Everyone discovers the power of content marketing in their own way. And ultimately, those who do it well take their own unique path from there.
As a film and television guy in Los Angeles, Peter Abraham focuses mainly on the visual and experiential side of content with Abraham content marketing studio. Which makes sense with his background, and he’s attracted clients such as Nike, Whole Foods, Red Bull, and ESPN.
But the way that content marketing became Peter’s “thing” is truly interesting. He produced the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, directed by Sam Jones. The goal was to make a piece of documentary art that also promoted Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by capturing the recording process.
Little did he know when production started how interesting this particular story would get. I wrote about it here.
Tune in to hear that story from Peter’s unique perspective. Plus, lots more about content marketing that works.
The Show Notes
High Impact Content Marketing, with Peter Abraham
Peter Abraham: My name is Peter Abraham. I like to make things and tell stories, and I'm unemployable.
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Brian Clark: Everyone discovers the power of content marketing in their own way, and ultimately, those who do it well take their own unique path from there.
As a film and television guy in Los Angeles, Peter Abraham focuses mainly on the visual and experiential side of content with Abraham Content Marketing Studio, which makes sense with his background. He's attracted clients such as Nike, Whole Foods, Red Bull, and ESPN.
But the way that content marketing became Peter’s “thing” is truly interesting. He produced the documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, directed by Sam Jones. The goal was to make a piece of documentary art that also promoted the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco by capturing the recording process. Little did he know when production started how interesting this particular story would get.
Tune in to hear that story from Peter's unique perspective, plus lots more about content marketing networks.
Peter, it's so great to have you on our show and to finally speak to you after all these years of quipping with each other on Twitter.
Peter Abraham: Well, it's great to be here and I'm honored to be on your great podcast. I know you've had so many fantastic guests, so it's fun to try and follow in their shoes.
Brian Clark: Oh, I think you'll do just fine.
What Are You Doing Currently?
Brian Clark: First of all, let's tell people what you do currently.
Peter Abraham: I have a content marketing studio here in Santa Monica, California. I define content very broadly. That is, it could be experiential, it could be video, it could be written, even a product experience is a kind of content.
So, I work with many different brands on different content initiatives and I also have, I would say, a startup laboratory where I incubate some consumer brands.
What Is Your Background?
Brian Clark: Interesting. So, tell us about how you got here. What's your background? Is it in traditional Los Angeles film, television, advertising and production?
Peter Abraham: Well, yeah. Basically, I came to UCLA to study film production, because I was obsessed with that. I graduated and went straight into the film business, working as a production assistant, getting producers coffee, driving trucks. And I tried everything. I tried feature films, I tried music videos, commercials, TV, movies. I worked on a whole range of projects for a couple of years.
But I really enjoyed television commercials. I liked the fact that they were short. When you work on a movie, for instance, you go out of town for three to six months, you're working 100 hours a week. It's like being in the circus. Everything in your life, except that movie, kind of falls away. Staying in shape, a girlfriend, reading, all those things, nothing happens for six months.
So I liked that commercials were short. I liked being a part of the business marketing process as much as the filmmaking process, and that business is driven by small production companies. I felt comfortable in that environment. And I worked really hard in commercials. I became a producer in the late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s for really one of the top comedy directors in the world, Mark Story. He was really a mentor to me. He's an amazing guy and a gifted director, and we traveled all over the world making comedy commercials.
I decided to start my own company, partly to get away from commercials for a minute and make action sports films in the late ‘90’s. This was like the very early days of X Games and snowboarding films. My partner and I really helped invent freestyle motocross. We were the first guys to build sort of a ramp jump course. Then I got back into commercials, made some films.
In the early 2000’s, we had a rough year. We were losing money every month. So we closed the company. I took a couple directors to a friend of mine's company where I could just manage directors. I didn't have to run a business. This is like 2004, 2005 and I could see dark clouds on the horizon for traditional media.
