A Brilliant Minds: The Business of Superstardom

We're living in a social moment where we have a brusque reality TV star as a Presidential candidate, the Kardashians replacing the Kennedys as America's most famous family, and a rabid business entertainment culture incessantly searching for a way to make money off of an increasing pool of digital talents.

Today, the space for media channels creating content is nearly obsolete. The truth is all channels rely on creative content coming from unpredictable, individual sources. We don't need the media anymore. So how will they survive?

What forms of collaboration will drive the media of the future?

Anita Elberse, one of the youngest female tenured professors at Harvard University, has made a dynamic career off of answering that question.

Essentially, the future of media and creativity lies in between.

"Crosspollination is everywhere, and I would argue is continuously gaining relevance."

Elberse analyzes the cross-section of media, music, entertainment and sports, to develop a model for collaborative creativity based on very dynamic personalities that can transcend borders and sectors, and learn from each other by doing so.

"Dwyane Wade is a terrific player but also a force to be reckoned with in the world of fashion, just as Lady Gaga combines her love for music with that of fashion. Ronda Rousey is a dominant fighter and on a path to become a Hollywood superstar. LeBron James is turning into a genuine media mogul, with his SpringHill Entertainment."

Whether its sports figures, fashion models, savvy business executives or even lonely teens who take to YouTube to vent issues of bipolar disorder, gender confusion or simply the desire to apply mascara perfectly, the Internet has given a voice to millions to stand out and become a cult of personality that is transforms into an empire of one.

Or is digital media not as democratic as we think? Has opportunity increased with the breadth that the Internet provides, or is the business still one focused on blockbusters, stars and not a democracy of ideas?

Anita Elberse will be speaking at Brilliant Minds, a thought leadership summit based on creativity and collaboration in Stockholm, on this topic. Get a taste of what she will be unveiling in the interview below, the 5th in a series on disruptors entitled "A Brilliant Mind".

Natalia Brzezinski: Internet is said to allow the rise of the long tail culture but your work and your book Blockbusters prove that digital technology is creating bigger brands and bigger superstars. Why is that?

Anita Elberse: That's right -- rather than a shift of demand to the long tail, as many predicted, we are actually witnessing an increased level of concentration in the market for digital entertainment goods. The entertainment industry is moving more and more toward a winner-take-all market, with truly global hit products and superstars.

Why is that the case?

I think it all comes down to the principles of consumer behavior and how markets operate. For one, consumers are social beings - we enjoy sharing our experiences with others. That's one reason why even if the Internet allows us access to a vast assortment of products and brands, our choices converge on the same options - and increasingly so.

We're seeing bigger and bigger events, on a worldwide scale, precisely because more and more people can 'tune in' however and whenever they want. And smart executives play to that phenomenon by investing more in the biggest potential blockbusters and the stars behind those blockbusters, as the odds of success of those bets outperform any investment they can make in a wider set of smaller products, which only serves to enhance the 'blockbuster effect' I examine in my research. Don't get me wrong - there is a lot of exciting material in the long tail, but it turns out that building a business around producing content for the tail is incredibly difficult, especially in the long run.

You've been focusing a lot ultimately on sports and researching how leagues and athletes are becoming media. What are the current trends?

One indeed is that leagues are more in the media businesses than ever before. The NFL, for instance, makes significantly more money by selling media rights than by selling tickets to games, despite ticket prices being quite high.

Sports leagues are now media content producers first and foremost, and while they continue to focus on serving spectators at the games, their attention has shifted more and more to media audiences at home. I think we'll see that trend continue. It's supported by all kinds of innovations in how we as consumers receive sports content - likely through many more channels, because sports leagues benefit from working with multiple distributors and having them pay a hefty fee for that right - and what format that content takes.

At the same time, athletes have become extremely powerful brands. Helped by social media and other advances in digital technology, many professional athletes now have a direct line to their fans, which they can benefit from in all kinds of ways. Some stars have even started their own platforms - think of LeBron James with Uninterrupted and Derek Jeter with The Players' Tribune - which bundle their powers. These platforms could become real juggernauts. And they may give rise to new ways for athletes to both build and monetize their brands, individually or as part of a collective with other athletes.

Both are very exciting developments for sports fans, many of whom I think will cherish the opportunity to get to know their heroes better, see more of what goes on behind the scenes, and generally have more ways to access sports content.

Our main theme at Brilliant Minds June 9-10 in Stockholm is Collaborative Creativity. What's your view on collaboration between industries in the entertainment world?

Oh, I think it is tremendously important! Crosspollination is everywhere, and I would argue is gaining relevance.

Just consider the Super Bowl: yes, it is about football but it also (and for some people primarily) about advertising, and it is also about music (with halftime performances now being a reason in and of itself to tune in). Or consider the biggest individual sports superstars - many of them are not known exclusively for one thing.

Dwyane Wade is a terrific player but also a force to be reckoned with in the world of fashion, just as Lady Gaga combines her love for music with that of fashion. Ronda Rousey is a dominant fighter and on a path to become a Hollywood star. LeBron James is turning into a genuine media mogul, with his SpringHill Entertainment. There are lots of examples like that of people and companies crossing traditional boundaries, which makes it so useful for those working in different sectors of the entertainment space to learn from each other.

Sweden has reached the future first. What do you think of the Swedish creativity/entrepreneurial scene?

Sweden is a frontrunner in the digital space in many ways. I am personally most familiar with Spotify, which of course is the leading music-streaming service. It is quite remarkable how that company has managed to become so influential in the music industry, on a worldwide scale. I cannot wait to learn more about the Swedish entrepreneurial scene at Brilliant Minds next month!

How does it feel to be one of the youngest female professors to have been promoted to full professor with tenure in HBS's history?

It is pretty sweet! I feel very fortunate that I get to work at the Harvard Business School, and to know that I have a contract for life is incredibly special. It gives me the freedom and the time to pursue the research agenda I am most enthusiastic about, at a place where I am surrounded by some of the smartest people in the world who make me better every day. I have the best job on the planet.

What's the secret to your success?

I have no idea! I spend far more time and energy on understanding success factors in the world of media and entertainment than on understanding the reasons behind my own trajectory. But if I were to guess, I'd say it's probably a combination of luck, hard work, and choosing to do something I am very passionate about. The moment I'd experienced my first class at HBS, as a visitor, I knew I had found something I wanted to become very good in, and having something like that to drive you is, I think, quite important.

But I know from having studied the careers of some of the biggest athletes, musicians, and actors that luck is always a big factor, and so I am sure a lot of things mysteriously worked in my favor, too. I just tried to make the most of the opportunities falling my way.