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Inside An Ambitious, Sometimes Maddening, Quest To Save The Internet

Creators don’t get paid. Brands are over “likes.” Former creative directors Ken Hamm and Pat Stern want to fix all of that with PRoPS.

It all started with a tooth. Or half a tooth, really.

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Ken Hamm blames a London airport peanut for cracking one of his. Like many young, healthy men, he initially did nothing about the agonizing pain. Fortunately, his girlfriend had more sense and called a doctor friend. Soon, Hamm was rushed to the hospital. Morphine was eventually rolled into his room at Mount Sinai in Manhattan.

“I was hours away from a brain infection,” Hamm wrote to me in one of the many (many!) emails he’s sent over the past couple of months. “So fucking stupid, man.”

Hamm decided it was finally time to do something even more painful: grow up.

“I said to myself, ‘It’s time to put your passion projects and filmmaking career on hold for a while. Get a job. Get some health insurance. And put a ring on this woman before she fucks off.’”

Unlike in his nascent movie-making career—he wrote and directed the 1997 indie Moving In/ Moving Out–here was a second act he quickly embraced.

“Within two weeks Nick Law and Bob Greenberg at R/GA changed my life forever by hiring me to build a writing department in what would become the greatest digital agency in the world. And I got the girl!”

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Now, 17 years after that busted left molar, Hamm is married to the woman who may have saved his life, they have twin eight-year-old boys together, and a guy Hamm met at R/GA, Pat Stern, also the former Global Chief Creative Officer at Hearst’s digital agency iCrossing, has become his business partner on Hamm’s most ambitious project yet. Hamm and Stern, you see, are launching a new company that aims to do nothing less than save the internet. The crazy part is they might just pull it off.

[Photo: Ken Hamm]

Far From Gross

No, the company is not called Peanut—it’s PRoPS, as in the giving of respect to work well done. The work Hamm and Stern would like to honor is being produced by a vast network of creative hustlers—musicians, writers, photographers, podcasters, and, yes, filmmakers—who’ve found the promise of frictionless digital distribution to be, shall we say, lacking.

Put another way, Hamm says the fact that Amazon and iTunes take a “30-60% cut from artists is just fucking gross. They don’t do that on sneakers.”

Stern, the ice to Hamm’s fire if you will, adds to this thought: “Our mission is to serve creatives; our business is to serve brands.”

Then Hamm lands on the big idea at the fast-beating heart of what drives PRoPS: “We’ve seen the death of the artist and now we are seeing the rise of the creative entrepreneur.”

So what do all these high-minded pronouncements mean? What, exactly, does ProPS do? The concept is one of those so-simple-sounding things you can’t believe it doesn’t yet exist. PRoPs is an online marketplace and matchmaker where creators can be free to create, and brands can easily and painlessly align themselves with projects that authentically speak to their company’s core values. And they can do it for a hell of a lot less cash than they’ve been doing through such things as celebrity endorsements or—shudder—branded content. Initially, these transactions take the form of a three-month sponsorship–or a “season” in PRoPS parlance—of a creator’s work. The artists keep all the sponsorship money, as well as ownership of their work. At its core, PRoPS would like to alter forever what it calls a $208 billion content marketing industry.

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At launch, the New School will be onboard to sponsor content, and Citibank, BlackRapid, and Hotel Indigo (of the Intercontinental Group Hotels) will also be sponsoring creative work on the platform, paying between $2,000 and $15,000 for the season. Eventually, says Hamm, “it will be an open market with ‘sponsor now,’ ‘make an offer,’ or ‘hold an auction’ for sponsorships.” PRoPS makes money by taking a 15% transaction fee from the brands.

To build the site, an app, a 15-person team, and a path forward, Hamm and Stern borrowed from existing models that worked. And so the backend, where creators load their pitches and multi-media creations, was designed to mimic the speed and intuitiveness of an Airbnb listing. The UX for those wanting to peruse so much great art is meant to be unobtrusive, and Hamm points to the NPR-style “brought to you by” advertisement by way of comparison.

“I love products,” he says, “but I don’t want them to interrupt my experience–I don’t want them popping up when I don’t want to think about them.”

