By Liz Shannon Miller
At the heart of every move made in this industry, there’s one unifying thing: The right deal brings together the right people for the right project. And in the content world, it’s the right talent agent who makes those deals.
Talent agencies have had digital departments for years, but their roles have evolved in dramatic ways as Hollywood’s engagement with digital content has shifted from “webisodes” to “House of Cards.”
And one of the major dealmakers leading that charge is CAA’s co-head of the Brand Coverage and Digital Content Groups, David Freeman.
Freeman originally began his career in the digital space by founding the sports and entertainment marketing company Matter, which was acquired by Edelman in 2008. “My business over there was working with advertisers, to make smart investments in sports and entertainment,” he says. “The hope was that brands could create real original content.”
And as the digital content space began to mature, Freeman thus found himself spending time with many different brands on the entertainment front — thus, when the opportunity to move to CAA came up, “This evolution and revolution really drew me to it.”
When his department was originally founded, Freeman says, “the partners at CAA knew that we had to build this out, but it was more of a curiosity — now, so much of that big talent knows they need to have a digital strategy and take advantage of the digital ecosystem.”
“What I knew would be constant was great storytelling — and CAA represents some of the best storytellers in the world,” Freeman adds. “Being at CAA over what has occurred over the last few years has meant unbelievable opportunities for our client base.”
Because while CAA does represent several classic YouTubers, including Kevin “KevJumba” Wu, Freeman estimated that only about 20–25% of the people he works with are native to the digital space. The rest? You’ve definitely heard of them.
Since joining CAA, Freeman has been instrumental in bringing A-list talent to the digital space for original content, including Sarah Jessica Parker’s “City.Ballet” for AOL and Tom Hanks’ “Electric City” and Anthony Zuiker’s “Cybergeddon” for Yahoo.
AOL On Originals VP Gabriel Lewis, who worked with Freeman on both AOL’s 2013 and 2014 programming slates, says that “David knows what working with digital companies can unlock for his clients. He can speak to the current landscape for content in terms of digital opportunities versus traditional opportunities, but he also has a real sense of where the industry is going and works to get ahead of it.”
Where is Freeman’s nose leading him? Original content.
Erin McPherson, currently the chief content officer of Maker Studios, met him in 2010, just after he’d joined CAA and she’d taken the position of VP and head of video at Yahoo. “We started to talk — almost immediately — about original content,” she says.
(By the way, want to buy Freeman a drink? Here’s a pro-tip, via McPherson: “One of our earliest and longest interactions was at NATPE over tequila, which is a favorite drink of ours. That’s our drink. Tequila rocks.”)
But of course it’s not just about original content — it’s about connecting brands with that original content. Which is why last year, Freeman was key in setting up a NewFronts presentation for CAA talent and content, despite the fact that it’s usually
networks, and not talent agencies, that show up to show off during upfront season.
“A big part of the growth for our business is on the advertisers’ side,” Freeman said. “And we wanted to take some time out and take advantage of the relationships we have. So [the Newfronts] were a great opportunity to show what we were doing, and remind Madison Avenue that the digital space can provide solutions for the same sort of content. And it was great for our clients to be able to network and learn how brands think.”
That attention to brand relationships makes Freeman a valuable asset to his partners: “Brands are an important player in the space, they are super involved in subsidizing this [online programming], and can be similarly involved in actually developing online content,” says McPherson. “David has that background makes him a very adept strategic partner and I really enjoy working with him. He brings that knowledge and insight to every conversation around opportunities with brands for content. When we try something ambitious, it’s important that we can bring brands on board.”
“Direct partnerships with brands are how we’re going to grow our business and potentially even move upstream with securing distribution,” adds Freeman. This means going directly to the platforms — such as an upcoming soccer series for Xbox.
It’s a detail-oriented approach, one that both McPherson and Lewis reference when asked to describe their interactions with Freeman. “He takes time to understand my strategic goals and get inside of our business,” McPherson says. “He did it with me at Yahoo, and very soon after at Maker Studios, he came in to learn as much about the company as he could. So when he is out and interacting with talent at CAA he is intimately familiar with what Maker Studios is trying to do.”
“David has always been incredibly straightforward and solution-oriented in the dealmaking process,” adds Lewis. “He recognizes what it will take to get deals done in the digital space, but also offers creative and realistic solutions when roadblocks pop up.”
That said, Freeman wants it known that he doesn’t operate alone. “This is by no means a one-man operation. There are a lot of people working on this. Plus, our amazing clients.”
Sure. But, in the end, who’s bringing them to the table?