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Branding Off The Court – Jessica Holtz, Co-head Basketball Marketing & Servicing – CAA Sports

October 15, 2019

Jessica Holtz from Creative Artists Agency joins us today on Real-World Branding. Jess leads the team representing the off-court interests of such NBA stars as Chris Paul, Paul George, and Joel Embiid. If you like our podcast, please subscribe!

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Bill: Greetings one and all. This is, Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, president of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy, and thank you for joining us. Today’s guest is Jessica Holtz. Jess is with CAA, the Creative Artists Agency, one of the foremost firms of its type in terms of representing talent across sports and entertainment. CAA is a juggernaut, and Jess is amazing. She’s the co-head of the basketball vertical within CAA, and she’s going to talk about her own career development, including interests out of the gate in journalism, and then through her work with the NBA, and then all that she does in the management and sort of agency side of the world at CAA.

Bill: It took every bit of discipline, of which I have very little, but every bit I do have to not ask her for gossip (not that she would have answered) on some of our favorite athletes, from Joel Embiid in Philadelphia, and well beyond. But Jess is there, and as she’ll tell you, not seeking the spotlight, but helping, in so many different ways, the athletes with whom she works activate the full potential of their off-the-court interests in terms of endorsements, and philanthropy, and activism, and all the things that are important to today’s athlete, particularly in the NBA. So, enjoy Jessica Holtz.

Bill: Joining us over the line here from (I think you’re in New York today, Jess) is Jessica Holtz from CAA, who’s the co-head of basketball marketing and servicing. It is so much fun to have you here.

Jessica: Thank you for having me. It’s fun to be here.

Bill: Excellent. And let’s start where we typically do, which is … It’s funny, I think one of the things we find with our guests, particularly those who have reached sort of leadership positions in the branding and marketing realm, some of them I guess were sort of undergrad focused in that area, but others come from far and wide. So, tell us a little bit about your journey, and some of the twists and turns. I noticed that undergrad at Penn State this was broadcast journalism. There was some sports to it, but what’s your story, Jess?

Jessica: Yeah. It’s interesting that you say that because sometimes I do find it hard when people are sort of looking ahead and being really ambitious, and saying that eventually they’d like to be an agent. What should I study? What should I major in? And I did get an MBA in marketing eventually, but my real passion was always for sports, but I wanted to be a sports reporter, and I was pretty confident that that’s what I was going to do, even dating back to high school. I did our morning newscast in the morning, I was editor of the yearbook, and I felt really passionate about that. I’m a total grammar nerd. I actually have a sign on my desk warning people I’m silently correcting your grammar. It’s a nice little placard.

Bill: Oxford comma, pro or against? You’ve got to be pro Oxford comma, right?

Jessica: I am pro Oxford comma. I am. And actually, we had that discussion last week. Because there’s this book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves-

Bill: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. It’s great. Yeah.

Jessica: Yes, yes. Exactly. Exactly. That really dives into that for any of your listeners that are really into nerdy books. Yeah, exactly. So, that was my passion, and I really thought I was going to do that. And Penn State has a great program for it. And actually I was there in the very beginning of the sports program, and I got a certification in sports journalism, but it wasn’t fully built out yet. So, I was pretty sure I wanted to do that. Started to do the on camera stuff. I got an internship at the NBA between my junior and senior year.

Jessica: And actually, funny story about that. I had got connected … My aunt grew up with one of the lawyers over there, but they said I had to do an in-person interview, and I was studying abroad in Seville at the time. So, that was pretty impossible. And this is 2006 mind you, so there is no FaceTime, there’s no telepresence on Cisco, there’s no easy way to do this. So, I had to travel around Seville, begging in Spanish mind you, because Seville it’s not like Madrid or Barcelona where everyone speaks English. It’s really traditional there. I had to beg everyone in Spanish where to find a teleconference place set up so that I could do the closest thing to an in person interview, and the only thing they would kind of accept before I got into that program.

