, are consequences of that level of communication and the energy. There’s a reason why Trump uses social media, because he knows he can communicate directly to his “people,” and there’s no filter. Powerful. Incredibly powerful. Whether you like him or not doesn’t really matter. His way of communicating with people is incredibly powerful and effective.
ROB: Yeah. I don’t know what his nickname game is, but he seems to have a real nickname game.
MICHAEL: It’s a branding game. It’s marketing.
ROB: It’s instinctual to him, I think. It’s crazy.
MICHAEL: I said this today in the talk. If he was here 10 years ago giving a talk about branding, his talk would be packed because that’s what he was. He’s a branding guy, he’s a marketing guy. He’s marketed what I would say is a level of non-compassion, of “Get your own, take care of your own,” which is going backwards in terms of where we were heading, of a communal-based society rather than an individual-based society during the Obama years.
I don’t think that it’s lessened; I think more has come forward. Yes, is this country now accustomed to – there’s a video going around online of a 12-year-old kid selling CDs in a mall, I think in Atlanta, and being arrested for selling CDs. It’s a little child being grabbed. That video got a million and a half views in the past 24 hours.
I think now we’re accustomed to seeing it on our phones, but we’re accustomed to seeing a lot of things on our phones. We’re accustomed to seeing babies at the border, Standing Rock, women marching in the streets. There is a much broader movement that has emerged in the past 8 years that is encompassing many other issues.
I think this country currently is in a state of identity crisis. We don’t know who we want to become, and we are scared as a nation to have that conversation.
ROB: And you see that. You mentioned when we were talking before that you had been out here before as a filmmaker at South by Southwest, and now – even as I was just looking through all the sessions – the thread of politics runs very deep. There are probably a half dozen presidential candidates speaking here.
MICHAEL: Yes. [laughs] Absolutely. This place has become culturally as important an event annually in America as any other event in the country – which is remarkable, because I saw Amy Winehouse here 15+ years ago. It was a place for artists to be birthed into their careers, and now it’s a place for president candidates to be birthed into their campaigns, which is an incredible evolution of this amazing festival. I’m a big fan.
ROB: That’s a really interesting point you make, because there was a season in the middle where this was the place where your app could be made.
MICHAEL: Interactive, yeah.
ROB: This was where Twitter broke out, and Foursquare, and then the Periscope false start. This year it may also be somebody getting into a massive pile-up of scooters, I don’t know. I hear a lot of electric scooters.
MICHAEL: [laughs] Yeah, that Lime app is something. Those scooters are everywhere. But Julián Castro is coming, Stacey Abrams is coming, AOC is coming, today and tomorrow. There are some heavyweights coming here. Beto I’m sure will come through. If he’s about to make a presidential announcement, I’m sure this is a place he wants to stop by.
But at the same time, you’ve got tech billionaires and tech startups, and you have Olivia Wilde premiering her film as a director tomorrow. You have heavyweights from Hollywood. You have huge music acts performing and brand new folks trying to get signed. It’s a cultural mecca of America unlike anything else in the country.
ROB: It’s pretty amazing. The emergence of a place where you can launch a political movement versus an app – completely unexpected, I would say.
MICHAEL: Yeah. But Tim Cook was sitting next to President Trump two days ago in the White House. If you look at the tech industry from a brand perspective, these companies are 20 years old or less. Amazon is the biggest company on the planet. Facebook is in the Top 5, Google is Top 5 on the planet.
Elizabeth Warren came out yesterday – today, I think – saying the president should split Facebook and Instagram, should get rid of Amazon Whole Foods. I’m sure a lot of folks here no longer want to support Elizabeth Warren. [laughs]
ROB: This is a Whole Foods town here. [laughs]
MICHAEL: There’s a Whole Foods down the block. But these are conversations that are happening when it comes to the tech industry and politics. It’s real, because they’re the most powerful companies on the planet.
ROB: On the Soze Agency, as you’ve built it – you said it’s been about a couple years now?
MICHAEL: We are 3-½ years old, officially.
ROB: What are some things you’ve learned in building the Soze Agency that you might do differently if you were going to start over again?
