A business with four offices spread across 5000 miles doesn’t lend itself naturally to a single company Christmas Party.
By the summer of 2003, however, it was feeling increasingly important that we have one. The Whitehouse had coordinated over 1000 employee travel nights that year. As a result a lot of people knew a lot of people. But Chris and I had come to realize that we were the only two that knew everyone in the company. It was time for that to change.
If you’re going to throw a party for a group of people aged between 18 and 45, there’s really only one city in the world to choose. Las Vegas.
We split four offices onto eight flights, and after a welcome dinner groups had disappeared to the five corners of Las Vegas for a day and a half armed with one simple request. Be at the House of Blues elevator at 6pm.
The theme was 'Stars celebrating Stars'. We had Marilyn Monroe, Cher and Robert DeNiro lookalikes waiting to greet the staff. We had Sinatra and Elvis impersonators waiting to perform. We had videos, speeches and awards. But in my heart, I knew that getting 90 people to leave behind everything else that Vegas had to offer so they could be waiting for an elevator to be unlocked at 6pm was a fantasy.
If you’ve ever heard the song, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” you’ll have some sense of how I felt at a few minutes past six that evening. Every single person was standing in line. They wanted to be with each other more than they wanted to be in Vegas. It was in every way the definition of the kind of company Chris and I had hoped to create.
It was quite literally a moment when our dream came true.
An hour later we photographed the Whitehouse on the balcony at the top of the Mandalay Bay, with the Las Vegas Strip as a backdrop. It was December 13, 2003. Every picture captures a moment in time. This one speaks for itself.
We rode the energy of Las Vegas into an extraordinary 2004. We made some changes that were necessary but painful. But as Rick said to me (he’s a quote machine and a lot of them have stuck with me) ‘the air gets thinner the higher you go.’
The needs of a company change as it grows, and you have to be ever vigilant for seeing when employees have stopped growing with you. Support them, teach them, nurture them and review them honestly. But at some point, no matter how much you wish it otherwise, the company outgrows some people and you have to support the efforts of everyone else by letting go.
We refined our sales network, added an entirely new level of technical infrastructure to the company so we could move media between L.A. and London in a matter of hours (delivering still further on our commitment to being ‘fluid’) and edited more and more noteworthy advertising. Technology should be used to translate a philosophy into practice and in Dan McGraw, our CTO, we had a brilliant translator.
In June we took a large group of people to the Cannes Advertising Festival for the first time and saw for ourselves the breadth and depth of our connection to the industry. It was an extraordinary four days, which came to a close at the Awards Gala on Saturday night. Our work was everywhere. At Cannes every award carries a set number of points. The film production company that earns the most points that year is the winner of the Palme D’Or - the best production company in the world. I added up our points total. It was double that of the winner of the Palme d’Or.
Getting recognition for the work of film editing companies is notoriously hard. It took nearly three years before I convinced the AICP to include the film editor credit on every award they gave out at their annual show. At one point I offered to sponsor the credit. I didn’t just want our editors listed. I wanted every editor listed. I figured that if the craft itself was finally taken seriously, I’d take our chances on our name appearing more than anyone else’s. I think companies worry too much about the competition. Be aware. But don't be defensive. You can't win unless you believe in what you're doing. And if you don't, change it.
There is no Palme d’Or for editing companies. But the results at Cannes that year were a measurement that meant a lot to me. It was third-party recognition of our creative capacity. A definition of ‘best’ that was hard to dispute. And for Chris and I, when we combined the results of Cannes with that incredible night in Las Vegas, it was the beginning of the end of our Whitehouse journey.
The year finished on a high. We had our biggest and most profitable year and Chris and I scheduled a trip to each office’s Christmas party. We had collectively resisted the temptation to try to repeat Vegas immediately. A night like that needs to draw a less stark comparison than a follow-up event would have been able to withstand a year later. People’s anticipation needed to grow again.
Since our first year, we had made it a point to go round the room at every office party and thank everyone personally. Over time, David had taken over responsibility in Los Angeles and that year for the first time, John did it in London. They were both clearly comfortable and increasingly in their element. As part of each evening Chris talked about the local charities the company had supported that year. We talked on the way home from London about the impact the company was having on lives beyond its 16 walls. It was a tradition that was now embedded in each office.
I made a short speech at each party to provide the overall company perspective. It felt different. Not quite unnecessary. But no longer essential. The company was connected in so many ways that we no longer had to be the glue that held it together, or the oil that eased the way.
2005 got off to a good start. Billings were up, we did some noteworthy work in the first couple of months, and our management team had hit their stride. We were spending time fine tuning and maintaining. Neither is my strength.
On a cold and rainy Saturday in early March, I was driving out to the suburbs in Chicago to hit some golf balls at an indoor driving range. “I Made It Through the Rain” came on the radio and I started to cry.
Growing a business is personal. Intensely personal. And if you knew what you were in for, you’d probably never try. But eleven years later, through all the ups and downs, we had done what we set out to do. And then some. By any standard I cared about, the last twelve months had proved to me we were the best editing company in the world.
I called Chris. The emotion in my voice was obvious. “I think we’ve done what we wanted to do here,” I said haltingly. “I think it’s time to go.” I love my wife. She’s the truest partner and best friend a man could have. And she understood immediately. “I think so too,” she said.
We thought about it for a week, and told our partners by email the following Sunday night. The Oscars were on television. We had edited several spots. I didn’t watch. We had pre-built the mechanisms and the valuation methodology for any partner who wanted to leave, and the negotiations took place quickly. Chris and I helped assemble the new management team, walked everyone through a transition plan, and we made the announcement over a 4-way in-house video conference. A lot of people were emotional. But no one was surprised. They knew the company had been built to last.
On our last day, less than two months after we had made the decision, I sent out an email to the Chicago office asking everyone if they’d mind leaving at 5:45pm for about half an hour. We had walked into the office on the first day with only our dog Harry for company, and we wanted to leave the same way. Harry (and later his sister Maya) had come to work with us every day in Chicago. They’d been part of the journey.
We walked room to room, remembering the construction, the conversations, the meetings, the laughter and the drama of each. Then one by one we turned off the lights, turned on the alarm and left. We stood on the street outside for about five minutes and hugged each other and cried. Then we drove home.
The next night the company threw us the most extraordinary party. They had made movies about us, prepared speeches, flown people in from every office, and said thank you in the most heartfelt way. We had bought presents for our now former partners and for Livio Sanchez and Sue Dawson, without whom it would never have happened.
Two days later we were on a plane to Europe, conscious that we needed to be somewhere else for a while so that the lack of emails and phone calls wouldn’t depress us. In fact, our process of giving ourselves true closure had worked incredibly well, and the transition to a life without the Whitehouse happened even more easily than we expected.
In the weeks that followed we quickly realized two things. We had moved on. And so had the Whitehouse.
We were glad. That was what we had wanted. That’s the way we had built it.
It was time to start a new chapter.
“To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”