The Way I Work: Jon Kamen of @radical.media
The sign above the front door of the New York City office reads, "@radical.media, Never Established." Embracing change has been something of a mantra for Jon Kamen since he founded @radical.media in 1993 with Frank Scherma. The partners, who had long produced television commercials, wanted to explore new forms of media. Today, @radical.media's staff of 140 -- a group that includes producers, editors, and Web designers -- produces TV ads, Web-based advertorials, music videos, documentaries, feature-length films, and television series, including Iconoclasts, about to enter its fifth season on the Sundance Channel. The company has won an Oscar (for the documentary Fog of War) and a Grammy (for the George Harrison memorial concert), as well as Emmys and Clios.
Kamen spends his days meeting with clients, brainstorming with directors, wandering around the office to review projects in various stages of completion, and checking in with @radical.media's offices in Los Angeles, Berlin, Sydney, and Shanghai. In the evenings, after attending an industry event or a dinner with clients, Kamen usually slips back into the office and works late into the night.
I wake up most mornings at 6 a.m. I live in Bedford, New York, about an hour north of Manhattan. The first thing I see in the morning is the sunrise over the reservoir.
As soon as I get up, I go to my computer and scan my e-mail to see if there have been any crazy disasters at work since I last closed my eyes. At any given time, we're usually shooting something somewhere in the world. If there's a problem or a question, I'll respond. Then I do my workout.
A trainer comes to my house three mornings a week at 6:45. We do cardio and weights for an hour. She keeps me honest. I'm not really that good about exercising on the road, so it's one reason I try to spend more time at home. Another is to spend time with my wife, although she'll dispute that, because I usually don't get home from work until midnight.
I have my breakfast -- usually cereal with fruit and a cup of coffee -- and read for a bit. I usually scan The New York Times on my Kindle first. We also get it delivered, so after my wife gets it from the driveway, I reread articles in their printed form. I like the photos. I also read The Wall Street Journal, Adweek, Advertising Age, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. I look for trends that could affect my day: the success or failure of a new movie, a story about Microsoft's new mobile platform, or anything iPad-related. We want to provide content for all of those platforms, so I am always thinking about how best to do that.
To avoid rush hour, I usually don't leave my house until 9. Depending on the weather conditions, I take either my environmentally friendly electric Mini or, hypocritically, my gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive SUV. My commute is sort of my time to get focused for the day. I listen to the news -- staying current is key to my work -- or use the time to strategize. I may check in with the Berlin office or call to see what's going on with a project happening in a different time zone. Otherwise, I like this time to be fairly quiet.
I usually get to the office at about a quarter after 10. I have two assistants. My primary assistant keeps my schedule, which she shares with a few key people, such as my partner Frank Scherma and our president of media and entertainment. Basically, my primary assistant is my gatekeeper. She squeezes people in to see me if need be, whether that's an executive producer or my creative director. She also can pull me out of a meeting for an emergency phone call.
I also have a special-project assistant -- usually someone I have promoted from the primary assistant position. She manages my project involvement, and she's copied on all my communications with the people on those projects. Having worked with me already for a few years helps enormously. I'm not a CrackBerry kind of guy. I don't watch the e-mails or texts coming in at real time. But my assistant does, and can help fill in gaps and make sure I am where I need to be, when I need to be. She also helps me keep track of all of the calls I need to make during the day. I make an effort to keep that list short, and make sure to place not just reactive calls but also proactive calls that generate new opportunities and push the company forward.
On any given day, we're working on dozens of projects. We have six television shows in production right now, and another six in development that are ready to be pitched. We also produce television commercials, music videos, feature-length documentaries, and films as well as online projects, like an interactive website to promote a new album of Johnny Cash's music.
The spectrum of our work is vast, but the unified thread is creative thinking. Most advertising and media companies come up with ideas and then hire other companies, like us, to produce them. We do it all -- we'll work with Wieden + Kennedy to transform their marketing and advertising ideas for Nike into a sponsored series for MTV. We'll work with Grey Goose and Sundance to produce the Iconoclasts series. And we'll work with Jon Bon Jovi to come up with a way to promote his band's 25th anniversary -- for that we did a tour documentary, produced a concert film, and published a book that coincided with the release of his new album.
My job involves quite a bit of brainstorming. Many of these projects start with an RFP -- request for proposal. For instance, we got one from NASA when it was looking for a way to promote its five-year mission to Jupiter. I had a brainstorming meeting with my creative director and our digital and design teams. We came up with an idea to do a digital documentary and create a narrative Web experience that chronicled the mission. Once we win a job, we go into serious production mode -- a production schedule is set, more meetings happen, and the real work begins.
