Lessons from Agencies to DC to AfterShock
Posted by Jim McLauchlin on November 15, 2021 @ 2:30 am CT
Steve Rotterdam has always tried to follow his North Star—pursue your passion.
Rotterdam was an Animal Science major in college on the veterinary track way back in the day, when he realized he was drifting from true North.
"I was having a lot more fun and getting more personal satisfaction from my minor, which was Communications," he says today.
Rotterdam ditched the lab coat, and focused on the human element. He got an internship and later became a college marketing specialist for Games magazine, then soon wound up with a copywriting gig at toy company.
From there, it was ad agencies, where he worked as a copywriter and creative director for brands such as Duracell, Jell-O, Nestle, and Hasbro.
In 2007, Rotterdam got a call from DC Comics, where he was hired as SVP of Sales and Marketing. That gig lasted until 2011, when Rotterdam tried to tie all his experience together into the Bonfire Agency, a marketing and promotions firm that tied non-entertainment companies into the entertainment sector.
"The idea", he says, "was to take everything I had ever learned and roll it into a service organization that would unite brands from outside comics and pop culture and provide genuine, authentic ways in to pop culture."
Today, Rotterdam is a SVP of Sales and Marketing again, this time at upstart publisher AfterShock Comics. He’s proud of his varied work history, and sees his many gigs as an asset. He’s been able to see things at different angles, but always from the same point of view.
"That’s something that I’ve tried to hang on to—engage in something and work on something that I have a personal passion for," he says.
FOLLOW A PASSION
Rotterdam thinks that work without purpose, fueled by passion, is an empty motion. It’s what sets him in motion.
"Engaging in something that I’m sincerely interested in propels me, probably makes me work harder on something that I might even have to," he says. "Advice I give to folks is, 'If you can’t pursue a passion, or gin up a passion for something you’re working on, then don’t go in that direction.' The amount of time, engagement and passion it will require… you’ll end up resenting it and resenting yourself if you don’t have a passion for it."
Rotterdam feels this applies across the board.
"I say that to people going into accounting," he says. "If you don’t have a passion for that kind of business, or for serving people and helping solve problems for people, then don’t pursue that. Go into something else."
PICK GOOD PARTNERS
But no man is an island, and Rotterdam twigged to this early in his creative career.
"My original training was as a copywriter," he says. "I’d write copy for ads, but the ads were nothing without a partner, an art director or a designer. Some of the best ads I produced had hardly any words in them at all, but the striking nature of the design made the message come through."
It sounds cliché, but Rotterdam is convinced—and convinced that you should be convinced—that life and business are team sports.
"I’ve relied on others in other disciplines in other creative fields for over 40 years, and I’m proud of that," he says. "I like working as part of a team. If you can trust your partners, that’s a rare, rare thing. There have been times where I’ve had doubts, or others have had doubts about me, but I know the folks I work with now have my back. And I always try to have theirs. That counts for a lot."
CREATE A ‘DO YOUR BEST’ ATMOSPHERE
And when Rotterdam has got to lead the team, he’s emphasized creative exploration.
"I’ve tried, whenever in a position of management or leadership, to encourage people to do their best and to take risks," he says. "When I first joined the design firm I was at just before I went to DC, it was a place where every hour had to be a billable hour. I literally had to give the art directors permission to play; to take a creative assignment and have some fun with it and explore some areas that may make no strategic sense initially, but may get you to someplace."
It may have looked like cul-de-sacs (and a lack of billable hours), but Rotterdam felt it was damn important work… that paid off.
"It’s great to get to an objective, but what along the way did you learn? What made you a stronger or more creative person?", he asks. "You may not find the place you need to go unless you try 10 other, different paths, and you don’t need to justify every hour working on a project as being on that path you eventually chose.
"I’ve always tried to give folks I work with permission to make mistakes, permission to lead somewhere else. I find that personally rewarding, and from a business standpoint, the work is often better that it would have been had you not gone in those different directions."
AVOID RUSHED DECISIONS
Rotterdam literally has this inscribed on a plaque he keeps in his office: "Don’t pull into port when the dock’s on fire." Let him explain:
"When I started Bonfire, it was literally a week after my tenure at DC Comics had come to an end," Rotterdam says. "I had to make some decisions very quickly, so I teamed up with what was left of my former promotions agency which was going through a number of crises at the time. It was 'any port in a storm'. We set up shop in their offices, and there was an expectation that Bonfire was going to be a resource for other agencies devoted to a broader comic book culture and pop culture, and that would somehow save the broader agency. And either that wasn’t clear to me, or I was blind to it initially. There was a lot of conflict for the two years we were in that situation until we decided we were going to leave and set up shop on our own."
The snap decision put Bonfire behind the chains right from the start.
"We didn’t suffer too much, but we did suffer," Rotterdam says. "Bonfire, for the 10 years we were around, never got quite to the strength we could have gotten to if we hadn’t made that decision and forced ourselves into that situation. And I blame myself."
But Rotterdam has learned his lesson.
"Slow up", he says. "Think twice. Figure out the best way to achieve your ends, and work toward that."
UNDERSTAND IT’S NOT YOUR BUSINESS (UNLESS YOU OWN IT)
If you own your own business, great. If not, Rotterdam suggests get hip to the fact at that at some point, everyone is replaceable. It’s a lesson he learned the hard way.
