By Sahil Patel
What makes Erin McPherson, the current chief content officer at Maker Studios, terrific at what she does?
“She understands talent and the creative process — and that’s unique,” says Larry Tanz, CEO of multi-platform studio Vuguru, who’s crossed paths with McPherson at multiple points in her career — back when she was head of video at Yahoo, and more directly when she was associate general counsel at LivePlanet, an entertainment company founded by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, and presided over by Tanz. “She speaks their language and understands how to work with them,” he adds.
Over the years, this has enabled McPherson to make deals with producers and talent that others, including her predecessors at Yahoo, weren’t able to.
There’s no better example of this than Yahoo’s deal with the “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker, who distributed “Cybergeddon” on Yahoo.
“Anthony Zuiker had a dream of doing an interactive cyber-crime story,” says David Freeman, co-head of the Brand Coverage Group at CAA. “Anthony’s a maverick, but he wasn’t sure about Yahoo. Seeing Erin in action, though, in that first meeting, just how she made him comfortable… She conveyed to him how important his creative freedom was, and was also able to lay out the entire marketing and distribution platform. I was able to see Erin bring that to life, and it led to a tentpole project that we’re all proud of.”
But where does this innate ability to understand creators come from? Hollywood is its own animal, so how does one learn to talk its talk, especially in an industry that has complicated relationship with traditional media?
Part of McPherson’s talent can be attributed back to the fact that she was and is a drama geek — or, as she likes to call herself, a
“I was involved in theater from college to law school — in fact I played a lead role in a joint production between Harvard and Harvard Law that co-starred Rashida Jones,” says McPherson. “I’ve always loved the creative arts, and as a lawyer, it was no accident that I gravitated toward repping talent.”
And that’s the other thing from her past that makes Erin McPherson what she is today: Erin McPherson, inarguably one of the most important content executives in online video, was also once a lawyer. First at companies like LivePlanet and then at the entertainment-law firm of Stone, Meyer, Genow, Smelkinson & Binder, McPherson worked with a lot of Hollywood talent.
“I would have a great rapport with clients,” recalls McPherson. “In fact, I was acting more as a manager than a lawyer — reading scripts to talking to clients about casting.”
This background would prove to be invaluable for McPherson as she made the leap from law to Yahoo, became head of video at the company, and now the content boss at Maker Studios. “Knowing and understanding the deal models of film and TV and how they are evolving has been really, really helpful,” she says.
For her, and for Yahoo.
“She did a lot within Yahoo to educate the company about how Hollywood works,” says Tanz. “There’s always been a gulf between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. There’s a small group of people who are trying to bridge that, and she’s one of them.”
That said, surely being a theater geek and having a legal background can’t be all that it takes to become a top executive in the online video space. You also need ambition to shake things up, and the opportunity to make it happen. And that’s what McPherson found in Yahoo, which she originally joined in 2007 as VP of business development for the entertainment category.
Three years into her tenure, McPherson says she saw something that Yahoo could “not miss”: “Timing is everything in life — my timing was perfect,” she says. “We finally had reached a point in the larger marketplace where premium content was online — consumers were ready for it, and the hardware and software was there.”
To be fair, she says Yahoo was already creating great original video, across categories like sports and news. The problem was, it wasn’t centralized in the organization.
Seizing this opportunity, McPherson, who was already “deeply involved” in video creation through her business-development role, pitched Jimmy Pitaro, the head of media at the time, about this “massive opportunity” in the online video space. He agreed, so did then-CEO Carol Bartz, and both signed-off on McPherson leading the company’s push into original video content.
“I had enough goodwill at the company to be able to push an initiative through,” says McPherson. “And this was a transformational moment that should not have been missed by Yahoo.”
What followed was a big push by the tech company into original video programming. This was the first time Yahoo had seriously invested in video-creation, actually deficit-financing programming, something that online video content companies still struggle with.
“It gave us credibility within the ad community,” says McPherson. “We went into meetings and said, ‘This is what we’re building, do you want to come partner with us?’ — Instead of, ‘We will build it if you buy it.’” (Sound familiar?)
That said, advertiser interest didn’t immediately translate to deals. But McPherson’s eye for content would ensure that Yahoo wouldn’t be deal-less for long. “Burning Love” is one of the biggest success stories to come out of the online video world. But Yahoo couldn’t sell the comedy show’s first season. It did, however, sell seasons two and three, to agency PHD, which locked up both seasons on an exclusive basis.
Sometimes though, to be a great executive, you also need luck. McPherson joined Yahoo at the right time. And it seems she found the perfect time to make the move to Maker Studios, a company that was just acquired by Disney, and has some high ambitious for its place in the future of entertainment.
“With Maker, I was attracted to the audience — 80% are millennials, 60% are outside of the US, and 40% are on mobile,” she says. “This audience sits at the center of the transformation of in media. It’s really exciting for a programmer.”
For McPherson, it’s a new challenge.
“I’ve got this amazing pool of 55,000 creators globally that serve as a giant piloting center,” she says. Maker can mine ideas from this pool, she says, and source-up new ideas. “You can not market down to the Maker audience,” she says. “It’s not a push system, it’s a pull system. It opens up the opportunity to serve passions at massive scale.”
“I’m going to have people inside Maker who serve as next-gen casting agents,” she continues. These “agents” will search for content that meets an audience demand, as well as for creators who might fit the profile of someone the company needs for a new video or series.
In other words, it’s a challenge she’s already working to topple.