Reading about publicity princess Lizzie Grubman in 2005, Simon Huck kept calling her office until they gave him an interview. Simon came to NY from Canada with 7 dollars in his pocket. Learning about PR and media, Simon learned headlines didn’t happen – they were made by the PR industry. He also recognized the power shift underway from traditional media to celebrities and influencers with the rise of Instagram and Facebook. Simon has built Command Entertainment Group into one of the largest celebrity marketing firms and become a friend of the Kim and the rest of the Kardashians who produced his TV show The Spin Crowd. Hear Simon’s story in this episode 35. Learn more about Command Entertainment Group.
Simon Huck [00:00:37] You’re nearing the end of college and it hits you that what you want to do professionally is something totally different. What do you do? If you’re Simon Huck, you go to New York to the place you want to work at and hustle until they give you a job.
Sam: Simon is the President and Founder of Command Entertainment Group a leading entertainment marketing agency in New York City. Oh and he counts Kim Kardashian among his best friends. Simon, welcome to the show.
Simon Huck [00:01:05] Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Sam [00:01:07] So Simon, we love this story of you coming to New York determined to work with Lizzie Grubman and Jonathan Cheban right after you finished your political science degree at Queen’s University in Canada. So tell us how you wake up one morning and say, “Okay I’m going to go into PR,” but what made you feel PR needed to be your world.
Simon Huck [00:01:28] Well to be honest I didn’t even know what PR was. I thought PR was event planning. I thought it was like handing out flyers on the street and installing decorative chandelier candelabras. I had no idea. I thought PR was more event planning and I was finishing my political science degree and I was reading an article in US Weekly. I was always a tabloid junkie. And there was an article about Lizzie Grubman and it called her a Publicity Princess and the minute I read Publicity Princess I kind of had this tingle where I was like I need to be a Publicity Prince. How do I do this? So I picked up the telephone and I kept calling her office until I got a job interview.
Sam [00:02:08] That’s amazing. That’s awesome. So since then things have changed quite a bit. And at command and through your background you’ve always been on the front lines of celebrities and influencers playing a big role in brands connecting with new audiences.
Sam [00:02:26] Tell us a little bit about why that’s become such a driver in marketing for brands.
Simon Huck [00:02:33] You know I think social media has increased celebrity culture. Over the last 10 years you now have celebrities with this massive following and they’ve really almost in some cases replaced the traditional news outlet. Let’s just use the Kardashians as an example. You have a family that collectively has close to two billion followers worldwide. So if you think of that, you have two billion people dedicated to following your trends, your fitness, your wellness. I mean these are essentially consumers. So it allows celebrities, influencers to have incredible influence over what we buy and how we live and how we shop and where we travel. And I think, you know, there’s obviously benefits to that. There’s also some downfalls but it has allowed celebrity culture to explode, you know, on such a huge level around the world.
Sam [00:03:32] I would love to talk a little bit about your journey to building Command Entertainment Group. You know you went from employee to partner to now sole owner I guess. Tell us a little bit how that journey went and some of the lessons and challenges you faced along the way.
Simon Huck [00:03:51] So the first four or five years was just figuring out how to live in New York City and not be so scared and intimidated by everything and everyone. I was so new – I’ve been to New York once before.
Simon Huck [00:04:05] You know I would say I had a great upbringing but I certainly wasn’t around famous people or industry leaders. And Jonathan and Lizzy kind of gave me this purview into a world that quite frankly I felt like a fraud, almost for the first five years living in New York. I would walk into restaurants, I would be in meetings and I’d be like what am I doing here. I just remembered constantly thinking like what am I doing here.
Sam [00:04:28] Imposter syndrome.
Simon Huck [00:04:29] Totally. In such a huge way. And eventually you begin to understand that it’s really just a little bit of a hocus pocus. A lot of people are feeling the same way that you’re feeling especially in the beginning of their career. But I was really good at understanding people and also understanding how to make things famous and that really was like my sweet spot. And that was what Jonathan had mentored me and it’s what Lizzie Grubman was really, really good at. So over the years I kind of honed in on that skill set. And then when Jonathan and I did a TV show – it was called The Spin Crowd. And it really was a kind of a purview into the ongoings of our company. So like life behind the velvet rope if you will.
Jonathan did it and absolutely loved it. And I looked at the experience and thought OK this is really fun to do but this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. So we split our business up. I acquired it in 2012 and then continued to grow it over the last 7-8 years.