Okay, at that point, Myspace was happening. You could see TiVo was coming. That was the heyday of early TiVo, when there was a lot of novelty around that and people were trying to wonder what was going to happen with the television commercial. And I had always been interested in technology. My dad's a mathematician, my brother's a software engineer, and I just decided I could manage a couple of directors and commercials for half the day. The other half of the day, I would give myself my own personal master's in digital communication.
I just really went to school on understanding technology, going to conferences and really trying to understand where the future was for communications and digital. And I decided I needed my own, I guess, master's thesis. I was always a sports guy, so I started a running event here in Santa Monica. I was able, I got kind of lucky, but I pitched big sponsorship integrations to Red Bull and Nike, and they came on board as really big sponsors. And it grew in a few years to become one of the biggest running events in southern California.
That was really an experimentation lab for me to go to Nike and Red Bull and Whole Foods and other brands, Jet Blue, and create multichannel marketing campaigns around my event. I would be making (this is like 2006, 2007) videos on YouTube. I'd be integrating them into early days of Twitter and Facebook and experiential activations, partnering them with a nonprofit, Heal the Bay.
Every week, I would be in Red Bull's office or Nike's office here in LA, just asking questions and looking over people's shoulder. “Hey, what are you guys doing over there? Are you writing a brief? What is that? What do you put in that?” Just learning and sponging and taking it all in. My day job was still making television commercials.
Then a friend of mine bought the LA Marathon, and he had run my event and loved it and he asked me to come on board and rebuild the LA Marathon with him. So, I left television commercial production, sold my event to the owner of the LA Marathon. My friend was the president. The main investor was Frank McCourt who owned the LA Dodgers, and we became basically part of the Dodgers’ organization. The event, when they bought it, was days away from bankruptcy. We had to rebuild it from scratch.
I took a lot of the philosophies I kind of put together over the past few years, and what I had learned with my own running event, and what I had learned in years of production and filmmaking, and we created our own mission statement there. The president who hired me, Russ Pillar, is still one of my closest friends. He had been the president of Viacom Interactive, the president of Virgin in the US. He was a really legit CEO, and he kind of saw the world the same way I did.
What we were obsessed with is: could we use that business and could we use business as a force for positive change in the community? That is still, I think, what drives me today. So we created a mission statement which is, “We inspire athletes and connect communities.” Everything had to fit into that mission statement.
I brought a lot of my production contacts and I had great agencies creating communications for me. We shot maybe over a hundred original pieces of video content. We became the most followed marathon in the world on Twitter.
I started blogging, I was tweeting a lot. This is like 2008, 9, 10. Again, teaching myself hands-on about how social media works, building a community, building a business based on positive impact and really trying to build a tribe based around a mission. I still think that is one of the most important lessons I've learned in business or in life is stand for something and build a community around those shared values.
Then in 2011, the owner of the Dodgers, Frank McCourt, and the owner of the marathon went into bankruptcy and divorced. The whole thing fell apart and we all left. Since then, I did a variety of stints as a chief marketing officer for a yoga brand. I did a year of experiential marketing for Red Bull and Nike. And then just three years ago, I decided it was time to do my own thing.
I started my own content marketing agency, and I work with a variety of different interesting clients. Some in sports and some not. So, that's where we are.
How Did You Decide to Make the Documentary?
Brian Clark: Very cool. I want to talk a little bit more about the studio in just a minute. But I've got to talk about this thing. Like I said, we follow each other on Twitter. One day, I don't remember what the occasion was, but for some reason you happened to mention, “Oh yeah, the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, I produced that.” And I'm like, “What?”
Okay, so here's a little background on this. This is a film about the making of Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It's my favorite album. I love that documentary. It's interesting, because you had to decide to produce this film before you knew that that album would become Wilco’s most popular and critically acclaimed, that it would make album of the year on a lot of lists, album of the decade, top 500 albums ever – that kind of thing.