Ah, yes, products. Click into a creator’s project on PRoPS and you’ll be able to see and buy the tools they used to make their film, or photos, or radio show. Hamm, for example, is still a busy photographer. On his PRoPS page, a user can view his photo series called “Jess The Armorer,” about a woman in Long Island City who makes medieval armor, before zipping to another page featuring products for sale from both Hamm and Citibank, who’s sponsoring the work. There, thanks to an elegant design, a beautiful, detailed print of Jess’s metallic breastplate does not appear out of place being sold alongside Hamm’s camera of choice, a Nikon D810, and the Citi brand.

This seamless, ungross relationsip between creatives and sponsors, at a time when so many companies are struggling to figure out how to make commercials that don’t look like commercials, is what Hamm and Stern believe will resonate deeply with brands. That and the fact that a PRoPS Index, (a “roll up of engagement data and commerce data,” according to Hamm), will do a better job of measuring how effectively brands are reaching consumers.

“Pepsi has something like 3,600 influencers and creators–who knows what that gets them?” Hamm wonders.

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(Multiple attempts to hear from Pepsi on this went unreturned.)

“We aim to be as accountable as Adwords is for search marketing as writing, filmmaking, podcasting, photography can be for content marketing spend.”

Starting Up

The idea has proved compelling enough to prompt several savvy investors to loosen their purse strings. Hamm and Stern say they’ve raised about $3.5 million through private investment so far. Collectively, these backers have historically made many good bets. John Johnson, a co-founder BuzzFeed and now director of the research group the Harmony Institute, is among them. As is Guy Story, the former CTO of Audible (and also, incidentally, PRoPS’ Chief Awesome Officer), and a founding partner of the investment firm One Zero Capital, Vishal Garg. Hamm says former and current partners with investment behemoths Blackstone and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts have also chipped in.

“When Ken came to me, I said, ‘Wow, this would be amazing for the brands we invest in–for them to have a creative management solution,” Garg told me this week. His firm invests in companies operating at the intersection of consumer credit and technology. Garg knows intimately the struggle brands face in finding and nurturing creative talent that can authentically represent what the company stands for. He refers to a couple of digital solutions for brands in need of creative help–Behance, 99 Designs–but thinks PRoPS stands out for offering a complete ecosystem that facilitates transactions and for serving both sides of the market.

“No one has ever done anything like this,” Garg said. Hamm and Stern’s ability to speak to both creators and CMOs gives Garg confidence they’ll be able to build out a tricky idea: the two-sided marketplace.

“Having empathy for what both sides want and need,” Garg said, “that’s maybe the most important thing. The challenge with all marketplaces is getting the supply and demand balance right.”

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Garg said that if PRoPS has trouble scaling, it will likely be because Hamm and Stern are not able to manage that delicate balance and the platform becomes too heavily trafficked by either creators or brands, to the detriment of the other side. Still, he likes the company’s odds–and its ambitions.

“This is like trying to become the Alibaba of creatives,” Garg offered. “And that company wasn’t built in a day.”

Not that long ago, if you’d told Hamm and Stern they’d be in the same sentence as China’s answer to Amazon, they would’ve called you crazy. This is a startup, after all. This time last year, in fact, they found themselves out of cash and still a long way from bringing PRoPS to market.

“We were done,” Hamm shouted to me one recent night, over beers and wings in the cramped and loud back room of an old-school Manhattan bar. “Finished.”

Only they weren’t. Just as with the unfortunate peanut incident in the London airport, a guardian angel swooped in at just the right moment to inject some much-needed momentum into the project. This time the celestial spirit came in the form of Grant Theron, EVP of Global Content, Production, and Partnerships at Young & Rubicam.

Theron boils down his work at Y&R this way: “Making sure what goes on the screen is brilliant.” That includes everything from banner ads to $2 million television commercials. Theron says Y&R has struggled to keep up with the whiplash pace of modern marketing—and they are far from alone. How many Oreo cookie Super Bowl moments, after all, can you recall?

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“Most agencies have” struggled, Theron told me during a phone interview. “And if they say they’re not, they’re lying.”

