Episode 7: Kevin Wassong, President, Minyanville Publishing and Multimedia Transitions From Agency Guy to Publisher

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Anyone around at the beginning of the Internet advertising revolution knows Kevin Wassong. High profiled leader of J Walter Thompson's digital marketing arm, [email protected], Kevin was instrumental in launching many online ad campaigns for major brands including Merrill Lynch, Unilever, Pfizer, HSBC, The Diamond Trading Company, Nasdaq and Sun Microsystems. From his first job as agent trainee at Creative Artists Agency to his membership on the WPP.com international board he's led an amazing life ratified by his charisma, spunk and intelligence. He has been featured on CNN, on the cover of the Wall Street Journal and in the New York Times, Wire Magazine, Adweek, AdAge to name a few. Now you get up close and personal in this rare interview on DishyMix where's it's "all about Kevin." First Kevin shares his reasons for going to a post-bubble start up and what it's like to be at an early-stage company compared to a traditional behemoth like JWT. He talks about why he's going for the brass ring at Minyanville and the unique business model his new publishing empire is bringing to the financial world. Think Disney meets Wall Street - Watch Minyanville's parody financial news show with characters Hoofy & Boo. Hoofy & Boo's News & Views Featured on FunnyorDie.com, the episode entitled "Cox and Balls" is named after two of the leaders of the world's financial markets. Edward Balls is the Economic Secretary to the Treasury in the UK while Christopher Cox is the head of the SEC in the US.

Transcript

Kevin Wassong, President, Minyanville Publishing and Multimedia Transitions From Agency Guy to Publisher

Announcer:  This program is brought to you by personallifemedia.com.

[Music]

Susan Bratton: Hi, this is Susan Bratton, your host for DishyMix, and I’m with Kevin Wassong, he is the president of Minyanville. I’m here in New York in the Minyanville offices, and I think you know about Kevin from his fabulous history.

[Music]

Kevin Wassong: So, if I’m meeting with somebody, I always say, “Well, have you seen The Incredibles? And many times they will say, “Yeah I saw it, I loved it, it’s one of my favorite movies,” and I say, “What do your kids think about it?” They say, “I don’t have kids.” That’s the point, the marriage of entertainment and education and information, the lines are all blurring, and we have created a platform that really is able to connect with multiple audiences on multiple levels to help them be more comfortable with what’s happening in the world of Wall Street.

It’s called Cox and Balls, and all the information in it is real, because Christopher Cox is the chairman of the SEC in the Unites States, and ironically Edward Balls is the secretary to the treasury in the United Kingdom. Now, how you could have someone named Cox and someone named Balls running the corresponding financial groups in these countries is beyond us, and we noticed it a couple of weeks ago. The script, it’s one of those where you say, “Joke, write thyself.” Short of taking a Xanax, really a glass of water and saying to yourself, “You know what, they are just people too and feeling comfortable getting up there and not worrying about it so much, that’s really what makes it work.

You have to just be comfortable and confident in what you’re saying and what you know and who you are, that’s the most important thing. The most important thing in creativity is to not try and do it alone. That is by far the most important thing to do. I found that the best creative absolutely comes from a collaborative environment.

[Music]

Susan Bratton: Welcome to DishyMix, this is your host Susan Bratton, and I have another juicy interview with a famous internet and media person, Kevin Wassong. Kevin is the president of Minyanville Publishing and Multimedia, and I met him years ago at J Walter Thompson, at digital JWT. Welcome Kevin.

Kevin Wassong: Thank you Susan, it’s nice to be here.

Susan Bratton: We are doing this on location today. I am sitting in Kevin’s office in Manhattan, so you’ll hear some traffic behind us, and it’s great to come into your facility, because it’s actually a fun place to visit. Why don’t you start off at least letting everyone know a little bit about what Minyanville is, and then we’ll catch them up on your background.

Kevin Wassong: Sure, we like to call it The Ville. Minyanville is a media company, and we marry entertainment and education in the world of finance for multiple audiences. So, we build branded properties, we use our characters Hoofy the Bull and Boo the Bear to help people understand and be more comfortable with what’s happening in the world of finance and Wall Street.

