Claire Hungate: A candid talk with the COO

December 15 2021




Claire Hungate: A candid talk with the President & COO







Claire Hungate has built a career out of creating forward steps, many made nearly blind.



The current President & COO of Liquid came to esports from the world of digital and social media, where she was the CEO of Brave Bison - a digital publishing network and social media marketing agency. Brave Bison basically operates a number of hyper-popular social channels and outlets, which they use to make profit - often via advertising, creative and media work for larger brands. They’ve worked with a litany of recognizable names from Apple to Netflix to Spotify to Uniqlo and at one point were the 2nd biggest digital media publisher on Facebook.







However, Brave Bison didn’t drive a profit until 2018, a year after they appointed Claire as CEO. It was a bit of an odd move for Claire and Brave Bison, given that prior to, she had little experience in digital media. Her forte was instead in television, where she worked up from a barrister for the BBC to eventually becoming a CEO/Managing Director for Warner Bros UK.



There are some steps in between there worth mentioning. Claire began that process with a production company called Wall to Wall Media - which was one of the UK’s — “independent producers”, basically a producer of TV shows independent from some of the UK’s media hegemons like the BBC.



She entered Wall to Wall through a mix of legal and commercial and eventually became a driving force in not only getting the company further into the green but merging it into Shed Media. There, she would become COO and help Shed grow into one of the UK biggest “super indies’ until Warner Bros purchased the company in 2010.



All this to say: Brave Bison likely didn’t bring Claire on for her experience in digital media, so much as her experience in moving organizations forward. So it goes for Team Liquid.



As a person, Claire is direct and down-to-earth. At her core, there’s an honesty that’s a few pinches of affability, a bit of good humor, away from being brutal. It’s an honesty that Claire applies especially to herself, helping her across the quick pivots and sea changes characteristic to her career.






(At the assembly, Claire lays out her role as President and COO in simple terms.)



Before the pivots, the changes, and the career, Claire herself was a reader, a listener, a movie-goer, a fan. She has long been inspired by creative quality, growing up with a love of literature and film. She got her best marks in English classes and got a first degree from dissecting the films of legendary French director François Truffaut (prior to studying law!).



She has a deep appreciation for the creative but particularly for how it comes alive, how it interacts with an audience, and how it survives in a hyper-commercial world. That appreciation grew into a career where the goal was to find the finance that makes all the entertainment possible.



At the core



You’ve said you’ve always had an interest in the arts. What do you feel sparked that?



I suppose I developed an interest quite early on through reading. I was always encouraged to read, was always quite interested in literature.



You kind of grab onto things that you’re good at in school. I wasn’t the best student but literature was something I excelled at and so I went to study, when I did my first degree, literature with film studies. So I suppose then I started to see the juxtaposition between film and literature and see that transferral of a narrative onto the screen - to appreciate the art of that. The storytelling art as well as the technical art.



I suppose all those things together ignited an interest and kind of lifestyle that revolved around the arts. So when I began to study law, it became that kind of natural connection to me that I wanted to work in that creative sector because that’s where my passion, my kind of day-to-day interest, lay.



[Claire adds quickly] I have no artistic ability myself though, or creative ability.



[Laughing slightly] No worries, I think that’s the glory of art a lot of times. I could never draw very well. Some of my friends were naturally brilliant and I was so envious.



But you know you’re a writer. One of my courses I studied at university, which I thought it was going to be really easy was creative writing. Of course, I was terrible at it because there is that kind of matrix of story arc and characters and it’s complicated and takes a lot of patience and artistry. You come to appreciate that, I guess.






(Claire talks some of her very early retail jobs.)



I know in another interview you talked about working at a record shop as one of your first jobs in college. I was curious if you have some favorite albums or musicians and if you have any sort of streak of collecting albums or records?



Absolutely, music is one of my passions or certainly was. Less so these days when your life becomes working and children and then trying to inflict your musical taste on your children.



I was a DJ when I was at college. We tried to cross over indie guitar rock with indie dance at a kind of time when that became fashionable. The big surge in music from Manchester, Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays in the early 90’s. I was big into dance music at that time, really liked Northern Soul, really liked Indie Rock, kind of moved more into House when House became a thing in the UK.



Then my guilty pleasure is Eurovision song contest. Most music lovers would say that was a sacrilege and an insult to music but I’ve been to the Eurovision song contest 8 times now I think and it’s just an amazing coming together of people who are passionate about music. Even though everyone kind of pretends to have a loyalty to their country, it’s not really about supporting your country. [...]