"When I worked for the ad agency that was Hasbro’s primary agency, everybody there worked very, very hard," he says. "But I worked so hard that I gave myself the false impression that this was my company. I think the company benefitted from this, but I didn’t."
Eventually, that agency got taken over by another agency and there were redundancies, and…
"When it came to an end, and it was an abrupt end, my team and I were just dismissed as a matter of course," Rotterdam recalls. "And boy, that came as a complete shock to me… for about 40 seconds. And then I realized, 'No, I don’t own this'. But I gave it a much greater degree of personal importance than was ultimately worthwhile. I made it harder on myself than it needed to be."
SWALLOW, AND PLAY THE POLITICAL GAMES
Speaking of corporate culture? Pretty much all large organizations have their soap opera element, and gamesmanship. Rotterdam sees this as the price of admission, even though he’s not too crazy about it.
"I’ve always tried to avoid playing the political game that may exist in a work environment, and that’s been a mistake," he says. "Because political environments compel you, when you walk into them, to play. And if you don’t play, you’ll find yourself being a pawn in someone else’s game. And that’s what happened to me. You have to engage. You have to be as concerned about your team as you can, and also yourself, knowing there are others playing the game much more openly, actively, and better than you."
The game may feel dirty. But the game is the game.
"Unless you own your own business, there’s always politics in corporations," Rotterdam says. "And other people know where the land mines are."
AND WHAT ELSE?
"Something that was surprising to me when I got into comics through the door labeled ‘DC’ was what passed for marketing. Having been involved with major brands like Kraft and Nabisco and the studios, the 360-degree tactical plans that were 'marketing’ there… that didn’t exist much when I came in. There was a model in place that said, 'Throw your money into co-op; that’s what you do'. Or 'Make sure we have posters we send out to stores; that’s marketing'. It was an eye-opener. You’d say, 'Here’s where we should be going,’ and you’d get back, 'Well, we’ve never done that before. Why should we work that hard if we don’t know it’s going to work? '"
"DC was my dream job… until it wasn’t. And I don’t mean to just pick on DC, because it’s a classic business scenario to have people say, 'Oh, you’re wonderful and we’re so happy you're here and we know we need to change and roll with the times. Now as long as we don’t do anything differently, we’ll be good.'"
"I was talking to a person in human resources at DC when I was there about 2008 and they told me they had done a survey about what employees liked most about working at DC Comics. What do you think was the number one response? Free comics. Health plan was number two! Yeah, everyone got free comics. We estimated everyone got about $15,000 in free goods a year. People liked that."
"Now I swear I was kidding when I told the HR guy, 'Well, maybe to get things moving, maybe we ought to reduce that.' He said, 'You don’t want to be that guy. You will cause a revolt.'"
"With AfterShock, I do enjoy the culture; the nature of how we work. There’s not a lot of hierarchy, not a lot of layers you have to go through. There are no forms to fill out. We make informed decisions by consensus and by persuasion and what we think is right, and we all support each other. At this stage in my career, that’s a great place for me to be, especially as I see the fruits of our labors and the growth we’ve experienced."
"It was harder to see the value and success of what I was doing at DC back in the day. Bigger ship. But at AfterShock, it’s easier to see the growth of engagement we have with retailers, the way we’ve expanded the brand with readers and in the trade."
"One thing I like as I look over my CV is that I never stayed in any one place too long. There were a few times maybe I should have left a little earlier. But my advice to young people getting into business now is 'Don’t stay too long. Don’t get too comfortable'. Get as much experience as you can in as many scenarios as you can get. Stay a while, then look at what you’ve done, what you’ve contributed, and how you can roll that into the next phase of your career. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the company."
"I came into AfterShock three years into its existence. AfterShock was, and remains, a creator-owned and -driven company. All the books we publish have never been in a shared universe. We’ve never published licensed properties. That’s not the nature of what our business is about. It was always set up to be very low to the ground."
"We work with creators who want their vision to be represented, but also want a little help along the way. We’re not the guys saying, 'Come on in, do whatever you want, and when you’re finished, let us know'. AfterShock emphasizes involvement, to whatever degree the creator is comfortable with. And that’s what I like."
"We have no intention to be a Marvel or DC. Let them do what they do. It’s arguable, if I may make some enemies here, that they’re even comic book companies at all anymore. But for us, it’s got to be a great comic book first. Should it have relevance and potential for translation into the media side of our world? Could it make a fascinating TV series or successful movie?, of course those are things we consider. And we have AfterShock Media playing in those circles. But we don’t have a deal with any one studio or any one production company. We’re as agnostic as we can possibly be in relation to that. We will talk to and work with anybody."
"Where we’ll be in five years? I think we’ll be larger. I sure could use some help. I could use an assistant!"
"In the past, and I hope I’m not as bad at this as I once was, I know I’ve had a bit of a savoir complex. I’ll see people struggling, and I’ll want to swoop in and help them with their work, or finish the work for them. And that’s not fair to them, to me, and it’s just no good. In the past, I’ve led teams of creative people and some of them have taken the position of 'Well, Steve’s just going to come in and finish this anyway, or make it work the way he wants to. Why should I put myself out there when he’s just going to change it?' And that’s bad. It’s something that I’m aware of, and has been brought to my attention many times. It’s something I still battle with, but I’m very, very aware of it now."
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