22 Sep Monica Davidson – Woman of Influence
In 2013, I enrolled in a three-day course at AFTRS* – Running Your Own Creative Business – designed and facilitated by Monica Davidson. My life has never been quite the same since.
Five years later I requested an interview. Here’s some of what Monica shared with me.
How would you describe yourself?
If I were giving the corporate answer, or the elevator pitch, I would say that I’m the director of a social enterprise called Creative + Business.
Our sole purpose is to educate creative practitioners – in particular – to help sole practitioners develop their own business skills so they can make money and love their work.
But really, I kind of also consider myself to be like a tour guide. I essentially take creative people and escort them to ‘suit world’.
And I say look at all the things in ‘suit world’. Here are some things you might want to incorporate into your own life. Now come away, come away from ‘suit world’.
Let’s all go back to art world where we’re all much more comfortable, because I am from art world.
But I have lived in ‘suit world’ for a significant period of time. I am bilingual. I understand both cultures and can be the bridge between them.
What do you consider the main differences between ‘suit world’ and art world?
(Ponders) I think one of the major differences is motivation. I think that people who run businesses in ‘suit world’ are primarily motivated by financial reward – profit margins; perhaps some form of social reward; doing a job that will make them money; helping them look after their families or fit it in with whatever their family expectations were, or whatever.
And if any of that sounds judgemental I really don’t mean it to be, because I think that’s perfectly fine.
Motivation in art world is totally different. None of our parents were lying awake at night hoping that we’d become musicians because it was going to make for a safe and happy life, you know. And we’re not generally motivated by financial reward either.
Certainly, we would like to make enough money to support ourselves, but our financial motivations are generally quite modest.
So the motivation is something much deeper, much more personal and much harder to describe in a society that doesn’t value the arts.
Part of what we do – and a very profound part of what we do – is simply validate that what somebody wants is possible.
What do you most like about the creative life?
I think the thing I most like about the creative life is that I couldn’t live any other kind of life. So really, this is my only alternative and I’m really kinda enjoying it.
It never occurred to me to have a different kind of life. I’ve never even entertained the notion of being anything other than what I am.
And I blame my parents. They were very creative, very artistic, very keen on me finding my own path through life; very supportive and not judgemental when my path turned out to be writing, and then later, filmmaking.
Quite famously these days, I think, when I told my mother – I was probably about eight or nine – I wanted to be a writer, she said; “but you already are”.
And I mean, with that kind of support really, there was no chance I was going to turn around and go; actually I think I’ll be an accountant (laughs) especially because I suck at maths.
I have to interrupt and say that following a full day on tax in Monica’s three-day course, her maths is fine – even better her knowledge of tax; and of the tax system, prodigious!
What I like about it too, is my connectivity to the world and the people in that world, my connectivity to the stories of the people in the world, and – on a more selfish note – my connectivity to my ‘child brain’.
Because all children are creative, but there’s a point at which children are discouraged from being creative.
There’s a point at which we are told not to draw; or dance; or sing; or play, because it’s silly – or it’s not going to be a good job or any of those sorts of things.
And those of us who are creative for a living didn’t listen.
If I can look into that a bit more, could you give me a snapshot of how you moved from writing, into filmmaking and ended up here with Creative + Business?
It never really occurred to me to be anything other than a writer, and in fact, I dedicated my first book to my Year Five teacher.
Mr. Roberts told me I could turn my gift for writing into a job. He was the first person who actually told me it was a profession. I told him I would dedicate my first book to him and I did.
And your first book was?
Freelancing for Dummies.
And happily, because I grew up in a small town, I was able to find Mr. Roberts and send him a copy. And he cried when I rang him. So words were always going to be part of my story, but I am a mad film buff.
So the way I would describe it is that writing is my one true love and film is my crazy passion. I am professionally polyamorous and have maintained the two my whole life.
If I spend too much time with my one true love I get bored, and if I spend too much time with my passion I get tired. So it’s good to have a balance between the two.
Again, my mother was quite integral to that decision. I was sixteen, we were watching the Oscars – I have always watched movies – even multiple times.
And I said to my mother, “I think I’d like to win an Oscar one day.” And my mother said, “well; you should go and do that then.”
I then shifted all my focus on becoming a filmmaker. I studied writing and filmmaking at uni and always supported one habit with the other; early film work as a freelance journalist, supported my writing by working as crew on films.
I wanted to write and direct. That was always the goal. I directed my first feature film when I was 23.
And what was that film?
It was a dreadful little film that I prefer not to name, because it actually birthed everything that happened after that.
