Making A Business out of Making Connections, Dana Astrow, ARC, Episode 55
Dana Astrow has been influencing the landscape of creativity in the brand marketing and advertising/film production community since her early beginnings in the industry. Since launching ARC, Dana has successfully and nearly single-handedly filled a definitive niche as a creative recruiter who connects the makers behind some of the most effective top-level content being produced today. Dana and I sat down for some real talk about how she’s had to make not one, or two, but three big leaps in her career — definitely some relatable content for anyone who’s balanced motherhood and career, started a business, left a partnership, the list goes on.
Joanne: I’m Joanne Wilson, and this is Positively Gotham Bound. Small meaningful conversations with women entrepreneurs about their approach to life, business, and everything in between.
Dana Astrow has been influencing the landscape of creative in the brand marketing in advertising film production community since her early beginnings in the industry. Since ARC, A-R-C, Dana has successfully and nearly single-handedly filled a definitive niche as a creative recruiter who can next to makers behind some of the most effective top level content being produced today. Dana and I sat down for some real talk about how she’s had to make not one or two, but three big leaps in her career – definitely some reliable stuff for anyone who’s balanced motherhood and career, started a business, left a partnership, and the list goes on.
Dana, you’ve been an entrepreneur since I met you. I know you don’t think of yourself as an entrepreneur, but you are an entrepreneur because you have your own company.
Joanne: Yeah, and you have forged on your own. You have great reputation and made an impact on a variety of companies in helping young upcoming directors find their way into the advertising world. Not only here’s a deal for you, but really helping their nurture their careers. But you started out in advertising?
Dana: I started out repping directors, working exclusively for a particular production company, and then they would have a roster of talent and then go out. My clients at the time would be all the advertising agencies, mostly producers, copywriters, art directors, creative directors, and pitching the talent to the advertising agency. I worked on staff for production companies, I don’t know, probably for seven years. Then branched out on my own, went into business with Peter Ziegler. Then he and I split up, and we each had our own talent agencies.
Joanne: Which is interesting, but let’s go back. You grew up in Queens and then your parents decided in high school that you should move to Los Angeles, and they ruined your life.
Dana: Pretty much.
Joanne: That’s a pretty major thing though…
Dana: It was.
Joanne: To up and move someone in high school…
Dana: It was insane.
Joanne: And particularly…
Dana: Did you hear that, mom and dad?
Joanne: Yeah. I mean, living in a city that you’re completely … You can get around, do whatever you want for everything, and then they move you to Los Angeles. Whole new people, whole new weather, and you have to drive.
Dana: Yeah. I have to say, when you’re 14 it wouldn’t matter where you’re moving, it’s great as we know…
Joanne: It’s one of the worst experiences ever. You’ll be starting from the eighth grade.
Dana: Ninth isn’t so pretty either, so I had …. It was just a crazy time. Living in Los Angeles, it was 1979, 1980 was insane. It was like the book/movie Less Than Zero.
Joanne: It was a crazy time.
Dana: It was a crazy time.
Joanne: But then you went back to the east coast to go to school.
Dana: Went to BU.
Joanne: Then you went directly…
Dana: Majored in advertising/marketing.
Joanne: Then you went to New York. Then you landed a job and worked in the ad agency. Did you always work for an ad agency?
Dana: I was working for a production company. My first job answered phones, receptionist. My then boss at the time asked me what I wanted to do, I thought everybody comes in here and says I want to be a producer. I’m just going to tell him, I want to do what he does. He was the salesman of the repping part of directors. He took a shining to me, it was done. I was like, okay. Then I got promoted. Prior to, in high school, I was salesperson in clothing stores, and different things. I had to do some things…
Joanne: And you have great people skills, so that was the perfect thing for you.
Joanne: Yeah, I can’t imagine you’d want to be director. It doesn’t seem part of your DNA.
Joanne: Not at all. What was it after being for seven years that you’re okay, I’m going to go off and do this by myself?
Dana: The last couple years, I worked on staff at a production company as their in-house sales rep. I started to bring in talent to the company. I was saying, I’m capable of more than just hey come work with us kind of a thing. I wanted to be recognized, so they then promoted me to executive producer, but did a little bait and switch and put me in another company of theirs at the time which was Bedford Falls. It’s was Ed Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Peter Horton, and all those guys wanted to direct television commercials. They brought me in there to help build up the talent side of what the company would be.
