Eric Kuhn isn't old enough to rent a car, but as the former head of social media for CNN, and the digital architect of @KatieCouric's viral interview with Sarah Palin, he's already experienced many watershed moments for social media. Now he's on to entertainment, as Hollywood's first "Social Media Agent," working for United Talent Agency. Given that a mere tweet can shape entertainment headlines, Kuhn represents the first in what may be a new category of (likely very young) agents who can scout new opportunities in the technology industry.
"I started many many years ago," jokes Kuhn. At 18, his aspirations for journalism seemed dim because, as he believed, "everyone who was doing traditional journalism was losing their jobs." His father offered some sage advice, "You should be ahead of the curve." The suggestion inspired teenage Kuhn to snag an internship at NBC's digital media department, which, at the time, was mostly just podcasts, he says.
After a bit of internal networking, he snaked his way into what was then Katie Couric's gender-busting upgrade to the evening news. Kuhn's plan to spread Couric's content all over the still infant social media landscape hit the big time when Sarah Palin's inability to name a single newspaper that she read went viral. "It was really successful," Kuhn recalls.
From there, Kuhn made a career bringing legacy media into the social arena, first at the NBA and then as head of social media for CNN. In one particularly entertaining example, he describes having to ask Senator John McCain for a Twitpic of himself before going on the John King show. Without even having to explain what a Twitpic was to the infamous tech Luddite, McCain responded, "Only if I take a Twitpic of you back,"—which they did simultaneously.
Just a few months ago, Kuhn moved to L.A. to take a position at United Talent Agency, consulting clients on digital strategy and to partner them with yet undiscovered influential platforms.
Jeremy Zimmer, head of UTA, says that in-house expertise gives his agency a distinct advantage in the crowded agenting space. But finding a so-called expert wasn't really an option. "The good news is, it's not like there's been somebody who's been working in social media for 20 years, who's the world-wide expert. It's a relatively new field," says Zimmer. So, the logical option was to have someone on staff who could understand best practices as well as shape them.
For instance, when billionaire clothing designer, Mark Ecko, wanted to galvanize the youthful energy of iPhone-totting citizens to eradicate corporal punishment in the nation's schools, UTA was a natural fit. Ecko couldn't use the old (and stale) celebrity telethon or an all-star sing-along to tackle a political problem, so he reached out to Kuhn for help. The campaign was conducted "not the traditional route, which is hiring a lobbyist, but we had a grassroots coordinated effort by using Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare," Kuhn says, "And, through that coordinated effort we were able to change a [New Mexico] law, which is crazy." (The law banned corporal punishment in public schools.)
Now, when the next A-list star wants to be Governor of California, we know who they'll call.
Auditions Like Facebook Fans
"If you have have more Twitter followers, it helps in the casting process," Kuhn says, "A Facebook account has the ability to move product, whether it's ticket sales [or] whether it's downloads." No longer is raw acting ability always sufficient to snag a leading role—a star's social media power may become a determining factor, especially for TV or independent films.
Movies can blanket the country with billboards, whackey late-night interviews, and advertisements, but regular TV shows need to continually remind the audience to tune in; social media prowess is an attractive asset for programs worried about ratings.
Studios are just beginning to realize the power of social media, after the rabid following of Lady Gaga's record-breaking 10 million Twitter followers choked Amazon's servers for selling her new release for just 99 cents.
So, in the near future, directors might wipe away the tears from a heart-wrenching casting audition just so they can see if the actor's Twitter account is strong enough to warrant the role.
First Mover Advantage
"Twitter showed that if you get in early you can rise very quickly and become very influential," Kuhn says. (He should know, he was early enough to snag @Kuhn.) A quick look at the top 100 Twitter followers shows that no one in the top 10 joined less than two years go, and old-school super-stars like MC Hammer were able to snag loads of followers. Unlike other Hollywood agents, Kuhn has become a fixture at startup launchpad conferences, such as SXSW, scoping out early signs of the next Twitter or Foursquare.
Says Kuhn, "And, that's why its important for us to have someone looking at the next big thing, to make sure our that clients are positioned in the best places to get in on the ground floor."
[Image: Aimee Rentmeester]