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Sushant Singh Rajput Death: How celebrity management companies fail the not so big stars

The recent demise of Sushant and the fact that how celebrity agencies contribute to stifling of talent growth and development has been a topic of discussion

Hitesh Gossain | June 20, 2020 | Updated 11:51 IST
Sushant Singh Rajput Death: How celebrity management companies fail the not so big stars
Sushant Singh Rajput's untimely demise has triggered a very well-placed debate to break the castles and talent mafias of Bollywood

I had the fortune of heading one of the biggest celebrity management companies (Caveat, at the time I was there) with a fantastic team. Coming from a professional Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) background, I had a firm belief in "structure" of businesses and here I was, in an industry which was based on "personal relationships and draconian contracts".

Time helped me understand the nuances of an opaque industry about which very little (if at all) is published.

What exactly is Talent Management in the celebrity world? This is about managing the celebrity who looks for the following:

1. More revenue: Short and long-term revenue opportunities

2. Better opportunities functionally

3. Good PR opportunities

4. Intelligent deals

Managing a single celebrity is a full-fledged business with revenue and cost heads. While the cost heads are team costs, legal costs, office (the typical ones), the revenue head is a share of celebrity revenue.

To make this business successful, we need to maximise revenue and reduce cost. Maximising revenue comes from two aspects: Increase revenue per celebrity or increase the number of celebrities. The same also impacts the reduction of cost of celebrity management/celebrity.

Also Read: Coronavirus corrodes Bollywood's coffers; thousands of jobs at risk

So how does a celebrity make money?

a. Functional Sources: Like movies for an actor, adverts/ramp shows for a model, comedy gigs for a stand-up comic, cricket match for a cricketer, etc. This includes casting conversations, managing training schedules, etc.

b. Social/Digital: The fact that millions of people follow these celebrities, the voice is "heard" by these people hence brands/content owners (and everyone who wants to be heard) pays the celebrity to write "Sponsored Posts". Also, Youtube channels, etc of the celebrity are covered in this.

c. Appearances: Whether it is ribbon-cutting of a new showroom or inaugurating the new premises or flagging off a marathon, every "occasion" wants more eyeballs, and what better than a celebrity to do that?

d. Performances: Right from shaking up dance moves at an upcoming awards show to entertaining guests at a big fat wedding to playing golf at a private golf club, celebrity performances are extremely sought after. For live entertainment folks like singers, choreographers, etc, this is one of the biggest sources of income.

f. Others: Right from investments in companies, channels on youtube to everything else

A celebrity talent management agency helps to "represent" a celebrity in these conversations. Let's take a look at this from two perspectives: new and established celebrity (I am deliberately not adding the "In progress" stage as that's a big grey area, but the same can be identified based on how close you are to either stage)

Have a look at the table below.

If you notice, almost every-time the result is a sub-optimal situation resulting in a lose-lose situation.

Let's look at the "talent launch platforms": Typically, a production house (Bollywood/TV), channel, or training academy makes these contracts with these celebrities. They act as "agencies" to monetise the "opportunity" they are providing. They act as "gatekeepers" to predict the key barrier to success. Earlier contracts used to become null and void.

Also Read: Sushant Singh Rajput's sister-in-law Sudha Devi passes away in Bihar

After Sushant was launched by Yash Raj Films (YRF), the production company became his agency by default. This is the most critical part- any production company, director, producer or anyone who launches an actor in Bollywood becomes his/her agency because of their disproportionate power rather than a solid business plan.

Almost all singers are automatically contracted under a label that gives them the first "break"; dancers/choreographers under the channel where they won their title; Standups to the "digital channel" that launches them, etc., and this gives birth to an "I gave you the first break - I will own your career mindset".

So what exactly is an agency supposed to do? and what does it end up doing?

The celebrity space is all about a power equation, and it is so feeble that it changes very fast. I have tried to map the agency deliverables with talent expectations around--strategy, business development (BD), and business operations (typical business units around any brand/business).

Like a regular business, business operations create money whereas strategy and BD need investments. Business operations and client servicing manages handling "in-bound" queries/business. Like any business, it is critical to match celebrity and agency expectations, hence we need to understand these from a business unit's perspective.

If you notice, there is a clear gap between what agency and celebrity needs. As this is not a long-term arrangement ever, every stakeholder wants to "squeeze the juice" at the earliest.

Also Read: Sushant Singh Rajput - An astrophysicist at heart, an entrepreneur in making

A business model should eventually move to "optimal" and unlike this part of the world, the management of talent in the western world is way better. Contracts are long-term and professionalism is in place. Respect for each other and trust are key elements to this.

Launch platforms sub-license the contracts to specialists, typical expectations are clear and contracts are legal documents, not just pieces of paper that can be flouted under the pretext of "can you afford the legal costs? I can".

Optimal means potentially higher revenue with time and optimised costs, but how about being in a business where your revenue-driving businesses are always threatening to not exist?

How many Sushants will it take to break this "system"?

The answer to this is "breaking the power centres", a wider set of celebrities, deeper engagements and specialised boutique celebrity agencies.

How you as a consumer of "talent" can set this equation in perspective:

1. Tilt the balance: The top 10 celebrities in India make as much as almost everyone else combined. With new content creation platforms and capabilities, there has been an advent of "influencers". The line between celebrities and influencers is really deep,?but is getting finer by the day.

2. Talented vs Stars: The industry has already bifurcated itself into parallel cinema and mainstream cinema, but the brands have realised that micro engagement can be driven well by niche stars, hence the value of these stars increases dramatically (think olympians, theatre artists, singers, etc)

How you as a celebrity/artist/influencer can set this equation in perspective:

1. Simpler contracts: A very crazy focus to two clauses-Termination and Force Majeure. Do not sign contracts when you are in your career's low period, and invest in a lawyer when you are talking contracts.

2. No minimum guarantees: Just revenue-driven contract terms (or other innovative ones). Pay higher shares, do shorter-term contracts. Move to lower shares and longer-term contracts when things are more visible to you.

3. Keep strategy in-house (a.k.a. close friends/mentors): This is key to your career and no agency has its focus on it. However strong your agency is, their focus is on revenue maximisation in short-term (apart from a few of course), and strategic planning is a hassle when one side is thinking long-term and the other short-term.

4. Activate an inbound lead channel and handle it well: You can do it yourself with a different name and "handle" to manage it (If you can't afford a "manager"). Do not think twice before "awarding" your agency with these leads too, as they keep them motivated.

5. If you can afford, try to get an employee (a good fresh graduate) who liaisons on your behalf with all agencies. Pool with 2-3 of your peer groups for this resource so that the cost is shared. When one or more of you need "more work", you could always opt-out, the same way you manage your apartment rental. It is a fixed fee but worth its investment.

It is a movement from a rent-seeking mindset to an innovation first mindset. Thankfully, the current times have given a disproportionate value to the latter as traditional "stars" have no releases/matches/concerts, etc happening.

Sushant, through his career, paved the way for people to dream; and his untimely demise has triggered a very well-placed debate to break the castles and talent mafias. If this manages to turn the tide towards quality seeking audience looking beyond the "traditional larger than life celebrities" towards authentic content, the biggies (producers, media houses, sports bodies) will move towards it and then I would comfortably say: The elephant has truly moved!

RIP Sushant Singh Rajput. We will all miss you dearly and hopefully, your demise will change the celebrity management industry (and celebrities) for good.

(The author has led the celebrity business of Percept in its early days and has worked with almost all big names in celebrity space along with Olympic athletes.)

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