Storytelling has been in Alex Kushneir’s blood since birth.
After studying film and television (and playing football) at Baylor University, Alex cut his teeth in the production world working for companies like CNBC, Huffington Post, Cheddar, and more. After just eight years in the industry, Alex and colleague Jay Shetty co-founded Icon Media, a full-service content studio that helps brands create purpose-driven content and emotionally connect with their audiences.
”The catalyst of [the pandemic] forced the hand of all these brands and corporations to do something in a big way.Alex KushneirCo-Founder and COO, Icon Media
Katie Hankinson (00:01):
Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.
Mickey Cloud (00:02):
And I’m Mickey Cloud.
Katie Hankinson (00:03):
Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever-changing skies.
Mickey Cloud (00:20):
Alex, welcome to Building While Flying. Thanks for being our guest today.
Alex Kushneir (00:24):
Yeah, no problem. Happy to be here. Thanks for having me and excited to chat.
Mickey Cloud (00:28):
Yeah. Awesome. Alex, for our audience, is the co-founder and COO of ICON MEDIA, a full service content studio that develops, produces, and distributes social impact stories and empower brands to forge a positive difference in the world. Throughout his career, Alex has been a powerhouse producer in meaningful education programming for Cheddar, ABC, NBC and Al Jazeera, as well as for special projects for the World Economic Forum, the 2016 DNC in Philadelphia and Huffington Post, and now works to create inspirational video content on wellness, mindfulness, and meaningful impact with ICON MEDIA. Alex, let’s start back at the beginning. As someone who’s made a career in storytelling for film and TV, how’d you get drawn to that? As a kid, were you always a storyteller?
Alex Kushneir (01:10):
Yeah. If we go way back to being a kid, I think you don’t realize it until you’re older and you recollect and think about your journey. I always had my toy soldiers that I play with. I create scenarios in my mind, and the Star Wars guys versus the GI Joe’s [inaudible 00:01:27], stuff like that. I always was that kind of person growing up of creating imaginary worlds and I loved it. And then you fast forward and you get to high school and you’re trying to figure yourself out. I was a big athlete. I ended up playing Division 1 football at Baylor. So that was number one always was football, football, but behind that was my friends and I… This is when you’re 13, 14, 15, 16, way before social media. I think Facebook came out, but you had to be in college. You had to get accepted and get that email.
Mickey Cloud (02:03):
Alex Kushneir (02:04):
So this is 2002, ’03, ’04, ’05. So we didn’t have social media, but I always would make films with my little camcorder of me and my friends just doing fun mockumentaries or just silly things, like comedy stuff, a lot of stuff you’d probably see on TikTok nowadays. And so, I always had that. I edited it on my little computer, but I just enjoyed it. It was fun. And then took some television production classes in high school, which were a lot of fun. It was probably the most enjoyable classes I took. Not a big math or science or any other kind of thing. I was like, “Oh, that’s okay.” And so, as I went then fast forwarding to college, and I played football. And then as football went away and I’m like, “Okay. I’m not going to go to the NFL.” Injuries and other things settled in. You start thinking about what you want to do with your career now that you’re 20, 21 years old.
Alex Kushneir (02:58):
I always thought, I was like, “Oh, you know what, I always love making television and films and storytelling.” This stuff seemed really cool to me, and so I really laser focused on filmmaking and how to do production properly and editing and all those areas. That’s what I studied at Baylor University, was film and digital media, and really got encompassed there and was able to go on sets in Austin, Texas. The first set I ever went to was the show Friday Night Lights.
Mickey Cloud (03:25):
Alex Kushneir (03:25):
Yeah. So that was just cool. The guy who invited me was the assistant director. He was a Baylor alum and worked on some huge shows. He’s like, “Wow.” I hung out with him for 14 hours that day. I skipped all my classes, went down Austin. He’s like, “You know what, I didn’t think he’d want to hang out for me that long, but the fact that you’re here for 7:00 in the morning till,” I think it was 8:00 at night, the whole day, he’s like, “That’s honestly what production is like if you want to be in that world, is long days, long hours, so you got to be passionate about it.” I did, and I was able to then start my career at CNBC on a show called How I Made My Millions and just kept leveling up slowly, but surely from there and hone in on my storytelling skills.
