Invest in becoming a better communicator. — To be someone who can really create change, whether that’s being a great leader, salesperson, negotiator, or anything else, you need to be able to communicate your vision in a way that unites and inspires people. A great communicator communicates from a place of integrity and authenticity. Your words create your reality, and as a leader of your company, your word creates the reality of everyone else at the company. So be meticulous about your word, both in what you say and how you say it. Don’t say things to please people. Speak the truth and follow through on your word. When you mess up or you don’t do what you said you were going to do, clean it up right away. Remember that communication is a lot about listening, so spend more time actively listening than you do communicating from your point of view.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jillian Ezra. Jillian is the founder and CEO of Ezra Productions, an award-winning creative agency and video production company with offices in Los Angeles and New York. Ezra Productions creates visually stunning, emotionally compelling digital content that inspires, entertains, and converts. Recently named one of Entrepreneur’s Best Entrepreneurial Companies in America, their clients include Lowes, JCPenney, La Perla, and Umami Burger.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always been a natural storyteller, but video production became a hobby of mine while I was working in finance in New York. I purchased a Mac to nurture my creative side and decided to learn all the programs, one of which was iMovie. In my (limited) free time, I would play around with filming and editing little stories for friends and family. I had worked in public relations at Cartier and was working in marketing at Lazard Asset Management, so I started to recognize how powerful video storytelling could be for both families and brands.
I’ve always hated traditional advertising. It seems to speak down to customers and treats them like something is wrong with them if they don’t buy the product being sold. I believe the notion of “selling to” people is outdated. Instead of trying to convince people to buy products, I thought companies and consumers would be better served by inspiring their customers to believe in them. When people believe in a brand and can identify their best selves in the brand, they naturally engage more, share more, and buy more. To get people to believe, people need to feel seen, heard, and understood. When people feel valued and inspired, they associate those good feelings with the brand. In this new model of advertising, successful brands know that the path to customer acquisition is through contribution.
I saw what is now called “branded content” video as the best way to reach people and make them feel seen and heard. Branded content allows brands to form bonds and create trust with their audiences by showing what they stand for and promoting messages of positivity and authenticity. I recognized the transformative power of video, and that felt like my calling.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I decided to start my video production company, I knew almost nothing about production. I dove into it head first and picked up the details along the way, learning everything online and by asking questions. I worked with really small budgets to start out, so I was doing all of the work myself. I didn’t realize there were people whose specific jobs it was to do things like create call sheets, shoot schedules, etc. I thought one person, the director or the producer, did it all. Early in my career, a DP on my one of my bigger productions saw me overwhelmed with so many responsibilities, and he told me that I should really let an AD (Assistant Director) handle some of the things I was dealing with. I responded timidly, “What’s an AD?” I think he was flabbergasted that there I was, the producer who had hired him and a dozen other people and who was directing 10 actors, and I didn’t know what an AD was. He laughed and told me about 1st ADs, 2nd ADs, etc. I took that opportunity to ask him a question I’d always wondered, “What is a Best Boy, anyway? What’s he so good at??” He really got a kick out that.
Of course there was no budget for assistant roles at the time, but it was such a relief to know that there were people whose jobs it was to take care of different things when my productions got bigger. It’s such a boost every time we have someone I’ve never had on my sets before. There have been a lot of funny moments like that along the way, but it just goes to show that I am transparent about my ignorance and I always want to learn more. When I ask the question I get smarter, so I surround myself with smart people who can fill in my gaps.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We pour our hearts and souls into helping companies succeed by telling authentic, engaging, impactful stories. Those stories draw their target viewers into conversations that make their lives and the world a better place. I don’t take for granted how amazing it is that I get paid to create content that is good for the world and that forges human connections. When a company places its faith in us, we don’t just do the job and get out. We become partners in their success, and we do whatever it takes to help them reach their goal. We are always trying to make the final product as effective as possible, and we’re not afraid to push back or give unsolicited feedback.