One of the directors I had a relationship with did follow me in there, but it was so hard. Although they were at the top of their game, they were never available. It was very hard to convince the advertising community to look at feature, or even television directors, as full-time players in who they were going up against. I did that for a year and then I just realized. Peter, a former colleague of mine, was always knocking on my door saying we should do something together. Let’s open our own independent repping company. Finally, I think I was worn down enough by then, and I was like done.
Joanne: You were done, because you were out of there, and you knew that.
Dana: I was like, I can’t be beholden to this criteria anymore. I want to choose the talent or the companies that…
Joanne: That you want to work with.
Joanne: Which is one of the greatest things about your industry, is that you your own company, you represent these people. By representing these people, you get to work with people you really like.
Dana: Yes. To even take it one step further from pivoting out of that model of being an independent rep, where I represented a different production company, music companies, a whole slew of different types of companies. Now in recruiting, my relationships are just literally, we have thousands of clients and thousands of candidates versus this is my roster of who I work with, so just one step further…
Joanne: Taking it to another level. But what was interesting, you worked with Peter for how long, how many years?
Dana: We were partners for four years.
Joanne: I always thought that you carried the show over there.
Dana: It’s funny you say that, because I always look back on that and think… I love him as a person so much, but he was in the thick of…
Dana: … insanity with newborn children, a lot going on in his life personally. Of the dynamic of our personalities, it just became too taxing on me.
Joanne: It’s like you were very … Everything was in order, everything was buttoned up, and he was all over the place.
Dana: I was a little bit of a livewire at that time. He had temper problem.
Joanne: I’m sure probably does still.
Dana: It’s in check. Again, I think between his temper… Here he is two little babies, starting his own business – although we were doing really well, we had a great run – I think… It’s funny, I look back on that a lot because I adore him….
Joanne: That’s where you started your own.
Dana: And, by the way, he’s wildly successful. He’s done incredibly well without me. But our…
Joanne: The dynamic didn’t work.
Dana: I would say it’s timing.
Joanne: Yeah, he’s definitely a livewire hustler.
Dana: Yeah. He was dialing for dollars. I’d be on one phone call for an hour, and he was dialing 55…
Joanne: Yeah, he had a different thing.
Dana: Totally different approach.
Joanne: When you finally made that decision, this is not going to work out. That’s a lot, it takes a lot because you were in a company, you realized your value was tremendous. You were like wait a second, I’m running my own company in a company, so why should I be in a company? I might as well run my own company at a company. Then you were running your own company in a partnership, and then you’re like what am I doing here, for what?
Dana: I think a couple things: A, I was pregnant towards the end and kept thinking to myself how am I going to have a baby when I have this baby? There was so much managing of him at that particular time – no disrespect because I do love him. Mindy, ePop was one of our big clients, was like I’m not going to talk to him anymore.
Joanne: That would be the big one.
Dana: That became the lynchpin or excuse for me to say this can’t go on anymore.
Joanne: That was hard. I remember that, that was really hard. That takes a lot of strength to be able to say we’re going to get divorced from this little marriage here.
Dana: It was not fun.
Joanne: It was not fun and not pretty. Then you went on your own and had a child, and another child, and then you moved to Los Angeles.
Dana: That’s right, I came back to the place I hated.
Joanne: You came back to the place you hated, but it made sense.
Joanne: I think it was one of the better decisions you guys made. It’s been great for you guys in terms of both your life and also your careers.
Joanne: How far along were you in New York in building that business before you came here?
Dana: I was with Peter for four years, then I had Astrow Girl for four years, and then we moved here in 2004. I, for about 18 months, two years, was a stay at home mom.
Joanne: That’s right, and you were just trying to figure it out.
Joanne: Let’s talk about how the industry has changed, because I think that was one of the reasons too, even when you were staying at home and trying to figure out what’s next, is the industry is changing in regards to… Now, there is actually much more fluidity in regards to you’re only in advertising director, or you only do movies, or you only do TV. Now, there’s people in tech world who want these people to maybe do projects for them.