In the interest of breaking through this creative conundrum–and the attendant noise of the global, always-on marketing machine–Theron takes about 12 meetings a week with entrepreneurs of all kinds who might offer a fresh approach to the ways brands can reach people in meaningful ways. Usually, these meetings don’t go very far. Theron says Hamm and Stern immediately stood out. Soon after they launched into their PRoPS schpiel—“most of the internet is ruled by this bullshit,” Hamm likes to say, holding up a thumb, a sad look on his face—Theron remembers thinking: “We definitely want to jump on this.”

On the phone, he told me: “They seemed like a couple of good guys. And if they can crack the code of working with existing creators and a brand or agency and connect them, that’s extremely important. I was literally leaning in the whole time” they were talking.

Theron has now emerged as an important advisor and connector for Hamm and Stern, and the PRoPS people hope that down the line Y&R’s clients will also see what Theron sees in their platform and want to lean into business together. A year ago, though, Theron’s impact was more visceral than cerebral—he’d helped keep Hamm and Stern’s baby alive.

Theron says Hamm called him after the meeting and said, “Thank you, we needed to hear that.”

Newly confident they were on to something, the co-founders continued to court both creators and brands. They did it through their expansive personal and professional networks—Stern is also an un-reformed artist, a singer and songwriter who has a simple litmus test for wether or not a person has good taste: do they like Black Sabbath? And they did it in less glamorous ways, too—by trolling LinkedIn.

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Earning Props

That’s how Ariel Utin came into the PRoPS fold. Utin studied journalism at Boston University, but “hated how happy people got about sad things.” After graduating, disillusioned with her chosen field, she moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2014, and worked odd jobs–dog walker, baby sitter–while percolating an idea for a creative project. As a college student, she’d loved wading into the robust live music scene in Boston. She became a big fan of several local bands and singer-songwriters, assuming the rest of the world would recognize their greatness some day, too.

When that didn’t happen, an idea struck her to help, and the Hangover Sessions video series was born. Along with two creative partners—a sound engineer she found on Craigslist and a videographer she met in her preferred Crown Heights coffee shop—Utin began hosting monthly mini-concerts in the comfort of her two-bedroom apartment. The shows for audiences of 30-50 people are videotaped, and so the languid vibe of hanging out with a roomful of chill creative souls on a Sunday afternoon can be shared with anyone who has an internet connection.

When Utin was first reach by Hamm through LinkedIn, she began to see how she might merge her passion with her career.

“It’s incredibly motivating to work on something we love to make,” Utin told me over coffee, earlier this winter. “And even more beautiful if we can make a living with it. Better than any job. Creating for someone else is never fulfilling.”

Like many people her age, growing up in the post-Elvis-Costello-Lexus-ad age, Utin is not phased by mingling her art with commerce.

“It’s okay to make something real and also get paid for it,” she said. “I don’t really care what brand is interested, as long as they’re interested.”

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Bill Phillips, on the other hand, does care what brands can be found alongside his writing and journalism. Phillips worked at Men’s Health for 13 years, including as the magazine’s editor in chief, before leaving last year. He’s now an editorial consultant and freelance writer—and dad to two teenage girls. He will have a handful of pitches up on PRoPS as the platform launches. Perhaps the most ambitious of his pieces is a six-chapter series called “The Screaming Parents’ Guide to Youth Soccer, “ which covers everything from pragmatic information on navigating the often-chaotic travel team landscape, to the best college soccer scholarships, to more metaphoric lessons like one about how global soccer legend Ronaldo improved his game by playing on a large hill as a kid and figuring out how to keep the ball from rolling down the hill.

Phillips knows of what he writes—his older daughter is on a youth soccer team that he says is ranked in the top 20 nationally. He can imagine large athletic brands like Nike and Adidas being drawn to a series such as his, as well as any company that wants to reach parents in an honest way. And as someone who has seen the mechanics of branded content in motion, Phillips thinks PRoPS has a competitive advantage over the way branded content is currently being produced.

“Brands have been over paying for content that the creators aren’t invested in,” he told me during a phone conversation late last year. “No one is creating branded content out of passion; they are creating it to solve a problem.”

Beyond the transient realm of emotions, Philips also believes cold, hard numbers support Hamm and Stern’s PRoPS premise. He still remembers a line he once read in a media industry story: “If Burberry has 50 million Facebook followers, why do they need Vogue?”

That is, brands have an audience already—now they just need to figure out how to speak with them.

