When I was six months pregnant, I was presented with the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and lead Huge's West Coast operations. It was the perfect escape hatch from the daunting task of trying to plan how to raise a kid in New York. My husband and I packed up and loaded our new family onto a plane headed for L.A. the day my maternity leave ended.
When I first started at Huge 10 years ago, I remember one of our creative directors saying that it was "career suicide" to move to L.A. if you worked in digital. Heading West was seen as a soft, silly thing to do. You'd be exiling yourself from the heart of everything: the best projects, the real talent, the "edge" that we all craved. All for what? Surfing?
I knew that perception had softened, and I fully expected to see other agency folks starting or growing a family on the East Coast drawn to the lifestyle–and yards—that a move to L.A. affords. What's surprised me in the two years since I've arrived here is the amount of talent we've been able to attract at every age and every career stage from across the country. It's not just 30- and 40-somethings looking to move their baby's crib out of the hallway of their Brooklyn Heights apartment; it's young hip kids at the top of their agency game with no plans for breeding or settling down in the near future.
It's not career suicide anymore. In fact, the younger and edgier transplants take the most pride in declaring L.A. the new "new." So what's changed?
First, I know it's been fashionable for probably 100 years to bemoan life in New York and how expensive, cramped, hectic and competitive it is. And since I moved there in 1997, folks have been talking about it losing its grit. But, to a certain extent I think it's come to a head. You can barely afford to live anywhere near the "heart" of things on a junior salary, and neighborhoods that even 10 years ago were gritty outposts are now posh enclaves for bankers and the business elite. It's just not as cool as it was, so you don't have the same anxiety about bailing.
And the work you get as a digital agency on the West Coast has changed dramatically in the last decade as well. In Los Angeles specifically if you look at the dominant industries, both automotive and entertainment have shifted from relatively old-school business models to being at the center of conversations around innovation. Even if you're working with a more established company, their eyes are on the Netflixes and the Teslas, and the focus is on how digital can transform and establish competitive advantage.
You also see technology companies—and tech investors—establishing themselves in L.A., which brings both an interesting new set of potential clients to the table and an influx of talent and leadership that has an engineering and tech background. This makes me pretty confident that the change we're seeing is sustainable—an evolution, not a flash in the pan. With technology leadership, talent and dollars, the type of work agencies are able to do here will continue to grow more diverse and interesting.
The final ingredient is the culture factor. The rest of the country loves to joke about L.A. as a vapid, cultureless land of starlet wannabes and Botox, which has almost certainly never been true, but is even less so today. In addition to agency folks, startups and tech companies flowing here, it's been well documented that creative types from artists to bands are settling in L.A. as home.
However, the very fact that there's a perception that L.A. doesn't have culture gives it that bit of an underdog reputation that makes people feel like there's something to be discovered and created here. I think "culture" in L.A. is more inclusive and accessible than in New York. It feels like it's alive and developing, and you can be part of it. I think it's almost the same for agency life —N.Y. is big, it's powerful and it's established. L.A. now has the culture, the clients and the scale to be a viable destination for your career, but it still has that sense of uncharted territory where you can pave your own path.
At last count, 50 percent of the 120 people that make up Huge's L.A. office were relocations from the East Coast, some internal transfers and a significant number of new hires. Only three of them surf.
Patricia Korth-McDonnell (@iampkm) is partner, managing director, West Coast, Huge.