Chad Hutson of Leviathan: “Find the right underrepresented niche and specialize in it”

Find the right underrepresented niche and specialize in it. In the beginning we were primarily visual content creators, but with a desire to use that skill to augment physical environments. I’m very glad to say we focused on that desire, because over the years we saw the content production industry be cannibalized due in part […]

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Find the right underrepresented niche and specialize in it. In the beginning we were primarily visual content creators, but with a desire to use that skill to augment physical environments. I’m very glad to say we focused on that desire, because over the years we saw the content production industry be cannibalized due in part to in-housing within brands and agencies, but primarily because of online and social media. The sheer bulk of content needed for those platforms brought production budgets way down, and along with it, the content quality. Instead, we were an early pioneer of experiential content, and while there’s more competition than before, we’ve developed a strong enough reputation to be on many shortlists for opportunities.

Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50’s.

How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?

In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chad Hutson.

As the co-founder and CEO of Leviathan, Chad Hutson facilitates creative strategy and all key business developments for the specialized experiential agency, including managing the company’s overall operations. His efforts have led to client relationships with Nike, Disney, Microsoft, T-Mobile, Amazon, Universal, McDonald’s and Airbus among others. Chad has continued to lead Leviathan after its acquisition by digital agency Envoy, of which he is also a partner.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Most of my childhood was spent in a rural Georgia town — we moved there after my biological father died in a helicopter accident when I was 5 — and while there wasn’t much in the way of activities, I distinctly remember three things that helped shape my future passions. For one, there were seemingly endless fields, streams and woods to explore, driving the need to experience the world around us; there was the emergence in the 80’s of the personal computer, one of which I obtained at a young age and learned to program; and lastly there was music and audio production, which is what I thrived on in high school and went on to study in college. These elements of the arts, technology and experiences still drive me to this day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This phrase has multiple meanings to me: “Know when ‘good enough’ is good enough.” It can serve as a mental check when self-doubt plagues you during failure. When you question if you could do more or do better, it can also push you to do just that. Or after obsessing over whether the quality of your work is perfect and final, sometimes you just have to ship it as-is now and reiterate further after. “Good enough” can be the words that give you peace or drive you to higher performance, but the key is to use your own personal gauge of this — not others’.

You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

Most commonly when people use the term “empathy,” it’s focused on feeling what others are experiencing, though I like to use it more broadly: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s still prioritizing kindness and understanding, but also employs strategic tactics for diffusing tense situations or negotiations. Being empathetic helps me every day in most all my interactions, both professional and personal.

A trait somewhat tied to empathy, I think, is adaptation. My career has taken a few different turns and I’ve had the benefit of working for and alongside a number of professionals with such varied personalities. Being a mimic or chameleon allows you to try out tactics or personas of other successful individuals, see what works and fits for your personal style, but without sacrificing your own originality. It’s an inherently human quality, it’s how we learn from an early age, and it’s also how we survive. Employing this same mentality in business is key — not just studying your idols and opponents, but also seemingly unrelated luminaries and industries, to test out practices that can help you pivot, thrive and avoid the plight of others that don’t change their paths. Following the advice of “adapt or die” has allowed my businesses to endure or be reborn as something greater.

By now, there should be a single word in the English language that combines both patience and persistence, because in my professional experience you can’t have one without the other. Patience is playing the long game, which can be key in running an enterprise, but without persistence, patience can be just waiting for something to happen — never the right strategy. I employ this combo — let’s call it “patiently persistent” — on a daily basis when engaging with potential clients (I’ve been told our new biz follow-ups have the right amount of persistence without ever becoming annoying), trying new management methodologies, or even navigating a global pandemic. You have to keep pushing forward while simultaneously exhibiting endurance and tolerance.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?

After graduating college, I worked a variety jobs in Nashville’s music industry: in Warner Bros. Records mailroom, for artist Alan Jackson’s management company, a live venue developer, a music publishing company, an indie folk label. All of these taught me facets of the business side of the music industry, but it could be quite disheartening to see creative people treated more as objects for sale, so I got out of that field (but not before gaining newfound empathy and a protective sentiment for creative folks). From there, I moved to Las Vegas and was an operations manager for an audiovisual integrator, an interesting mix of being behind a desk one moment to stripping speaker wire the next, followed by becoming a media and technology project manager for exhibit company MC2. This was a thrilling blend of physical environments (tradeshows, events, museums, retail), interaction, animation and other media; then in the wake of 9/11 the other members of my team and I broke off and started our own content and interactive production company, called eatdrink, with a handful of creative agencies and record labels as clients.

Six years and an expansion to Chicago later, the financial crisis of 2008 all but decimated the company, after what had been our most successful year to date. All employees were laid off and a sizable debt was left to deal with for several months, but as the work began to trickle in again, I was at a crossroads: Keep this going or make a fresh start?

And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?

So in 2010 with debt paid, cash back in the bank, new ideas and new partners, the company was relaunched as Leviathan. Within its first year, Leviathan came into the creative industry as an experiential powerhouse. Our live concert visuals for electronic musician Amon Tobin were featured in Wired, Fast Company, the L.A. Times and the NY Times, as well as countless creative publications, all of which led to projects for BMW, Microsoft, Disney and HP among others. Over the next five years we tripled in size and notoriety, though the work was unfocused and there was too much reliance on being subcontracted by other agencies; thus, we began the pivot to becoming a more self-sustained creative consultancy that owned its brand relationships. Simple in theory, but without the experience it was much trickier in execution.

For years our team was used to executing our own ideas and bolstering other agencies’ concepts, but gaining all the brand relationships, developing upfront strategies and — in particular — bankrolling larger projects with lengthy payment terms as an independently owned consultancy was nothing that could be solved overnight. This required different staff, stronger management, extending well outside our comfort zone of operations and an infusion of investment. This could’ve been done by raising capital and going it alone. But the idea of joining something larger while maintaining our identity was even more appealing: Enter Envoy.

Envoy was a successful digital agency that we’d partnered with many years before that had formed a new “collective” holding company model, where operational resources are shared as well as clients but acquired companies’ identities were kept. So a deal was done, I agreed to stay on to run Leviathan for a period of time, and soon after, everything fell into place. The largest contracts we’d ever been awarded landed, and subsequently tripled in size; our client roster grew to include McDonald’s, Nike, T-Mobile, Universal, Amazon and others; and the team grew as well. Instead of always hunting for our next gig, the phone just never stopped ringing with opportunity.

The company I co-founded had finally become what I’d hoped for: An industry leader in experiential design, with more stability, revenue and the support of a larger family. The story was just starting to get interesting, so instead of riding off into the sunset, I chose to stick around and see what the next chapter of this book brings and doubled down as a partner in Envoy.

Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?

One thing I learned from my brief time in the music industry is that there are two types of successful acts: those that stay in the same lane — rinse and repeat — and those that continue to forge new paths for their careers — new musical genres, acting, etc. Even though my first company had just survived the financial crisis and was on the way to becoming “normal” again, something was missing… and reinvention felt like the right path. That said, it wasn’t a comfortable feeling; taking a risk seldom is. But my partners and I saw an opportunity to break away from the herd, and I’m so glad we took that chance.

What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?

Perhaps contrary to the typical CEO personality, I consider myself more of an introvert, so being the “face” of the company can at times be uncomfortable and emotionally taxing, such as when speaking to large groups or trying to bring in new key clients. The fear of rejection is real, especially when your livelihood depends on how confidently and effectively you present, and while practice does make perfect, the one thing I finally realized helped me overcome those fears: knowledge. When you really know your craft, and you can speak not only as a knowledgeable subject matter expert but also with passion and conviction, people listen. The confidence comes from a real place and isn’t just bluster, and that genuine messaging resonates with those you’re hoping to reach.

How are things going with this new initiative? We would love to hear some specific examples or stories.

Leviathan is doing better than ever, despite the pandemic. 2020 had started off strong with our largest projects in front of us, and when Covid shut the world down in March, our business — like many others — was significantly impacted in Q2. But we took that time to pivot our “phygital” creative offerings to include more virtual and hybrid approaches, and this is exactly what our clients needed. By the start of Q3, we bounced back and even met our original revenue goals for the year, which was a record figure for us. This is proof that you can never stop reinventing your business, even when the original formula for success has worked for you in the past.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

This is a tough one! There have been so many mentors over the years, those that at times I’ve mimicked and others who’ve been consistent sounding boards, from family to co-workers. Two such advisors are Ric Peralta and Don McNeill, who led creative agencies Attik and Digital Kitchen, respectively, and eventually sold them to larger holding companies. Ric was the one who firmly suggested that we own our conceptual work and client relationships, advice which led to the turnaround of my business, and Don was also a great coach when times were tough. Even though both agency brands have since been absorbed into holding companies and the original leaders no longer involved — a fate I could also someday experience — they’ve shown me that more chapters of the book can be written even after another comes to a close.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

I suppose it all depends on who is listening to the stories as to which they find interesting. 😉 There are personal favorites — a feature in Communication Arts magazine, sharing a stage with those I admire, competing and winning against more established companies — but probably the most interesting to me is hearing stories on how our work has impacted others. Whether it was live concert visuals we created 10 years ago or Disney theme park installations from 2 years ago, there have been thousands who have experienced our work, and I still meet new people who say, “that experience was amazing” or “my mind was blown, how did you all do it?” Those sincere reactions of awe are unforgettable.

Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?

