Get enough savvy and smart folks together and group them into verticals that complement their skill sets and life experience, and you’ve got an army of people who can create, in real-time, across subject-matters and industry verticals in a more authentic voice than ever before.
Ihad the pleasure to interview James Donahue, Chief Strategy Officer of Write Label.
James Donahue’s passion has been to bring people together through a practice of inclusion and community building to address various issues in business and philanthropy. As Chief Strategy Officer at Write Label, he has helped develop a platform and process for sourcing original creative and ideation services by crowdsourcing from a community of vetted writers that numbers in the thousands. Write Label is a meritocracy built to service brands, agencies and media companies to address any short form creative need. A solution to the ever-increasing content demands experienced across industries though the democratization of the creative services model.
His community building has translated into numerous charitable pursuits to address issues related to ocean conservation and sustainable food systems. As a board member of Blue Sphere Foundation he has contributed to the creation of numerous large marine protected areas from Antarctica to Indonesia, and the production of media assets associated with the conservation of large marine animals including sharks, rays and whales.
After studying English Literature and History at the University of Miami, James worked in Miami and NYC in the hospitality industry. This period of time became a case study in human nature and the cultivation of environments that have the ability to spurn collaboration and creativity among diverse subsets.
James spent the majority of his early career straddling two family businesses. He served as Managing Director and Head of Sales for Donahue Fine Arts, and as Senior Partner at the real estate investment trust, Astor Properties.
He currently resides in NYC with his amazing wife and collaborator, Sarah, and their 5 lb. Chihuahua Luddie.
Thank you for joining us James! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always been interested in disruptive technologies that address growing issues across verticals including real estate development, telecom, and agriculture, to name a few. As a result, I was often approached by friends and associates about earlier stage technology investment opportunities and their strategies around going to market and scaling. Some years ago, a friend explained his vision to me for a very early stage company hoping to harness the collective strength of a huge social network of creative writers to change forever how ideas and copy are sourced. He saw me light up before he even finished explaining the idea. The sparks were already flying and I was rattling off applications for such a community across a wide range of industries. Sometimes, something as small as a facial expression, an immediate recognition of the potential for something, is enough for someone to take a chance and invite you into the fold. And, that was the case with Write Label. One day, I didn’t know anything about it, and the next, I was fixated on helping to make that vision a reality.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I was changing careers, I sought advice from one of the most well-known CEOs in media and entertainment, whom I happened to know from childhood. I wanted to transition to work in a sector in which I had no formal training or experience. I had focused my 20’s doing something completely different, and now was unsure about making such a drastic change. I remember he told me something in a very matter of fact way: “In life, there is only doing and everything else is just passing time. When you look back you’ll be less interested in success or failure, but rather how much you did on the bumpy road that got you there.” He let me know that the gift was the journey, the unknown, the risk, the fear, all of it. If you left any of those things on the cutting room floor then the experience, and life itself, wouldn’t be as full. So, needless to say, I moved two weeks later and pursued this new career, which is where I still am today.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I have always used EQ more than IQ in business. I’m rarely the smartest guy in the room, but I’ve always been strong at interpreting, expressing, and managing my emotions and connections to others. So as a result, my ability to gauge sentiment about user experience, product feedback, and market fit has always been valuable. My core philosophy is to acknowledge one’s strengths and accept one’s shortcomings and be okay with that.
Ok. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
My world changing idea, is that every day sharp, witty, and insightful people should (and now can) be the creative writers powering the media, social, and brand messaging of the future. Similar to how YouTube provided a platform for anyone with a phone to become a content creator, Write Label has proved that the same is true in the professional creative and ideations space. Get enough savvy and smart folks together and group them into verticals that complement their skill sets and life experience, and you’ve got an army of people who can create, in real-time, across subject-matters and industry verticals in a more authentic voice than ever before.