Mickey Cloud (04:11):
Awesome. That’s what I wanted to dive into next. You mentioned, you cut your teeth in the video production industry with maybe starting out in more traditional TV and news companies, like you mentioned, CNBC. I know you went on to work for Disney ABC TV and others, but then you also switched over to more digital-first video companies, like The Huffington Post and Cheddar. And so, I guess I’m curious to learn about especially with the era of the past 10, 15 years. What were some of the biggest differences you saw between those companies that are linear TV-focused versus those that were digital-first focused?
Alex Kushneir (04:39):
Absolutely. So the major differences, so I started my career in traditional broadcast, like you said, on How I Made My Millions and The Katie Show for ABC Disney and then a new startup called Al Jazeera America, which is owned by Qatar. I mean, if you worked at CNN, Fox News, MSN, they took everybody, tried to put them together and it just didn’t work because it was branded the wrong way for American audiences. And so, I had this traditional broadcast. The major difference that I saw, because from there I went into my leap into social media and digital-focused media at The Huffington Post and in purpose-driven content specifically was team size. The budgets were a way bigger in traditional broadcast. When I got into it, it was 2011, 2010. When I started in traditional broadcast all the way up until 2015, ’16 and then I made that transition into digital, team sizes were bigger. Budgets were much bigger. I was like, “Where is that person? Where is it?” Like, “Oh, we don’t have any of that. You’re the researcher. You’re the associate producer. You’re the producer.”
Alex Kushneir (05:50):
Luckily, we had editors on that digital focus front because it was early days, 2015, ’16 at The Huffington Post, where social media was getting bigger. People were putting out more content. That was literally the first thing I noticed, was the budgets were so much smaller and you needed to be able to tell still impactful narrative-driven stories that emotionally resonated with audiences, right? That never went away, right? Even if working on large scale shows to news broadcast packages to this social-first digital content, that narrative of how can we emotionally connect with audiences was always there. I just had to adjust to different budgets and pricing, and crew sizes were just totally different. That was one of the biggest differences.
Mickey Cloud (06:38):
Well, I know you mentioned The Huffington Post is being that big pivot in your career towards the more social-digital front. I’m curious. It sounds like from what I’ve seen you just from interviews and what I’ve understand is that Arianna Huffington had a pretty big impact on your career. So I guess what were some major takeaways working with her?
Alex Kushneir (06:56):
Yeah. Working with Arianna Huffington at HuffPost, yeah, it was definitely… Again, when you’re in it, you’re just in it and you’re focused. And then when you look back, you kind of like, “Wow. I learned so much.” Well, she was innovative in the fact that this kind of social-driven, cause-driven content would work, and she was one of the first to do it. This is five, six years ago. And so, that was really interesting. I went with her to the World Economic Forum, to the Democratic National Convention in Philly in 2016, I think it was. Just learning and seeing her passion for honestly just this genre of how can we create content that just enhances people’s lives, we were talking about is sustainability, gender equality, mindfulness and meditation. All those areas, it was so important to her and she was like, “People are going to need this.”
Alex Kushneir (07:48):
So in comes this guy from England named Jay Shetty, who millions and millions of people now watch, we honestly… I didn’t know. No one knew who he was. He had like 5,000 followers back then. We honestly just became really good friends and work together in creating content and stories and listening to her guidance of like, “Hey, people are going to really want this and need this. AJ is talented in the area of mindfulness, meditation, relationships. [inaudible 00:08:16] was a monk in India, has this great foresight and knowledge. Alex, you’re a great producer, go create cool shit.” Pretty much that’s what it was and we had to go figure it out.
Alex Kushneir (08:27):
And then we had this great distribution platform called The Huffington Post on Facebook. It was primarily only on Facebook back then and all these different channels. When we launched the content, it just… My first year at Huffington Post, I did 150 million views as a producer. What I created in that genre, it was not performing like comedy, all other genres, just generic news stories. People were hungry for it even back then. It was her knowing that people would need it and then us making it happen.