But more than that, beyond the music, the story of that album is one of the greatest dramas between a strong-willed band and what turned out to be a very silly record label. And also one of the first instances I know of a band, who got canned from their label, stream their music on their website. This is 2001, got another record deal, and the rest is history.
How did you decide to do that and how fortunate do you feel for how it all turned out?
Peter Abraham: Well, when that started, it was late 2000 and I had my own production company. One of my directors, Sam Jones, who was a noted still photographer — at that time, he shot a lot for Vanity Fair — had a really great career going. He’s still a photographer. I was trying to get him going in commercials, and he's a really talented storyteller. But we couldn't quite get him going. He came to me with this idea. He goes, “Hey, look, I'm super into Wilco. I know they're about to start making an album and I would like to make a film about the making of this album. I think we should make a documentary about it.”
I was like, “Well, if you're so passionate about it and I trust your sensibilities, then I'm in. Let's do it.” It started out with Sam funding it. Even before that, he flew to Chicago to meet the band. The band invited him to fly there and talk to them about it in their loft in Chicago.
He ended up driving around with Jeff Tweedy in Jeff's Honda at two in the morning, listening to the early acoustic tracks for I Am Trying to Break Your Heart for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Listening to the early, unreleased tracks before they'd even fully recorded them. And they just totally hit it off.
They invited us on like five days’ notice. On a Monday, they said, “Okay, we start recording on Friday. Get out here with your cameras.” This is pre-video. Okay, so we were shooting not only on film, but we were shooting on black and white film stock, which will probably basically never ever happen again. It's an expensive proposition and it's so much more complicated than now — you just whip out a Canon 5D and start shooting anywhere.
In those days, you had a $50,000 camera, you had a camera assistant, you had 10 cases of gear, you needed way more light. I mean, it was a deal to shoot, even just to go cover them in their loft recording a couple of songs. But we went, we shot.
From that first week of shooting, we cut together a little trailer and nobody would even return our phone calls in the feature film world. We had some pretty legit indie film producers. The two guys, Albert and Ron, who produced Little Miss Sunshine, helping us and nobody would even literally return our phone calls.
So we had to just decide without really having any story, without having much film in the can, were we going to keep spending money on this or not? And we just jumped off a cliff and did it in sort of classic entrepreneur fashion.
This is how great things work in the world. You just have to take a chance. It doesn't really make rational sense. If you were to stop and really do the math, you would never commit. And sometimes, you just have to go, “You know what? We're going for it.”
We just kept shooting, kept shooting and all of a sudden, interesting things started happening. A, the music was amazing and we traveled all around the country. I remember we shot three shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco. We shot in New York, we shot in Milwaukee and Minneapolis at First Avenue, in Chicago. Anyway, we shot all over.
Then they got fired from their label, which was a total shock, and we just happened to be in the manager's office when he got the phone call. So we were able to roll cameras there when the manager was having it out with the record label. In the film now, it all looks very lined up. They ended up basically selling, re-signing to Nonesuch Records, another division of Warner Brothers, and reselling the same album they had already gotten paid to make for three times the money to Warner Brothers again.
It had kind of a fairy tale ending along the way. They fired Jay, their guitarist. Now, in the film, it all looks very laid out, like in 90 minutes, it's boom, boom, boom. Everything happens like chapters. At the time, we would go months waiting around not knowing what was going to happen. We had been talking to Warner Brothers about distributing the film, because they were the band’s label and now we didn't have that. It was very chaotic. We were spending a ton of money we didn't know if we were ever going to get back. It was really a complicated and difficult process. Like, “Hey, let's go shoot the band making their album for six months” that turned into 15 months of filming.
But I have to say, I'm really proud of the film. It stands the test of time. It's still, I think, a really great piece of storytelling. Sam, the director, poured his whole life into that movie. We were able to make our money back, which for a first-time documentary about a band at that time that nobody had heard of.
When we started that film, Wilco was playing venues that were a thousand seats. When we finished the film and the film was released, they were playing 6,000-seat venues. They had almost no music videos and this is mostly in the pre-digital era. We really helped brand that band.
