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Los Angeles Trek - December 2010
by Ben Stretch  · February 16, 2011

To say I was a little apprehensive about what was awaiting us upon arrival in Los Angeles is perhaps a significant understatement. The first semester at LBS had been extraordinarily busy – and we hadn’t had the opportunity to give much thought to the LA trip until it was literally upon us.


Chris Rice and Mark Shmulik (both MBA2011s) were both on exchange at UCLA’s Anderson School for the semester, and had taken on the challenge of organizing the trek. None of us had actually met Chris or Mark before - but we had some comfort in that the email contact we had had with them suggested there were some pretty special things planned for the week. The schedule and the general plan for the week had been kept heavily cloaked. In true LBS style, we sat the Financial Accounting exam on the Saturday morning on the last day of semester – and literally three hours later, we were bound for LA.


It’s worth stating from the outset that we always knew we were going to have a tough week from the moment that Chris dropped us a line from LA with a request for a contribution of funds to pay for our room reservations. He’d booked us all in at the W Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard for the week. I hope that you can read between the lines and sense my ‘un poco raro’ (Spanish for ‘a little strange’) sense of humor. After one semester of Spanish, that’s probably the most significant phrase I can recall. I bring this up because within a few minutes of my arrival at LAX, where Spanish signs are everywhere – I realized just how little I actually had managed to learn thus far.


Revealed in its full glory, our schedule for the week was nothing short of remarkable, and extraordinarily impressive in terms of the breadth and quality of meetings. From my perspective, one of the most important aspects of the trek’s design that made it such a fantastic experience was the focus of the trek on being an educational, eye-opening, mind-expanding experience; as opposed to an exercise in intern recruitment. That subtle, but significant shift in focus had enormous impact on the quality of our meetings and the willingness of our speakers to engage in frank and open discussion about the state of affairs in the media industry. After all, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is perhaps one of the most exciting (and challenging) times to be a media executive.


Chris and Mark had sought to engage speakers with significant experience in the industry.  We were extremely fortunate in who they managed to secure. Our great line-up of speakers spanned the media industry, including media-focused venture capital, advertising, online video, start-ups, movie studios, talent agencies and cable networks.  The full list of companies included: 


-      Electronic Arts

-      Mr. Harry Sloan (former Chairman and CEO of MGM)

-      William Morris Endeavour

-      Topspin Media

-      IMAX

-      Avail TVN

-      Hulu

-      Lionsgate

-      Mailroom Fund

-      NBC Universal

-      Steamboat Ventures

-      Warner Bros


Every meeting had its nuances and unique contribution to our understanding of the industry. To give you a flavor of the quality of the people we had the fortune of spending an hour or so with, let me share a little about our experience with Ian Rogers of TopSpin. Ian has been at the cutting-edge of the evolution of the music industry. After walking us through an abridged history of the industry, he spent a significant amount of time sharing with us his thoughts on its future direction.


But that analysis and viewpoint wasn’t just a ‘here is what I think’ view. At one point, Ian jumped up and asked if anyone knew of Clay Christenson – the legendary Harvard Business School strategy professor. Clay has written a number of books – but is perhaps best known for ‘The Innovators Dilemma’. It was clear from our first moments with Ian that he lives and breathes everything to do with music and the entertainment industry in general. However, that didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of suddenly jumping into introducing the theory of Clay’s book to us in a short, five-minute snapshot - and then applying it neatly in the context of the state of play in today’s music industry. He then impressively extrapolated the theory to an explanation of why it supported his view of what would happen next. It was pretty stunning, and downright remarkable stuff. And I don’t think it would be too far from the truth to suggest he had a room full of seriously-impressed MBA students yearning for more.


But the week wasn’t all about listening and learning. We had long walks on the beach (no, not that kind at sunset), walks around the high hills looking down on the city – and some enormously entertaining nights out at the watering-hole (also known as a bar) across the road from our hotel. Some of us were lucky enough to make it back to our hotel rooms after a few hours there. Lucky onlookers driving south on Hollywood Boulevard at midnight were fortunate enough to share in the fun! We had dinner at some of the best establishments in the city – indeed, one evening we even shared the restaurant with Leonardo di Caprio himself.


On a more serious note, there were also some really cool moments on the trek that I hadn’t anticipated. A couple of the trekkers had never been to LA, and in fact, one had never even been to the United States before. It was truly incredible and really special to be part of his week – and know that he’ll always remember his first experience in the US as being with his crew from LBS.


The week was, without any shadow of doubt, absolutely the best week of my MBA experience at London Business School thus far. I forged new friendships with a bunch of extraordinarily talented, intelligent and downright entertaining individuals who shared my interest and passions in everything media and technology related.


But it’s also important to note what it was that really made the week. Chris and Mark had every detail covered from start to finish. Transport, logistics, accommodation, eating, drinking and partying. Quite the set of tasks for two fellows who were busy with their own studies and responsibilities. Not to mention that LA is probably by far one of the most difficult cities in the world to work out how long it will take to get from one place to another. Yet we traversed the city with such perfect timing that it’s hard not to believe the rumor that Chris and Mark had Governor Arnie himself working the traffic in our favor.


We couldn’t have been luckier to have them as our leaders, not only for the trip – but as sources of much advice, insight and thought to us all. We gave them a small token of our appreciation at the end of the trek – but I hope that there will be other ways to show that appreciation in the future. As I reflected on the trek while writing this piece, it really made me think about what it really is that makes the MBA. Sometimes it can be about the professors, nice buildings, or great courses. But I have discovered thus far that more often than not – it’s about the incredible people you meet along the way who give up their time, offer their experience and expertise and own connections to empower others in their own journey of self-discovery.


If you have a passion for anything tech, media and/or telecom (TMT), you’d be crazy not to be part of this trek in future years. I’ve always believed in investing in yourself and your education. But that investment can come in different forms. Dollars paid to turn up to classes is one way.   Dollars down to spend an unforgettable week in a foreign city with a bunch of awesome, now-life-long friends is another.


Ben Stretch