It’s about the communal experience as so many of these passion points and niches are. Whether that’s gaming or music or soccer or whatever it is. You come together in your community of people who are like-minded and you have moments.



I know you have an MA in critical and cultural theory and studied literature and film a good deal. Can you recall any books or films that shaped you or stuck with you?



Yeah, not wanting to get too artsy, but François Truffaut the French director and the film À bout de souffle (Breathless) I’d probably hold there as my favorite film ever. From that matrix of clever, technical, kind of fast-cut montage style editing, the narrative, the clever characters, the great use of music and culture.







These days I watch more kids films. Luca is the kids’ current favorite—you know, Pixar. The artistry and consistency of Pixar to be able to produce those films…



You’ve stressed a lot in interviews having a strong moral compass. What are some of the true norths of your moral compass? What are some of the guiding principles you have in business?



I’m not sure I’ve ever focused them down into a set of values. You know, perhaps I should. I see some of them reflected in Liquid’s values as well. That idea that you’re always learning. Always learning is a value.



But I guess through my legal and business career, it is that level of transparency with your partners, business partners. In business, you’re always trying to improve on a deal but you need to have that level of transparency with a partner. You don’t want to do a deal that’s kind of not good for both sides because that deal isn’t going to last very long. Do the right thing even when it’s harder…



I try to respond quickly to people as well. [...] Management is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do because you can’t please all the people all the time. But all you can try to do is communicate honestly with people, openly. Set expectations, give them open and honest feedback, and help them improve and be prepared to improve yourself.



It sounds like a lot of, at the core, honesty and sincerity.



Yeah, I hope so. When you make mistakes you need to realize pretty quickly that you’ve made a mistake and own that mistake and find a solution and move on.



There’s a great saying, isn’t there? Which is “employ people better than you and delegate more than you’re comfortable with.” It’s that kind of opening yourself up to not feeling threatened by the people you’re working with but actually drawing on their strengths.



Like a sports team, I suppose. Work teams are not families. Families are dysfunctional and argue a lot. A sports team is about bringing people in who have different skills and hopefully coming together with a product that is a result of those different skills.



That also links well with something Victor said towards the end of the interview I did with him.



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Victor: I think that’s something that’s really helped me develop in my career: realizing the importance of the voice of other people. For me, it’s not hard to admit that there’s plenty of people in Team Liquid who are better at their jobs than I am at mine. They just don’t have my job, they have other jobs.



Just because I am Co-CEO doesn’t mean I’m better at my job than other people. At all. There’s so much I can learn from our graphical artists, our financial staff, from you. For me that’s very easy to admit and I think that keeps me going.



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Claire: Oh for sure. We are all always learning. That’s what’s so fascinating to me about changing sectors from the arts to becoming a lawyer to moving into TV to moving into digital to moving into esports - constantly learning. Constantly learning about different markets, different business models, that’s what is challenging and interesting to me, really, is that process of constantly learning and constantly developing.


Was there that, moving to esports, despite how different and strange esports is, this is a process you’ve done before? Hopping from radically different fields?



The single narrative I like to put through my career is audience and following the audience.



That audience was moving from linear tv to SVODS [subscription video-on-demand - think Netflix] to the digital platforms—YouTube, Twitch. That is where the competition for the younger audience is, it’s not with the other SVODS and it’s certainly not with linear. To observe that movement of audience from television to digital platforms.



It’s about the communal experience as so many of these passion points and niches are. Whether that’s gaming or music or soccer or whatever it is. You come together in your community of people who are like-minded and you have moments.



Live and die by the audience



In the first company huddle, making her first company-wide introduction, Claire said that part of her switching to digital and to esports was because you lived and died by the audience.



In esports, Claire isn’t following any audience, but the hyper-engaged and responsive audience that intrigues her most. As one of the fastest-growing entertainment sectors in the world, esports certainly has that audience. Still, engagement and viewership aren’t everything. At least, not inherently.



The real question isn’t how to get an audience, it’s how to turn a profit. This is especially true for the esports org, which doesn’t “own the ball” like the publisher and can’t easily cash in off of in-game purchases. Unlike traditional sports, butts in seats will not pay the bills either.



