The co-founder of RadicalMedia, chairman and CEO of the Television Academy and genuine powerhouse of production discusses The Ted Bundy Tapes, advertising's relationship with entertainment and the serenity of fly fishing with LBB's Addison Capper
Along with his business partner Jon Kamen, Frank Scherma founded RadicalMedia in 1993. Since its foundations as a commercial production company, Radical has gone on to navigate the ever murky worlds of advertising and entertainment, continuing to produce ads but adding in equal amounts of television, features, documentaries, live events and interactive projects. It won an Emmy in 2016 for its documentary 'What Happened, Nina Simone?'. That also marked Netflix's first ever documentary Emmy win. Right now 'The Ted Bundy Tapes' is taking the online streaming platform by equal storm.
Outside of his work at RadicalMedia - which today boasts offices in Los Angeles, New York, London, Berlin and Shanghai - Frank is the newly appointed chairman and CEO of the Television Academy, with an eye on navigating what's yet to come in television and its implications on both producers and advertisers.
LBB's Addison Capper caught up with this stalwart of production to find out more.
LBB> Most commercial production companies are aiming to work in 'entertainment' now, but it's always seemed like Radical was way ahead of the curve in that respect. You’ve been producing a huge range of work for some time now. How did it come to be that you worked like that? Was it quite natural or something you approached methodically?
Frank> I think it was more of a methodical approach. I always joke around and say that Jon, my partner, called me about 15 years ago and said, 'go buy this thing called TiVo, we're screwed'. We were one of the largest producers of television commercials around the world with offices in Europe, Australia, China. And we realised that people were going to have the ability to fast forward through them. Add to that the advent of what was starting to happen with social media. We started to realise that commercials will always be there but brands are going to have to look outside that realm to reach what I'm not calling consumers anymore, but an audience. So, we realised that we had to change the company from being a complete work-for-hire commercial production company to something with a much broader scale and much wider range of things that we did.
LBB> And what were those changes that you made at the time?
Frank> We started to talk to brands about creating. We started to bring on some folks that were more into development out of the television world, and began figuring out projects that we would do on our own. Now we have a full entertainment division that does all of that. We also have an entire studio that also does live events. As we kept increasing what we were doing in entertainment, advertisers were also looking for areas to reach their audiences and beginning to look at live events and things of that nature. And we started getting involved in that arena. We applied our producing skills to different segments of creativity. We knew how to work with creative people, we'd worked with directors, advertising agencies - it was about learning the systems of how these new things worked. Jon and I taught ourselves, brought on different people, and kept growing that part and investing in it, realising that we wanted to grow the company beyond just being a work-for-hire company.
One of the first things we did many, many years ago was with Wieden+Kennedy and Nike, as they were looking at the same type of issues that we were looking at - they were starting to create television shows and events for Nike and we were partnering with them on creating these shows. We started with a show that we did in Japan . The thing that was always brilliant about Nike was that they went into marketplaces and realised quickly how to increase market share. And it wasn't just about blanket advertising, they were strategically going into those places. They found that basketball in Japan was played on a wooden court, inside, with a referee - there was no streetball. So we created a whole streetball championship. We went into Japan, created a streetball team and brought them to the US, to some of the big cities in which Nike had relationships with big basketball athletes. They met with athletes and played against streetball teams all around the country. It ran on television in Japan and was one of the first things that we did in that arena. (Check out more from the project here.)
LBB> Your first role in the industry was when Chiat Day NY first opened its doors - what are your biggest memories and lessons from that time?
Frank> Chiat Day had just opened up in New York but they were a California company, one of the first California companies to come to New York. They wanted to train somebody who had never done it before from the ground up, in their vision of what a producer does.
LBB> What was that vision? How would you define that?
Frank> Well the actual producing wasn't that different from what the other producers in New York did. But it was about how Jay Chiat, Lee Clow and the rest of the team saw creativity and how it had a sort of California bend to it. If you think about California Coolers and the stuff they did for Apple, it was very clean and fresh. That's what I think they really meant by bringing someone on and showing them the Chiat Day way.
LBB> What are the biggest memories and lessons that you learned from that time?
Frank> I was at Chiat Day for three years and then Ammirati and Puris for three years. Ralph (Ammirati) and Marty (Puris) were very organised and classic whereas Jay was more about disruption. I went from one extreme to the next. But what they both had in common was the work. I watched two different cultures create great work, win awards, sell products for their clients, and it kept coming back to the nexus that it's about the work. Do great work and it'll be good for the brand, it'll be good for the agency, it'll be good for everyone.
LBB> And what was your pathway to advertising even before that?
Frank> I was the class actor in high school. I was head of the actors' bureau at school, which was pretty crazy for a kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn - my mom would say, 'you're not going to be a lawyer?' Then I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, and studied under Sanford Meisner, William Esper, Philip Gushee and all these famous folks. I was also doing a external acting classes and after them we'd all go to a bar. At the end of drinks the teacher would always look at me and ask me to tell everybody what they owed. It was 10 actors sitting around a table, all poor, and I was able to tell everyone what they had to pay. The teacher looked at me said, 'you know, you should produce as well'. I started doing some small producing jobs for off-Broadway shows down in Soho when it was still dangerous to be down there. Then I met some folks from the advertising industry and they hooked me up with the guys at Chiat Day. And that's how it all began.
LBB> Recently you were appointed chairman and CEO of the Television Academy - what does that role entail?