Mickey Cloud (09:00):
I guess it sounds like those early days of you guys worked together at The Huffington Post sets the stage for building ICON MEDIA. What was your relationship like with Jay, and what did you take from that time at HuffPost that then set the stage for what you guys would do later?
Alex Kushneir (09:19):
Yeah, absolutely. So I always tell the story of Jay first time in New York, living in New York, I think it was the fall or transitioning into winter. London winters are pretty mild and he comes, he’s like, “Does it get cold here?” I’m like, “It gets freezing. You’re going to need a big jacket.” He comes in the next day with the biggest yellowish puffiest jacket in the world. New Yorkers, we joke around and mess with people. That was the building blocks of our friendship, dude. We [inaudible 00:09:49] then lie. We started creating this content and just really seem like, “Wow, people really need this stuff. The comments, the engagement, people are hungry for it.”
Alex Kushneir (10:01):
As Arianna Huffington exited The Huffington Post starting her company Thrive Global, Jay and I are both scratching our head like, “Okay. What’s our next steps going to be?” Because she was the leader of that genre of content. Based on what she left, that went all went away. I mean, look at Huffington Post now, I mean, it’s not really in the mix of top distribution platforms or performers. It’s really gotten a lot smaller sadly since her exit. So we left, and I went to go work for a startup called Cheddar. Cheddar is like CNBC for millennials. I got in there real early as a field production producer and head of branded content production as well, and working with different brands and the forefront of OTT networks and what that even means and how you make money from it. Jay went to go build his own personal brand.
Alex Kushneir (10:53):
So, I remember Jay tells this story, he was on some big podcasts, like How I Built This or something with Guy Raz and telling this story of we were literally at a Rangers game. We both exited, left Huffington Post. We didn’t have a job for about a couple of weeks at the time, so we’re like, “What do we do?” He’s running out of money. I’m like, “I know we’re going to land somewhere. I just don’t know where.” But it’s New York City, so it’s expensive as hell, so money is getting low. I think we’re like 27 at the time. So we’re not old, but we’re not young. We’re still younger in our career, I would definitely say. And so, I was like, “Something’s going to happen. We’re going to figure it out. I don’t know what yet.” But we always want them to work together again because we just built a strong friendship.
Alex Kushneir (11:40):
He just went all in on his personal content and I would help him out. We help develop a show together, which almost had sold to Peacock, which is an NBC production company. And so, it was really fun and exciting. I would get him on Cheddar as a guest. He was one of the early guests on Cheddar and building that out. He just started growing and building and building, and Cheddar started growing and building. We just lost that side of we know people are going to need this content one day, but how, and when, and why. We didn’t know until honestly, back in very early 2018, the beginning of the year, Jay starts blowing up. I mean, I’m talking to millions of followers a year. Cheddar is blowing up. I’m barely in the office because I’m the field producer, the only field producer in the whole company of Cheddar traveling and working all this branded content, so I’m never home.
Alex Kushneir (12:35):
And then Jay hits me up and says, “Alex, I have a great idea.” I’m like, “What?” I don’t know where I was at the time, somewhere traveling. I’m like, “What do you got?” He’s like, “We can… purpose-driven content studio.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” Because I’m obviously a producer. I didn’t have an entrepreneur mindset in the sense of like, “You got to go do this and this is how we’re going to build.” I’m a creative guy. So he approaches me with this concept of a purpose-driven content studio because National Geographic, WePRO, multi even billionaires and very successful people and entrepreneurs and authors like, “Jay, can you create content for us? We love your stories.”
Alex Kushneir (13:15):
He was the catalyst for everything. He knew me obviously and that I was really good at telling these kinds of stories, so he was like, “Alex, why don’t we start something?” So, that was like the start of the idea of like, “Okay. People need purpose-driven or cause-driven content that is at a higher level of production, that emotionally connects with people and they’ll pay for it.” So that was the inkling idea of a business. And then we go into the summer of 2018 and I’m still working at Cheddar. We signed our first big client. I’m doing both jobs, and I just come to the realization I can’t do both.
Mickey Cloud (13:55):
You can’t do both.
Alex Kushneir (13:55):
I have to quit my job, my career, which is going great. I had a small amount of equity into Cheddar, but if I leave early, I don’t get that. Honestly, it was the best decision of my life to quit that job and start my own business with Jay. Yeah, it’s literally been the best decision to take a huge leap of faith, but feel really good about that decision and move across country to Los Angeles to start this company.
Mickey Cloud (14:23):
Yeah, I’d love to dive in now to the running of ICON MEDIA, because it sounds like from what you’ve just described and what I’ve read, it did start because Jay, his star was rising in the social and digital space. He was getting a lot of requests for, “Hey, Jay, we want to work with you. So you guys can create content like what you do, but for our brand or for me as an entrepreneur,” or whatever that was. So obviously, you started responding to just those inbound content requests. Is that still how the businesses running? Are you also bringing in the field producer in you to the work, where it’s like, “Hey, we want to make a story about this wellness topic. Who can we find that will partner with us on it?” Or is it a bit of both?
Alex Kushneir (15:04):
Yeah, it’s evolved a lot since literally the… So we started the company officially in August of 2018, setting up the LLC and the business and moving across the country. So that was like the birth of the business. At the time, it was just me because I could hire crews and do all that stuff. And then we just started blowing up, honestly. There was just too much to handle. So for about five or six months, it was pretty much just me and freelancers. And then 2019 hit and I’m like, “Jay, we need a hire. We need an office.” So we start setting up. So I start hiring writers, staff writers, producers, editors, animators, VFX designers, head of operations. We have 14 employees now at ICON since 2019. Yeah. It’s grown.
Alex Kushneir (16:00):
Obviously, we’re still startup and it’s still molding and shifting, but there’s definitely multiple verticals of the business, where we started in this vertical of working with individuals and helping create their brand and tell their story on social media. We always will have that. It’s highly selective just because that space is… There’s so many different people trying to make it and you have to really figure out who’s authentic, who’s real, who really does want to help people in this purpose-driven space. And then we work with brands in this vertical, which is brand new. This is new to brands. They’re figuring it out. So that has just started. And then foundations, we work with the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Arthur Blank is the co-founder of Home Depot. That vertical has just taken off in the past six months.
Alex Kushneir (16:47):
So, it really has just grown into definitely a small business in this startup phase, but something where we believe has legs to grow into something much, much bigger and exciting where we can tell more of these purpose-driven stories for a lot more people and businesses. It’s been a hell of a ride. I mean, COVID was not easy. I mean, huge downs, huge ups. COVID was really tough, but we fought through it. Now, we’re coming out on the other end, thank God, in a positive way, which has been really beautiful.
Mickey Cloud (17:21):
Two things that you just dove into that I want to unpack a little bit more. One is when you have, whether it’s entrepreneurs or celebrities or people that are coming to you for the work, whether it’s individuals, whether it’s foundations, whether it’s brands is what types of asks do they come to you with? Are they like, “Hey, we have this. We know we need to be creating purpose-driven content. We have this specific initiative that we want to be supporting,” or do they just come to you with a really open blank slate and you guys help shape that for them?
Alex Kushneir (17:50):
It’s a mix of both, honestly. Some brands and some individuals will have a very clear idea and path of like, “Hey, this is what we support. This is our brand identity and what we stand for and what we look to create. Now, we need the creative team to go think of something beautiful to make happen in terms of a piece of video content.” Right? Others are like, “We kind of have these pillars in the business that we support and diversity, equity and inclusion and this. And then we don’t really have anything. We know we need to start…” So there’s a broad landscape of where businesses are and how much time and, honestly, money they spend on these things to let the consumer know that where they stand in the overall marketplace of like, “We support this. We don’t support that. This is what we stand for. We want to make the world a better place and this is how…” There’s all different types.
Mickey Cloud (20:14):
So then the second thing you brought up was there was the impact of COVID, right? And so, obviously, with video production at the core of what you do, I’m curious how you guys… You mentioned the highs and lows. How did you weather the pandemic? And then what were some of the things that you’ll carry through now that productions are opening back up?