Susan Bratton: So, it’s really a brilliant idea to assign characters to the Bull and the Bear, and to bring some levity to the content. The content that all of your writers are pumping out is pretty heavy duty stuff. Do you think that there is any issue with being taken seriously, when you have cartoon characters associated with financial content? I’m sure you get that question a lot, but tell us how you answer it.

Kevin Wassong: It’s a funny side story, but Todd Harrison was meeting with Larry Kramer, when he was running MarketWatch years ago. They sat down and Larry looked at Todd and said, “This is a little unconventional, it’s a bit of a dessert topping and a floor wax. I really don’t get how this works together.” Todd’s response was, “Well, if it was conventional, somebody would have already done it.” The reason I came to Minyanville is because I have never seen an idea that transcends media platforms. The Bull and the Bear executed in a Pixar-esque kind of way really connects with people.

That kind of animation, the 3d animation that you see today has really resonated with; I call it a generationally neutral audience. So, if I’m meeting with somebody, I always say, “Well, have you seen The Incredibles? And many times they will say, “Yeah I saw it, I loved it, it’s one of my favorite movies,” and I say, “What do your kids think about it?” They say, “I don’t have kids.” That’s the point, the marriage of entertainment and education and information, the lines are all blurring, and we have created a platform that really is able to connect with multiple audiences on multiple levels to help them be more comfortable with what’s happening in the world of Wall Street.

Susan Bratton: You are using a lot of viral video. You are creating short movies with your characters and putting those on different websites. Tell us about the websites, tell us about the movies, and how that’s going. Is that bringing in audience for you?

Kevin Wassong: Absolutely, this is something we have only been doing for I would say two months now. We finally were asked after meeting with multiple partners. We met with Universal, we met with Comedy Central and the question would always be, what do these guys sound like, what do they say, who are they? So, we brought them to life, and we have put them on sites like Funny or Die and YouTube, and you will see them soon on a number of other sites on the homepage. Certainly, you can see them at Minyanville as well.

We do a new one each week, we do it on real news and real information. So, everything you see there on the videos are based on real news. We might have some fun with the news, certainly in a daily show-esque kind of way, but it is all real financial news that these characters are brining to life in an entertaining form.

Susan Bratton: So, your first video was Cock and Balls. How could that have possibly been based on a real life news story?

Kevin Wassong: Okay, I just need to clarify it, it’s Cox and Balls. It’s called Cox and Balls and all the information in it is real, because Christopher Cox is the chairman of the SEC in the Unites States, and ironically Edward Balls is the secretary to the treasury in the United Kingdom. Now, how you could have someone named Cox and someone named Balls running the corresponding financial groups in these countries is beyond us, and we noticed it a couple of weeks ago. The script, it’s one of those where you say, “Joke, write thyself,” and the joke wrote itself. When you have a president whose name is Bush, it even takes it a step further, so we had a lot of fun with that one.

Susan Bratton: You’d be crazy not to take advantage of it. Well, we are talking about Minyanville and I want to keep talking about this, because it’s a real entrepreneurial endeavor for you Kevin. I want to let anyone who doesn’t know you, know more about a little bit of your history. In 1998, you launched the digital marketing arm for J Walter Thompson out of the flagship New York office. Before that, you were with Lowe and Partners, and really did a lot in the early Multimedia Kiosk CD-Rom, part of the world.

Between those two, I think you went to Sun and launched a lot of work for Sun with Lowe out of San Francisco. Before you got into the agency business, you were working as an agent trainee with creative artist agencies. So, you have been Hollywood, you have been Madison, you have been Vine, and now you are Wall Street. So, you’ve had a lot of lives, I want to get to some of those old stories, but I really want to hear about what it’s like. This is your first entrepreneurial venture; you have worked for big, big powerful companies your whole life. What’s the one most surprising thing about being an entrepreneur?

Kevin Wassong: The most surprising thing is the timeframe that the companies that you’re dealing with work under. As a small company, they honestly don’t care that you’re a small company. That’s really what it comes down to, and to adjust your expectations to how fast other companies are going to move for you, that’s been the hardest thing, because you go in with one expectation, things go incredibly well. Then you really have to adjust that to make sure that you’re comfortable with your ability to build the business essentially.