Philips sees audience size as PRoPS’ biggest initial hurdle. It will have to scale in order to convince the Nikes and Adidas of the world to hop aboard—and to pay more for the privilege than $2,000 per season. Philips thinks this audience development question could, essentially, “solve itself,” as bigger brands will bring their followers to PRoPS and the creators on the platform will promote their work far more aggressively and, yes, passionately, than the average media company does with its sponsored content churn.

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Another way to grow PRoPS’ user base is to merge the two sides of the business and have brands that makes sense double as creators themselves. In this scenario, a massive music company like Sony might pitch up-and-coming talent on its roster through PRoPS, earning the extra scratch needed for production or promotion.

Hamm told me he’s met with Sony and other large producers of creative work to sell them on the idea that PRoPS makes more sense even than a place like YouTube, where only the relatively few earn enough views to make the platform pay off.

“There is an enormous cache of assets yet to be released on the internet because the economics have been so fucking bad,” Hamm wrote in an email. “In talking with Sony and Magnum Photos in particular, they are sitting on piles of amazing stuff that they have not wanted to release for these exact economic reasons.”

Collaborative, Not Just Creative

Before Sony signs up, and before other ambitious PRoPS ideas can take off—plans for a creators-driven live events series have been kicked around—the startup will need more people like Kenan Juska in its stable. Juska is half of the eclectic, effortlessly cool DJ duo known as Chances With Wolves. I met Juska a couple of years ago, while editing a Fast Company story, and we stayed in touch. The Chances guys have several big plans in mind, including a series of road-trip-inspired radio shows, and Juska and his fellow wolf, who goes by Kray, have explored possible collaborations with brands in the interest of realizing their creative dreams.

With this in mind, I sent Juska an early look at PRoPS to see if it made sense for him to speak with Hamm and Stern. A meeting was soon arranged and in mid-January I joined the three men and PRoPS’ Head of Creator/ Brand Partnerships, Mary Aldon, in a small conference room in the Flatiron co-working space where PRoPS operates.

Following a quick round of small talk—kids, weather, Trump—Hamm leapt to his feet to make a case he’s made dozens, if not hundreds of times over the past couple years. If Hamm was tired of delivering his message or wishing he could just phone it in, he hid it entirely. Wearing a Bill Murray T-shirt designed by a friend, his long, not-backing-down era Tom Petty hair swaying as he spoke, Hamm launched into the PRoPS manifesto. It gets personal fast.

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“I’m a photographer and filmmaker from the analog era,” Hamm told Juska. “That’s a euphemism for being old.”

Everyone laughed and the room relaxed. Hamm scrolled through lovely, lush slides of an imagined PRoPS creator, a trail runner named “Bill” with a blog, gorgeous photos, and his beloved gear for sale. The slides played well on the conference room’s flatscreen.

Juska said he had looked closely at the PRoPS preview. “Some of it really spoke to me: like the anger.”

It’s true that much of what seems to drive Hamm is–let’s call it intense feelings, which may have been derived by his own struggle to make a life as a creator, an artist. He and Stern say as much under the “Why PRoPS?” section on the site:

“To be honest: anger. And lots of it. As Creators ourselves, we were extremely frustrated with the state of creative publishing on the interwebs. Instead of continuing to complain, we decided to create a more sustainable solution for Creators, Fans, and Brands.”

What started as an emotional response, took shape as many new companies do: with a desire to fix a problem. Hamm told me he honed in on what he wanted PRoPS to be while reading Jaron Lanier’s book Who Owns the Future? Lanier says that the internet’s biggest companies—Facebook, Google, Amazon—are all profiting madly off the unpaid labor of their users. This strikes Hamm, and others, as absurdly unfair; he hopes PRoPS can be a corrective, pro-user force for change.

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In the conference room that chilly January day, Hamm was heating up and Juska appeared ready to go along for the ride. There was talk of a Chances podcast. Hamm mentioned a couple of big brands he could imagine clamoring to work with Juska and Kray. Plans were made to keep in touch. Aldon said she’d help Juska publish his pitch for brands on PRoPS. Then, Hamm nailed the message that hits the creative class where it really hurts.

“Most of the internet is ruled by this bullshit,” Hamm said. And he held up a thumb. A sour look flickered behind his glasses. Juska nodded. He knows that likes don’t pay the bills.