As a part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Justin B. Wineburgh.
As President and CEO of Alkemy X, Justin Wineburgh has transformed the company from a local post production studio into a solutions-driven media and entertainment powerhouse with expanding expertise into the hottest sectors of the industry. From work on Emmy-winning series on top streaming platforms to original branded content connecting viewers with consumers, influencers and tastemakers, in just over four years at the helm of Alkemy X, he has established the global company as a player to watch.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I began my career as an attorney with one of the largest law firms in the world, where I was named partner at the firm at 31 years old. Over the course of 16 years there, I built the firm’s global media and entertainment practice from the ground up, representing a broad range of clients in all facets of the industry. I actually served as Alkemy X’s outside General Counsel starting in 2005, before I was asked to take over the role of President and CEO in February 2016.
After I joined in 2016, I restructured the leadership and the company’s strategic vision to transform the company, working to shift its perception from a post production studio into an award-winning creative partner working across entertainment, advertising and technology. What I feel has been most instrumental to this successful overhaul is a deliberate focus on talent. I firmly believe that we are only as good as the creative talent that makes up our team, so I am continually expanding our diverse team of in-house talent to adjust to client and market needs.
This has meant a look towards leveraging our diverse capabilities to continue to expand and thrive across different business sectors. This has included collaborating closely with our department heads to continue to grow our Visual Effects division, which has led to work on top series such as Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. By strategically bringing in seasoned executives from top studios, I’ve been able to oversee the rapid growth of our development division, which recently created and produced the new TLC series Dragnificent!
Our diverse offerings also afford us the opportunity as a company to cross-pollinate our internal talent to provide unique perspectives on convergent sectors, including the branded content space. Having experts in branding, entertainment, production and post production all within our company is a tremendous asset for these sectors that are seeing continued growth.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Right after I joined Alkemy X, we wanted to make a big splash to signal to the Philadelphia marketplace that I was here. Our Creative Director put together an ad called “New Blood.” We went up on the roof of our office building to shoot; the concept was that they would photograph me climbing up a ladder with the recognizable Philly skyline in the background. I was only visible from the waist-up, climbing superhero style. For dramatic effect, my shirt had been generously splattered with “blood” — or for our resourceful purposes, the ketchup that was readily available in the kitchen. I know what they were going for, but when the pictures were finished, it looked more like I had just emerged from a murderous rampage of the previous team. It was a funny mistake, because it was supposed to be campy and tongue-in-cheek, but in actuality truly did not land. I learned after that to consider all angles of audience perception. We were trying to connect creatively, but we missed the mark. I learned to uncover a clear sense of a message and also take a critical look to ask, “does this concept truly convey that message?”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Just recently, that would be Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.” Despite the title, the book demonstrates that you can be empathetic and lead a happier life by understanding it’s full of struggles. Learning how to work through challenges, rather than pretend they’re not there, is much more effective.
Moreover, I recently read “Leading on Purpose,” by Timothy Thomas and Charles Tilden, a study of leadership theory. The book focuses on the habits of effective corporate and entrepreneurial leadership to achieve even greater personal, financial and organizational success.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision? Your purpose?
When I joined Alkemy X almost 35 years after it was founded, it was a troubled business with a history of underperformance. My priority at that time was to look beyond the current process of the company. There are two business trajectories: linear, where you keep doing what you’re doing, or transformative, where you change what you’re doing. It was clear that the way things were being done did not work and, therefore, we had to come up with a transformative business model. This entailed expansion, innovation, and bringing in the right people. I wanted to ensure that everyone shared the common goal of exceeding client expectations, and actually being great. Everyone says they’re great. For me, it’s about truly being as good as we tell people we are. Our goal is to make the client’s decision to hire Alkemy X to solve a problem as easy as possible.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
It always comes down to culture, and keeping the right people intact. Especially in a creative company, the people are the most important asset. The number one principle for me is ensuring an “employee-first” mentality. Companies typically have a customer-first mentality, but I have shifted that notion to focus on our teams first. It is all about loyalty — if the company is first loyal to its employees, the employees will reciprocate with loyalty to the business. And, in turn, the employees’ loyalty turns into dedication to the customers and projects they entrust to the company. The employees are on the front lines, meeting clients’ needs, as well as identifying and solving problems. I believe that an “employee-first” approach will empower those most capable of solving problems to do so.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
For me, the biggest personal challenge of my life came when my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer on New Year’s Eve. With that, one challenge of incredible proportions merged with the Covid-19 challenge that the rest of the world came to face early this year. With the rest of my family, I have been with my mother fighting this cancer every step of the way, through the pandemic. She has had four rounds of chemotherapy since the end of January, including during the pandemic. For the last one, I was not allowed to be with her. Then she had surgery in early May. I dropped her off at the hospital, and then none of us were permitted to visit her in the hospital until after she was discharged six days later. Not being able to be there with her, just offer comfort and support, was the most horrific, gut wrenching experience of my life. Sadly, this is a story that we are hearing all too often now in the news — so many people not able to be with their loved ones in the hospital while fighting COVID-19. For me, unlike so many others, we were fortunate to bring my mother home from the hospital. Constantly recognizing and reminding myself how lucky and blessed we were to bring my mother home, even in the face of such personal and global adversity, allows me to stay positive and hopeful.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our immediate priority was to keep the entire team safe and healthy, while reassuring our clients at the outset of the pandemic that the company had a strong business continuity plan to continue work and meet project deadlines without fail. Starting in early March, our production, pipeline and IT teams supplemented our existing remote capabilities by building and documenting a new virtual workflow, including brand-new servers to allow for scalable remote work. Our pipeline team worked in real-time to write proprietary tools and services, ensuring that our hardware at the office was not only monitored, but able to automatically react to issues that might cause artist downtime.
