Fred Seibert is the king of downplay. He will be the first to tell you he doesn’t have a ton of skills—that his success is just something that happened to him and wasn’t the result of any calculated plan.
But Seibert can afford the humility, because his work often precedes him. Chances are, if you’ve watched television in the past 20 years, you’ve seen Seibert’s work. The MTV logo? Seibert. Nickelodeon in the late ‘90s? Also Seibert. Nick-at-Nite? Powerpuff Girls? Dextor’s Laboratory? Adventure Time? Seibert had a hand in them all.
Seibert was MTV’s first creative director, was tapped to turn around a nascent Nickelodeon in 1985, and then pushed Cartoon Network to develop beyond Scooby-Doo reruns.
The man also has a knack for picking talent, recognizing potential in unproven animators like Pendleton Ward, as well as investing early in Tumblr founder David Karp (where Seibert sat on the company’s board and was one of its first investors, a good place to be for a company that sold to Yahoo! for $1.1 billion).
Now Seibert is diving head first into online-only distribution with his animation studio Frederator, where he’s brewing up his very own House of Cards equivalent to spearhead a new era of animation. We spoke to Seibert in his mid-town Manhattan offices about how he seeks out collaborators, and how he keeps pushing himself into new territory, decades into his career.
You recognized the opportunity in cable before most people. The same could be said about you starting a web-first company before it was a sure thing. How do you tolerate risks like that without having a heart attack every night?
Who says I don’t? It’s mitigated risk. I am not a first mover. I’m more of a first follower. I’m going to be really obnoxious: I think I have talent. I don’t know that I have any skills. And I feel like what happens for me is if something is skill-based that needs to be done there is always better people than me to do it. So what is left for me is the problems that haven’t been solved. The problems that haven’t been solved are kind of risky but I approach them slowly. I say to my kids that I used to think I wasn’t competitive and then I found out I’m really, really competitive, but what I don’t do is compete in the scrum. Is everybody over here fighting it out? Then I’m over there finding my own way to wherever it is I gotta go. I really want to win. I really want to be the best at what it is that I’m doing, but if there is somebody else there, I don’t wanna be there. It’s not what I do.
How do you approach these risky ideas slowly, as you say?
I’m not a huge Bob Dylan fan but I enjoy in his biography when he talked about how he wrote a song. He would put in his head a melody, maybe it was an old blues melody and he would start putting words of his to it. And if they didn’t fit, he would change the melody, a little bit to fit his words. And he would just walk through the streets singing it in his head until it became a song. And I read this thing about Biggie, he did the exact same thing.
Well, I kinda work like that. Almost every idea I’m involved in that works, is one that I had been iterating over a long period of time. Piece by piece, slowly. Every idea I’ve ever had that really failed was one where I said, “that’s a great idea” and we would jump right into it. Jumping right into it where the rhyme isn’t fitting, that’s when the melody doesn’t work.
Your staff told me that you are constantly taking meetings, that it’s like a revolving door. Why?
I spend most of my day having conversations with people here at work. It’s like a shrink’s office. And at least 50 percent of them have nothing to do with business that day. I tell everybody: “I’ll see anyone who wants to see me.” Because you just never know what’s going to be a fun hour.
That policy was the result of some unique circumstances. I had this animation business in Los Angeles, but they’re three hours behind so they don’t open until noon eastern. I was in New York, so I couldn’t really do that work until noon. So I found myself having from eight in the morning to noon, and I just started talking to new people and most of those new people were young, internet-y kind of people. It is through that method that I eventually met [Tumblr founder] David Karp.
What is your process when you want to adjust the course of an existing brand or entity?
Have a set goal. And I really don’t know how to do much, so I have to reverse engineer how you get to that goal.
For example, Nickelodeon was the worst-rated cable network before you came on. So, you would say, “Our goal is to be just like reasonably competent in the middle of the pack?”
Completely. I had no idea how to get ratings, actually. Which is what they wanted, but I at the very least thought: “I can take this very dull place and I will have all the boys shooting spitballs with each other and the women will be up on their desks dancing by the time I leave.”