Dana: Right, there’s so many brands, even agencies, so many businesses that want to create content. Some of them have set up their own content studios internally. Some will still outsource it, but client in general, I think has become so much more sophisticated about content creation. Not to mention, content creation just doesn’t look like a 30 second television commercial, it’s a webisode. Who are the people that are on YouTube? Not blogger.
Joanne: Yeah, the YouTubers.
Dana: Everyone is making content all the time, and companies/clients are using all this content for their advertisements. It’s not just formulated systems. Yeah, the business has change dramatically. There is crossover, yet at the same time I still need a commercial director, or music video director. I’m using really dated terms now. I need a documentary star. I think that the platform is so much bigger. What’s happened is, someone said this a few times I always borrow their line, everyone is everyone else’s lane.
Joanne: That’s a great line.
Dana: Right. There is no sense what’s happening in the business where I can do that too, I can work 25… The other word I love is producer editor, so it’s predator. Everyone is shooting their own content, editing, creating, doing the visual effects, and trying to be all things to all people.
Joanne: You can because there’s so much more access to the…
Dana: The channels to where you’re sending your information.
Joanne: Exactly, or even the physical hard goods that you use in order to create these things. It’s not like you have these big huge things you have to rent anymore. You can play around with anything, which is pretty amazing.
Joanne: So, you were home for 18 months, a lot of women- listen, I think that is one of the hardest challenges for women that are interested in working and want to be engaged intelligently, but still want to have the balance to be home and be there for their children. You really in many ways I think created the absolute perfect opportunity for yourself. Because you’re not beholden to anyone. I mean, I’ve been with you when you’ve been having conversations in the car, or wherever it is you need to have them in order to move the business forward.
Dana: Right. No, I definitely do my job from anywhere, wearing anything, at any time of the day, there is no…
Joanne: It’s like, what’s that ad where the girl was in her pajamas with the slippers? She was at home doing work as an advertising .
Dana: It was great. And yeah, absolutely. I think I wanted to back to work. It was a hard transition to go from having your career in an office, people, and things like that in New York, then we moved to LA I was like oh hi, I’m in the witness protection program. When I was putting the girls to school saying Solomon was so much easier than Astrow. I’m not even Astrow any more, now I’m Solomon. Who’s that? I felt very lost. Again after 18 months, two years, I was like I’ve got to do something. I don’t know what it’s going to be, and just started contacting people in our industry. I felt like I was a handyman for a good year, where it’d be like hey, can you help me change the light bulb? I was like sure and put myself out there in that capacity to consult.
I started out at first working with another independent rep that was in New York, she just wanted some business advice. I’m not a coach, but I was like I will talk to you an hour every week and give you my idea… Then I realized from that conversation, she was like what I really want is for you to help connect me to other companies that need my business. I was like, oh okay. Then I started reaching out to various production company clients for her, connected them and set up a different pay structure. Then those clients, those production companies were like hey, if you’re helping her, maybe you can help us find talent. I was like okay, let me try that now. Created a model and different price points for those matchmaking services, which then turned into I need a head of production, I need an executive producer, blah, blah, blah.
Joanne: Right. Really, it’s an evolution of what your business has become. What’s interesting, and it all goes down to one of the things you’re really great at, I think that it’s a skill that people don’t talk about, which is being a connector, and being a huge Rolodex, just always networking. You have done that in your industry that have allowed you in many ways to take what you did at the very beginning, and those dots have connected. Now, you’ve got the ability to not only just yes, I can get you a documentary person, but if you have a hole in your industry and need to hire someone full-time I might be able to find that person for you too.
Dana: Right. I do think a lot about even your personality. I’m so much happier when everyone else is having a good time at a party. I don’t care that much about my… I’m so much happier if you like that friend over there, that’s how I am.
Joanne: It works for you.
Dana: The best thing in the world is it’s the candidate or client, particular candidate when some’s been out of work, they’ve found their dream job – I can hardly say we’re solely responsible for that – but you’ve made that change in someone’s career or life.
Joanne: It’s huge. You look at LinkedIn, which is such an interesting platform, which has changed the head hunting world. But at the end of the day, it’s still is those connections and you’re still going to say, is these the right people, who you know and what you know. I think I play head hunter all day long in a different form but is the same thing which I think is so powerful.