Alex Kushneir (20:31):
Yeah. For COVID, we were very lucky in the sense that we had shot so much content right before the close that we had enough to survive through. We had months and months of post-production work, which is great, and how our contracts were set up were upfront, middle and the end. Some stuff were linked so they can pay us. Here’s the projects done, and we’re in the middle of COVID, which is a blessing. So we’re very well positioned to continue to work in some areas. Obviously, physical production couldn’t happen for a bunch of months. We also were lucky in the sense of we work in, I would say, small to medium-sized crews. So I would say anything from six people to 20 people, which is you can get away with some of doing production during COVID, if you’re obviously very safe. So we could do some of that. It was still like actors wouldn’t want to come in or the talent wouldn’t. So it was hard. Things would get pushed back months and months and weeks and weeks. And so, that was tough.
Alex Kushneir (21:35):
And then the hardest part was honestly collections, doing that and doing the work, but like, “Hey, I can’t do this.” And then having to work out monthly payment plans for people. I had to come up with all kinds of crap to get people to stay, because it was tough for so many different businesses. People pivoting and moving, and this guy goes dark. They move to Istanbul. Crazy stuff starts happening. So, it is getting through that. So that was just really hard in terms of just grasping where all the clients are… what are they doing, thinking and going. And then on the back end, we still have new stuff coming into the pipeline, and that is the foundations and the brands.
Alex Kushneir (22:21):
So the biggest blessing for us from COVID from a business standpoint was that COVID forced the hands of all these brands and corporations to become more purpose-driven to align with the cause. They just went, “Holy shit. All the consumers in the world are looking to us now. We have to step up and say something.” We don’t know how. We’re not set up that way. It’s going to take us months and months because you know how these brands move, very slowly and they’re set up in all these different ways, but it is finally coming to… We’re seeing some of that now, even though we’re coming out of the pandemic, thank God, where you’re seeing these brands make those decisions and doing more. It’s still going to take more months because they’re set up differently than a small 10-person individual brand than thousand, 5,000, 10,000-person brand. The catalyst of COVID forced the hand of all these brands to do something in a big way with their video storytelling and their content and how they deploy that to the masses. It has been a blessing.
Mickey Cloud (23:26):
Awesome. Awesome. Well, no, that’s obviously been a great opportunity for y’all. So I guess now, as you you’ve been at the helm for three years with ICON, and I guess curious, because you started out, how you mentioned, you were on a pretty good corporate track in the video production world. I guess, what were some of the things from that previous experience that prepared you for your co-founder role? And then what are some of the things you had to learn on the job?
Alex Kushneir (23:51):
Yeah. Some of the things that prepared me, honestly, just from the production standpoint and creative storytelling, making sure that whoever I hired and brought in as a producer, they really knew what the hell they were doing because our product is the content, right? If the content sucks, then it will go like, “What’s the point of the business?” Right? So making sure, having that skillset of telling really… Being super fanatical of making sure the story is really, really good and making sure that someone else can do that, that played a huge part in growing the business and being able to bring in talent from a creative standpoint and knowing that intimately budgets and how much things cost and all that. So, that was very beneficial, having that intimate knowledge from a full circle, from ideation and development to pre-production, to production, to post-production and learning distribution. I knew it on social, but some of the other areas, it wasn’t. So knowing those four skill sets at a very high level, massively beneficial to starting this kind of company.
Alex Kushneir (24:52):
Where I really lacked the knowledge of was on the business front, and that’s why I spent so much time in it now. I did not go to business school. I took one math class in college called Ideas of Mathematics, which I got a C-plus in. I don’t remember. So it’s like that whole area was really a massive learning lessons of how P&Ls work, how these quarterly reports, and bringing in new business and how much do we price things and margins, adding in… You have your staff employees, so you got to mark that up. Just all of that running a business, mathematical and financial-focused stuff, that was a huge learning curve to me and how to properly organize it, be on top of it, focus on it, make it a huge priority. That was the biggest learning curve for me and I’m now finally getting a handle of it. It took about a year and a half. It really did. It took a lot of lessons. You have to run through it to understand it, and then to get into the rooms to speak about it. So yeah, it was a big learning curve for me.