I directed the film and the film didn’t get released and part of the reason why the film didn’t get released was that the producer of the film was an <expletive> who ended up exploiting everybody and not paying people properly and more.
So the film never got released, which I subsequently found out is not all that rare. It happens all the time, but the experience was so devastating.
It taught me in a very real and tangible way how important business is, because up until that point I hadn’t really thought about it.
I just thought what I had to be was clever and creative and that magical things would just happen for me. It never occurred to me that I might need to learn about contracts, negotiation, money or setting myself up as a business.
So I’m very grateful to that <expletive>, because he was the one who made me realise. He exploited me; and it was my fault. I created the scenario in which I was exploitable.
He pinpointed me. He knew exactly what he was doing. I thought he picked me to be the director of his film because I was young and clever. And I still hope that was part of the reason.
But I also now know he picked me because I was exploitable.
By the time we met you were facilitating Running Your Own Creative Business, probably 20 years after that feature film experience. Can you fill in the gaps?
My very first workshop was called Freelance Survival and I ran that in 1995.
I had the horrible experience with the film in 1993 and by ‘95 I was ready to share my experience with other people.
I didn’t know very much, but I’d set up my own production company in that interim period. I’d learned everything the hard way, and more to the point, I’d shaped my learned knowledge into something I could share with other people – and backed it up with research to give it a bit more spine.
I ran my first workshop for people who were only slightly less experienced than me.
But I also brought in some guest speakers to talk, and people I knew who had more experience than me. That was a three-hour workshop on a Saturday morning in Redfern. It sold out. People loved it.
How many people did you have?
About 20. And I thought, “I’m onto something.” I was still working primarily as a filmmaker and a writer, but I kept developing the idea, sharing it.
The biggest issue I’ve always had with my goal to educate creative people about business is that my core audience – or my core clients – have no money.
Or if they have money; they need to spend it on other things like food. And I like money. And I wanted to be able to charge lots of money for what I was doing.
But I couldn’t do that with people who don’t have money – critical business case flaw.
So then my focus was – and still is – about partnering with other organisations who have money and are also invested in helping creative people.
In the early days that was the Sydney Community College. They were absolutely fantastic. They took the gamble on Freelance Survival, which was later called Freelance Success – a dramatic branding shift there. (laughs)
Yeah well, because nobody wants to survive, everyone wants to succeed. And by that stage, I considered myself to be a bit of a success.
So Freelance Success was born in 1996 and I’m grateful to Sydney Community College for giving it a shot, because it was really out of the ballpark of what everyone else was doing.
And I’d been shopping the idea around to a few other partners who said; “well creative people don’t need to learn about business.”
And I’m thinking – “ah, dah! We do!”
I ran it once and it was really successful. Sydney Community College said: “Great are you able to do it again.”
And I said, “that’s absolutely awesome.”
I told them, “I’m going to have a baby in a minute, are you okay to hang on?”
They said, “absolutely fine!”
So I partnered with them and ran it quite a few times between having all these kids – three, including twins.
I was still writing and making films when you and I met in 2013, which I did until 2014.
Then I decided to close my production company.
That was Two Shot Media.
Yes. Two Shot Media had been my main source of income; making corporate films, branded content, funded documentaries, all kinds of things.
In 2014 I decided to focus all of my attention on this.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve had so much good advice that’s it hard to… Well, the best advice I’ve ever received…was from Winston Churchill: “if you’re going through hell, keep going.”
“Because this too shall pass.” – original unconfirmed.
That’s what our rollercoaster is for <insert rollercoaster image>. When you’re in the dip of the roller coaster, you’re not allowed to make any decisions.
All you’re allowed to do is keep going forward. In fact all the good advice I’ve taken on board is all around the same theme: just keep going.
Keep going until you get out of hell, and then re-evaluate whether you want to keep going after that.
In that case, what’s the best advice you think you’ve ever given someone?
Because I give advice for a living, I’m always really intrigued by the bits that people really remember and take away.
I meet people all the time who – because I’ve now been doing this for such a long time, 25 years – people who say things like; “I’ll never forget when you said this one thing, and repeat it back to me. And I think:
“Oh yeah, I did say that, but I don’t think of it as being particularly overwhelming, you know.”
I always remember you telling me you shouldn’t be running your own business if you’re not comfortable with only being able to project your income three months into the future.
And to watch out for the reality police. It’s true, they’re everywhere; asking when you’re going back to get a ‘real’ job. A perfect time to ask what inspires you during the tough times?
The capacity that human beings have to get through hell. I just think human beings are wonderful, magical, creative creatures; even the horrible ones.
I’m constantly inspired by just the way humans are with each other. And it’s really easy to focus on the way humans are with each other in a negative way – certainly the news media would always make us focus on that.
But today on the bus, there was a man – probably in his early 20s – who had all the piercings and looked kinda scary.
And an older gentleman got on the bus. And scary, pierced dude got up and let nice older man sit down. And they had a lovely moment of exchange. And that’s just going to make me happy all day.
How do you take an idea from blueprint to end result?
I always think about what it’s going to look like at the end. And I will spend days, weeks, months, years, making a movie in my head of what the end looks like.
So when I started thinking about writing books, I made a movie of myself buying my book in a bookshop.
I visualise what success looks like and then I just focus on that. And if I still want that, I keep focusing on that; and if I don’t want that anymore, I stop.
How do you know when you don’t want it anymore?
When the fire is gone. When it doesn’t drive you forward any more, when I’m nervous about it all; then I pivot and I change.
When I was young I used to focus on versions of my success that were not really within my control, like winning an Oscar.
Now – and certainly for the last 15-20 years – I’ve been much more focused on versions of my success, which are within my control.
Winning an Oscar for the movie is not my goal, finishing the <expletive> movie is my goal.
And I have found that way of looking at the world much more empowering.
It just didn’t make sense to me to be so invested in something that was beyond my control, because I didn’t have any influence over it.
It’s a bit like placing one foot before the next.
I like to use the analogy of planning a holiday, in Paris! If Paris is the goal, then you just have to plot out how to get there.
What do I have to do first to get there? Which is how I get everything I want – except, sometimes it takes decades!
What’s the biggest difference you’ve seen in the creative industries over the past 25 years?
I think that people have started to take us seriously now. That’s only been a recent change. I think that we have always taken ourselves seriously up to a point.
And the more other people take us seriously, the more we take ourselves seriously and it’s a virtual circle.
It’s still hard. There are still people who don’t believe that what we do is valuable, and I spend a lot of time in that world because that’s where I make my money. That’s where I get my funding from.
So I get to have lots of different interesting meetings where they say; “Oh, the arts. That’s not really business is it?”
And I say, “well, what is that you’d be sitting on?
Would that be a chair that someone designed?
What are you wearing?
Is that a suit that someone designed?
Oh, what are you reading, words that somebody wrote?
Are you going home to watch Netflix?
Oh, I think somebody made that.”
What’s the most interesting reaction you’ve ever had to responses like that?
If they’re not to be convinced they just look at me blankly. And that’s probably the way that I tell.
I’m all about trying to see whether the person I’m talking to can be persuaded, and you learn pretty quickly when it’s a waste of everybody’s time.
But, I have had some lovely moments where I’ve been talking to people like that and they’ve realised, had that moment of going:
“Oh, wow, yeah, actually I’d never thought about it that way before. And I think that’s why my focus was – and always will be – education.
I consider everything we do here [Creative +Business] to be education in some form. I spend a lot of time educating non-creative people about the value of what we do, and then asking them for money. (laughs)
How has social media affected your business?
It’s changed my business completely.
In what way?
It’s just given me a much broader reach. Now we work all over Australia and soon it will be international.
And current projects?
Creatively speaking, I’m just going to get my film done. Business-wise I have just completed what will more or less be the first of 12 books in a series.
We’re launching two online courses by the end of the year about some of the key elements of what we do. And we’re releasing a Podcast called Don’t Get a Real Job.
In August 2019, we’ll be launching the first ArtBiz conference – two days in Sydney, talking about business – specifically for creative people.
And then we’re hoping to franchise that and take it all over the world. It’s good to do scary things. If I’m not doing scary things in business, I’m not doing it properly.
I’m always trying to find new ways to frighten myself! (laughs, again and frequently)
Who is your ideal client?
You are! Someone who is willing to learn, willing to be challenged, open to suggestion and willing to do their homework and get excited about the scary bits.
And Monica – Woman of Influence?
Well, I’ve got a certificate and it says it and everything.
What I’d like to do is be a frock-wearing, champagne-quaffing overlord.
What I’d really like to do – my goal for the business – and really my unified goal for the team, is to just ensure more opportunities for me to swan around in a frock, convincing people to give us lots of money.
That’s the goal.
That’s what I do these days anyway, and get paid well for it.
And the funny thing is – again – that I don’t think I’m ever saying anything particularly groundbreaking. But for the people hearing it, sometimes it is groundbreaking.
Everything I do is just storytelling. And my particular gift is taking true things and turning them into a story.
I do that as a documentary maker.
I do that as a journalist and I do that as a business consultant – creative interpretation of fact.
A beguiling story that helps people to learn something or persuades people to think in a different way.
*Australian Film Television and Radio School