Dana: So much of it is the person’s… I mean, there’s the person…
Joanne: There’s the skill set, hands down. You’re going to be like I’ve never been an art director before, but I’m a nice person.
Dana: The person has to have the talent or the skill set, but then it’s really the culture fit.
Joanne: Which is so important.
Dana: That’s where I think the head hunting, recruiting, or the matchmaking whatever you want to call it, that’s where it really comes into place.
Joanne: Yes. People talk about that more in companies now than they ever did before, the importance of culture fit. Even today, we’re seeing that companies are giving women and family members more time to take off to whatever it may be, because they have to. They say it has to do with, because the unemployment is so low. Whatever it is, and what it takes, I don’t really care. But I think that that is one of the things we’ve both done, which I think is incredible, is that we’ve managed our own lives and been able to be at home or be on vacations or go to the kids’ basketball games or whatever it is, and still make a name for ourselves and create our own success even with a 3:00 basketball game.
Dana: Yeah, I’d be checking text message every two seconds.
Joanne: But it works.
Dana: It’s so funny, as you were saying that. You’re right, we’re so fortunate to have been able to create these worlds to move in and out of, to be available to kids, family, or whatever, and also work hard and full-time. You never feel at peace with any of it, you just don’t. I remember you saying that to me early on about you’re never going to feel … You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. It’s just you never feel like I’ve got it mastered, there’s no mastering of it, you just have to go with feeling bad that your kids are knocking on your office door and outside making faces at you, you’re putting your hand up like shut up I’m on a call. Then you’re getting text or phone calls while you’re supposed to be at your kids’ doctor appointment, or basketball game. Trying to shut that down, but your brain is like someone is trying to get in touch with me.
Joanne: Because there’s no structure.
Joanne: You’re never going to feel like I’m mastered this, there is no mastering. I think it’s probably in general in life for people…
Dana: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think particular for women than it is for men. For sure, men get a little… I think that’s changed dramatically too, but it’s like I got to go to work, that’s what I do, work. I’ll be home at dinner. That’s how it is, and the next moment it’s over. Your job is never over.
Dana: It’s completely fluid.
Joanne: How do you see the industry changing? You have your finger on the pulse of entire creative industry in Los Angeles in regard to be it creating content, be it creating ads, movies, or what have you. What is the biggest change you’ve seen over the past couple years and thinking this is where this is going?
Dana: This is where it’s changed. Without making it just about us, but what I think the biggest change we seen is the directorial talent piece where 50% of our model was making exclusive placements for a director to go to a particular production company. Because of what we’re talking about, so many different kinds of content is being made at so many different price points, that model seems to be shrinking. There needs to be a bigger platform which we’re trying to work on particularly for directors where they can have a freelance life as well as maybe an exclusive life. But they can be called upon for so many different projects.
To make a long story short, I think that model, that exclusive I only live at this one place, and I only work here, is broken. There has to be more availability and more ways to …
Joanne: To talk fluid.
Dana: Yeah, more fluid.
Joanne: Everyone is almost a freelance person?
Dana: Kind of.
Joanne: Yeah, which is an interesting way to look at your industry. How about in terms of females?
Dana: I will say it’s still the one-percenters. In any business when you look at even feature films, the action hero movies where you’ve got this top tier directors that are always going to make … Like a Steven Spielberg movie or Ridley Scott movie – then there’s everybody else, like we saw at Sundance. There kind of filmmakers may be once every five years are making a movie because it’s so hard. Those filmmakers need to find other places to make money and to create content. And there was a time when that was like, you know, Dayton Faris, Val, that was Little Miss Sunshine. Those guys can kill it in commercials, but even that’s changing too. There’s not enough of those super high end commercial work being made anymore like the franchises. There’s the franchises of the films or there’s everybody else.
Joanne: That’s interesting. Alice Prager who we actually own a couple pieces of, who’s an artist. She has made a couple advertisements. She did Gucci recently. She also did something else for someone else. Her work is very, very specific, the minute you see it. I think she did it, I want to say for J. Crew or Nordstrom’s or something like that.
Dana: I was reading about who’s she’s with.
Joanne: Her stuff is beautiful. It fascinates me what’s she’s done. She’s an artist by training, actually I don’t even think she’s by training, but her work as been…
Dana: Well, she’s a fine artist, she’s been in that world…
Joanne: She’s been in photography, then she started making movies, mix media and through that mix media that are pieces of art, you call that.