MICHAEL: I would’ve done transparent salaries from the beginning. We moved into that about a year and a half in, and I would’ve done that from the very beginning. We have open QuickBooks, we do open accounting, but we moved to the open salaries about a year and a half ago. I think that was a mistake, because now we’ve had to make some adjustments based on salaries.
We were very quiet early on because we were building our company. We were so deep in the work, we had no time to do the formal announcement or party. I think I probably would’ve announced the company earlier so we launched during Obama.
Formally launching during Trump – we’re not a political organization, we’re not a political agency. We are a social impact agency and we’re selling compassion, equity, and authenticity. That’s not a political party. But during the age of Trump, I think there was certainly some folks who thought we might be a social justice agency. I might fight social justice on my own time, but as a company we want to have social impact.
If I could convince my billionaire friends that they have enough money and that they could create a more healthy company in their 40,000 person companies, that would be more exciting to me than maybe changing one law or two laws. I think the impact you have on business and employees, large corporations – 40,000, 50,000, 80,000 employees – those folks have so much power when they go home into their communities, that’s the kind of stuff I’m proud of that we do. I think I would have done that earlier.
Other stuff that I think we would’ve done differently… this past year has been challenging for us in a sense of we’re so busy. We wanted to grow 20% year over year in a healthy way. We grew about 80% last year, and this year I think we’re going to grow another probably 80% to 100%. We have no investment, we have no debt. Thick cash flow is hard when you’re a startup and you’re growing so fast.
We went from doing $50,000 events to $400,000, $500,000 events, multimillion-dollar projects. When you’re a small company and you work with big corporations, they pay 60 days. You’ve got to front $100,000, $200,000. With no debt and no investment, I would’ve maybe done things differently there. Possibly.
ROB: It raises the question of how you navigate – you’re talking about a big company; they pay net 60, but sometimes they might actually pay net 120, net 150. With open QuickBooks, how do you have your team navigate this? There’s potential for animosity. You know this client hasn’t paid you, and you’re working with this client.
Is that solved largely with a team selection thing and some ongoing cultural – how do you keep people from being mad at the client that hasn’t paid and they have to keep working with them?
MICHAEL: We don’t have an attorney. We have no attorney. We sign MoUs. I’ve signed maybe five contracts. I believe if you hurt me, hurt us as a company intentionally – which has happened – you have some other things to worry about than us.
I produced movies my entire life before this. I’m a producer at heart. I’ve managed money very well personally and professionally. My ownership bucket – everyone leads a different department – I lead the admin and finance piece. The company has confidence in me in that space.
But we’ve never missed payroll. We’ve never been close to missing payroll. We won’t miss payroll. But there are times when it’s like, shoot! – I can’t swear. I saw the email.
ROB: [laughs] We’ll get it in the editing room.
MICHAEL: Yeah. [laughs] Should we get a line of credit from the bank, or should we not? Those are startup questions.
The other problem we have is that we’ve had many people come to us and say, “We want to buy you.” We say, “We’re not for sale.” They say, “Come on, of course you’re for sale.” I said, “No, not for sale.” “What if we offered you $10 million, $20 million?” It’s in our bylaws. Can’t be sold. So there’s no flip.
Most folks who go into startups are like, “In 4 years I’m going to flip this joint for” – in an agency business, it’s 4x or 5x. It’s not 100x or 200x. So, “I’m going to flip this thing for $22 million or $50 million.” That’s not in our plan or our strategy. There’s no big payday. There’s no everyone goes home a millionaire one night because we sold it to some big PR communications firm. That I wouldn’t do differently, but that also affects financing.
ROB: Right. Your degree of empathy seems to go down to the inception level, because you not only have opinions about what is an empathetic way to act, but you seem to actually have empathy for people who are not empathetic.
ROB: Where does that come from? Because that’s much more uncommon.
MICHAEL: That’s a phenomenal question. I don’t know if I’ve ever really thought about it that way, but I appreciate the way you framed it.
I don’t speak about it publicly a lot, but my son – he’ll be 6 years old in three days – when my son was a year and a half, it was New Year’s Eve day. We were in Miami on vacation, Paola and I. He had a fever that day. She was in the bathtub – we were going to a party – trying to bring his fever down, and I heard her scream, in a way that I’ve never heard a human being scream, my name.