Sam [00:05:38] So I want to pick up on something you said which is fascinating. You said you developed an instinct for how to make things famous. Tell us a little more about that.
Simon Huck [00:05:48] It was something you learn because we started as a public relations agency. You see how the news cycle fixates on certain stories. You see what reporters and editors are looking for. It’s almost like you look at a headline and you reverse engineer like how do I achieve that headline on behalf of a client.
Simon Huck [00:06:28] And then when you add celebrity to the mix how can I do that using celebrity. And you can just see it. I mean you look at something like The Daily Mail now which has huge traffic. I mean the Daily Mail is generating over 60 to 70 million unique hits a day. I mean that’s bigger than The New York Times, The Washington Post. I mean this is a massive outlet. And if you look at their headlines they’re narrowing in on certain topics and using celebrity as the hook. It didn’t seem, and it still doesn’t seem like rocket science. But if you can do that on behalf of your brand clients by using celebrity then you have a great business and a business model that’s constantly changing. But you’re still using celebrity and using brand and connecting them.
Sam [00:06:54] So tell us a little bit the sort of reality of your daily life. You know people are so seduced by celebrities and working with celebrities and I bet they’re moments that are incredible and there are moments that are not so great in everything you do. So how does a typical week look like and what’s going on behind the scenes?
Simon Huck [00:07:16] So just to give you examples of some of the deals we do when you see a Super Bowl commercial and you see the brand and you see a celebrity and the celebrity is hawking a shampoo or a new car. We are the agency that goes in and negotiates that deal. So we present the talent options and we kind of negotiate it through. So every day is different.
Simon Huck [00:07:36] And it’s a question we’re often asked like what celebrity is a nightmare? Who is really difficult to work with? Truthfully the celebrity is always a dream. I would say 99% percent of the time it’s usually the people that are orbiting them that tend to cause me to have a breakdown. It’s like the crazy publicist who’s power tripping or the lunatic manager who just makes the media day a nightmare. It’s never really the celebrity – quite honestly they’re just happy to work. Nowadays celebrities, influencers they’re making their money on commercial endorsements which is what we do. They’re not making their money on their 7 dollar Netflix project like they want to do sexy projects and projects that are interesting and they’re not necessarily getting a huge paycheck for them so they come to us and they’re able to build these brand portfolios with brands they want to work with. So that’s where we come in.
Sam [00:08:32] That’s amazing. And over your time doing this, this phenomenon has just increased right, where the main source of income in a sense has become these marketing endorsements. Not the sort of what I’ll call the day job of acting.
Simon Huck [00:08:50] And some people are doing very little acting or I hate to characterize it as real work because I think both both brand work and acting are real work – but you are able to have a huge business on strictly commercial endorsements and influencers really only exist to do these type of deals. I mean all they’re doing is selling you their lifestyle and their kind of aspirations and their travel plans and their wellness tips. Some celebrities are shying away from endorsements. I would say, nowadays we have not done a celebrity endorsement with someone who’s not on social media – like [that person] does not exist so if you’re not on social media you’re not doing an endorsement.
Sam [00:09:41] Fascinating. Such a change.
Simon Huck [00:09:43] Such a change. Such a change. I think for the old school talent it’s an uncomfortable change.
Sam [00:09:50] Yeah, it’s all very new.
Simon Huck [00:09:53] Very new. And you know we hop on phone calls where celebrities are disappointed that they’re not able to lock in larger deals because they’re going to celebrities that they’ve never heard of who have these huge social followings but as a marketer you’re really looking to find someone that can reach a huge audience. So social [media] is key.
Sam [00:10:24] So you work with the Kardashians. So for anyone willing to work in PR or to build a pure business, I think this is the biggest dream. What advice would you have for people startups looking to work with PR or someone looking to build a career in PR? What advice do you have for them, including us?