Dana: Think about those brands, those are super high end.
Joanne: Super high-end brands.
Dana: That kind of talent … She defines them.
Joanne: She totally defines them. The minute you see it, I’m like oh Alice Prager must have done this.
Dana: Remember LV purses? They were, Steven Sprouse did a Louis Vuitton bag.
Joanne: Oh, totally.
Dana: All the bags that were artist generated…All those super high-end designers want to associate with…
Dana: … whatever is the coolest artist, happening person on the planet right now.
Joanne: For sure, because that’s what they have to do. Have you seen the industry change dramatically for women over the past 5 to 10 years?
Dana: Sadly. I wish I could say otherwise. I think someone had just hung up with a woman who was part of designing our website her name is Isabelle Albuquerque. She’s so unbelievably talented, crazy talented. She’s like, I think this “Me Too” thing is going to be amazing for women in our industry. You’re going to find out. I will say that every production company that comes to us will be like, if you have any female directors send them our way. We do, and sadly there aren’t that many of them, and they don’t make the cut for the production companies. There’s not enough, or they’re inaccessible…
Joanne: They’re not making conscious decisions to hire these women.
Dana: They’ll say that. Even in the jobs, there’s a certain… I can always feel the bias coming in about I want someone that, let’s say it’s an executive producer hired, this is all lifestyle job for them. I’m like, what do you mean by that? They won’t say they don’t have kids. They won’t say I don’t want a woman. But it’s okay if we’re talking about a man with a family, but it becomes something different if we’re talking about a woman with a family in terms of when they want the lifer type, or the lifestyle persons that can travel. I was like, if they’re doing a great job, what difference will any of that stuff mean. You can just feel a wall go up.
Joanne: What’s interesting is, is that the generation that I know of people in their 30’s or early 40’s and have young children, the man is just involved as the woman. Those companies are not really looking at how people are running their partnerships in their lives.
Dana: Yeah, for sure. I think this is very generational. The decision makers are still thinking old school, and not who gives a crap. If this person is a Rockstar ….
Joanne: They’re a Rockstar. Have you ever thought about going and spending time on some of these crazy YouTube videos and reaching out to some of these new interesting people that are shooting things? That you’re like, hey, maybe I can help you make a reel, I think you’re interesting, or you’re past that?
Dana: I’m past that.
Joanne: You have people that work for you now.
Dana: I could do that. We don’t even have the bandwidth. They actually come to us. This new platform that we are going to present to brands directly and content creators, it’s all for freelance directors. We already have probably 100 directors …
Joanne: Putting stuff on your website?
Dana: Yeah, we’re still in the building stages of it. We can reach out to and say; would you like to be part of this? It’s a subscription-based platform, as it will be for brands, agencies, and in-house agencies, and even anybody that …. The client that needs to create context so that contents can find each other. Again, it’s subscription based, it’s not now it’s transactional, you pay us this much money for that placement. You can work with that person 87 times.
Joanne: You’re creating a very interesting database. For many ways the LinkedIn of your industry, or a marketplace for your industry.
Dana: Yeah, that’s …
Joanne: But having you at the top gives the prominence because you know the talent, and you also have proven yourself as a leader in the industry.
Dana: Right. We know what you’re looking for. The search engine will be fantastic. We’re going through all the steps to figure out what are the most important things that people need, where it’s going to fall apart, where it’s going to work and schedule being one of them. A lot of the filmmakers come to us, maybe at some point too we will have somebody scouring the marketplace. Again, not that we’re the only people, but we do have a big influx of filmmakers that will be like, will you help me. We’ll say to them right now, here’s what we’re doing. Are you interested? They’d be like, I’m so interested in that, keep me in mind when you launch.
Joanne: I love the subscription model for so many reasons. One is, is that even though it’s not the best analogy but if you look at the first dibs, or artsy. The concept was, when you make a transaction on our platform, we will make some of the money. Here’s what happens, no one stays on the platform, they just go off the platform. They had to change the model, the model being is if you have your stuff up here you pay us monthly in order to keep your stuff there.
Dana: Because you could go to that person without us.