Mickey Cloud (26:01):
Well, you described that entrepreneur’s journey so well at the end. It’s one of the reasons why we love the name of this podcast, Building While Flying, right? It’s a great analogy for entrepreneurs because it speaks to the nimbleness, the flexibility of the foresight you need to operate in business, but it also speaks to the fact that pilots are renowned for their inflight checklists, their training that keeps them calm under pressure. So curious for you as you’ve been navigating, learning the business side of it, and you got a global pandemic thrown at you and everything like that, when your back is against the wall and you’ve got to make a tough decision for your business, what’s that internal process or checklist that you have that helps you get through it?
Alex Kushneir (26:39):
Yeah. No, that’s a great question. You deal with so much different frequencies from the people you work with to your own internal team, to whatever external forces are happening. You do have to have a… If you’re an entrepreneur, be as balanced as possible. I try to handle things… Meditation is huge. Jay meditates an hour or two hours a day. I’m like 15 minutes, but that helps, and prayer. I won’t push religion, but just having that mantras in your mind, where it literally just… You can just focus on that for whether it’s five or 15 minutes. So, those things just settle me. Having a support system, like my fiance to cool me down, if I’m getting heated, so a partner or somebody, a mom, a dad, a partner of some kind that can understand that, that was honestly so helpful.
Alex Kushneir (27:37):
And then just having somebody on your side in the team that you can speak with, whether it’s someone in the company like Jay, so I can always talk to Jay about stuff, or another person who’s gone through it all, a mentor, then you just get clarity to like the whole landscape, like the macro perspective, because a lot of times you’re thinking in 15-minute timeframes. Have you ever like watched the stock market go like this every 15 minutes? Well, pull out a little bit and then you can see it all and be like, [crosstalk 00:28:09] “Okay. You know what, everything is pretty good. Right now, this is a little bumpy, but if this happens, you’re good.” So that’s how I’ve been getting through things, just a lot more balanced and centered and making better decisions.
Mickey Cloud (28:23):
I love it. Yeah, it’s all about perspective and then having appropriate places where… We always talk about stress in our company. Stress should go up not out, right? So take it to your boss, take it to your mentor, whomever, but then allow yourself to have some that perspective come back and come back to the team. So, that’s awesome. Well, thanks so much for the time today, Alex. Really appreciate the lessons and the story you shared today.
Alex Kushneir (28:50):
Yeah. No, thanks so much for having me. Yeah. I hope everyone enjoyed some of my life lessons and [inaudible 00:28:57]. I love to share and tell stories. So, thanks again.
Katie Hankinson (29:03):
Well, now that we’ve finished that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land, but before we do, Mickey and I caught up on some of the themes and topics that stuck out to us.
Mickey Cloud (29:12):
Yes, we liken this to the post-game show, where we break down the key lessons we all can benefit from, including us here at The Sasha Group. Here is The Sasha Sidebar.
Katie Hankinson (29:28):
Hey, Mickey. Great chat with Alex Kushneir. Good to hear about ICON MEDIA and what they’ve been up to.
Mickey Cloud (29:34):
Yeah. No, he was super interesting, one of those guys who went from the corporate world to entrepreneurship 9, 10 years into his career. So it’s always interesting to talk to people who make that kind of flip.
Katie Hankinson (29:45):
Yeah, totally. Also, I liked how he talked about his very beginnings and how much commitment it really took. I bet someone noticed when he did that very first ever job.
Mickey Cloud (29:54):
16 hours a day. Yeah. Yeah, that’s production
Katie Hankinson (29:57):
Fun fact, weird and coincidental fun fact, I was for the first time ever watching Friday Night Lights movie last night, so super weird, for instance, that he was talking about it. He was really honest about saying that he’s not really an entrepreneur, but that he came with the production shops and with those capabilities. It was that kind of meeting of the minds of him and Jay Shetty who brought a lot of the relationship piece and also his own entrepreneurial spirit that kind of made this happen.