Brian Clark: Yeah, you absolutely did. I get what you're saying about it. When you watch the film, 90 minutes of almost perfectly scripted drama, the tension between Jeff and Jay, the manager. I looked at that phone conversation with the manager and the label and he's just chewing him out. I'm like, “Did they really recreate that? Or were they there?” That's amazing to me.
Peter Abraham: Totally there. It was amazing.
Brian Clark: Then instead of getting the terrible ending, the album's a home run. It really was the breakthrough moment that Wilco had been waiting for all those years. Just fantastic, really. In particular, the tension between Bennett and Tweedy, man, I would've fired Jay too. I mean, Jay is a brilliant musician, but he drove Jeff crazy. It’s so clear.
Peter Abraham: Yeah, and we left a lot of the more, I would say, inflammatory dramatic footage on the cutting room floor.
Brian Clark: Yeah, I imagine.
Peter Abraham: In hindsight, I think there were some other issues involved with Jay and there were times when he, I mean, was kind of off the handle. So we decided to not show all that in the movie, because we just felt like, “Do we really need to do that? No.” Tragically, a few years ago, Jay passed away and it's too bad.
I think what you saw with Wilco in the movie, you certainly could see there was a tension between Jay and Jeff. Jay wanted to make the next great pop album. He wanted two guitars. He was really a great pop song writer. Jeff wants to make art. Jeff doesn't care if more than two people hear the album. He wants to make great art that's true to where he is. But in between, with that tension, you ended up at a middle ground which was really artistic, important songwriting that had a certain accessible energy to it.
I think that's what you saw with that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. You can kind of hum along to every song, but every song is unique and really fantastic. They live in that middle ground. And right after that, I think Wilco has kind of found their place again, but a couple of albums right after that were really…I mean, he had like a 15-minute noise.
Brian Clark: Tweedy wasn't balanced out anymore at all. I agree with you that I think that's how Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – it took like 10 years for it to replace. The albums of your youth stick with you, and it's really hard to get something to pass that stuff up. It was a blend of pop and art, and it's hard to pull that off.
Peter Abraham: Yeah, that's right. So that was a great experience for me. That film really, I would say, was the beginning of my journey into content marketing. At that time, I was a producer. I was making television commercials. Ad agencies would call me. “Here's a storyboard, well, you’re competitive, bid on it, produce the job.” With that film, we had to market it and we had to build a community around that film.
We didn't really know what we were doing, but we just started experimenting. For instance, we were short on cash, we were trying to fund this film out of our pockets. And we thought, “What if we put up a website and design some t-shirts and sell some Wilco film t-shirts on the website?” Okay, great. So we built a website. We had this designer friend Lawrence Azerrad design it.
Then we thought, “What if we put up a message board here so fans could hang out and talk to each other?” Mind you, this is in probably late 2001. This is pre-Myspace. Of course, way before Facebook. This is like message board era. There was no YouTube, and almost overnight, the message board was inundated by Wilco fans from Germany, Japan, Canada, the US. They were from all over the world. They had no place to hang out and talk to each other. I was really proud of the fact that we built a music community before Myspace, a thriving music community.
Then I knew somebody at Apple computers in the QuickTime division and he was a huge Wilco fan. So, we set up a partnership with Apple and they hosted a bunch of media for us. If you remember in those days, pre-YouTube, the bandwidth required to host video content was prohibitively expensive. There was no Vimeo Facebook. You couldn't just put video content out there. It cost a fortune, the bandwidth.
What we decided to do is every two weeks, we'd give like eight clips of dailies to Apple. They would encode them for us. Remember, encoding was a big thing. “Well, who's going to do your encoding, what machines do they have?” Every two weeks, we’d put eight clips from the film up, dailies. Things we had just shot the day before, things that might never make it into the film. We hosted those on our website, and then Apple started hosting those on their QuickTime site.