Jessica: So, it was really challenging to get that internship, but once I did I sort of knew I wanted to be in sports, and I wasn’t so honed in on basketball. I was much more versatile back then. But I loved being at the league office. It was such a great experience, and we got to do really cool things for an internship like have lunch with David Stern, and have lunch with now commissioner Adam Silver, and I sort of was like, you know what? I love it here.

Jessica: And I was on the production side, not in front of the camera but behind it, and I still kind of thought I wanted to do that. But then, as I kept doing on camera stuff, I wasn’t comfortable in it. So actually, since this is being recorded right now, this is a rare recorded performance by me because I didn’t love it and I wasn’t passionate about it.

Jessica: And so, I knew that I wanted to be in sports, and I knew that I wanted to do something …And what I really knew at that point was I wanted to go back and work at the NBA. Whatever that meant. And so, they have this program there, the associate program, which is basically a business development program within their entry level roles, and I believe there were 14 of us at the time, and there was a job, a position open for me in the player marketing group. And that was obviously like where the pivot happened for my educational background to where I am now, which is kind of crazy to think about because that was 2007, and I haven’t really looked back since.

Jessica: But I started to evaluate, and this is also what I tell young people starting out when they’re trying to figure out what within sports they really want to do. I was like, okay, why did I want to be a sports reporter? I wanted something that was high energy, I wanted something that was fast paced, I wanted something that was relevant, I wanted something that was around sports because I was passionate about it.

Jessica: And so, I sort of looked at all of those characteristics if you will of what I thought that sports broadcasting would bring to the table, and the player marketing role at the NBA working on behalf of the league to secure marketing, and community, and PR opportunities with all the NBA players, and all the NBA retired players, that checked every box, too. So, that’s when I said to myself, you know what? This is a place I want to work, in a role that fits what I want to do. Let’s go for it.

Jessica: And so, what they didn’t look at was necessarily my educational background. I didn’t have a marketing degree. But they called everyone who I worked with and asked for references on me, and as an intern I stayed there every night until nine o’clock when all my counterparts were leaving at five o’clock, and I was working on the Miami Heat Championship DVD. They played the Dallas Mavericks that year.

Bill: Yeah. It was a hell of a series.

Jessica: 2006 was funny because … Yes, exactly. And Dwayne Wade is now my client. My job was to log, which logging is basically typing out everything that happened at every second within all those tapes. So, it was tedious, and it was boring, and it wasn’t fun, but I wanted to make a good impression, and that’s what they looked at. Not does she have a marketing degree or not? Because the guy I went up for for the role was also an intern there, his brother worked there, and he had a marketing degree.

Bill: Got to out work them, right?

Jessica: That’s what I tell people. That’s what got me the job. So, that was where the switch happened.

Bill: Super cool. And so, now here in your role at CAA, could you talk a little bit about what that means? I hate the, “What is a normal day like?” But I mean, talk about your responsibility set at this point.

Jessica: Yeah. The question of what is a normal day like, there really isn’t a such thing. Even when I’m in the office for a week, which I am this week, it’s actually relatively quiet. I don’t want to say quiet because that’s not a thing, but it’s NBA training camp this week. So, the guys just went back to work, or just for the year if you will. Media day for most teams was Sunday or Monday. And then, they’re in camp all week.

Jessica: But my role, my overview, so I’m one of the co-heads. I have two partners that work with me on this. I’m one of the co-heads of CAA basketball marketing and servicing. And so, there’s three of us that are in charge of that, and four co-heads of basketball on the contract side. And so, we all work in teams together, but the seven of us divide responsibilities based on on-the-court and off-the-court.

Jessica: And so in my role, overseeing all the off-the-court efforts for our 70 clients. Where I think marketing agents in sports are very different from marketing agents across different verticals of entertainment is we’re really 360 degree representation. So, I’m not just looking for endorsement deals and passing them off. I’m working on building foundations and community efforts. I’m working with reporters every day, and looking for PR stories, or if a client wants to be positioned in a way of, “Hey, I’m a fashionable guy”, seeking out those publications that would help best represent that. Working with the teams day to day. Working on scheduling. Basically we want our clients be able to focus on playing basketball, and we try to make their lives easier. And that includes working with the people around them day-to-day to create that structure.

