“If you have a goal work towards the goal, otherwise it’s actually not your goal.”
An Interview with Laura Dames
WICT Southeast and WarnerMedia are hosting a panel event on Storytelling in November and I’d like to begin with your story. How did you get to where you are now? Is your life/career story developing in expected or unexpected ways?
I feel like my career, in so many ways, is a series of paradoxes. I studied communications. I wanted to work in media. I didn’t want to be poor in New York, I didn’t want to move all the way to L.A. so, I picked up and moved from Massachusetts to Atlanta right after college thinking that I’d be here for 5 years. 27 years later I’m still here. I did not study Marketing yet worked in Marketing for the first 10 of those years. I really knew nothing about operations and yet ran operations for our biggest networks here at this company and really have no production background yet was put in charge of an entire production resource. My career has taken a lot of twists and turns but, at the time it all made total sense. In retrospect, when you’re looking in the rearview mirror, you think, “how did that happen?” Did I think I’d ever be where I am now? Absolutely not. When I set out, I just wanted to work in media. But I’ve always loved my jobs. I’m very fortunate that this company and these brands and this business are constantly shifting and changing and I’ve been lucky to change and shift with them. I’m someone who gets bored very easily so that works in my favor. I haven’t had to leave the company to have different jobs every few years with different expectations and new opportunities and challenges. It’s been very fortuitous and along the way, I’ve just found people who have really supported me and put me in a position to be able to succeed.
Do you seek out that uncomfortable growth position or have they just come your way and you’ve said yes?
I’m a naturally aggressive human so I’ve always been one to seek out new opportunities and I tend to be very frank with my bosses when I’m bored and I’m ready for something else. I’m a person who likes solving puzzles and complex challenges where technology and creativity meet. I tend to like things that other people don’t like. Lots of people gravitate towards the creative side of things or towards the marketing side of things or things that seem sexier and I want to create the infrastructure that makes that possible. I find it fun. To me, there are more challenges and opportunities in those areas than in all the ones that you have to scratch and claw and fight to have a voice. I’ve been able to have a strong voice in the areas I’ve worked in.
The teams you lead here at WarnerMedia are instrumental in helping all the Networks to tell their stories. WICT’s theme this year has been “Inspire and others will follow.” What would you say is a piece of advice or a strategy that has helped you inspire them to take risks and find ways to tell stories in creative and innovative ways?
Turner Studios is a wonderful place. It is an amazing collective of artists and craftspeople; I am very humbled to work here and support them in doing what they do. My biggest role here is to create a culture where they feel empowered and enabled to do their best work.
There is nothing more frustrating than having an idea and not being able to figure out how to execute it. My job is to make sure they get those things and that they’re supported technologically so that when an idea comes to them, they know that they have what it takes to get it done. That’s hugely important. Of course, you can’t make someone who is not curious or capable or creative be so. Hopefully, we’re finding great talent, we’re helping them communicate with each other, giving them time to spend time with each other and learn from each other. I was shocked when I got here that artists that did the same thing but for different brands had never even met each other. So, we’ve created little tribes of people who do the same thing. We’ve also created opportunities for people at different stages of the creative process to communicate where the pain points are and how it might be able to be helped or fixed by earlier parts of the creative process. I want people to feel like they have a voice throughout the whole process. When people feel heard and that they are not constantly banging their heads against the same brick wall, their creativity increases. We’ve created the apprentice programs so there are young people constantly asking questions which also inspires the senior more seasoned veterans. I found that they all are inspired by the new thinking of these kids who are straight out of school or new in their career and so it’s a nice relationship. We have also done some larger things across the entire Turner Studios group, things we call “Food for Thought” and Studios X which are learning opportunities. Opportunities for our artists to teach classes and opportunities for all of the artists to take classes taught by their peers so that they can really learn from each other and inspire each other. And they are artists. When I first got here, they were referred to as operators, but they are artists and craftspeople. They use technology and manipulate it at their whim. The most important thing I changed when I got here was the language. We stopped calling them operators and we started calling our internal clients our partners. I had a boss who used to say, “everything communicates” and I believe that the language you use to describe what people do does communicate, the language you use to describe your relationships with each other communicates and the effort you put into making sure people feel appreciated matters.
I want a line out the door of partners that want to work with us and a line out the door of employees that want to work here and in order to create that I feel that it all begins with culture. It begins with creating an environment where people are inspired to do great work, they go above and beyond because they care and they’re enthusiastic and responsible and professional.
What advice would you give people who want to make/or pivot into a career as a storyteller? What would you say are the skills they need to develop in order to become a good storyteller?
The thing I find with most storytellers is that the biggest challenge most of them have is that they are shy or reticent to start just telling stories. There is no barrier to entry anymore! Create, make, and stick it out there. Everyone can! There are so many opportunities, just put your stuff out there. Do it! What’s the worst that can happen? Nobody looks at it or someone hates it. Guess what, that’s going to happen to you a million times when you do it professionally. Practice now. You have to learn to take all of that with a grain of salt. People have to find their true voice and the only way to do that is to practice, and there’s never been a better time to do that. For me, the most important thing to think about is, “what are you more afraid of, failing now or never getting to the place where you want to be?” If you don’t practice, if you don’t take the first step, you’re never going to end up on that journey so, you gotta go. The sooner you go the sooner you’re going to figure out your path and you might realize you don’t even want to take that road; you might want to take a different road and that’s ok too. But go forward, just keep moving. Always keep moving. The same goes for life, career, creative endeavors, if you have a goal work towards the goal, otherwise it’s actually not your goal.
There are so many digital venues for storytelling nowadays. How has new media changed the way you approach both storytelling and managing the business of storytelling?
There’s such a vast level now. For so many years in this industry, there was quality and there was everything else; and, if it was anything else you probably didn’t have a venue for it. It probably wasn’t’ going to be seen by very many people. It was considered not as good. That paradigm shifted with the internet and now anyone can publish anything. And, oh, by the way, kids prefer low production value with good storytelling over high production value and bad storytelling. There is so much opportunity for any kind of story to be out in the world. From the time I got to Turner Studios, I’ve been saying that we have to change our concept of what content is and what quality means because the biggest challenge we’ve had in making the transition to the new media world is our legacy snobbery about quality and about large scale production. I actually think it’s one of the things that has prevented a lot of large media companies from being as successful as they could have been because they didn’t move fast enough with stuff that was, quite frankly, in their minds, beneath them. And I think that’s a missed opportunity if we have a broad aperture when it comes to what content is and what quality means we are far more likely to be successful in this media world.
WarnerMedia and WICT Southeast are partnering together on Tuesday, November 19th in Atlanta. Please join Laura Dames and our esteemed panel of “Creative” thought leaders as they share their experiences and expertise in storytelling! Learn how storytelling can be used by all levels of profession or in any industry to influence and engage. For more information and to register, click here.
WICT Southeast’s blog interviewer, Ana Adler is a tri-lingual freelance content creator whose mad skills include the words creative director, writer/producer, video editor, project manager, copywriter, and mamá.