Joanne: Right, one on one. If you are charging an artist one price, because some of these YouTubers are younger and they can’t afford it, but then you’re charging the agencies a completely different price point, so they have access to thousands of everybody….
Dana: A different kind of access, and they can choose to post, where freelance projects, which is hopefully what will end up happening. Again, they can decide to be private and not…
Joanne: To the world.
Dana: … to look and see whatever they want, or they can open it up and be content, anybody can contact us too, then sort through. Again, the idea is that if it’s curated like an Etsy or with a certain kind of flavor. Hopefully, because we’ve all been doing this for a long time, we understand what the flavor of our audience is looking for.
Joanne: Right, that’s pretty cool. That will be the place to go. What’s the website going to be called?
Dana: Jerry Solomon, invented the name, invented the concept for that matter too. He was like, you got to figure out what to do with all these people. It’s going to be called Unaffiliated.
Joanne: I love that. Do you have your URL yet, unaffiliated.com?
Dana: I don’t know if it’s a .com, but we bought all…
Joanne: Three dots, yeah.
Joanne: Yeah, in California. That’s very cool.
Dana: .TV or who knows what.
Joanne: Right. Of course, you bought them all. If you’re a young filmmaker out there…
Dana: Or a seasoned filmmaker.
Joanne: That’s right, or more seasoned, put your thing…. Why wouldn’t you?
Dana: That again is why a lot of this came about, is because my age category we are dealing with a lot of these seasoned filmmakers that have already been to three or four different production companies.
Joanne: They have done that.
Dana: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense anymore to sit in this exclusive relationship if there’s no work coming in. Why not put yourself out there and figure out how to have another tool in your tool bag?
Joanne: Completely. It really is huge. You have seen the downfall of these small individual houses that have: we’re responsible for eight directors and …
Dana: Each have bills, $5 million a year.
Joanne: That’s just how it works.
Dana: And now that industry is over.
Joanne: Yeah, so this is one of the new paradigms, what you’ve been building.
Dana: I always think about the medical industry, where these private practices with super high-end doctors that are charging blah, blah, because those insurance companies and just the way our healthcare has become. They’re getting eaten up by Cedars Sinai or.., and they buy the practices and bundle them, and create a different platform. It’s definitely eaten into the way a doctor can make money, unless they are an executive in that plan. It’s not that dissimilar.
Joanne: No, it isn’t that dissimilar. Yeah, I think what you’re doing is… What is great is, it’s great for the agencies, but it’s really great for the artists.
Dana: Yeah, for the content makers -it gives them exposure, and hopefully a way around….
Joanne: Because they’re all entrepreneurs.
Dana: Yeah, for them too. Oh, that project is cool I’m going to see if I can… whatever, be it all natural. But I can put myself out there for that and 25 other things if I want to. I’m not locked into one particular space completely.
Joanne: Then you have to add the calendar, they each get their calendar.
Dana: That parts going to be well, we we’re like – . You can’t sign on unless your calendar has been updated, in my head that’s what I’m thinking.
Joanne: Totally, that’s a 2.0.
Dana: Communication in the calendar, we’re done, we’re sunk.
Joanne: No, there has to be a calendar for quantitative.
Dana: There is, but even just the updating of the calendar.
Joanne: Yeah, it’s important.
Dana: Because often what happens just in regular production, is so and so available? They’re bidding on other stuff, but yes, they are available at this moment, for that week.
Joanne: But this afternoon they’re not.
Dana: Pretty much.
Dana: So, being able to figure out a way so that’s managed, where you’re not bait and switching people, which you can’t because you really want that job… If you’re a content maker, you want that job.
Joanne: You’re going to make it work.
Joanne: The one that’s good. All right. Thank you for coming today. And in all transparency, Dana is my sister-in-law.
Joanne: It’s also being on the sidelines and watching your career over the last 20 years. 20 years?
Dana: Jerry and I were married 20 years this year, so I’ve know you 20 some.
Joanne: 20 years, wow.
Dana: That’s so weird. I think of that sometimes, I’m like, how did that happen?
Joanne: How did that happen? I know because we’re only 24.
Dana: Exactly, yeah.
Joanne: Anyway, thank you.
Dana: Your welcome. This was awesome.
Joanne: This was good.