This is while we're still in the middle of shooting the film, the fans could follow along and watch the making of the film in real time. Again, I look back and I go, “We had no idea what we were doing.” But in hindsight, it was kind of innovative.
How Do You Create a More Sophisticated Version of Content Marketing?
Brian Clark: Yeah, absolutely. Let's talk a little bit more about, I guess, a more sophisticated version of content marketing that obviously requires bigger budgets. It also requires the right sensibility in the sense that it's not a commercial, but it's not a pure artistic film or video project either. It's got to do both without crossing either line.
An example I like to use, I'm a big Marvel geek. You wouldn't know it now, but in the late ‘90’s, Marvel was bankrupt, the comic book company. Coming out of bankruptcy, they were purchased by a toy company. The toy company licensed away Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spiderman to Sony and Fox (I guess is the other one). Not only did they get money for those licenses, but they were big commercials for what they ended up actually selling, which is action figures and merchandise.
Fast forward to The Lego Movie and that company takes it to a whole new level, because they have the film rights and the toy rights. That's amazingly powerful stuff. I don't even think people, at least people outside of the industry, really think about it in those terms. They're like, “Oh, it's just a fun movie and now my kids want some more Legos.”
How do you approach that when you're working with a brand, at kind of walking that line where it's not right in your face? I mean, Red Bull has done an amazing job and of course, you've been involved with them. But what's your sensibility when you come toward it?
Peter Abraham: You know, how I look at it, there's two things. First of all, when I work with a brand, I really want to get down to what does that brand stand for? Like, what do they really stand for? I'm trying to head off at the pass brands that try and just do one-off publicity stunts or things that just feel tone deaf or don't feel right for the brand. That is the first and most important thing I need to understand.
Number two, really important right now is the idea of bringing value with any marketing. Like, “How is your marketing solving a problem?” I had this discussion four or five years ago, I interviewed Gary Vaynerchuk for my blog. And Gary, he's so great. You kind of get sometimes overwhelmed by his bluster, but he's very smart. He goes, “Look, Peter, the difference between advertising and content is content brings value. Is it teaching, is it entertaining, is it connecting the community?”
I think those things are really important. I was invited by a brand last week to go to a big activation. I won't say who it is, and it didn't bring value. They admitted to me that it didn't bring value. It was just sort of a sales event.
Here, I'll give you an example. I've done a fair amount of work lately with Lululemon, connecting them authentically with the running community, because it is still a yoga culture business. One activation we did, we went into it, we knew we wanted to do something leading up to the LA Marathon and the Olympic trials marathon that was in LA in 2016. We honestly had no idea what we were going to do. They hired me. There was no scope of work or anything.
We just went out and started meeting with all these night running crews in LA. That's a whole thing now. These groups that run at night. We took a bunch of them to dinner, like 12 of these groups, the ringleaders. And we said, “Hey, how can we help you guys? How could we be of service to you? How can we help you guys accomplish what you want to do?”
First of all, they were shocked, because they’re not used to brands approaching them and asking how the brands can help them. The brands often want to just sell to them. Then, second of all, this one group BlacklistLA, which is really massive, they've got 3 or 400 people running on a Monday night at 10:00 in downtown LA. It's amazing. They're all about art. They run to see art in various parts of the city. They'll run for two miles and stop in front of some huge mural or a piece of street art. They said, “Peter, we are very involved with the art community. We look at all this art, but we've never gotten to create anything.” And we said, “Well, what if we could help you co-create art?” And they said, “Oh my God, that would be amazing.”
So we brought in an art foundation and we paid to hire some very known street artists like Drew Merritt and Calder Greenwood, WRDSMTH. In collaboration with Blacklist, this running club, we put up huge street art all over downtown LA. I mean, like 30-foot high murals that took a week to paint, all related to running.
