Never say never: A Q&AA with Scooter Braun

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Credit: Illustration by Nigel Buchanan

Scooter Braun is best known as the manager of Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Psy and Ariana Grande, and founder of School Boy Records. But increasingly, the über-manager has been expanding his SB Projects entertainment and media company to include projects like the CBS procedural "Scorpion." (Its 2011 Bieber documentary, "Never Say Never," grossed $100 million worldwide.) Last month, Braun announced he has teamed with David Maisel, founding chairman of Marvel Studios, to form Mythos Studios. Together, the two aspire to make "hit comic-book movie franchises in live-action and animated formats." We may be oversaturated with superhero movies these days, but if there's one thing Braun's career has suggested so far, it's that it would be foolish to second-guess him. He sat down for a chat about how he got here. Our conversation has been edited.

Your first sales job was brokering fake IDs at college. What did you learn from that?

I was always kind of hustling. I had good ideas on how to market stuff. What I learned from party promotion was an even better lesson: In Atlanta [where Braun attended Emory University for two years before dropping out], I was in a cash business. Your word was your bond. If you broke your word, you had nothing to stand on. That taught me that if you made the wrong deal, you still had to stand by your word. Your reputation will set you up for your next six deals.

You became known for throwing those parties. How do you, as a college kid, get celebs like Snoop Dogg and Jermaine Dupri to come?

At the time, Atlanta was very segregated. White people went to one club, black people to another. I threw a party and an actor named Jason Weaver [who is black] came by. He said, "Want to see how the other half lives?" I said, "What do you mean?"

So he took you out?

Yeah. People were fascinated to see me at these clubs in the early 2000s. I realized that I had to leave my mark. So I bought a $30,000 Mercedes with purple rims—I spent all my money on my car. It was flashy but it got their attention: "How did you get into this party? What do you do?" Then they started coming to my parties, all these people of different colors and races.

What marketing advice would you give to folks who don't work in music?

I would call it "authentic marketing." I would make content that moved me and not worry if it worked well. If it wasn't until the 12th [piece of content] that caught on, they would know 11 more were waiting. People get social media in an intimate manner. I build content for one-on-one interactions.

That's worked for you across the board—for Bieber and Kanye and Grande?

It's all self-discovery. When I brought Justin Bieber on, people thought I was insane. "Stars don't come out of YouTube!" Now when I ask my friend Kenny's son, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" he says, "A singer on YouTube." That cracks me up.

Do you have a preferred social media platform?

All of it. For me, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook is my generation. I have a Snapchat account because I want to see what those kids are doing.

What do you think of the current Facebook scandal?

When Mark Zuckerberg IPO'd Facebook, it was not a mobile platform, it was on our PCs. Mark Zuckerberg was able to pivot the company. I wouldn't count that guy out. I think Facebook is here to stay. I'm not selling my stock.

What considerations go into your partnering talent with brands?

They have to love it and it has to make sense. If you get a huge check and can't authentically endorse the product, it doesn't work. Ariana loves Reebok. Great. Kanye wanted to build Yeezys with Adidas. Great.

Any tips on identifying up-and-coming talent?

Things go in cycles. Sometimes it's a gut thing—I think something is missing. I don't want to rely on an algorithm to predict my emotions day by day.

What was missing when you took on Bieber?

With Justin, people needed hope. We had "The Hills" on TV and we were in a recession. I don't think kids want to be seeing other kids driving around in Mercedes. They want hope, and I think that's what Justin was.

Do you work the same with him as you do with, say, Kanye or Ariana?

Are all your friends exactly the same and do you act the same with all your friends? It's the same with working with artists. People are people. Just have the courage to express your own opinion.

How can marketers use music effectively in their messaging?

Music is the universal language. The right song in a commercial can change an entire brand. Music has an ability to take you to a different place. If I asked you, "What were you doing when you were 11 years old," you'd say, "I have no idea." If I play a song from that year, it'll click. Those associations with music can be very advantageous to a brand.

And now you're making comic-book movies?

David Maisel was the founding chairman of Marvel Studios, and it sold to Disney. He stepped away and then he came back with "Angry Birds." He made the movie. People said, "Are you crazy?" But he's a guy you can never count out. We made a deal to finance the first three years of development. We named the studio Mythos because it's from the Greek word for storytelling. I'll be doing that with him and a bunch of other projects. The company mantra is "Inspire the world to try." We wake up every day and say that to ourselves.

You grew up wanting to play basketball?

My dad was a coach. He would always tell me, "The victories are yours. The losses are mine." That's the role of a coach. When we win, it should be all you guys. When we lose, the burden should be all on me. That's when I understood what a coach was and what a mentor was and what a leader was. I really admired that about him.

Your relationship with your dad sounds like it played a key role at pivotal points in your career. Did you always get along?

I was a good kid but a difficult kid. Me and my dad bumped heads a lot. As I got older, I realized he was hard on me because he loved me. Today, he's one of my best friends and No. 1 confidant. There's no one I trust more. I hope to have the same relationship with my sons.

How old are they?

I have a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old.

How has being a parent affected your job?

Before, my life was work. Now, I realize how incredibly wrong I was: I'm having the biggest years of my career because my bullshit radar is beyond now. Before, I would get stuck in a rut. Now, I'm efficient because I want to get home. I'm doing better at work because of my desire to be with my family and succeed for them.

How is parenting like managing artists?

I'm a better parent now because I managed artists. The No. 1 thing is that a parent doesn't always need to be your friend. They have a job to do. They need to be a rock. They need to be consistent. I don't need to be friends with my artists. But they know that if they fall, I'll be there.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Tomorrow comes. I've seen so many different things, so many different dramas, catastrophes. They all seem so important. But there's only one ending and that's death. I would tell my younger self, "There's no such thing as failure. It's just a pit stop. Keep going."

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