One of the toughest moments for Leviathan was when one of my co-founding partners decided to leave for another opportunity. He was our mad scientist, always coming up with never-been-done ideas that we were actually able to make, so losing that ingenuity made me wonder how we could continue to be a technically inventive company, and how I could inspire innovation in my team. But that moment made me realize two things: the spirit of that co-founder’s innovation still lived on in me and the organization’s DNA, and this was also a time to improve upon less successful operating methods. Adversity can bring opportunity, and after the initial anxiety came excitement to innovate yet again. If you have drive and capable people around you, anything is possible.

In my own work I usually encourage my clients to ask for support before they embark on something new. How did you create your support system before you moved to your new chapter?

[See above “grateful” answer.] It’s true that it’s lonely at the top, and when you’re the leader in an organization there are few that you can vent to. I didn’t realize until after I started Leviathan that I needed a lifeline, but when reaching out to other leaders I respected it was always surprising how accommodating they were to listen and share advice. When others ask how I’d create such a support system, I suggest they be unafraid to reach out to those they admire and not ask for a job but to simply talk about how that leader’s career evolved. The stories and advice can be inspiring and game-changing, and now I do my best to mentor others whenever I can to pay it forward.

All this being said, you can’t beat the support of your family and friends either. Both my wife and daughter are incredibly understanding of my work, and also can give the soundest advice when I’m overcomplicating issues.

Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?

This may sound odd, but hear me out. As a kid I had a knack for impersonating others’ voices, and would enjoy acting like that person for extended periods. In starting Leviathan, I found myself having to wear many hats and in situations outside of my usual expertise. To help myself cope, I’d create different personas for how I’d address crowds at speaking engagements or when having difficult conversations with teammates. Not long after I recall reading that Beyonce had created an alter ego, Sasha Fierce, for similar reasons. Was so glad to hear I wasn’t crazy for having my own separate voices or personalities to cope with uncomfortable environments!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Find the right underrepresented niche and specialize in it. In the beginning we were primarily visual content creators, but with a desire to use that skill to augment physical environments. I’m very glad to say we focused on that desire, because over the years we saw the content production industry be cannibalized due in part to in-housing within brands and agencies, but primarily because of online and social media. The sheer bulk of content needed for those platforms brought production budgets way down, and along with it, the content quality. Instead, we were an early pioneer of experiential content, and while there’s more competition than before, we’ve developed a strong enough reputation to be on many shortlists for opportunities.

Evolution is natural. Make a business plan, but be prepared to rewrite or tear it up on a regular basis. Everything from naivety and competition, to financial and health crises, have caused us to alter our own business course. As long as you stay true to the core and purpose you set out to follow, the rest can change — and probably should change — all along the way.

Have a professional support system. You’re not alone. Friends and family can be a great sounding board when you need to vent, but they won’t always understand the complex business challenges you’re experiencing. Talk to other executives in and out of your industry on a regular basis, or join professional societies comprised of senior executives. Listen and learn, but also be prepared to teach and mentor yourself. Both are cathartic and beneficial to your professional development.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. Set your own bar on what should be “good enough.” If your goal is to become the next Google or Amazon, hats off to you. But what if you don’t make that dream come true? Can you be satisfied with where you wind up? The answer can be simultaneously, “yes, you should be,” and “now, onto what’s next.” Being satisfied with your level of success doesn’t mean becoming complacent; you’re allowed to pat yourself on the back, and then kick yourself in the butt to achieve the next level.

It’s going to be more difficult than you imagine, but it will all be worth it. There is no single self-help or professional book that will tell you everything you need to know in order to run your business. Even if there was one, unforeseen circumstances will likely throw you off track. But even in harder times where business is light and layoffs could be imminent, be patient and be persistent. The strong will survive and you’ll be glad you hung in there.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Working in the field of experiential design, one of our primary purposes is to evoke feelings within a given environment. At the core of this is empathy: design an environment to put people in others’ shoes. If you’ve ever been to a museum or a memorial where you’ve felt wonder or sorrow, you know the power of empathy in experiential design. These same design skills could also inspire others to support war-torn or impoverished countries, or to act sooner on cleaning up our planet. You’ll no doubt see examples of this on a smaller scale, but more powerful and widespread experiences could change more minds and effect more change in the world.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂

If given my druthers, I’d rather host a dinner with modern artists like Refik Anadol, Olafur Eliasson and Sougwen Chung alongside architectural legends like Art Gensler, Ed Schlossberg and Frank Gehry — perhaps throw in Bill Gates for fun. The conversations around art, technology, spaces and visual communication would be mind-blowing — and would no doubt give me some terrific new ideas. 😉

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Via Leviathan’s website, Instagram or Twitter accounts, or keep up with me through LinkedIn. We’re also fortunate enough to get regular coverage from creative and design press, so keep your eyes open for news.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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