She came running out of the bathroom with our child not breathing and turning blue. I grabbed him from her, because she was hysterical – as well she should’ve been – and in a very weird way I saw my son’s funeral. I saw my mother sitting in the front row with sunglasses on, dressed all in black. It was bizarre. I said to myself, “This is not my story. This is not my life.”
I’ve worked with so many families who have lost their kids to gun violence. I’ve been close to the pain, but it never was my pain. Super close. I sat in the trial for George Zimmerman, next to Trayvon’s – every day I sat in that trial. I sat in the trial every day for Lucy McBath, who is now Congresswoman from Georgia 6th, with the death of her son Jordan Davis.
I put my son on the couch and I put my mouth over my son’s mouth and I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR. My son survived. He had what’s called a febrile seizure, which as a young parent I had no idea what it was. Children under the age of 6 whose fever goes down quickly or up quickly, 10% of them will react in a seizure – which of course, I didn’t know.
It’s not life-threatening, but in the moment they may stop breathing because the neurons in the brain that cause the seizure also hold the breathing, and they’ll go intermittently between seizure and breathing. I didn’t know. So I’m breathing in my son’s mouth.
It’s a trauma that has affected me my entire life since. I spoil my child. I give him whatever. He wants toys – I carry Legos in my pocket because he hands them to me. [laughs]
ROB: We have a minifig, yes.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I have a Ninjago Lego because he hands them to me all the time. But I tell you that story because so often, we don’t have the compassion because we don’t have the proximity. Then it becomes “the other.”
The immigrant who’s trying to bring their family to America is “invading our country.” Trump says those things. The black person is a “thug,” not an asset. “The young black man with the hoodie on is a thug, so I’m going to go follow him and ask him why he’s in my neighborhood, and ultimately kill him.” George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The LGBTQ person, I can “fix” that person because they’re my son and I’m going to make that child straight – not thinking that child was born that way.
When that happened to me and my child, our child, my heart has changed dramatically. I don’t want anything to happen to anybody. Whether I disagree with them politically, whether we voted for them or you voted for us, that stuff doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want you to go through pain, I don’t want you to go through suffering, I don’t want you to go through struggle. I want everybody to win. Everybody.
My accountant said to me, when I said, “I’m giving the company away,” she said, “You can’t do that. You’re never going to get rich.” I said, “What if we’re all rich? Imagine that.” It’s not about socialism. It’s not about giving it all equally to everyone. It’s equity, not equality when it comes to our business. We practice equity – and equality, of course, we believe in. Everybody’s equal, but there’s equity involved. Fair share for fair work.
So for us, and for me as a person, I grew up around Republicans. I have dear friends who are Republicans. I grew up around Democrats. I have dear friends who are Democrats. I’m not a party person. I don’t say because you’re a Democrat you’re a good person, because you’re a Republican you’re a bad person. I love people, and I want people to succeed.
If you have pain in your heart or hate in your heart or racism or sexism, I want you to get rid of that – in the same way if you told me you had cancer, God forbid, I want you to get rid of cancer. I think all those things are cancers, and I want everybody to get rid of them and live freely.
ROB: We need a lot more of that, I think. What you’re saying is you are also not treating Republicans as others.
MICHAEL: No, no.
ROB: Because we have to be able to have those conversations.
MICHAEL: I love them. I love them. Look, George W. Bush, from Texas – I disagreed with most of his policies. His daughters are my dearest friends. He raised two great children. Jenna and Barbara are phenomenal human beings, and he’s a beautiful human being. Politically we disagree. Who cares? He’s a great father. He raised great kids. They’re good, good people. I look at that, I’m like, “You and Laura are amazing parents. I want to be an amazing parent. I want my kids one day to be like Jenna and Barbara.”
Some people look at my Twitter feed and look at my Instagram like, “He’s so political.” I can drink a beer. I played football for 10 years. I can drink a beer and watch a football game with anybody, and I want everybody to win.
I want everyone in this country to win, and I want everyone around the world to win. I’m not, “Americans have to be the best.” We all can be great. We all can have a healthy economy, healthy environments in our countries, so when we travel the world with our kid – we were in China in August with Mateo – I want the Chinese to have an awesome life too.
I don’t know where it comes from. My parents are great. [laughs] They’re great. They’re beautiful, kind human beings who instilled that in me and my brother since we were kids.