Mickey Cloud (30:26):
Yeah. It seems like it’s something we’ve talked about with a lot of folks who made their first time entrepreneurs, but they’ve been in corporate careers or other careers and things like that. One of the first things they note is that if you’re not in charge of a P&L, before you launch a company, you got to find someone who you either got to learn that, or you got to find someone on your team who, whether it’s a head of a CFO or whatever it is to help guide you there, that you’re just joined at the hip with, and that was one of the things that Alex mentioned. He was like, “I had never done any of those things before.” And so, he had to figure out how they price things, what their margins were, all of those kinds of massive learning lessons that he got on the job.
Katie Hankinson (31:09):
Yeah. It’s so interesting, when you think about some people who come in from business school, where they’ve done all the modules and they know exactly what that kind of part of the process is versus others who’ve come in from a discipline or a profession and have to round that out. Yeah, the value of that person who can be the yin to your yang. Oh, in the Jay Shetty world, that’s nice kind of talk like a monk language. The other thing is they’re obviously in this space of purpose-driven content. No doubt, that’s part of in a way what’s probably helped them ride out the storm that has been COVID and production during COVID, because purpose is such a hot thing for brands and marketers right now, but that even in and of itself feels a little empty.
Katie Hankinson (31:57):
I think it’s a huge watch out for us to just chat about real quick, which is purpose-driven content is only as good as the follow-through, right? It’s great to make stuff that isn’t just shilling product and it’s great to tell these stories that are powerful and communal and reflect philanthropy or whatever the kind of change you seem to make in the world, but if there isn’t some connection from the brand or the owner of the content through to what they’re actually doing, it falls a little bit on empty stony ground.
Mickey Cloud (32:34):
Yeah. You got to be able to walk the walk or you’ve got to be able to… If you’re going to do a piece of content about sustainability, you got to make sure you’ve got sustainability built into your supply chain and your processes and things like that. It can’t just be we write a check to a sustainable cause company. Or I mean, it can be, but consumers are going to see through that.
Katie Hankinson (32:56):
See through it. Yeah. So have a think before you dive into purpose for purposes’ sake. For those companies out there starting to explore content outside of advertising, it’s an admirable route, but makes sure it really maps back to company values and what it is that you’re actually for and about yourself.
Mickey Cloud (33:17):
Maybe that’s a good question for the audience as we wrap things up is do you have examples of brands that do not only great purpose-driven content, but also back it up with their actions and how they operate their businesses?
Katie Hankinson (33:30):
About that, who is, in fact, walking the talk?
Katie Hankinson (33:35):
Thanks for joining us for Building While Flying today. I hope you learn as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight.
Mickey Cloud (33:46):
If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times, tune in to the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us. Plus, we’d love feedback, so let us know what you think, what you’d like us to dig into next on Building While Flying across brands, businesses, marketing, and more.
Katie Hankinson (34:01):
Original music by Fulton Street Music Group.
Welcome to Building While Flying!
This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.
In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild; building the plane while flying.
Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.
Aligning with a cause to create purpose-drive content.
Storytelling has been in Alex Kushneir’s blood since birth. After studying film and television (and playing football) at Baylor University, Alex cut his teeth in the production world working for companies like CNBC, Huffington Post, Cheddar, and more. After just eight years in the industry, Alex and colleague Jay Shetty co-founded Icon Media, a full-service content studio that helps brands create purpose-driven content and emotionally connect with their audiences.
In this episode of Building While Flying, Alex joins Mickey to talk about Icon Media’s origin, the differences between television and digital-first production, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more. He discusses the challenges he faced in the early days of Icon Media—like learning the business side of things and managing a wide variety of clients and asks. Most importantly, Alex emphasizes the need for purpose-driven content, and how brands aligning with a cause leads to deeper, more impactful storytelling.
Other in-flight topics:
- Alex’s background in storytelling, film, and production
- The birth of Icon Media
- Differences between television production and digital-first
- Working with Arianna Huffington
- Building a startup production company
- How COVID-19 impacted productions and content
- …and more!