Our recent collaboration at the Super Bowl with launch of the SUPR (single-use plastic reduction) pledge is a perfect example of how social good, technology, and harnessing the collective consciousness can result in an inspiring body of work that moves people. SUPR is a pledge that was created by Oceanic Global in partnership with Accenture and Nexus to request that owners of major sports teams and arenas commit to reducing their use of single-use plastics. SUPR was announcing that Steve Ross and the Dolphins had taken the pledge and agreed to cut their plastic consumption by 96.4% (2.8 Million pieces annually) by the end of 2020, and was looking for a way to create a lot of original content before, during and immediately after the Super Bowl around plastic waste and football. They collaborated with the Write Label community to source 50+ writers, distributed throughout the country, to write topical and engaging posts for the release. We created 1000+ pieces of original content for consideration, reached 16M+ people through multiple social accounts, and allowed a very small SUPR team to have an aligned army of people creating on their behalf.
How do you think this will change the world?
Like with SUPR, by connecting our community of writers to the media, we’ve created a direct line for people to create for these companies and initiatives. We make the only barrier for participation the quality of your submission, so in turn, we’re facilitating the democratization of content creation. Anyone who has proven the quality of their voice can submit, and with SUPR, there was the added benefit of curating the community based on people who were aligned with the cause of eradicating single-use plastics. We were able to affect change and add tangible value through our community by generating real time creative during a cultural event. In turn, making that moment even more meaningful.
Circumstance is the most common hurdle for people, and those circumstances are always different (geography, family, education, opportunity, etc.) and as a result, only a small fraction of the population can participate in the areas for which they are most naturally suited. Most people don’t pursue a creative career, and this is for a host of reasons, but this doesn’t mean that their innate ability to ideate is any different from the pros. By connecting our community of writers, we’ve created a direct line for people to create for these companies and be compensated for it.
As with many new technologies that disrupt a space, they’re so often models that streamline efficiency at a cost. Not to say that anyone or anything can stop these technological advancements, it’s the way the world is going, but when technology actually harnesses insights from real people in order to address growing problems across various industries, it’s an amazing thing. I’ve already seen our technology connect wide swaths of talented writers to brands, agencies, and media companies at scale. Our company needs people to power the ideation machine that we’ve developed, and I honestly don’t think that AI is ever going to be able to truly replace the height of human creativity (although I do think it can help make creative better through machine learning that helps optimize people’s creative output).
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
The idea came about when we decided to convert our social network for comedy writers and comedians into an actual business. The community was hugely engaged and had created over two million pieces of original content in the form of jokes, insightful observations and creative challenges for nothing more than getting leaderboard points and garnering bragging right within the community. These were people from all walks of life who, when asked, could produce a body of work that was impressive by anyone’s standards. So, we set out on a mission to discover if anyone was in need of an ideation platform that could produce huge amounts of original content, at scale. And, when we inquired about who might be interested, the answer was everyone. From small businesses requesting social media posts, to brands needing hero copy for product releases, to media companies demanding original and engaging advertising copy, everyone wanted to access this ever-growing community that responded in minutes and hours, not days and weeks. After diagnosing the creative bottlenecks at a few companies, we realized that it was simply a matter of curating our community and creative brief to reflect an array of different content challenges.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
I think it’s the exceptional case studies that our team has put together that will eventually lead to widespread adoption. The biggest hurdle is the disconnect between how people view solving capacity issues as a result of content creation. Hiring additional internal resources, bringing on freelancers, or just piling additional work onto an already overloaded employee, all result in either higher costs or subpar creative output. As companies realize that there are high quality, yet cost effective platform solutions to these problems, our adoption will continue to grow.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Large corporations test, measure, and then approve new solutions at a glacial place.
As an example, we met with the head of a global media company in 2017 and explained the first iteration of our product, and he said on the spot: “Stop selling me, I’m a buyer for this. Let’s move forward.” We left the meeting elated because we had this huge new client, and significant revenue to match. After a few months, we really came to realize the timetables associated with testing and adoption. But, we did garner company-wide adoption, though it took us two years, and a lot of resources and development costs.
Not everyone is gonna be nice (Don’t take it personally).
Being able to overcome negative responses to our vision, strategy, and product is paramount to trying something no one has done before so be prepared for a mixed response — at best. Don’t take it personally, and stay the course.