My belief was if you have a good time doing your work, great work will happen. I mean, yes, you have to hire competent people who have shared goals with you. But none of that matters if everyone is miserable. My next step was to bring all sorts of people into the process who you hope are experts at various things and then my next job is to listen to them. I synthesize everything they have to say and either re-establish a goal based on the new input that has come or just get out of the way so these people can do what they do fantastically.
One thing you caught onto very early was the concept of testing a bunch of cartoons before making an entire series, thus mitigating the risk. You must have felt like the old way of having a CEO just order a dozen episodes blindly before an audience sees it was crazy.
Exactly. So, I said to Nickelodeon, “Why don’t we do it that way? Why don’t we make one at a time?” Being a consultant can be very frustrating, because you think of your ideas as bright red balloons that like everyone looks at and they are happy and they think they are great, and your client thinks they are a loaf of bread where they can take the slice of bread that they want and then put the other two halves back and give it back to you and go “here!” So, they said, “Oh, we love that idea. We’ll do pilots!” I went, “Stop! I didn’t say anything about doing pilots.”
I was frustrated as their consultant and I would be seething that they were not doing it my way, because everybody wants to do it their way. By accident, four years later, Hanna-Barbera hires me. Ted Turner hired me to run it and I had this idea in my head. So I went to my boss and I said, “Here is what I want to do,” and I pitched the multiple cartoons idea. He says, “You can’t do it that way. That is not how it is done.” So, I started seething again. I almost quit.
So how did you get your way?
Well, to be honest with you, I was so insecure about the job. They gave me [company founder] Bill Hanna’s office. Literally. It was so big, and I was so scared because I knew I knew nothing. I went and sat on the couch and didn’t leave the couch for six months. I wouldn’t even sit at my desk. So when they told me, “That’s not how it is done,” I went, “I guess I’d better do it the way it’s done.” So, I ended up making two traditional cartoons. Which ended up being Two Stupid Dogs and SWAT Kats: The Radical Squadron.
We put it on the air and six weeks later, it failed. But in the back of my head was still this notion of doing the shorts. When you’re in a corporation trying to raise money or get a budget, it is like a date. How do you persuade the date to go on another date with you and, by the way, give you $10 million to do it? What I did was tried to come up with logic. [Cartoon Network founder] Ted Turner is an entrepreneur so I said to him: “$10 million against two projects. Both of them failed within weeks. Ted how about we spend $10 million a different way? What if I gave you a way to try something 48 times? Don’t you think that the odds of success would be better?” And he looked at me and very logically said, “Well, you didn’t do so well with the first two, what makes you think you are going to do well on these?” I said, “Ted, how stupid would I have to be? If I do this 50 times, one of them has to turn out right.” Ted, the entrepreneur, looked at me and went, “Right.” In every relationship, you are trying to figure out a way to get over with the other person.
Would you say it is really important to know the person on the other side while also being flexible?
Once you have agreed to be in a room with another person, yes. It’s like living on your own, you brush your teeth the way you want to. If you now have a roommate or a significant other, you have to create an environment where the two of you can exist. Now, if you are in a room with a thousand people, you have to vibe with a thousand people.
Doesn’t that counter the idea of the stubborn creative that pushes the individual idea through?
There’s value to that, too. I had another business where my first partner sold out to a corporation. Now all of a sudden I have a corporate partner. And they were driving me absolutely crazy, and I’m a pretty levelheaded guy. But these people, they were driving me nuts. And in the middle of a phone call once they just said something that set me off. I stood up at my desk. I just started screaming on this conference call, I started screaming. I was sharing our office with Tumblr at that point. They literally all got up and left. They had never heard me raise my voice. We get to the end of the thing and I get what I want and I called my wife. She worked in the record business for 25 years, and I told her what had happened. And she said, “You know, it’s about time you started acting like talent.” Because one of the things she learned working with talented people is that sometimes they do go a little haywire, but they need to get their point across.
The logical, friendly, calm way isn’t always the most persuasive way. Sometimes you really just gotta go off the handle, make them realize you’re really serious.