One example that comes to mind is when a Fortune 500 company came to us with a last-minute request for us to shoot a celebrity saying some inspiring words written by a PR department in a big white studio in order to get women involved in bettering their communities. We thought that we could make the video much more inspiring than that, so I asked them if they’d be open to ideas that would help this video really make an impact on their audience, and they were. Within 24 hours, we came up with three ideas that brought the company’s message to life, and the client went with one of them! We only had about a week to plan the shoot, and then out of nowhere, 12 hours before the shoot, their celebrity pulled out. We were able to get an amazing actress to take her place within a few hours. Not only did the video turn out well, but the feeling on the set was amazing, and the client was thrilled with the whole experience and the final product. I’ve become friends with some of my clients because we really get in the mud with them to reach a common goal, and you learn a lot about people and really come to admire them throughout that process.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are! We in post-production on a dream project right now. JCPenney brought us on to create an influencer-led video series about the magic of giving during the holidays. We worked with five influencers surprise a dozen shoppers in the store over a period of two days and buy them gifts that would make a real impact on their lives, and then we let those shoppers choose other shoppers to give gifts to that would make a difference in their lives. The idea is to celebrate the magic of giving and to encourage people to pay it forward when they receive gifts. The whole experience has been extremely gratifying.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Never think that what makes you different is a weaknesses. Men and women are very different, and one style of leadership isn’t better than the other. As women, we’re lucky to have strategic and emotional intelligence and to be able to balance a lot of different things at once, which has never been more important than it is today. Embrace your feminine strengths and channel the masculine traits you’d like to have more of in your life. Trust your intuition that you are a great leader and get support from other great leaders along the way.
It’s also important to strengthen your ability to adapt to changing circumstances, as the world is moving and technology is evolving so quickly these days. To do that, always continue to learn and add to your skill set, seek coaching and mentoring, and give and be open to receiving constructive feedback.
Most importantly, take care of your own wellbeing and encourage your team members to do the same. Women tend to want to make everyone else happy before making themselves happy and while that is very noble, it’s no way to live and it’s no way to run a business or a team. Set boundaries for yourself and take time to recharge your battery, spend time with your family, and do things that bring you relaxation and joy.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Make sure your purpose or vision is clear and that everyone has bought into and believes in it before starting to delegate. Share authentically and use a growth mindset. Act with grace, integrity, and optimism, but stay grounded in reality. Always display the attitude you want your team to have. If you’re always mad, that energy will trickle down. If you are optimistic and growth-oriented, others on your team are likely to respond that way too. Make sure every member of your team feels empowered and that their job has a purpose that is meaningful to them. Make it known that it’s ok to make mistakes and give and receive constructive feedback.
Depending on the type of work you’re doing, the group should have milestones that each team should hit at specific times that track back to the project goal. Meet only when necessary to ensure that those milestones are being met and to go over any questions or concerns. If you can work in a program like Smartsheet where everyone is always on the same page about what has been done and what still needs to be done, that could save a lot of in-person meeting time.
Finally, let people do their jobs. You should be there to guide, inspire, provide feedback, and really steer the ship. Make your job to help people do their best jobs and to grow into leaders themselves.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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?
My friend Darren Graff refers to himself as the “Wind beneath my wings” because he was one of the first people to really support my interest in video production wholeheartedly, so much so that he told me to quit my job and bought me my first camera. Of course I returned it and put it on my own credit card, but his belief in me really got me going.
My parents were the next ones who encouraged me to follow my passion, and to this day they are my biggest champions. I am eternally grateful for their unwavering support.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
A large part of our mission is to help women, minorities, and young people thrive in the production industry, so much of our staff and many of our interns are members of those populations. I take great pride in seeking out and finding incredible talent that is often overlooked. I strive to empower them and instill in them the feeling that they are in charge. I don’t let them take flack from people or shy away when they are disrespected, which luckily doesn’t happen on our projects too often, but sometimes people can’t help themselves.
When casting, we try to select a diverse cast to reflect society, not people who advertisers usually portray as “normal.” This is can be a challenge when working with beauty brands, which have such a heavy influence the way women and girls see themselves. Beauty brands tend to want to work with very young, thin, plastic-looking models because that’s what society has deemed “beautiful,” plus they see their competitors doing it. We try and remind them that their target audience isn’t made up of stick-thin, Juvederm-enhanced 20-year-olds, and gently steer them towards using more natural, ethnic, curvy, and older models.