Remember that making omelettes requires cracking a few eggs, and not everyone is going to embrace your ideas with open arms. The challenge remains on how to persuade someone who is visibly ruffled by the disruptive technology you are proposing, which is when I try and remember this quote:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw
This perspective has made my skin thicker, and I have adapted my approach accordingly, to better resist the strong headwinds that persist in some early stage conversations.
We were pitching a TV station group in Texas, and when I started talking about the efficiencies our platform creates in the production space, the prospect took issue with the idea of replacing their in-house creative staff. It was only later, after he realized that to remain competitive he would have to make some adjustments, that he came around to our thinking.
This encounter led us to understand our service as both an opportunity for those willing to embrace the change, and an existential threat for those unwilling or unable to pivot — the classic burning platform.
Admit when you don’t know something. It’s ok to not be an expert in everything.
There is a proverb that says: “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”When you don’t fully understand something, just ask. People rarely mind explaining something, and nothing is worse than nodding your head until you’re in an uncomfortable position later for not understanding (or worse, trying to wing it).
Showing some vulnerability and being confident in not having all the answers, tells your audience that you are human. It’s also a great way to get more information when a negotiation has stalled, by simply asking: “Can you help me out here?” You can cut through the chatter and get to the point.
When we first tapped into the greeting card industry, we met with several owners of greeting card companies, and not wanting to seem out of our depth, spent a lot of time nodding along during conversations packed with acronyms and jargon. When asked if we could help, we looked at each other baffled, before coming clean and admitting we didn’t understand what a SKU was. Minutes later, after a quick lesson, we were all back on the same page, and closed a series of sizable deals.
If you can’t have a laugh while doing something, do something else!
I’m the first person to admit that there’s a time and place for jokes, but if you’re not finding some levity and having a few laughs throughout your day, then whatever you’re doing is probably not the right fit.
Early on in my career I worked for a marketing organization where the management insisted on sending company wide Memo’s in the same format for issues large and small. You would have to read all of them, because there was a remote chance that one of them would contain important information, but mostly it was requests for people to take their old food out of the refrigerator. I jokingly replied “all” to one such email with a single word “unsubscribe,” and was subsequently pulled in front of a large committee and asked why I felt compelled to send such an irksome email. While I was explaining the frustration experienced by these internal communications, I realized that I was right, I did in fact have to unsubscribe … from that role and that company. I tendered my resignation on the spot. Sometimes you have to have a laugh, and sometimes you have to go with your gut. That day, my gut said these guys simply don’t get it — so it was time for me to go.
You have to learn to let go and trust the people around you.
When you’re building a company, one has a propensity to treat it like their baby, and why not, it represents sleepless nights and years of obsessing about every detail. At first, there’s nothing wrong with that, but eventually you’ll watch your baby grow up, and when this happens, it can often be hard to let go of the reins and trust someone else to safeguard it.
This is where it helps to have someone tell you that letting go and allowing others to take responsibility for the business is in fact a good thing. After all, in order for a company to flourish it takes a village of great people, or in this case, a great team.
So, let go of certain areas, check in frequently with your team, but focus your limited time on areas of the business that need it. Do the things that only you can do, and let others do the rest.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Setting an intention for the day is key. The first thing I do every morning is make my bed. Making the bed allows me to put something in order, no matter how small, as it reaffirms that I’m in control of how I interact with my surroundings. I also believe in visualizing my future accomplishments, actually picturing my clients loving the product or signing a long-term contract. What that might look like, what might they say, and how would it feel? I read a book called The Biology of Belief a few years ago, and ever since, I’ve been super interested in the possibility of actively attracting the things you want in your life. It’s a little bit out there, but I like it.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If I could pitch one VC, it would have to be Alan Patricof of Greycroft. The only thing that I’d want him, or any VC to know is that our tech is betting on people as the future of creative optimization — the “human cloud”. Every voice is measured through the same lens of “Did the client like it?” The future is using little pieces of greatness from a huge swath of talented people to create authentic messaging that’s worth listening to.
How can our readers follow you on social media?