Courtney Carter surrounds herself with people who all share one trait: they know how to tell a good story.
Carter fell in love with the storytelling craft while working as a marketer at ESPN. It was there she first encountered an idyllic kind of branded content: stories presented by brands that innately share those stories’ values and core messages. “That was a really fun space to play in, because you didn’t have to make it commercial,” she tells Tubefilter. “You could really tell a beautiful story and have that be funded by a brand.”
“Brand” doesn’t just refer to businesses, though. People cultivate their own personal brands, too. And when Carter moved from ESPN to work at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) as a talent agent, she did so with the intention of guiding CAA’s clients in utilizing their personal brands to tell engaging stories about themselves and the world around them — with the help of at-the-time-newfangled social media sites like Twitter and YouTube.
“Instead of allowing the marketplace to tell Wayne Brady or Jemele Hill who they were and what their story was and what their brand was,” she says, “we were going out proactively and identifying opportunities that would allow us to create that narrative ourselves.”
A Mantra For Finding Talent
When Carter added to her roster of clients, she pinpointed storytellers who were “innovative, inclusive, and disruptive.”
That’s how she found Liza Koshy.
And Liza Koshy changed everything.
“This is new,” Carter thought, watching one of Koshy’s Vines (the one where she’s walking with then-boyfriend David Dobrik, and yells at the sun to back off her man). “This is new, this is not teachable. What she has is not teachable, and I can tell in 12 seconds. I’m in. Done.”
As a nascent platform that was accessible to virtually everyone with a smartphone, Vine fascinated Carter. It was a place where people with diverse talents as diverse as their backgrounds could shine, telling their own stories in whip-smart, six-second soundbites. They were exactly the kind of off-the-beaten-path creators Carter wanted to represent. And as far as she was concerned, those who couldn’t see the value in their creations, who considered Vine an uncouth or talentless way of storytelling, were missing out.
“At the end of the day, we’re all creating entertainment on a piece of glass,” she says. “It’s lights being projected to tell stories. That’s a six-second video or that’s a 90-minute Oscar-winning film. Somebody somewhere is consuming that content, and maybe for whatever reason that person doesn’t have the human experience to understand that very complex Oscar-winning film. But this six-second Vine makes them laugh. And you know what? Don’t judge them.”
“So for me,” she adds, “it was always just about, ‘How do we find the best piece of glass, the best avenue, the best experience for this creator to express their story?’”
Carter spent three years at CAA representing a vast array of creators including Koshy. Together, they rode out Vine’s shutdown in January 2017 and Koshy’s subsequent move to YouTube, which requires a significantly different content strategy and, generally, a much more expensive investment into production than six-second end products shot on smartphones.
Koshy adapted, finding rapid success on the platform that led to millions of subscribers (she’s up to 17.7M now and tens of millions of views a month) and her own YouTube Premium series, Liza on Demand, on which Carter is an active executive producer. The series now has two seasons out. The second of which debuted in September and is up to 78 million views on its premiere episode alone.
An Ask To Be Creative With The Next Group Of Storytellers
Koshy considers Carter a major part of her YouTube success — which is why, when she was ready to attempt to kick her career up a notch, she wanted Carter to go all-in with her. In April 2017, she approached Carter with a proposition: leave CAA and become Koshy’s full-time manager and producing partner.
No matter how successful Koshy was, Carter knew abandoning her position at CAA — replete with resources and a team she loved to work with — was a risk. “I feel such joy in aligning myself with someone and helping them craft narratives and experiences that then help and serveothers,” Carter says. “And I got to build a phenomenally talented roster doing just that over three years at CAA; leaving that, and my clients was daunting.”
But Carter also knew that, even before she discovered her affinity for crafting stories and talent, she’d felt a desire to create something of her own. “If I didn’t make the decision, I knew I would regret it,” she says. “And that’s all I needed to know.” When Carter left CAA, she didn’t just become Koshy’s manager and partner. “To her credit,” Carter says, “Liza suggested I also use this as an opportunity to start my own business. I think that took some of the pressure off of her, but at the same time, I don’t think I would have done it otherwise.”
By May 2017, Carter Media Group (CMG) was in business. Ever since, Carter’s been asking herself, “How can I learn something, how can I grow and push myself to a place where I’m rounding myself out as a human, an executive, and as a leader so I can help bring up the next group of storytellers?”
At least some answers are found in the company’s client list, and the deals in which those clients have participated.
Koshy, of course, was the first.
In between filming Liza on Demand and co-hosting Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest, Koshy recently resumed making content for her personal YouTube channel, re-debuting in fine form with a dollar store music video produced by Carter. She’s also nabbed a leading role in Alicia Keys’ upcoming Netflix film Work It, was picked as host for the reboot of Nickelodeon’s popular game show Double Dare, and been what Apple itself called the most-engaging part of a Beats campaign featuring a laundry list of household names.
CMG facilitates Koshy’s partnerships with various sustainable and cruelty-free brands, including her recent unveiling as vegan beauty and skincare brand C’est Moi’s first-ever celebrity ambassador. Koshy also works with plant-based protein company Beyond Meat and ocean conservancy-focused food and beverage packaging company Byta. On top of all that, for the second year in a row, she became the face of Vogue for the Met Gala.
Including Koshy, CMG has a roster of just four clients. It’s a small and non-homogenous list, including movers and makers in spaces both familiar and abstract to your average entertainment executive or digital media professional.