Jessica: So, like I said, we kind of divide it amongst different teams. And so, each client of ours has a team comprised of their on-the-court representation team as well as their off-the-court representation team. And so, we do that to tailor the client’s needs based on where they’re playing, based on sort of their personalities, what personalities meshed with us, what their needs are, the levels that they want to get involved in different things, what everyone’s specialties are.

Jessica: So, it’s really a customized approach that we do, and so day-to-day, I’m making sure that the clients whose teams I’m on are well taken care of, and that their endorsement deals are being sought and serviced, and their images are being represented properly. But then, working with our staff to make sure that it’s not just the clients I personally work with day to day, but that all of our clients for CAA basketball are serviced well.

Bill: Wow. What a vast responsibility, and I know within that roster you’ve mentioned a few, and we were talking, obviously we’re in Philadelphia, so everyone wants to know about Joelle, and how far The Sixers are going to go. But when you … and this is an inhuman way of talking about it, but the assets that you represent here in terms of these incredible athletes and fascinating people as opposed to some of our other guests who are making a product or delivering services, this is a person who has all these different dimensions. There are probably areas of great comfort and areas of discomfort, there are barriers to overcome, there are unforeseen circumstances.

Bill: The sort of brand management imperative for you, how is it different? How do you keep up with it? (11:40) How do you think about when the asset or sort of the brand element is a person with all that that means in terms of depth and texture. How is it maybe different, or challenging, or thrilling compared to maybe what some of your other friends might do when they work at Proctor and Gamble, or something like that?

Jessica: And I think you just hit the nail on the head with the words challenging and thrilling because it’s so much more moveable of an object than I think a brand. Because when you’re looking at building a brand, and when you’re a consumer packaged goods company, or a product, or a service that… there’s a lot of different elements that go into building that brand. And there’s PR strategies, there’s what is the product, there’s where is it sold, how is it marketed? A lot of things. There’s obviously factors that go into that when you’re talking about marketing an individual, right? What marketers do they play in.

Jessica: And I’ll give a shout out to Philadelphia sports fans right now. I’m actually married to one that I met at Penn State, so I live it, and I see it very closely in addition to working with Joelle. But Philadelphia sports fans are unbelievable, and they’re passionate, and they are sometimes tough critics, but they really galvanize around their athletes. And so, playing in Philadelphia and being an athlete there puts you on a different pedestal than some other markets within the NBA where there’s not such a focus on the professional sports teams.

Jessica: And there’s how successful has your team been? If your team isn’t competitive, sometimes that doesn’t help, and an individual would have to overcome that in some ways. And so, there are some factors that I think are similar when you’re marketing a brand, but then there are some factors that are completely different. To your point, if Devin Booker has a 70 point game, well that could move the needle overnight, and there are now people that may have not necessarily watched a lot of Suns games that are now talking about him. And I don’t think you can have as high of a high when you’re talking about brands. It’s not as moveable.

Jessica: But then, there is also the downside when you asked me what’s your day-to-day like, I could have a wrench thrown in my day with someone says the wrong thing, or something out of their control happened that we need to work through. So, I think it’s a little bit more of a yo-yo, and a little less consistent, but that is also why I think it’s so exciting. You could change a perception with some individual success, or by doing something great in the community, or being on a great commercial, or cracking a couple of great jokes like Joelle can-

Bill: Uh-huh (affirmative). No doubt.

Jessica: … versus, like I said, sometimes you have a little bit more of an uphill battle, but less of a downhill slope when you’re working with a brand.

Bill: Sure. Well, your compliment of Philly sports fans will earn you not… We’re not going to throw any batteries at you during this interview, but-

Jessica: I know my audience here.