Simon Huck [00:10:46] So my kind of sliding door moment was just taking a huge risk and picking up the phone and calling and saying, “I will do whatever it takes. I just want to get my foot in the door. And I look back at that moment and I didn’t think at the time it was that big of a deal. I thought oh well if it doesn’t work out I’ll just go back to Canada but it changed the trajectory of my life forever. I mean it was such a huge change in where my life could have gone. And anyone who wants to do something really bold has to be willing to risk it all. And I think it’s easy for me to say because I was 20 years old, and had nothing to lose, literally nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my career. I think the bigger challenge now as I’m 35 now and I have a lot of friends who are looking to do a big change but they’re not looking to be embarrassed by doing that second act and falling on their face given the fact that we’re all a little bit older and more elevated in our careers. I think even I am scared to do that. I still try to channel like, “Who is this 20 year old Simon who had the balls to pick up the phone and be like I’ll work for you,” and then fly down to New York with six dollars and walk into an office like I don’t even know if I know that Simon anymore. I’m constantly trying to remind myself okay where is that Simon, I’m like “We need to tap into that Simon,” and I see friends of mine and colleagues who are really trying to break into something, but you can’t break in at the level you think you’re going to break in. You’ve got to break in at a level that’s gonna make you uncomfortable.
Sam [00:12:19] You just gave me goosebumps. That’s really good advice. I mean we’ve gone through that, right? We took many steps back. You know because of this dream and this obsession to build The IdeaMix.
Simon Huck [00:12:31] Right.
Sam [00:12:31] And you just have to be even you know take some risks and not be embarrassed. But at some point you just overcome the embarrassment.
Simon Huck [00:12:39] Yeah that’s right. And like the naysayers. I mean there’s so many naysayers and I even have close friends of mine in my life who are – they don’t mean to be the naysayer but just their default is to be a little bit cynical, a little bit guarded. So I and any of the ideas that have meant a lot to me, I’ve kept really close to me and only share with people who I think would support me. And so that’s been a little trick of mine. It’s like I avoid certain people who I know aren’t programmed for rest.
Sam [00:13:07] Avoid the dreamkillers.
Simon Huck [00:13:07] Yeah, yeah totally.
Sam [00:13:10] Simon – a couple of questions. Was it lonely going from working with Jonathan to then running Command on your own?
Simon Huck [00:13:19] It was – I had put a lot of eggs in the basket of Jonathan and I as a partnership. So when I had this fear that if I didn’t have Jonathan could my business be as successful? Or that would that affect how I am in my kind of day to day life? But what happened is we were so busy that I just remember thinking, “Oh God we’re so busy I can’t I don’t even have time to be anxious.” I find when I’m not busy is when the anxiety creeps in. Not that I dread vacation, but when I go on vacation day 4 I’m like, “Oh my God my career is over. I’m bankrupt because you have that time to think about all the things that could go wrong.” So my whole philosophy and I’ve heard this from so many people is: stay busy, stay focused because, you know, The voices start coming in.
Sam [00:14:15] It’s the most important thing. Tell us as you look back what’s been the greatest challenge?
Simon Huck [00:14:22] The greatest challenge. I think for me the greatest challenge was probably getting over that imposter syndrome which I still to this day have. And I think sometimes people accuse you of being the faux humble person like, “Oh yeah really you still don’t feel?” You still after all these years, you’re still kind of questioning, “OK. Could I really do that?”.
Simon Huck [00:14:44] And I know we spoke earlier. About this immersive museum experience I did and it was a year and a half. It took me a year and a half to develop this made for Instagram installation experience that I was so scared to do and I was so scared to pitch people on. I remember taking these pitch meetings and trying to convince people to join my team and I would just stumble through the pitch and I would go back and I would hide in my office and I’d practice my pitch and I’m thinking, “I’m running a very successful marketing company. I’m supposed to be top of my game and I’m just scared out of my mind. And I think that is something I’ll probably always have. And I think maybe we all have it…we just don’t talk about it as much.
Sam [00:15:28] Yeah but I think it’s great you’re getting out of your comfort zone. You’re always challenging yourself right. Andy Grove said this? Only the paranoid survive and it’s so true. So what’s next on your agenda?
Simon Huck [00:15:43] So I have been working on this new brand which I can’t dive into a ton of details but it’s something we’re going to launch in November. I have a co-founder and it’s a consumer good. And we have been working on it for over a year. I am super excited about it. I’ve been scared and I’ve been paranoid and so it’s all the right ingredients for success for me. And yeah, our launch is hopefully November.
Sam [00:16:14] That’s fabulous. Congratulations. Love it.
Sam [00:16:18] Simon came to New York with a dream of working in PR and marketing. It bore little relationship to his political science degree in Canada. But today Simon is an entrepreneur, a celebrity in his own right, his famous friends notwithstanding and marketing and branding expert. Simon thank you for being with us on the show today.
Simon Huck [00:16:38] Thank you so much for having me.
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