With a similar faith in Carter, the second client who came with her is the four-man, Bronx-based chef collective Ghetto Gastro, aka Jon Gray, Lester Walker, Malcolm Livingston II, and Pierre Serrao. They describe what they do as an “intersection of food, design, and culture.” In action, that means they scour the world learning and using food as the connective tissue by which to break boundaries, tell stories and create eye-catching art, design, and fashion. They recently announced their biggest fashion release yet: a collaboration with massive sportswear entity Jordan Brand, where Ghetto Gastro put their spin on the classic Air Jordans. It’s the first Bronx-based Jordan Brand collaboration, and the foursome will take over their home borough and home city with a billboard campaign featuring their design. Their custom designed sneaker the Ghetto Gastro x Air Jordan 1 React Low is part of Jordan Brand’s #FearlessOnes special collection, debuting Nov. 14 on the Nike SNKRS app.
But, as you’re likely figuring out is a theme with Carter’s clients, Ghetto Gastro isn’t just getting up to one thing. The collective has ongoing brand partnerships with Beyond Meat (they’re official ambassadors and helped launch the brand’s flagship Beyond Beef line) and cognac house Martell (again, they’re official ambassadors, and they designed and released the brand’s exclusive 2019 holiday gift box). Earlier this year, they teamed up with jeweler Cartier to launch its Clash de Cartier collection in Paris; Ghetto Gastro catered the three-day event, turning the Plaza de Vendom into a true Bronx-style pop-up restaurant. They’ve also worked with Marvel, and were behind the entertainment company’s Black Panther-themed Taste of Wakanda — a spread inspired by the film’s incredible setting — offered during 2018’s New York Fashion Week.
Ghetto Gastro is cooking up more for the immediate future. They’re gearing up to launch a line of seasonings called Steasonings, a knife line called OGUN, and their very own plant-based ice cream. You can hear a bit about their success and how they’re using it to give back to the Bronx community in co-founder Gray’s new TED Talk.
Another of CMG’s clients is cultural and political strategist Carri Twigg, a seasoned political strategist with an eye-catching resume.
During the Barack Obama administration, she served as then-vice president Joe Biden’s director of public engagement, and was special assistant to Obama himself. She also served as the Democratic National Committee’s national director of strategic outreach, and was national labor outreach director for Obama’s successful reelection campaign.
When Obama’s time in office came to an end, Twigg transitioned into doing what Carter loves best: storytelling. As a storyteller, she wants to use her political and cultural knowledge to make content that empowers and encourages people to be active citizens. To that end, she’s given a TEDx Talk, What Is Our Role In Creating the American Identity?, and hosted the Streamy-nominated, six-part docuseries ATTN:, where, in partnership with real estate company Zillow, Twigg dug into the U.S.’s housing crisis and the devastating effects it’s having on people, particularly people living in poverty. Twigg is also a founding partner in Culture.House, one of the only premium documentary houses owned entirely by women of color.
All of these have been major projects, but Twigg has just help launch what’s undoubtedly one of her biggest undertakings to date: Possible Plan, a foundation that funds organizations working toward justice for people disproportionately impacted by cannabis laws, particularly people (many of them people of color) who are still in prison for convictions related to the newly legalized drug.
Twigg also recently signed with United Talent Agency, and has several under-wraps TV and film projects in the works.
CMG’s latest addition to its roster is comedian and self-described “professional whiner” Matt Bellassai, a former BuzzFeed writer (who was perhaps the original “Why I Left BuzzFeed“er) and host who’s now heading into the fourth season of his successful podcast Unhappy Hour, where he and guests indulge in good booze and good whining about everything from the current political climate to challenges in their personal lives. Bellassai also stars in the self-produced comedy web series To Be Honest, where he (and a glass of wine) sit down once a week to be frankly honest about whatever topic is on his mind. (Sometimes it’s why every dentist is the devil, sometimes it’s why pancakes are definitively better than waffles.)
Over the past two years, Bellassai has also published an appropriately dour book with Simon & Schuster called Everything Is Awful: And Other Observations, and has headed out on two national stand-up tours, both of which were sold out. He’s established a philanthropic presence, too, recently launching a campaign with Omaze, giving fans an opportunity to (quite aptly) win a French Wine Tour with all proceeds going to The Trevor Project.
It’s a diverse group across dozens of areas of content-making, with talents that vary from obvious to counterintuitive to the individuals within the entertainment industry. And that makes them exactly the kind of creators Carter wants to work with.
Innovation, Inclusion, and Disruption Over Numbers
“People would look at my roster and go, ‘Well, Carri doesn’t even have 10,000 Instagram followers.’ Like, yeah, I know,” Carter says. “But she is the one who helped structure the entire healthcare plan and get it through the Senate.”
“Influence and perspective and purpose is different for different people. And if I sit with them and we have a conversation and I have that feeling in my gut and heart, I go for it, regardless of whether I’m going to make a lot of money in the short term or in the long term. There are so many very talented people out there in the marketplace. My compass is specific, and it hasn’t steered me wrong.”
Recently, her compass steered her toward Lauren Elias. Not a client, but another talent manager — CMG’s second after Carter herself. Carter onboarded Elias (who’s based in New York City, thus making CMG officially bi-coastal) in May, calling her a “rare talent” who has a “comprehensive and thoughtful” approach to management.
Elias’ hiring is a sign that CMG is growing — and making a growing impact on the creator community, an accomplishment recently recognized by the mentoring program Friends of the Children of Los Angeles, which named Carter to its board.
Outside of those developments, Carter’s keeping plans for the future close to her chest.
“The CMG family has to be innovative, inclusive, and disruptive,” she says. “I’ll leave it at that.”