We made these changes without a lot of time to plan. Our team put their heads down, trusted each other to accomplish their tasks at the highest level of efficiency, and communicated their adjustments in a way everyone could understand. Not only did this rapid response allow our team the ability to continue creating work at the same level of production values, but it also brought our team together and engender a deeper sense of community.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Although these times have been tremendously difficult for everyone on many levels, it has also forced us all to slow down and take stock of what is most important in our lives. As I’ve done with my team at Alkemy X, I have taken the time to connect with my own family and ensure that we are leaning on one another through the ebb and flow of our good and bad days.
My mother’s illness has also dramatically brought my priorities into focus, and I’ve found that bringing my family together to work towards her recovery has afforded us a deeper connection and unifying purpose.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the post-COVID economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the post-COVID growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
While Covid-19 has had a far reaching effect on every aspect of our lives and the economy, the post-Covid recovery period is going to present an incredible opportunity for Alkemy X to flourish and thrive. Everyone with a message to convey — whether a network, brand, product or service — will be repositioning and shifting messaging to digital channels more than ever. While this trend was already taking place, the pace will quicken, and creative content companies such as Alkemy X, firmly embedded at the intersection of cross-platform creativity and technology, will flourish as a result of having the urgent speed and agility to rapidly respond and take action to meet the client demand sparked by this once-in-a-lifetime event.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Virtually every aspect of life has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic — the reality of a mandated “quarantine,” understanding frugality in a time of uncertainty, examining how we vote, exploring age-old political and racial divides, and on and on during a time where everything is being referred to as “unprecedented.” The longer the pandemic carries on, it seems that the world we re-enter on the other side will be less and less familiar.
It has become abundantly clear that major changes will need to be made to our healthcare system, as we saw the leading cause of the stay-at-home mandates at the outset was to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic for fear of overburdening hospitals beyond capacity.
Personal and business travel will certainly decrease. People will become more attuned to disaster preparedness, stockpiling everything from food, to items of hygiene, to coveted PPE to protect themselves, their families and loved ones. We will interact differently. And, for certain, irrespective of political standpoint, we will have a further political divide and loss of faith that our government functions to serve, help and protect us all at all times.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the post-COVID Economy?
As Covid-19 has wreaked financial havoc globally, leaders are being forced to try to plan, somehow, for the future. Of course, it is virtually impossible to do so in the face of uncertainty. As such, I am developing both long and short term strategies. At a high level, I am assessing the damage Alkemy X has occurred due to COVID-19, financial and otherwise. I am looking at existing business plans and strategies, continuity planning and crisis management, and determining what has worked and what needs to adapt and change. Next, I am closely evaluating the company’s finances — cash on hand, project pipelines, sources and uses of cash, and whether additional funding will be required as the company emerges from the storm. Finally, I am setting a timeline to keep everything on track.
In the short term, while we are in a bit of a wait-and-see mode as there is still so much that we do not know. We have been actively identifying pressure points for our employees as we put together a plan for returning to our offices. Our team is our most valuable asset, so we are continuing to survey our employees to get a better understanding of their concerns and best create a plan to address them. We are exploring everything from what our physical office will look like, to the practical issues of getting into the office and the safety of public transit systems. We are also looking at how our highly effective remote operations can sustain, and how it can evolve through our use of cutting-edge technology. And, most importantly, we are using the pandemic as a way to inform decision-making on how best to attract, grow and retain industry leading talent.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted life to the point of overwhelming anxiety, the scars of which will linger for quite some time. As such, I would encourage people to interact with each other with as much empathy, compassion, understanding and care that they can muster. We never know the adversities that others are facing, professionally or personally. Listen, act and stay connected. I spend as much time as I can checking in. I ask my colleagues how they are doing, physically, emotionally and mentally, and how their families and friends are doing. I recommend erring on the side of over-communicating, which is really just listening closely for the subtle call for help. Helping others by simply being aware, kind and considerate can be powerful medicine to help ourselves through our own difficulties.
For business leaders, I feel now is the time to take advantage of the new virtual communication tools that we’re all adapting to and make sure that everyone is given a voice and an understanding of their unique values. With our shift to remote work, the corporate hierarchy has changed. Everyone being at home is the great equalizer. We are no longer divided by designations aligned with corner offices or uniforms — everyone now has the same video chat-sized office. Leaders now have to set themselves apart with their principles and values, not their assets.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
To inspire personal greatness, I developed, follow and frequently use the motivational quote to “Be as good as you say you are.” I have also been moved by a variant of Theodore Roosevelt’s, “Always keep one foot on the ground.”
I have used both quotes to propel me through adversity and hardship. To me, they speak to some of the guiding principles that I strive to maintain. I think it’s essential to bring your best efforts to the table and continue to expand and exceed that potential. I also firmly believe that as focused as you are on your path, keeping one foot on the ground and bringing a holistic point of view to the table allows you to be open to and discover new ways of thinking.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Readers can visit Alkemy X at https://www.alkemy-x.com/, or our other channels:
You can also follow me across social media: