David Geffen was Jewish, he was born in Brooklyn.
But he wanted to go live among the ‘beautiful people’, so when he was 18 he moved to LA.
The trouble was, he wasn’t any good at anything, and he got fired from every single job.
He was talking to a struggling actor about this.
The actor said “You can’t do anything? You should be an agent, they don’t do anything”.
Geffen took him seriously, he got a job at the William Morris agency.
He got a job in the mailroom, and he had to lie to get it.
On his CV he said he’d got a degree from UCLA.
He figured it didn’t matter, no one would check.
Then he found the guy working next to him had just been fired for claiming he’d graduated from CCNY on his CV.
So they did check.
Luckily Geffen was in the mailroom, so he got in early every morning and went through the mail.
A few weeks later he intercepted the letter from UCLA.
He steamed it open and changed one word.
He changed “David Geffen never graduated from UCLA” to “David Geffen recently graduated from UCLA”.
Plus his boss thought he was a good example, starting work early every day, so he raised Geffen’s salary.
All the time Geffen was delivering the office mail he was watching what agents did.
He said “All they do is bullshit on the phone all day. I can do that. I can bullshit on the phone.”
And being from Brooklyn he was actually better at bullshitting than anyone else.
And he noticed what they were doing was trying to sign established acts.
This made no sense.
Established acts were more expensive, and competition to sign them was greater.
To Geffen it made more sense to find the acts before they were established.
So that’s what he did.
While all the other agents were at home with their families, Geffen would go to clubs and bars and find talent before anyone else.
He’d sign people who didn’t have agents.
And he became the most successful agent at William Morris.
He was so good that he opened his own record label by the time he was 27: Asylum Records.
The artists he made famous on this label included: Neil Young, Crosby Stills and Nash, The Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, Elton John, Judee Sill.
Asylum produced some of the best, and best-selling, records.
In 1972 he sold the company, and eventually he left.
Five years later he opened Geffen Records.
This time with artists like: Donna Summer, Cher, Aerosmith, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Nirvana, The Stone Roses.
But he really wanted to sign John Lennon.
The problem was so did everyone else.
Geffen thought “How do I get upstream of this problem?”
So he did what no one else was doing.
The other labels were talking directly to John Lennon.
Geffen figured that Yoko One must feel excluded.
So he didn’t talk to Lennon, he talked to Yoko Ono.
Geffen persuaded her, and then she persuaded Lennon.
He signed to Geffen’s label and released the Double Fantasy album, his masterpiece.
Geffen Records was a massive success.
In 1990 Geffen sold it and a few years later he left.
He left to open a movie studio with Steven Spielberg: DreamWorks SKG (Geffen is the G).
Geffen is now worth around $6 billion.
Not by being better, or tougher, or faster, or smarter, or richer, or better educated than other people.
Not by trying to beat other people at their own game.

But by looking at other people and thinking “What aren’t they doing?”

  • john p woods

    He served his apprenticeship. In these instant gratification times how many do that?

  • Dave Trott

    Just shows you how much more you learn by starting out in the mailroom John.
    Like Frank Lowe, Charlie Saatchi, Peter Mead, Ed McCabe, Mike Yershon, Jerry Della Femina…. 


    The other notable thing about Geffen’s success is that he focused on the talent. Asylum was a place where creative people could do their best work in the knowledge that it was a supportive organisation that wouldn’t interfere and wouldn’t rip them off. Geffen Records did the same thing again with a new generation of artists. (Although there was that regrettable blip when Geffen sued Neil Young for being creatively unpredictable.) When he started in the movie business with Dreamworks, he again partnered with the best talent he could find. Find the best creative people and build a place where they can do their best work. Simple. Seems like a plan that could also work for the advertising business.

    This documentary ‘Inventing David Geffen’ is worth watching if you’re interested in his story and in managing a creative business in general. 


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