We make sure to show strong female and diverse characters in our videos and to break stereotypes. We put women in positions in which women are underrepresented, such as showing female doctors, lawyers, etc. We shows dads at home and participating in their children’s upbringing. We validate and reflect the hard work that Moms do in raising their children and balancing their careers.
We also donate a portion of our profits to organizations like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Dogs Without Borders, because those two issues (gender equality and animal welfare) are very important to me. When there is a stretch of time where I can work from home, I love to spend time at home fostering dogs.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take care of your wellbeing and make wellbeing a tenet of your company culture. — As women, it can feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, but you can’t be a great leader unless you take care of yourself first. Invest in your sleep, diet, exercise, meditation, and personal growth like you would your career and your education. Additionally, make your workplace an environment that supports employee wellness. Your employees aren’t at their best when they are sick or stressed, so give them the resources and the time they need to take care of their whole selves.
- Do the right thing. — Deep in your heart, you know what’s right. Doing the right thing may not be the easy option sometimes and it often takes courage, strength, and bravery, but do it anyway. You’ll regret it if you do something that is not in line with your values. Do right by your team. Invest in them. Make them feel heard. See them as whole people who are with you for a short part of their journey, and always think about what can you do to help them to grow, succeed, and become better members of society.
- Invest in becoming a better communicator. — To be someone who can really create change, whether that’s being a great leader, salesperson, negotiator, or anything else, you need to be able to communicate your vision in a way that unites and inspires people. A great communicator communicates from a place of integrity and authenticity. Your words create your reality, and as a leader of your company, your word creates the reality of everyone else at the company. So be meticulous about your word, both in what you say and how you say it. Don’t say things to please people. Speak the truth and follow through on your word. When you mess up or you don’t do what you said you were going to do, clean it up right away. Remember that communication is a lot about listening, so spend more time actively listening than you do communicating from your point of view.
- Always look for for win-win solutions and be a problem solver, but never be afraid to say “No.” — As a general rule, approach every problem with a smile and a solution. That doesn’t mean be a pushover, that means be a positive human being that people enjoy being around, and use your experience and willingness to get in the mud to contribute and push conversations forward. In negotiations, don’t focus on getting what you want, focus on creating solutions that make everyone winners. Sometimes in negotiations the other side will ask for things that don’t make sense for you or your company, and at that point, the don’t be afraid to say “No” or “No, but what we can offer is XYZ.” When you do say “No,” say it firmly and employ silence as a tactic to show how serious you are. The silence after “No” is the loudest and most powerful silence on earth.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. — Early in my creative career I was editing a documentary about what inspires creativity, and in it Moby says that for every song we hear on the radio, he has created a thousand songs that we’ll never hear. That really struck me, because when we think of prolific artists like Moby and Hans Zimmer, we think that they they spend their days prancing around their studios creating hits. But that’s just not true. We are all human, and we all fail much more often than we succeed. It’s what we do with those failures that makes us who we are. Instead of letting your failures get you down, let them motivate you to get up and try it again. Focus on the wins.
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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’d love it if society treated taking meditation breaks as normally as taking smoking breaks. When you smoke, you have carte blanche to leave conversations, meals, work, etc. to smoke. But what is smoking, really? It’s a really unhealthy form of meditation. Smoking breaks are a socially acceptable time for a person to take a break, disconnect, return to themselves, and to get present to the world around them. Smokers take deep breaths (of smoke) and let the world disappear for a minute. Imagine if a colleague said to you, “Excuse me, I just have to go outside for a minute and take some deep breaths and get centered,” most of us would look at them like they have two heads. Imagine a world in which meditation breaks were as normal as smoking breaks. If we treated taking care of our well being just as seriously as we treated giving people space to have their addictions, I think the world would be a much happier, more calm place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“There is no way to happiness — happiness is the way.” Thich Nhat Hanh
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Thank you so much for these inspiring insights!