Then we had a huge group run with 600 people on a Monday night, and we had the artists meet the whole crowd at each place where we stopped in front of the art. It was like a 5k route and it was really beautiful. It was a big community event. It was kind of grassroots, it wasn't overly produced. And we really connected the art community and the running community. That really started with, “How can we be of service?” not “How can we solve something?”
Brian Clark: Absolutely. That's fascinating to me. I didn't suspect otherwise, but just because you work with big brands and big budgets, it's the same thing as what we do with articles and podcasts — what's valuable to the audience? And who are you talking to in the first place, which seems to get missed quite a bit.
How Do You Attract Clients?
Brian Clark: I'm curious, what do you do to attract your clients? What's your best source of leads and conversations?
Peter Abraham: Brian, that's a great question. I don't have a system or a plan. My personal point of view is I like to go deep on relationships and I'm good at building and maintaining relationships with people I like and that I trust. So I do spend a lot of time maintaining relationships with friends, old friends, interesting people. I like to keep a circle of interesting people with great energy in my life, whether those are friends, family, clients, former clients. And of course, over time, you end up working together, you work together again.
I devote a lot of time to seeing people and maintaining relationships. I don't necessarily use CRM. I have a spreadsheet and I do keep track of who I'm in touch with, but I don't have a patented three-point system.
Brian Clark: No, I meant, do you use content marketing to get clients or is it more relationships? And I would suspect at your stage, it's more relationships.
How Do You Successfully Match Audience to Brand and Sponsors?
Brian Clark: I'm curious, do you ever come at it as a producer, in that you have an idea for a particular audience and then you try to find, almost like you're trying to find someone to sponsor it, but it's actually going to end up on behalf of that brand if they liked the idea?
Peter Abraham: Certainly, when I'm working with an event that needs partners, I work very hard to go and spearfish partners who would be right for a particular activation or event, because I think those partners are part of the marketing process, and they say a lot about your brand.
I'm setting up a partnership with a movie I'm marketing right now with a big brand that felt very organic to the film and very right, so we’re deep into creating all these marketing plans for this brand around the film.
I have in the past gone, “Gee, I've got this great idea for an activation. Should I go to Nike for this? Should I go to Airbnb?” I think that's hard to do. It sounds good, but you have to really get lucky to find the right brand that is in the right place in their marketing cycle to want to spend money on something that just walks in the back door. It's hard to nail those.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that's good information. It just seems like when you marry the two worlds, because that's how films get produced, so I was just curious about that. That's kind of fascinating to me.
Where Can We Find You?
Brian Clark: Well, where can people go to find out more about what you do at Abraham?
Peter Abraham: Well, they can go to Abrhm.com Studio – that's the website there. I have two things happening professionally right now. I have my service business where I am a marketer for hire and a production company and an agency for brands that's under Abraham. I have had a history of launching consumer products or properties, like my running event, like the Wilco film.
Currently, I'm spending a lot of time on an app development business called Freestyle Studios where we will make sports coaching apps with high-quality video content. And that's Freestylestudios.com. Those are growing and we're meeting with investors now and that businesses is doing really well. I'm really excited about that.
It's funny, I listened to your podcast the other night with Seth Godin, and you were talking about the tension between being a freelancer and being a solopreneur. I really understand that, because my app development business is a tech startup. And then my marketing business is more like a freelancer, it's definitely a service business. There's a constant tension between those two kinds of businesses, because they're completely different processes — producing a product over here and being in a service business over there.
The service is often driven by clients who call you and, “We need that tomorrow,” and you have to drop everything and get it done. But meanwhile, you're trying to hit some kind of product milestone or deliverable on you building a product and an app over here and they're often in tension. It's very much a tightrope to keep those different balls in the air.
Brian Clark: Yeah, amen to that. I think everyone can relate to that who's listening.
Well, Peter, this has been fascinating. Thank you so much for taking the time. Next time I'm in LA, I'll have to buy you lunch and delve more into your secrets. Thanks for sharing with the audience tonight.
Peter Abraham: Thanks for having me, Brian. I appreciate it.