COMPANY LEADERS: LA’s Paul Alan Smith on How To Bring Convictions to the Workplace

Though the modern economy has provided us with a plethora of diverse career paths, many people are finding it difficult these days to select a profession that allows for the full expression of one’s convictions. While such an undertaking may seem dependent on a particular career path, it can often be more of a question of how you approach whatever work you do. To better understand this concept, we looked to the career of Paul Alan Smith, an entertainment professional who has been able to habitually integrate his work with his passion to create positive change in the world.

Early roots

One of the biggest predictors of how well you’ll be able to exercise your convictions in your work is the strength of those convictions in the first place. For this reason, it can be helpful to explore where your convictions come from. Are they the product of early life events? Influential people? Educational inspiration? Having this knowledge of how your convictions came about can help you to better understand them and to understand why they’re so important to you. This knowledge can go far when it comes to acting on these beliefs, especially if you’re meeting with initial resistance.

In the case of Paul Alan Smith, many of his convictions originate from his experience growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s and 1970s. Since this time and place became a focus of social and political change, he was able to witness firsthand what dedicated activism looked like. This not only helped to directly influence his worldview, it also impressed upon him that the efforts of a relatively small group of dedicated individuals could have far-reaching effects. That understanding, as we’ll see, was able to show up later in his life through a variety of workplace efforts to support positive change on social issues.

Start small

One key point to understand when trying to create change is that it’s okay, perhaps even necessary, to start small. Approaching change in this way can have a number of benefits, such as keeping you from becoming overwhelmed as you work to achieve a goal that might initially seem out of reach. Modest short-term goals often also have the benefit of having a more obvious route to success than one’s long-term aspirations. By chaining together a string of these smaller victories, you will be well on your way towards whatever end result you may have in mind down the line. This strategy can also help to keep you motivated along the way.

The life of the entertainment professional shows this concept quite well through his time working at his first agency — Triad Artists. At that time in his life, the young agent already had a strong sense of wanting to create positive environmental change. Initially, however, it wasn’t immediately obvious to him how he could do so in an industry that was not historically known for this type of activism. In the face of this uncertainty, he decided to take smaller, more achievable steps, to contribute to his larger aim. This led him to implement a recycling program at his company, a rarity for workplaces in the 1980s and a first among talent agencies.

Maintain perspective

Another important aspect of following your convictions is taking steps to allows those convictions to evolve throughout your life. This concept is born out of the idea that the things that are important to us might change as we get older and our circumstances change. Since this process is likely to occur whether we intend it or not, it is often a good idea to work with this change and actively take steps to reevaluate our priorities throughout our lives. This could take the form of continuing education, exposure to new or different ideas, and even career changes that can help push us out of our comfort zone. 

For the agent/manager, travel has often provided a means of shifting his priorities. One of the ways this has been accomplished is through exposure to other cultures. With past travels that have led him to locations in Asia, Africa, and Europe, he has had numerous opportunities to see the approaches people all across the world take to tackle the problems of everyday life. These trips have also often provided an opportunity for him to engage in personal reflection apart from the daily responsibilities of his work. Such a break can be invaluable for those seeking to challenge their own beliefs and allow them to evolve along with the inevitable changes in their life.

Commit to change 

Perhaps one of the most important allies you can have in living a life according to your convictions is a willingness to follow change when it appears necessary. Many of us are probably guilty of staying in a life situation that no longer suits us simply because it is comfortable. While the unknown aspects that often accompany change can be intimidating, stagnation can routinely be the enemy of a life lived according to your own beliefs. Embracing change can be a powerful method of combating this reality.

 In the life of the entertainment professional, change has been a constant theme along the way. He’s been unafraid to switch geographical locations, job titles, and even companies when the situation was called for. A recent example of this is his latest business endeavor, New Deal Mfg. Co. This recently founded company will act as both a talent agency and a management company and will represent a talented group of TV and film directors. Though the nature of the endeavor is out of the ordinary for the entertainment industry, it speaks to the agent/manager’s propensity towards following his convictions. 

With the wide array of career options that have come from the current state of the economy, it may seem that there is a job to fit any person’s individual beliefs. While this may be true for some, for many people the truth of the matter is that they must bring their convictions to their work themselves. The life of Paul Alan Smith makes for a great study on how this can play out in practice. Look to the above overview as a first step in educating yourself as to how this can be a reality in your own life moving forward.

More about Paul Alan Smith at https://www.crunchbase.com/person/paul-alan-smith

INSPIRERY: Paul Alan Smith, LA-Based CEO of New Deal Mfg. Co.

Paul Alan Smith is an agent and manager representing directors working in both film and TV. He’s most recently known as the founder of New Deal Mfg. Co., which seeks to shift representation to a more client-centric approach, rather than focusing on the needs of corporations. This focus is typical of the entertainment professional’s career, which has centered around encouraging artistic creativity wherever possible.