I spend the bulk of my day in meetings. I'll do introductory meetings with clients, or I'll meet clients we are already collaborating with. Then I'll have another internal meeting to communicate what the client wants and discuss what's required to accomplish the task.
Our meetings are part of a spirited process. There is a constant debate that goes on about the look and feel of a project, the voice, the big idea. My role is to be the biggest critic and cynic, and to measure every project in terms of expectation, practicality, and deliverability. I can be the biggest pain in the ass, but I try to remain as open as possible and listen to everyone before I make any decisions.
I speak with my partner Frank three times a day. We try to stay on the same page. He has been in L.A. since the beginning of the company. Frank oversees the Los Angeles office, which is the primary production center for commercials, but he's also involved in everything else.
Every day, I spend about an hour working on Iconoclasts, a show that pairs two iconic people for a conversation. I'm one of the executive producers, so I do daily internal meetings, weekly conference calls, and monthly meet-ups. I have to coordinate with the Sundance Channel, which airs the show, and Grey Goose, which sponsors it, and our team, which produces the show. In one week, we may be shooting in New York, L.A., Australia, and Africa. My job is overseeing that. I also collaborate with everyone on the celebrity pairings. We've put together Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou, Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer. Finding the right match is like solving a puzzle -- not only because you're trying to come up with an interesting combination but also just coordinating everyone's schedules.
Once shows are in production, I look at dailies -- the footage that's been shot -- at the office. I don't really like going to sets. I don't like being the "guy in the suit." Especially for a show like Iconoclasts, which has an intimacy to it, it's bad if too many people show up.
I rarely go out to lunch. I think it's a waste of time. One of my assistants usually orders something in. I'll eat at my desk between meetings. If I'm busy and miss lunch, I can always find a stale bagel and some peanut butter and jelly in our kitchen.
I often take breaks in the afternoon to walk around the office, which is pretty big -- about 40,000 square feet spread out over two floors. That makes my assistants a little crazy, because they might have to come find me for a call or meeting if I have wandered upstairs to our postproduction facility to see how the sound editing is going on a project. Or I may be checking in with our digital team to see how a website design is coming along. Part of the sheer joy of working here is, we have so many talented people, and I get to see their work in progress and add my two cents about how it should evolve.
I used to travel all the time, but now it's more like twice a month. My wife's going to say, "What are you talking about? You were just in three cities last week!" I do try to hit several cities in one trip. I usually travel to see directors, visit our offices abroad, or meet with clients. I'll also do a bimonthly 24-hour trip to L.A. I don't like being away. In fact, I don't ever adjust for jet lag. My iPhone automatically changes to the new time zone, but I don't. I stay on New York time.
It's easy for me to stay connected. We have a site where we can upload and review projects online. I can also download clips to my phone. I just reviewed a trailer for Summit on the Summit, an MTV documentary we produced that was sponsored by Procter & Gamble, on my iPhone while I was on a flight to L.A.
I rarely go on vacation. I used to go away every year between Christmas and New Year's, but now I'd rather stay home in Bedford. I do go to the TED conference every year. I've been going since the late '80s. That's sort of my vacation. It's a remarkable opportunity to be exposed to radical thinking. In fact, those conferences inspired me to reinvent my company. They celebrate the idea of cross-pollination that I try to emulate in my work.
I go out to dinner four or five times a week with clients, talent, and sometimes friends. Inevitably, there are several events and functions I am invited to as well. I go to about three a week, and it's starting to become weekends, too. Last month, it was watching one of our producer's documentaries screened at the Museum of Modern Art. How could I not go to that? My kids are all grown up now, but when they were younger, I used to be far more protective of my weekends.
After dinner or an event in the city, I usually head back to the office in the evening. I use that quiet time to respond to e-mails I didn't get to during the day. Or to check in on people who are on deadline -- I like to support them, eyeball the work, and provide a little objectivity. Often I use that time to review the longer shows we're working on. It takes a full hour and a half to watch an hour-and-a-half film, which is impossible to do during the day. We have a screening room at the office. I spend a lot of late nights reviewing projects and taking notes for the editors, producers, and director. I like to weigh in on everything we produce.
I usually leave the office between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m., and then it's an hour's drive home. That's my time to decompress. That's when I call my wife and my kids. Or I will check in with my brother or friends, see how everyone is doing. And I'll switch on the news and think about what happened that day. And get excited about tomorrow.