Bill: Yeah. Smart. So, but people are people, and among the 70 folks that whose lives you sort of contribute to and touch, there’s obvious stuff. You talk about endorsements, and brand connections, and sort of paid spokes roles that people have. But I would imagine there’s a tremendous variability, just as there is from one person to the next about the things they want to get into. So, you probably have some folks who are really committed to philanthropy and activism. You probably have others who are maybe a little quieter, or more commercially inclined who are interested in music or entertainment. How do you sort of build the right kind of program based upon the personalities, and the differences, and the interests? And how do you sort of help these guys, and tease that out of themselves? And talk a little bit about what the right answer is, and how you get there because I’m sure it varies from person to person.

Jessica: It does vary from person to person. And I’ll give another nod to the hometown favorite here, but-

Bill: Smart.

Jessica: … the way you build Joelle’s brand, it is so authentic and specific to him because what is so wonderful about Joelle is how honest he is, and how true to himself he is. He has got such a special personality and special sense of humor that I have to look for brands that understand that, and that appreciate that, and that will highlight that in the best possible way. To talk about my company a little bit that I work for, and I … in between the NBA, I worked for another agency. But this is why I think that I feel lucky to work for CAA because my success at the end of the day is my client’s success. When I sit there and sort of list out, I can’t score 70 points, I can’t win a championship, I can’t win an MVP. I can’t be in a TV commercial. I don’t think I’d want to be, but-

Bill: People are knocking down your door trying to get you in the spot, right?

Jessica: Oh my goodness. I’d run away from the camera. Like I said, senior year of college that’s when it all started. But I, yeah, their success is my success, and what is so wonderful about being part of a global talent agency with different departments, if one of our clients says they want to write a book, Dwayne Wade had an amazing book about fatherhood, and we have the best literary agents here that are experts in that. And there’s something really empowering with me being able to say to my clients, “Hey, I’m not an expert in licensing, but I have an expert in licensing that I can call internally that works for you, too.”

Jessica: And so, while day to day, I’m the face of a lot of what my clients do off the court, I have an army behind me that can help me custom tailor that. And to that point about different philanthropic efforts, we have a foundation group here internally that serves not just for CAA employees to participate in philanthropic efforts, but for us to sort of mirror what we do in terms of trying to find the best blue chip brand for our clients. How do we find the most reputable organizations that make the most impact for our clients? And so, that’s what’s sort of I think what’s really fun about what I do day-to-day because the breadth of what we can do is so wide.

Jessica: I have clients … Paul George is a phenomenal actor, and he’s been in a lot of commercials, and that’s something he wants to explore. So, we have those connections for him. Especially now that he’s in Los Angeles. Karl-Anthony Towns, I think something that’s really cool and a trend that you’re seeing is when I first started in the business, there was so much weight put on where you play because you look at the number one media market is New York, the number two media market’s LA, whatever it is, and it’s like, okay, well that’s where the eyeballs are.

Jessica: But with social media and the way that especially basketball players in comparison to other athletes use it is that doesn’t really exist anymore, and the playing field is much more level. And again, like I said, the team success, and there is a difference between New York, LA, and Minnesota, I’m not going to lie, but that doesn’t really take away from Karl’s ability to market himself well, and he’ll be on the MTV show Ridiculousness this year, and he’ll be on the reboot of All That. And they just announced yesterday he’s doing a voiceover for a Disney show. So, that’s what’s really cool how we can custom tailor it because we have those colleagues that do that job day to day.

Bill: Yeah. Well, there’s a rumor I heard that Manhattan might be getting an NBA team. So … Sorry, I will rip the Knicks as long as I possibly can.

Jessica: I will pass that along to my father that you said that.

Bill: Yeah. Nah, you know, don’t need to do that.

Jessica: To give a shout out to my favorite Knicks fan in the world. The reason that I really am passionate about sports is being the oldest of three girls, my dad’s my buddy, and so to hang out with him, a die hard, tortured mind you, New York sports fan because he’s Mets, Jets, Knicks, and Rangers. So, all the Philadelphia fans here can laugh.

Bill: Pretty much, yeah.

Jessica: Yeah, yeah. So-

Bill: Well, there’s dignity in enduring that.