The agent/manager is also widely known for his extensive activism, a product of his upbringing in the socially and politically turbulent era of the 1960s and 1970s. That upbringing taught him the power even a small group of individuals can have if they dedicate themselves to a cause. This has manifested in his work through efforts to improve economic equality, such as advocating for employee pay. He’s also worked extensively to support environmental efforts such as recycling and carpooling programs.

Mr. Smith first began his career on the heels of his formal education in theater at both UCLA and NYU. Following that time, he moved to Hollywood in an effort to create independent television content. That naturally evolved into a role at Triad Artists, one of the major talent agencies of its time. From there, he worked his way up the ladder to becoming an agent, which led to his career in talent representation.

How did you get started in this business?

Three agencies were merging, so they needed someone to help organize all the employee’s boxes after they moved into their new space, so thanks to my ex-UCLA roommate, he arranged for me to be temporarily hired for three days. Turns out, being anal retentive served my objectives swimmingly, as I was able to look at all theses boxes, haphazardly thrown into this huge room, and devise a system that utilized the space efficiently, as well as make it mindlessly easy for the agents to locate their belongings. The next day my superiors pointed to another room, but this one was full of boxes containing ¾” and ½” cassettes. So I devised a plan to create shelves outta the boxes . . . anyhow, by now it was clear my IQ was in the high double-digit range, so the next day they asked if I wanted a job “in the mailroom.” I looked at them and respectfully asked, “How much mail do you have to keep me busy for eight hours?” (Fine, an IQ in the mid-double-digits.)

How do you make money?

I sign directors I think are talented and capable of directing television and films. (The requisites are very subjective.) When a producer is looking to hire a director, I lobby all involved to hire the one I rep. Once my client is chosen, I negotiate how much they will pay for their services. When that money comes in, we take 10%.

How long did it take for you to become profitable?

Since I had a loyal list of clients that were coming with me, we were immediately profitable.

When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?

I never gave it any thought. True, I had enough saved to keep me from being homeless if I struck out, but I had enough blind confidence to know I was better than most of the competition, at least enough to remain in business. On the other hand, I consistently reflect upon where we are lacking, both literally and in terms of industry perception. This discipline allows us to be pretty fluid and adaptable.

How did you get your first customer?

Well, our business doesn’t really have “customers,” per se, but industry periodicals covered us, so that initially helped.

What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?

Giving back to your community. Since I’m technically a salesperson, I can periodically be perceived as a pain-in-the-ass, since I’m always “hawkin’ my wares.” Therefore, it’s important that I do more than just sell-sell-sell. So, early on I’d organize weekend trips to State Parks, which morphed into Speaker Soirees and company parties. Of course, we paid for everything, and never cut corners, so they helped brand us accordingly. Even if folks couldn’t attend, the mere act of simply INVITING them was a reminder we were appreciative.

What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?

I had JUST publicly rebranded the entire company midway through 2019. However, by the end of the year we ran into two massive issues: one was with regard to a Hollywood union’s demands, and the other was a workplace dynamic that was negatively impacting the majority of my employees. Consequently, to deal with both issues concurrently (and effectively), I chose to resign from MY OWN company! Of course, I offered my colleagues the option to continue on without me, even saying I’d initially help subsidize them until they got up and running. They chose not to do so, and they have gone their separate ways. In the meantime, I started a new company, smaller and leaner, to focus on my own clients without the distractions of office politics. It was a brutal decision, but the correct one nonetheless, certainly for myself and most likely for my colleagues as well.

What do you think it is that makes you successful?

I work my ass off.

What has been your most satisfying moment in business?

Earning the trust of both Harry Belafonte and Howard Zinn.

What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?

Well, there appears to be an endless appetite to manufacture content by viewers from around the world, and since most of that content requires a director, we’re in relatively good shape. Furthermore, it’s refreshing to see the growing diversity of voices contributing to the narratives. There’s only an upside to this trajectory.

What business books have inspired you?

“All the President’s Bankers,” by Nomi Prins. “An Empire of Their Own,” by Neil Gabler. “Manufacturing Consent,” by Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Never think anyone is a real friend.

Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?

I’ve mentored many over the years. Often times I warn them NOT to do as I, since being honest and ethical is seldom, if ever, reciprocated; in fact, I’d go as far as to warn them their righteousness could be interpreted as being WEAK by today’s plutocratic, greedy leaders and wannabe leaders. But I’d then go on to say this tide is reversible, so if they wanna join up and be prepared to hit back when bullies naively misread them, I would forever be loyal and supportive. And on a far lighter note, I encourage them to have patience, work very, very hard, push themselves to be the best they can, always help others and trust your employers and your colleagues will notice.