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Talent agents for the YouTube era

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Kai Ryssdal: It's not always the biggest ideas in business that make the biggest splash. For instance, Google didn't actually invent searching on the Internet. They just perfected a way to make money from it.

But whether ideas turn out to be big or small, smart companies are always looking for them. It might be the new, new thing that'll eventually turn the world upside down or maybe it's just a tweak or a twist that'll give 'em a leg up on the competition.

With that in mind, we're starting an every now and then series about those new ideas that we're gonna call "The Shake Up."


Today, a trip out to Hollywood and the United Talent Agency.

Yeah, I hear you. What's the big shake up about a stodgy old-economy company like a talent agency?

On the face of it, says Jon Zimelis, not much. Zimelis used to be a literary agent out in Chicago. Today, he's sitting with three other guys in a crowded office that houses the entire staff of United Talent's online division.

Zimelis says online or off, all agents ask the same basic questions:

Jon Zimelis: What ideas are going to work, what we're going to do to make them work and who that client needs to meet with on the buyer side of the business to be able to further their career and hopefully, in this case, get a little money to produce their next project?

It just so happens that for Zimelis and his colleagues, those new projects are online.

Jason Nadler: Today I'm surfing the web.

Jason Nadler has been with UTA Online since it started -- that would be all of about a year and a half ago. Nadler's 28. Today he's wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Hasn't shaved in a couple of days, which is OK, because he spends his days on the web poking around for things like this:

[Clip from "Powerthirst 2"]: What if everything you ever wanted came in a rocket can? Powerthirst!

Rocket can? Yeah, whatever, right? But here's Nadler's take:

Nadler: Fake commercials really work.

That fake rocket can commercial sure worked to the tune of 6 million hits.

It was produced by a Canadian outfit that calls itself Picnicface. They make videos that show up on sites like collegehumor.com. They're also some of UTA Online's newest clients.

Nadler and his crew find the talent behind things like Rocket Can, they line 'em up with the money people, they take their cut and then get out of the way.

[Clip from "Prom Queen"]: What is the American obsession with prom?

"Prom Queen" is another great example.

[Clip from "Prom Queen"]: It is going to be the best night of your freakin' life. I am going to teach you every move I know. It is going to change your life.

"Prom Queen" was an online video micro murder mystery -- episodes lasted just 90 seconds. But short was oh so sweet: the first run got 200,000 hits a day and numbers like that helped UTA sell "Prom Queen" to a digital production house owned by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Jane Hu works for Eisner.

Jane Hu: And then we worked with them again for the spin-off show "Prom Queen: Summer Heat."

Ryssdal: Prom Queen: Summer Heat. Sounds like a bad slasher movie or something.

Hu: That's the genre we're going for. It's a teen soap opera meets... I always say it's like "Mean Girls" meets "Carrie."

Online videos aren't really making money yet. Think about it for a second: how do you generate ad revenue for something that's not much longer than an ad itself? But that'll happen soon enough. The research firm eMarketer figures the web video ad market is going to top $4 billion in just couple of years.

UTA Online also represents Jessica Rose -- she was lonelygirl15, if you remember her -- and the directors of the first Obama Girl videos.

But if the whole "young guys sitting around with computers all day" thing sounds familiar to you, it did for me too.

Ryssdal: There's a little bit of um, you know, just looking around this office, right: I mean, you've got the basketball hoop taped to the big window looking out on the Hollywood Hills, you've got the big double tubs of Bazooka bubble gum and a surfboard out in the lobby I saw. There's a little element of the dot-com boom here, a little bit of that flavor.

Nadler: Well, we try. I think that Silicon Valley ethos is very alluring and we should try to embrace that a little bit.

Ryssdal: 'Course, we all know what happened to that Silicon Valley ethos.

Nadler: Well, you know what? Everybody likes to gamble a little bit.

So far it's been a good gamble. Other big agencies are dipping into digital representation everyday. Creative Artists Agency has signed the people behind a wildly successful web series called "The Burg." William Morris is online too.

But analyst Hal Vogel says it's going to take more than that to get the concept of online talent agents to go viral.

Hal Vogel: I always look for adult supervision in any kind of structures that are new and different and require a little bit of gray hair on top of the head.

The guys at UTA think it's because they are so young that they've been able to pick as many winners as they have, never mind what the old guys think.

Nadler: If all of those 54-year-olds sat down with their 17-year-old kids for a week and said "Show me what you do."

Ryssdal: Is part of your job getting them to do that? To sit down and say, "I need to understand this?"

Nadler: Either way, they're going to have to learn if they want to keep their jobs.

You can decide for yourselves whether Nadler and the crew at UTA Online are doing their jobs. The production team behind "Prom Queen" is launching a new web series today. It's another mystery called "Foreign Body."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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