Jessica: You know what? It’s actually impressive and incredibly stubborn, but I have to admire it. And so, I’ve been trying to convince him for a long time to root for my clients, so he’s very happy that he can be excited about Julius Randle and Alfred Pain right now. But yeah, we digress.

Bill: No, absolutely. We’ll cover back up on that. But your experience with the NBA from a variety of angles, I guess your actual tenure there, official tenure there was in the sort of the late stages of commissioner Stern’s reign atop the NBA, and obviously Adam Silver was there, too. It’s really become a 12 month … The cadence of it, especially in a city now that is fired up about The Sixers, and there’s a lot to cheer about, to go from playoffs and really, really quickly into the next phase, free agency, and draft, and then it’s training camp all of a sudden.

Bill: Talk about sort of how the NBA has evolved as a brand and as sort of an icon in the time that you’ve known it and been close to it. It seems like there’s … Obviously in the ’80s there were great superstars. Obviously, Jordan was meaningful and remains so, but it doesn’t seem like there’s ever been better days for the association than there are right now. Could you sort of meditate on that?

Jessica: Yeah. It’s a great point, and that is why I love coming to work everyday. Yes, to your point, when I actually worked at the NBA was during David Stern’s tenure, but I think Adam Silver is brilliant, and I think he is a phenomenal commissioner. He cares about the players, he listens to the players. It’s a liberal league in that everything is a conversation. There’s no we feel this way, you feel that way. They’re open to talking about it, and progressive, and supportive, and I think that in terms of social movements, you’re even seeing openness and willingness to discuss a lot of tough conversations to have.

Bill: A lot of it, yeah.

Jessica: There the globalization of the game, and I know David had that vision a long time ago, but you’re going to see an NBA preseason game in India this year. There’s a couple teams over there. And so, I’ve been to China a lot, a dozen times, maybe more. I don’t know. I lost track at this point in my career. Which is not something that everybody can say that they have done. And that’s because our business is so relevant over there, whether it’s our clients with sneaker deals with Chinese companies, or for those preseason games. I went the last couple years in a row with the Sixers. I went last year. Joelle is incredibly popular in China, and that’s great also for his Under Armor endorsement deal. So, the globalization of the game, and the willingness to want to bring the game to fans around the world, and invite those fans in, and have them have access to the game I think has shaped it a lot.

Jessica: I touched on this a little bit before, but we don’t have players that wear hats or helmets. You can see their faces, and I think that makes them a lot more recognizable, but I also think that the culture of the NBA is to highlight your individual strengths and differences, and have those conversations. You could look at social media numbers and say that. That’s not just me being biased to my sport and my clients. Because obviously there’s exciting football players and whatnot. But I just think that that’s the culture around the game that’s grown over the years, and it’s been really exciting to be a part of.

Bill: No, no doubt. And it has. You have probably all the data, but the degree to which NBA players are, or at least many of them are so expressive on Instagram and in other realms, so active in gaming, so sort of playful when it comes to everything from diss-tracks to all kinds of just interactive things. Some of which are probably sincere and deep, and others of which are more for the fun of the show. But there really is … It’s always been a superstar driven league, but even your … It’s not just your top three anymore. It really is amazing globally what the league has become.

Jessica: And to go back to another point you asked in your last question that I want to acknowledge, too, I just, I talked about training camp being quiet because I really couldn’t tell you it’s the last two weeks of August and this week that are really our “off season”. I love when people that … People that aren’t totally familiar with our business, or don’t really watch are like, “Oh, how’s the off season going?” in the middle of summer. I’m like this is not the off season. A lot of my big players, they switched teams, they switched markets, there’s stuff going on, there’s conversations, stuff’s going on in summer league.

Bill: Always.

Jessica: People are wanting to … Now, you’re even watching people work out during the summer on social media. There’s conversation all year long, and everyone’s kind of embracing it, and to your point, they’re willing to laugh at themselves, they’re willing to play around.