So, that’s been the most surprising thing, it’s really that chasm between a client’s timeframe and our timeframe, and adjusting to that.

Susan Bratton: Are you having any trouble really understanding what the timeframe is? Do you ever kind of screw that up, because you don’t know how long it’s going to take to build something? I mean are you getting yourself into trouble lately now and then and really adjusting expectations?

Kevin Wassong: We are constantly adjusting. One of the things about this as well is, I have a new investment strategy, it’s a personal investment strategy. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody else, but it seems that any company that we are going to do business with or about to sign a contract with; we should actually invest in, because they seem to be acquired right before that happens. It’s happened to us probably five times.

Susan Bratton: So, who are those companies?

Kevin Wassong: Well, TD Waterhouse. We were working with TD Waterhouse, and they were acquired by AMERITRADE, and became TD AMERITRADE. It completely revises the timeline; so again, you don’t know what’s happening in your client’s businesses that will negatively impact your timeframe for it. As an entrepreneur, you really have to prepare yourself and pace yourself properly to be able to sustain the business essentially. Otherwise, if you guarded the gate too fast and get ahead of yourself, or count the proverbial chickens before they are hatched, you can get into a lot of trouble.

I think we have seen that a lot in the dotcom boom and bust, where companies really got out ahead of themselves, and were never able to get their feet back under the company. One thing that we have really focused on is looking at the lessons of our predecessors and understanding the mistakes they made, and really trying to not make those same mistakes, but granted, we are going to make a lot of them. As an entrepreneur, you make a lot of mistakes and unfortunately, the safety net is actually a bit farther than it normally is if you’re in a large company.

Susan Bratton: I was thinking about how you’ve always worked for these big organizations and now you’re an entrepreneur, and clearly you’re ready for your time at the brass ring. You have seen a lot of your friends make it, and you wanted that shot yourself. You got out of your comfort zone and you got yourself into something that really actually leverages a lot of your capabilities, but I’m sure you’re feeling like, whoa there are so many little things that you have to do when you’re an entrepreneur.

If there was one thing that you could bring into Minyanville that you had at J Walter Thompson, at Lowe, what would it be? Is there a piece of support or a certain way things are done that you wish you could just import and make your life better?

Kevin Wassong: An HR person. Someone who is 100% dedicated to hiring and finding people and managing the careers of the people in the organization, because that takes up a tremendous amount of time and it’s incredibly important to do that, especially when you have a lot of young people working in a company. The great thing about this eco boom, I guess we could call it, is the fact that you’ll get a lot of young people who want to come in, want the experience, want to work with executives who have been in business for a long period of time. But we don’t necessarily have the time to really mentor who and what they are.

Having an HR person, having an operations person who can really focus on that element of the business is key; and that’s something that we’re looking closely at now, but we are two years into the game.

Susan Bratton: I’ve always been incredibly impressed with how smart you are. You have a native intelligence that’s just very, very high. Big IQ, big brain, but you’ve also gotten polished very well. You’re very buttoned down, very professional; you have a really nice presentation. Did you have a mentor; was there anyone you learned that from? I mean you can’t learn intelligence, you are smart and you got that from your parents and some good genes, but where did you learn your grace? You are a graceful businessman.

Kevin Wassong: First of all, thank you very much.

Susan Bratton: You’re welcome, I told you your [xx] would like.

Kevin Wassong: You know it was interesting, because I remember walking into a room with the entire senior management team of Sun Microsystems, and having to present my part of the presentation, and not being able to peel my tongue off the roof of my mouth, I used to be a horrible presenter. I had a number of conversations with people who were really great presenters, and I have been lucky to have a number of mentors in my life. Whether it was my grandfather who was in public relations and an incredible speaker, to my father and stepfather who were both great speakers; and they have been great in their industries, and talked to them about it.

Short of taking a Xanax, really a glass of water and saying to yourself, “You know what, they are just people too,” and feeling comfortable getting up there, and not worrying about it so much, that’s really what makes it work. You have to just be comfortable and confident in what you’re saying and what you know and who you are, that’s the most important thing.

