Who is Michael Ovitz? by Michael Ovitz

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Key Takeaways

  1. Ovitz grew up in California's valley, in a very middle-class family. He was hungry from the start, working hard to make a name and life for himself. He started his career at William Morris Agency in the mailroom and worked his way up. He came in hours earlier than everyone and stayed later. Before there were hard drives, there were thousands of manila folders with a complete history of the company, its talent, and its decisions. He read through each and every one of them, impressing his seniors with his interest, dedication, work ethic, and knowledge. He became indispensable to one of the senior executives, doing everything from laundry to secretarial duties to finding stock tips for investments and this eventually led to a quick promotion
  2. Ovitz rose quickly through WMA, but got fed up with the nepotism and, with one of his good friends, Ron Mayer, they set out to start their own company. They wanted this talent agency to represent the stars and not an individual agent, they would be candid and upfront rather than sales-y, and would actively go find work for their talent rather than simply having job offers come in the door. This was to become Creative Artists Agency. CAA was a classic start-up in the first three years, posting zero profits. They used the strength of the big agencies against them. These incumbents all focused on the social life, big parties, and big spending. CAA decided to be more businesslike, putting the client first, strategizing on their behalf, knowing everything about them. They would seem almost square next to the incumbents, but people trusted them to deliver. CAA was out to flip the power structure from the studios to the artist themselves. They wanted to own every piece of the food chain and rake in fees on all of it. They had better information because they represented every side, knowing everything that was going on. This allowed them to be able to better match and package the best people and deals for each show or movie, was able to resolve conflicts better, and make better projections and pitches. They used this to their advantage, leveraging their better information in negotiations and tactics. 
  3. CAA had four commandments:
    1. Never lie to your clients or colleagues
    2. Always return calls by the end of the day
    3. Don’t leave people guessing
    4. Never badmouth competition
  4. Ovitz always started with an end vision in mind. Where do we want to go?
  5. He always started his talks and negotiations with current or prospective talent with all the negatives. It was like an inoculation for the flu
  6. Michael reflects that for much of his life he was black and white - you were either with him or against him and, while this helped him get to where he got, it also hurt him in many ways. Much of life is gray and for a long time he didn’t allow for great thinking
  7. Some lessons Michael learned early on in the movie business was that you need to have constituents who support you, you need to have connections, you need to love what you do, deals almost always fall apart 20 times
  8. Michael used to walk around the office with sheets of paper to make it look like he was going to a meeting when he was really just gauging the mood and temperature of his people and seeing who looked confused and out of sorts. For the first 10 years, he would call every employee who was out sick to see he could do anything. He wanted them to feel loved and taken care of but also for them to know that he was aware and kept a watchful eye over all of them
  9. Michael made it a priority for himself and his team to be well-versed in a number of topics and encourage those people to have dozens if not hundreds of magazine subscriptions so that they could knowledgeably talk about nearly anything the clients were interested in
  10. Being the calm in the storm is a great talent to have and very disarming for people. Another tactic Ovitz used was what he called "ground shifting." If somebody threw out a number or idea that was supposed to be confidential, he would counter by saying, "no it’s higher" (or lower) and this would throw people off balance make him seem ominous. This also allowed him to gauge how confident people were and what they were saying. Michael was extremely soft-spoken and even more so in difficult situations. He wanted to speak so softly and calmly that people had to lean in to hear what he had to say
  11. CAA was a huge fan of gifting but never anything disposable like champagne. They preferred gifts that were sturdy, thoughtful, and that would last. They kept track of everybody’s interests, hobbies, and passions and would get them gifts based on what they knew and learned about all their clients
  12. A useful tactic is to get to your competitions' friends and kids, having them convince their influential friends or parents about what you want. Listening and watching what the younger generations are doing is important - once you hit 35, you have no idea what the next trend or wave will be
  13. Beware of the totally natural human trap of thinking that because you succeeded in one realm that you can do anything
  14. CAA followed Nemawashi - a Japanese term where you had to have full consensus before somebody was brought in or promoted. This made onboarding smooth and people went all-in
  15. Ovitz helped broker deals between Sony and Universal and later Matsushita and Lew Wasserman. This brought CAA to the next level and propelled Ovitz to global deal-maker status
  16. In any multiplayer game, you want to be the outlier
  17. Just like in martial arts, if you aim for the target you lose all your power. You have to aim beyond it. The same applies in life. You have to think bigger and broader than you think imaginable and only then will you be able to achieve what you truly want
  18. Ovitz had his entire spine fused because he worked out every day, never giving himself a rest. His crazy travel, workout, and martial arts schedule beat up his body 
  19. Reflecting on his past, he misses most the camaraderie, the relationships of long-time friends, the loyalty and trust that he’s felt and seems regretful for having been so tough and hard on some of his people, straining his relationships when everything would’ve been better if he just focused on the people that he cared about 

What I got out of it

  1. One of my favorite recent biographies. His vulnerability, raw ambition and work ethic were all really interesting to learn about. A great reminder that you don't want to sacrifice your relationships and life in pursuit of something else. Don't put yourself in the same position where you reminisce and look back, wishing you had spent more time with family, been kinder to your friends and colleagues, and generally had a more balanced life.