Jessica: There’s great storylines, and they embrace them, and they lean into them, which I think is pretty fun and pretty cool. And everyone can relate to storylines, even if you don’t really totally understand what’s going on in the 94 by 50 square. I’ll explain some things to even some of my friends who don’t really know what’s going on, although have learned over the years from my career. And I’ll give them a little bit of a story behind the story of like, “Wow, that’s exciting. That’s fun.” So yeah. It’s more popular than ever. It’s constant. It’s 50 weeks of the year which is exciting, but leaves no rest to the weary.

Bill: Speaking of rest for the weary, we’ve taken you two minutes longer than we promised. And last real quick question, and then just leave when you have to leave because I know you don’t usually get a week there to actually get some work done. But you started talking about keys to your sort of ascent in your own professional life, but I think we have a bunch of listeners who I’m sure are inspired about hearing about your journey, and what it is that has sort of led up to this. Are there any … out-work the guy to get the internship, but beyond that, any other words of wisdom for those who find your career path and your destination to be really resonant when they think about their own stories that they’re trying to write?

Jessica: Yeah, and I think that something else that I touched on, too, is just sort of thinking about the why of what do I want to do, right? Because I will say, and again, I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I have so many people that come in, and call, and say, “Well, I’m a fan of sports and that’s why I want to work in sports.” And to me, that’s not a why. I think it’s important to think about what about this makes me tick? I watch basketball games because I want to see how my clients do, but the games themselves are almost an afterthought sometimes. It’s everything around them going on. So, I think there’s a little bit of a misnomer of what working in sports looks like. It looks like a lot of late nights. It looks like a lot of troubleshooting. It looks like a lot of doing a lot of work that maybe necessarily isn’t the coolest or fun thing.

Jessica: And so, I think to do that, you should really think about the why. And for me my why I figured out, okay, what about broadcasting would make me want to do marketing? But my why has obviously evolved over the years, but it’s really fun and exciting to be able to have an impact on people. And that’s my why.

Jessica: So, could I do that doing something else? Maybe. It comes in all shapes and forms. And so, I think when you’re thinking about what you want to be successful, be passionate about what you do, and think about the different visions of what that could look like, and go from there. And you can sort of maybe even change a role that already exists. Be creative in that. It doesn’t necessarily … I’m not trying to say don’t focus on a goal, but what I am trying to say is the goal may not come in the package that you think it will.

Bill: Yeah. Yeah. Makes sense. And what a great half hour you gave us and our listeners. We really appreciate your time, and your insight, and we’re lucky to catch you when you happen to be in the office. And I’m sure we’re starting to follow some of the training camp stories, and excited for the pre-season, and I’m sure everything ramps up, and probably by the time we get off of this, I don’t know how many texts or voicemails you’ll have about something that happened. So, we’re just grateful for the time you spent with us, Jess.

Jessica: Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed our conversation.

Bill: Our many thanks to Jess for her time and her insight. What a cool job she has. I’m sure that there are probably days when the phone rings to the point that she wonders what’s going to be next, and then it’s probably hard to sit back just as it is in our business to sort of take stock. But we’re really grateful for the time that she spent, and it is so interesting having had Brian Nolan a couple of weeks back from Capitol Records, how the world of sort of celebrity, and athlete, and music, and art intersects with what we’re doing here in the branding realm because it’s certainly does.

Bill: Three ways to support us here. Rate and review is one. I guess that’s two maybe? Give us a rating as well as dropping a review in the podcast store of your choice to make sure people can find us. That’s one. And then the other two are to subscribe. Make sure you don’t miss it.

Bill: We’ve been on a pretty good every other week cadence here. We promised we would be, and we’re back, and we have other good ones either in the canned or scheduled, too. So, every other week it’s coming out, and if you click subscribe, you’ll make sure it just drops in magically, and you don’t miss a single episode of Real-World Branding.

Bill: And then, the third thing is to promote some dialogue here around guests, around topics. We’re so grateful for your insight, your feedback, be it positive or constructive. I guess let’s put it that way. But our skin is thick. We love what we’re doing. We’re really grateful and fortified by the comments of folks who are also enjoying it. And I guess that’s it. Let’s sign off with the Cradle of Liberty.

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