You have a history of recognizing young talent. People like Tumblr founder David Karp, “Adventure Time” creator Pendleton Ward, and others. What are the characteristics that make you say, “I want to work with this person. I will take a second meeting with this person?”
To be honest with you, I’ll take a second meeting with almost anybody. You would be shocked how many people don’t come back. Again, it’s kind of like dating. You know, the person who wants the second date is sometimes more valuable than the person you think was the right person.
So what sets Pendleton Ward and David Karp apart?
David is a guy who I can have a conversation with and I would feel differently at the end of the conversation. He stands up for his vision. I have failed with a company. I think that one of the reasons was that when we had a group of investors, and I really believed that the directions that some of our investors were pushing us in were the wrong directions at the wrong time, we still tried to accommodate them, because having worked for others for a living, we were more accommodating than I think we should have been.
Whereas, one of those investors was shared in common over at Tumblr and I was on the board over there. A different lead investor, but the same person, and when I would be in a board meeting with Tumblr and they would go, “How about this?” David Karp who is very polite would think about it and go, “Nope,” and just keep doing what he was doing and they did not say anything. If I had done that before, maybe we would have had different results.
After we decided to do Adventure Time, Pen came in a few weeks later with another cartoon that my development team in LA really liked. And my team really wanted to do it, and Pen really wanted it, too. But my reaction was “I don’t know.” We go through this for like a half hour and I just can’t get there.
God bless Pen, he looks at me and goes, “You know it’s really okay if you don’t like it. I’ll come up with another one.” He’s a confident—I would almost say fearless—creative person. He never feels like this is the only idea. And those are the people I love working with. Weeks later, he came back with Bravest Warriors, and it has been one of our most successful series. From my perspective a lot of what makes him special is just coming back. A lot of people I’ve said no to their cartoon would say, “screw him!” and they’d never come back.
So what’s next for Frederator?
We launched a short, with a woman named Natasha Allegri called Bee and PuppyCat over last summer. It was one of a dozen shorts that we had greenlit. Our audience went crazy and it was a cartoon that I never could’ve sold into the movies or the traditional television world, because it’s a cartoon for teenage and young adult women. The conventional wisdom is that that group will not watch cartoons.
It is odd hearing you say that. Because everyone I know who is a big fan of “Adventure Time” is a young woman.
Exactly. Well by the way, Cartoon Network didn’t want to make Adventure Time to be attractive to women. They tried to get rid of [the female characters of] Princess Bubblegum and Marceline.
Did “Adventure Time” purposefully go against the grain then? You guys famously have a group of episodes where the show switches the gender of every character. Like the heroes “Finn and Jake the dog” become “Fionna and Cake the cat.”
Well, Natasha invented the Fionna episodes even though she’s low on the totem pole at Adventure Time. She’s also a webcomics person. She was already on Adventure Time but yet still made a fan comic for the show she was working on. That’s how she made Fionna and Cake. We loved it, we put it on our Tumblr, and it went insane. We said, “Can you do another one?” It went insane. We did a third one, same thing. So now we convinced Cartoon Network to do a Fionna and Cake episode. What happened? It was the highest rated episode in the history of Adventure Time, it spawned its own licensing.
But when it comes time for her to come up with her own cartoons, they don’t really wanna make one with her. They took other people from the Adventure Time crew. So Natasha came over to us. They never would have made Bee and PuppyCat. It stars a girl. It’s for 20-somethings. Who’s gonna make that? Well, we’re just dumb enough to make it. So we make it. Our audience goes crazy. We made one short. Well, it ended up being two. Our audience, which was unusual for the internet jumps from 70/30 male/female to 50/50. And the excitement was palpable, and not just from young girls. My wife, who is in her 50s, said, “This is the best thing you’ve done since the Powerpuff Girls.” Natasha spoke a language that a whole group of disenfranchised people, women, had never heard spoken in animation.
This is before Frozen became a phenomenon. And I guarantee you, everyone’s gonna try to knock off Frozen and fail. They’re gonna go back to saying, “Only boys like animation.” My goal next year when we launch in the Fall is how are we going make Bee and PuppyCat the Beavis and Butt-Head of the new generation? How do we make it House of Cards for animation?