Dawn Thomas began her career on Wall Street while working on her law degree. Early on in her career in corporate law, Thomas realized she had a passion for storytelling, earned a masters in new media business, and landed a job working in talent development, and film and television finance with Beverly Hills-based Creative Artists Agency. She later became a top executive in Will Smith’s production company working on story development and production for a variety of projects, including the 2007 film “I Am Legend.”
Thomas was recently recruited to join Zambezi, a creative agency headquartered in Los Angeles, as their first head of culture strategy and innovation. She spoke with Crain’s Los Angeles about how she shifted her focus from corporate law to film and television development, and her passion for technology and culturally sensitive and narrative driven approaches to marketing and branding.
Q: Tell me about your early career?
I noticed in college that I was obsessed with analytics. I liked to process things. Law school made a lot of sense to me.
I was obsessed with corporate law, I was obsessed with corporate transactions. I liked the thoughtful analytical process of building the business. I landed at a bank doing derivatives and hedge funds and I loved it. Through law, I found the categories that made the most sense to me and they had everything to do with corporate structures and corporate transactions.
Q: Why did you move to LA and how did you make the transition to the entertainment industry?
I read this book by Richard Branson called “Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way.” It’s hilarious, heartwarming and motivating and I was inspired. I had been a huge book person. I didn’t understand Hollywood or this world of music, but I loved his ethos, this idea of going into uncharted spaces and being ubiquitous in brand, and it just connected with me and I think that’s what made me make the shift out of banking. While in law school, I picked up my masters degree from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in media in business. So while I was doing banking, tech was really booming and I was learning to code back then, and I just felt like, let me jump ship and get into the tech space. From New York, I went in-house in Chicago and Miami to a tech startup owned by Equity Group Investments.
After about a year of doing that, I thought, is there something [in] media business I could do? I reached out to alumni of the Newhouse program in Hollywood. I said to the alumni: I’ll come out for two weeks, and will you take 15-20 minutes with me. About 12 people said yes. They were executives at film studios and production companies. At the end of two weeks, I had an offer at William Morris Agency and CAA. And I said, maybe I’ll make the switch and this is my chance to see if storytelling works me.
Q: What was working for Will Smith’s production company, Overbook Entertainment, like?
After two years at CAA in various divisions, I realized I wanted to work with somebody who had a mentality like Richard Branson, who saw themselves as someone capable of doing a wide range of things with an incredible persona. Will is really that guy. We connected through his partner, James Lassiter. At the time, it was a very small company and James is the other half of the brains behind Overbrook. Working there was intense because there were so few people, and I immediately got placed into developing high level scripts.
By the time I got to Overbrook, I knew what it required to build good stories structurally. But what I learned is how to work with talent, which is a totally different skill set. … Writers create something out of thin air and they are creating worlds, people and conversations that don’t exist and somehow make sense of it. And my job was to go in and say I have this breadth of books and story knowledge. I’ve read many classics, am a master of comic books and the graphic novel game. I know what the market is doing. I watch everything. How do I blend my understanding with the needs of the studio, and the needs of the actor, of Will? … It’s different than just working at a studio when you work with an actor. You have to be mindful of them.
The years I was there it was learning to balance all of that: awareness of the market needs for the studio, which are often different than what the writer wants to accomplish. The job was great at Overbrook. It was so small I could transition from developing the script to being on set. That is quite unusual in Hollywood.
Q: How does being woman of color affect how you engage with the creative and branding industries?
As a black woman, when I look to culture, I see a powerful imprint from my community and I am passionate about that. I explore all aspects of culture--as many as I can get my hands on. I love music created by African-Americans as much as I love country music. I love all kinds of creativity. I am sensitive about misappropriation as an African-American person, so I think it just goes back to authenticity.
I’m sensitive about brand’s honoring culture, the outcome of creativity as much as the creator. I try to make sure I diversify those experiences so I can introduce brands to a wider range of cultural creators because I’m in that group of people that don’t necessarily fit top of mind but have such a potent impact on culture itself. It’s about diversifying the relationships brands have with cultural creators.
Q: What is your biggest challenge?
The thing I struggle with is continuing to keep a great, bold mantra, and continuing to attract people who honor that so I can really fulfill whatever my purpose is. I think a lot of women struggle with that and struggle with that in predominantly male spaces. I think you feel like there is a box you’re in and you have to sit in that box because it’s easier and it’s less complicated.
I hate boxes. I genuinely hate them. The moment I know you are going to give me one, we have a problem. I prefer a dashed line so I know there is space to breath. Especially when you are dealing with culture, something as enigmatic and omnipotent as it is, I think it requires people who play in that same space, and that’s what I try to be.