Susan Bratton: Yeah that’s hard, I mean there are a lot of people who don’t have the confidence you do, so you started out with an early lead on that I think, but it sounds like you had a lot of good mentors too. What is the most insane thing? You’ve worked at creative artist agencies and you’ve worked in the advertising industry. What’s the most insane thing about both of those businesses, what’s just crazy messed up?

Kevin Wassong: Well, anytime you’re dealing with creative people, you’re bound to come around or bound to find some very insane things, let alone people. The most insane was working for a producer in Hollywood, and when I found out that my primary job was taking care of cars and getting jeans for him on a daily basis. I thought career wise, this probably wasn’t the right direction for me, and decided to find something else, so I lasted in that job for a week. That was by far the most insane of anybody I came across in the creative field, but there are certainly plenty of them. I sometimes count myself in that bunch as well.

Susan Bratton: You mentioned creativity; that you have worked in a lot of creative fields. Advertising in Hollywood etc. and now creating characters and bringing them to the concept of investing. What do you do as a practice to tap your native creativity? When you say to yourself, “Kevin, I want you to really be creative about this.” Is there any process that you personally use to invoke creativity?

Susan Bratton: The most important thing in creativity is to not try and do it alone. That is by far the most important thing to do. I found that the best creative absolutely comes from a collaborative environment. So, to walk into a room with a bunch of people, even if it’s two people, three people, however many people you want, but to walk in a room and everybody put down their guard and believe that there is no such thing as a bad idea when you walk into it, and guaranteed everybody will throw out bad ideas in a meeting.

To come together and get that spark going, to find that initial spark that somebody says, that is like igniting and engine, and it just takes off. If you try and do creativity in a silo, and just sit in a room and think about it, it’s very difficult to make that work. I think even the people who take credit for all of the things that they create, really in fact are working with a lot of people or through just the environments that they are in or the people that they come across. It always will spark something and there is that form of collaboration, so really don’t do it in isolation.

Susan Bratton: Alright, so collaboration and creativity is the thing that you rely on most to promote creative thought. Well, we are going to take a break to thank our sponsors, I really appreciate our sponsors. They believe in the show DishyMix, they believe in the people in the industry, and so we are going to take a moment. This is your host Susan Bratton; I’m with Kevin Wassong, the president of Minyanville, and if you’ll stay tuned, we are going to get to know a lot more about Kevin.

[Commercial]

Susan Bratton: We are back and this is your host Susan Bratton, I have Kevin Wassong, the president of Minyanville Publishing and Multimedia. We left talking about creativity, and I want to keep on that thread, but I want to take it down to a more personal level. Kevin, you’re a father and a husband, you have a wife Tammy and a son Luke, and a son Matthew. Matt and Luke, your apostles, and I want to know what the most creative thing is that you do to make Tammy happy in your marriage?

Kevin Wassong: Really? I don’t know if I can divulge that on a show like this. Again, it goes down to collaboration and she is a very creative person as well. She is a trained architect, worked on designing The Getty Center in Los Angeles for Richard Myer, and does incredible projects. I think us working together and collaborating on ideas, collaborating on kids is certainly a good thing, the process of making kids is certainly a good thing. I go back to that collaboration thing, but certainly we are a creative family.

Susan Bratton: What about with the boys? What do you think from being a good father, what do you think is your best attribute at Daddyness?

Kevin Wassong: I think allowing them to explore what they want to explore and do what they want to do. The most important thing for them and for me is to find what they are passionate about, and then helping foster that. So, I’m constantly looking out for things that they are really passionate about, and then trying to build on that and find them things that will help them build on that. Then, letting them explore lots of different things, giving them the opportunities to go to different places, meet different people.

That’s really important, so that exploration is really the key. I remember meeting with a really creative director one time, and he had just had his first child, and he was talking about how he really got to see everything new again, because he was seeing it through his newborn son’s eyes. He would see that expression on their face, when they would see a leaf fall from a tree, and it was the first time they ever saw a leaf fall from a tree, and that gave me chills. It’s that kind of thing, of being able to see things through your kids’ perspectives that’s really exciting again.

Susan Bratton: So, I want to switch to a couple of other different things that we had talked about. On a recent episode of DishyMix, I had on Sir Ken Robinson, and he was speaking really about the same thing you are. Which is, what’s the passion in the person and how can we develop that? His approach is that the school system is broken, and that we are very focused on math and science, that the humanities have gone by the wayside, and that developmentally, people learn in so many different ways that we need to create more options for learning.

You went to a really good school, Brunswick School in Connecticut. So, you’ve had an excellent education. Tell us about your experience with that and how they created and found your passion, if they did.

Kevin Wassong: It’s a very unique school today. It’s very different than it was when I went there. It’s actually about three times the size of what it was. For example, you walk into the lower school of Brunswick today and they have a full life size Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleteon hanging from the ceiling. It’s again that idea of exploration. It really was a liberal arts school, so you went there and you had the opportunity to explore different areas. I recently wrote an article for the magazine which is coming out within the next couple of weeks, and that was one of the things that was asked. Who were your influences, what really helped you?

There was an art teacher who really allowed me to explore different things and I learned how to do airbrush painting. She unannounced to me had entered one of my paintings into a national art contest, and I won the contest along with 11 other students from the United States. We traveled through China for six weeks, Beijing, Shanghai, Inner-Mongolia. We lived in Yurts for four days, but it was really an eye opener and actually I think that, that was a big catalyst for showing creatively maybe I do have something, maybe I can create things that will really resonate with other people.

That to this day has really stuck with me. I really love that idea of exploration, and a school like that really allows you to do it. I would agree with him a 100% though that the educational system has some serious, serious issues that need to be addressed. As a matter of fact, I have met with somebody from the committee on economic development which is very involved in the U.S. school system and asked why corporations couldn’t adopt a school like you can adopt a highway. I wanted to start a program of adopting schools throughout the U.S. He said it’s impossible to do it, because every school district is different, the bureaucracy of the school districts throughout the United States make it almost impossible to make that work.

I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to go to a school like that and explore different areas that would certainly peak my interest and have helped me to this day.

Susan Bratton: So, I’m going to give you a gift, it’s $10,000 and it’s 10 days to do anything you want. I don’t want you to give it to charity; I want you to spend it selfishly on yourself. Foolishly, selfishly, completely indulgently, $10,000 and 10 days, what are you going to do?

Kevin Wassong: I’m going to take my family and pack up and go to China. Literally, I’m going to take my kids to the Great Wall, and go around a number of different cities in China. As a matter of fact, I’m vying to go to the 2008 Olympics, not as a competitor, because I don’t know what I’d be competing in, Underwater Bocce or something. But I’d pack up and go to China for 10 days, and that would be a great experience.

Susan Bratton: I think that’s an awesome idea. As a matter of fact, I went to China a couple of times in the last year or so, and it’s one of the top places on my list to take my daughter. I think the Great Wall is one of the few places that I have been, you know how when you’re little, thinks look big and then when you go back maybe to a house in which you lived as a child, and it looks really tiny. Everything looks littler, and you see everything on television, and it never quite lives up to its immensity.

I went to the Great Wall, and it was just the opposite. I could not comprehend the size of it, the scale of it, it staggered me. I think that our children, with the media that they’re exposed to today are so much even more inured to fantastic things. The Great Wall is kind of one of those last bastions where you’re going to be impressed, and it’s just so amazing. Have you climbed the Great Wall?

Kevin Wassong: Yeah, there is a reason they call it great. I mean it really is unbelievable. I took a train overnight to get out to the Great Wall, at that time that was the only section, this was pre [xx] when I went there. So, we are talking, it’s 22 years ago, and we got out to the Great Wall, and you’re just amazed at how big this thing is, and how far it goes. We walked two miles of the Great Wall including a whole section that hadn’t been repaired for people to walk. So, at the time it was a really small section, and it was just spectacular.

To this day, I’ve always wanted to go back. Although, I did drop my 35 mm camera off the Great Wall, that was bad, I was able to repair it, but it still has the dents, I kept it to this day.

Susan Bratton: Wow, it’s a good memento. So, where else do you want to go with your boys or just with your wife? What other places haven’t you traveled that you must see in your lifetime? What’s on your list?

Kevin Wassong: Well, I did drive across the United States in 60 hours, so that was good, that was quite interesting. You didn’t really get to see too many sights; you just went as fast as you possibly could, but then on the way back, did the tour, I went to Bryce, and Zion and all the national parks which were absolutely spectacular. There is so much to see in this world, it’s really incredible. I went up to Vancouver a couple of years ago, and I haven’t been back in a few years, but Vancouver is absolutely spectacular.

Going over to Europe and just traveling and seeing different places. The great thing about what we are doing even on the interactive side, a good majority “…” we are right in a 111 countries around the globe. It’s this thought that we have become this global economy, there really aren’t that many barriers. We get emails from people all the time, we have contributors in Australia, we have people who write us from Europe, from Asia, from India. We work with people in India, so these barriers are really falling. The only barrier is the cost of an airline ticket to get somewhere, but other than that, it’s pretty wide open and I look forward to actually traveling a bit in the next few years.

Susan Bratton: Well, you’re going to make a ton of money on Minyanville, because it’s a great idea. I know you sell subscriptions to Minyanville, is there any kind of a special promo code? I didn’t clear this with you before the show, so if there’s not, that’s no problem. But I’m thinking that, if there are people who would like to try to have a 30-day free trial or anything that we can give to DishyMix listeners?

Kevin Wassong: Well, we do have a free trial; you’re welcome to call us in the office. To DishyMix listeners, if you want a trial, we can set you up here, you can call us. Can I give the phone number?

Susan Bratton: Yeah, give the phone number.

Kevin Wassong: (212) 991-6200 or you can go on the site and there is a free trial when you sign up for it, so there is a trial period and you can definitely do that. Or if you’re a TD AMERITRADE customer, an Apex level user, you can go into the research section and you’ll find a free subscription to the Buzz and Banter on TD AMERITRADE through that program.

Susan Bratton: Well, that’s good. Everybody likes a freebie, thank you. So, this is my final question for you, and it’s going to be a bit of a stumper, so prepare yourself. You have a book in you, what is it?

Kevin Wassong: It’s actually fiction, so I’ve written a few things already as a matter of fact. I had told you, I mentioned a little earlier that I had written a children’s television show, episode of a children’s television show called The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, which really isn’t representative of the kind of writing that it would be, it would be more of “…” call it the Elmore Leonard type of funny novel, crime fiction type book. So, and that would be a fun one. Then, certainly one on creativity, I think talking about intrepreneur versus entrepreneur is a great topic for people, because there are intrepreneurs in every major company out there.

I spent my career being an intrepreneur at major advertising agencies and really felt, if I didn’t do the intrepreneurial thing, I would regret it for the rest of my life. So, now I’m doing the entrepreneurial thing and we’re just starting to take off and it’s really exciting.

Susan Bratton: So, one word of advice to someone who’s in a large organization. We’ll close the show with something aspirational. Someone who is in a large organization is full of ideas, isn’t ready to take the entrepreneurial step. How do they get started, what advice would you give someone who has a great idea?

Kevin Wassong: Well, first of all just put it on paper and make it clear and simple. It doesn’t have to be a full blown business plan. Most people think that they have to write a 60 page book with everything in it to get their idea on paper. Get it on paper, be clear about it, be passionate about it, but the main thing I would say about entrepreneurs is, do it as soon as you possibly can, because you’ll be really surprised at how successful you’ll honestly be. If you’re passionate about something, if you’re smart, if you know what you’re doing and you’re confident, go out and do it. Because the worst thing you can do is, let those years go by and suddenly look back and say, “Hey I’m trapped right now; I really can’t take this risk.”

It is a risk and the odds are, a lot of people are going to fail, but you know what, there is nothing wrong with that. That’s the best thing, there is absolutely nothing wrong and if you’re young enough and you’re aggressive enough and you’re confident enough, then you know what, you’ll always bounce back, and that’s what’s key.

Susan Bratton: Always bouncing back, that does actually happen, doesn’t it? Well, it’s been really fun to spend time with you, thanks for your sage advice and sharing yourself with us today. We really appreciate it.

Kevin Wassong: Thank you very much Susan, it’s great being on the DishyMix here.

Susan Bratton: Alright Kevin. Well, this is your host Susan Bratton. I hope you had a good time meeting Kevin Wassong. I’m looking forward to delighting you next week as well. Have a great day.

[Music]

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