ROB: Do you work with your brother?
MICHAEL: I do. My brother’s the much smarter one. I was a theatre major at UCLA, so I always say whatever I say, take it with a grain of salt. My brother’s the smart one.
My brother has a company called Generation Titans, which is a consultancy business focusing on entrepreneurship. He worked for President Obama and My Brother’s Keeper, and his two partners also worked for President Obama and My Brother’s Keeper. But they’re so damn smart. I love him. He’s 2-½ years older than I am, and he’s a brilliant, brilliant person – and also has a heart of gold.
ROB: If he talks about things like you do, I believe you.
MICHAEL: Kind of.
ROB: What is coming up next? What’s next for you, what’s next for the Soze Agency? What are you excited about?
MICHAEL: I want to buy a few things. I’d like to put some money in some other companies and deliver a business model that is similar to ours. I think that legacy is not what you do – at least this is my belief – legacy is not what you do, but what you invest in. You might invest in your children, you might invest in a mentee, you might invest in a business.
I’d like to make some investments in some companies that are women-led, that are people of color-led. It doesn’t really matter what sector they’re in, but trying to build a worker-owned cooperative. There’s about 450 worker-owned cooperatives in the country.
I don’t think there’s anything as far as us in terms of giving the company – I don’t say you’ve got to give the company away, but I’d like to see more companies build that model where the workers are part of decision-making and it’s transparent and compassion is at the heart of the company. We’re looking at a few things now that I’m super excited about.
That will hopefully be my legacy, that I was able to add a little compassion to capitalism. Not trying to take anything away from you. If you want to buy a big house and buy a big car and a big watch, you think that’s what’ll make you happy, and stay at the Four Seasons Hotel, do it. When you figure out that’s not what it is, call me, and we’ll figure out other things that will make you happy. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Right. I come from the tech world, and in the tech world there are different funding documents out there that people have made available, open source for people.
Have you figured out – is there a way to get your structuring documents, the way you have this co-op set up, in a way that someone else could pull them off the shelf and just use them? Is that possible? I’m sure you’ve been through a lot of complexity and some lawyer time to get where you are.
MICHAEL: Lawyer time? Never had a lawyer.
MICHAEL: No. We might need one at some point, but not yet. Yes, that’s a great idea. I haven’t thought about that. I actually just met with one of my partners today – she’s here, Naheed. She’s one of the co-owners, and she leads the culture department of the company.
I don’t know who said it, but someone smarter than me said culture eats policy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Culture is important to us. We talked about her spending the next 3 months really putting this on paper. I would love to make it public.
ROB: It seems like something that could be open source. Or in the tech world they have Safe Notes and Series Seed, and then Indie.vc just open sourced their documents as well. They believe they can find good companies and fund them, but if other people want to fund it the same way, they are fine with that.
That’s kind of the same thing. You want to build more companies like yourself and make people wealthy by doing good work together, but you don’t care if someone else does it.
MICHAEL: No, no competition. Do it.
ROB: Open sourcing would be really interesting.
MICHAEL: I would say this. I’m a businessperson. I’ve run businesses, I’ve sold businesses. I have a deep belief in compassion and my heart, but I also love business, and I believe in business, and I believe in creating really healthy businesses in this country that can create great livings for people who work for them, whether they’re 25 employees or 25,000 employees.
I think corporations are struggling to figure out how to play in this space, retainment, how to keep good employees, how to sell to their consumers in an authentic way. The biggest ones, the Fortune 100s.
But I believe that we will evolve to a much more interesting place. Tech certainly has. Look at Google and Twitter and Facebook. You go there, you never want to leave because they give you free food and gyms and all that stuff. That’s part of their model, healthy or not healthy. People work 18-hour days there.
But they know they can create an environment that makes people want to work there, and I think that the older legacy companies will have to evolve to survive.
ROB: Super interesting. Very cool. That covers most of what we usually talk through. Is there anything else you want to leave us with before we wrap this conversation up?
MICHAEL: No, it’s great
ROB: Good. I appreciate meeting you, Michael. This was enjoyable. It sounds like the session was well-attended and well-enjoyed, and many more interesting things here. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
MICHAEL: Thank you, Rob. Appreciate you. And thank you for the beer, but you can edit that part out. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Take care.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.