Frank> I'm really there to help set an agenda with my executive board and board of directors as to what's happening in television. It's crazy and wonderful how much production is being done in the television world. 10 years ago it was around 180 scripted shows going to pilot, and this year there were over 490.
What is television? And where is television going? That’s what I'm trying to answer at the academy. This is also affecting the advertising industry. Broadcast networks and cable companies live based on advertising dollars - as that changes and as people stream more and don't pay for commercials, that's going to affect what advertisers do. I'm in a middle point of trying to work with the industry and figure out where we will be as a television world in the next 10 years.
LBB> And if you had to ponder that question now, how would you answer it?
Frank> I don't know. If you go back to 1993, back to Barry Diller sat on the couch with Charlie Rose, he says to Charlie that in the not-so-distant future you'll have a device in your hand and you'll be able to watch whatever you want whenever you want to watch it. Everyone thought that was way in the future - but it wasn't. It was another 10 years away. And now here we are. What's going to happen in 10 years? I don't know. Are we going to be able to put a chip in our ear and be able to watch what we want? People were thinking we were going to be able to watch things on our glasses. There are so many different things that may occur - and those are the kinds of things that I want to explore as the chair of the Television Academy because it will affect every part of the business world that I am in.
LBB> How do you currently see the relationship between the advertising and entertainment industries?
Frank> I think that brands are now understanding that they have to be entertaining to get to their audience and consumers. I think the advertising industry - whether that's agencies or advertisers - are trying to figure it out. They're not there yet but some of them are and some of them are getting there. We're getting calls on a weekly basis from brands looking for ways to engage the consumer. The way they're going to engage the consumer is to entertain them and bring them something that is entertaining. My parents appreciated brands because they brought them free TV. Generation Z and X expect things to be free. Brands and agencies and places like us need to work together to figure out ways to entertain consumers so that they feel good about the brand and understand what the brand is about.
LBB> Which projects from over the years have been particularly important for you or have you been most proud of?
Frank> Oh you're asking me which child I like the best? I love the fact that we won the Emmy for Nina Simone. That was the first documentary Emmy that Netflix had won. I think it was a great piece that resonated across the industry. Currently there's The Ted Bundy Tapes - people seem to love it and from what I understand the engagement from consumers has been massive.
We did a thing for Nissan years ago called Gran Turismo Academy, which won three Cannes Lions in branded content. I thought that was amazing. We built a museum for Ogilvy & Mather and SC Johnson in the heart of New York City. That was up for eight weeks as a pop up and people waited hours in line to get in, not knowing that it was brought to them by a brand until they left. That was also a really relevant piece that we did. There are so many - those are just some that jump to mind.
LBB> Well, my first question to you was about the range of work that Radical does and I guess that proves it. How do you lead a company like that?
Frank> You have really smart people. There's the old business expression, if you hire people that are smarter than you, you'll always be covered. We've always made sure that the people around us were really smart and really talented. The best way to do that is to let them do their jobs. You can't micro-manage. I think that's been a large part of our success - targeting those people, finding those people, and then creating a home for them.
LBB> Which aspect of the business do you spend most of your time involved in?
Frank> I'd say I focus most of my time in the advertising and commercial side of things but also entertainment. Something that I've been able to concentrate on and that's really worked for us as a company is being able to take traditional commercials directors and move them into entertainment. And vice versa we've been able to take people from the entertainment world and move them into advertising projects. The ability for our directors to run the gamut of doing a television show, a big commercial for an advertiser, a branded show really helps them in terms of longevity. To do that with people has been amazing for the people with the company as well as us. If you look at the young director Austin Peters. He started in music videos, then started doing things for Vice. He did a film on Major Lazer playing in Cuba, has just finished a TV show about LeBron James and he jumps back and forth between commercials and music videos. He's a prime example of someone with the ability to do that.
LBB> I think producers have often got the best stories to tell - have you ended up in any particularly hairy or memorable scenarios during your career?
Frank> There's always hairy moments that come about. I don't want to say that's where the fun begins but that's a lot of what our job is! The one story that I do tell happened many years ago before the Euro currency came in. I was shooting a big job German job in Italy as a freelance producer and I had to open up a bank account for them to send the money to so that we could pay the people in Italy. At the end of the job it turned out that everybody wanted to be paid in cash. I was sent $300,000 and I had to transfer that into Lira - which was about 9 million Lira. So myself and six PAs had to walk four blocks from the bank with shopping bags full of money. I kept thinking, is someone with a gun or something going to accompany us with all this stuff so that we're covered? But no. We all had to walk up the road carrying two bags of money each containing 9 million Lira so we can pay the crew.
LBB> And when you're not running Radical Media and carrying around bags of Italian cash, what do you like to get up to?
Frank> One of my big hobbies is cooking. The chopping, listening to music, drinking wine - it's the one thing that can take your mind off of whatever else you're dealing with.
The one thing that I'm attempting to take up, which I'll start in August and will hopefully become a new hobby, is fly fishing. A very dear friend of mine who used to be a creative director at Fallon, he and I are going on a fly fishing trip in Montana. I've done fly fishing a few times and that was the only other thing besides cooking that you had to concentrate on so much that it could clean the mind. You're standing in a riverbed, the water's coming at you you’re in an amazing location, and you're casting your rod in a constant rhythm.
That might be a new hobby. We can talk about that in a year from now and see if I end up doing it more than this one time.