Right now, it’s no secret that a lot of revenue comes from big-name sponsors. Sponsorships are a good revenue stream for esports but no one, including the sponsors, wants it to be the only revenue stream available. One of Claire’s tasks as President and COO (alongside CBDO Mike Milanov) is to find more routes to profit and give Liquid more legs to stand on. That task is harder even than it sounds but Claire is one of the few people in the world that has genuine, qualifying experience for the job.


It’s easy to drive views but what is difficult is to drive engagement and loyalty and to really build that community of people.



Where do you feel the value is in esports and how do you turn that value into profit?



[Claire emphasizes] This is looking at it in the most commercial way which is not all that Liquid is about and not all our audience means to us.



For me the way the business model can be applied to multiple digital businesses is owning audience. Building your audience and then around that audience you build diversified revenue streams.



Despite the fact that Liquid is actually 20 years old and seems like quite a mature sector, obviously, it’s not. It’s growing and changing all the time. Monetization and infrastructure has been quite slow to arrive so those business models are going to be changing constantly. We’re all gonna be experimenting with those models, we’ll all make mistakes, and we’ll try again.



The thing about these digital models is some of them will come and go really quickly. So you have to be a mix of nimble-footed and opportunistic but at the same time strategic and prepared to stay and invest for the long-term in those things you really believe are going to be moving the dial in the future.



For you, how does diversification look within esports. Do you think Team Liquid is doing a decent job of [diversifying]?



So look, it’s early days and I think if you look at the revenue of most esports organizations, it is highly leveraged towards sponsorship and advertising. [...]



Nobody wants to be overdependent on advertising revenue or sponsorship revenue because it’s quite hard to control. Most esports organizations are dependent currently on sponsorship revenue and so everyone wants to build revenue streams that move away from that.



At Liquid, we have a very active apparel brand, a lot of people are investing in merchandise at the moment. We’ve been at the forefront of innovation with things like Liquid +. I think there’s lots of places we can take Liquid + as it develops.[...]



That direct-to-consumer relationship that we’re able to have, if we can take people to a platform that we own, is hugely valuable. [...] We’ve always had that but we need to have that relationship on our own terms, on our own platforms rather than through this disintermediation of other platforms.



With direct to consumer, what makes that more profitable or more future-proof in some sense?



I suppose the size of your audience on different platforms is going to have a direct correlation with the percentage of that audience who will follow you to registering for Liquid + or they’ll follow you to the Liquid Apparel store, to they will attend an event you put on. Or any given revenue stream.



[...] But also the quality of your audience [matters]. By quality of the audience I mean how engaged are they with you? [...] It’s easy to drive views but what is difficult is to drive engagement and loyalty and to really build that community of people.



You’ve talked a little bit about being fascinated by living and dying by the audience. Can you expand on, for you, what the allure of that is?



It’s that real-time reaction to content. There’s such a long lead time in making movies or TV shows and as a producer of content you have someone sitting between you and the audience. That’s a broadcaster.



You don’t have that direct relationship with your audience, you don’t have the ability to do anything about it. With social platforms, you put out content, you say something, and people engage with it immediately so you get that real-time feedback.



Work teams are not families. Families are dysfunctional and argue a lot. A sports team is about bringing people in who have different skills and hopefully coming together with a product that is a result of those different skills.



Building with balance



Most people who work for esports come from the audience itself. So many of Liquid’s dedicated staffers were already invested in the team before money was on the table. I joined Liquid by cold-pitching Steve’s email after my older sister—a copywriter—recommended I look around for products I liked and pitch to the company that makes them.



Pulling staff from dedicated fans does come with a drawback. When paired with the revenue issues of esports, you get a recipe for overwork, understaffing, and a workforce that is largely homogenous.



You get a workforce made mostly of middle or upper-class white men partly because the interest in the field is there but in larger part because the safety to enter the field is there. That demographic has the ability to gamble on a career in esports—a fundamentally risky start-up field that often demands you work for free or at below-poverty levels to enter into it.



My entering the field came on the back of my family—both from my sister’s mentorship and the ability to live a year in the home my family owns until I could stand on my own feet. Being easily able to present as a man, I took a lot less shit too. It’s hard to stress how vital that is in a field where you’re often working 6-7 days a week, where your nerves get so fried that one more thing, one more element of latent prejudice could push you across a line you couldn’t afford to cross.



This is where the “Operations” in COO is important. One of Claire’s biggest goals is to create operations with better work-life balance and a better balance of backgrounds. That means stepping into subjects where she’ll need to against big sections of that vaunted audience. It means creating structures that create cooperation and give people reprieve in a 24/7 entertainment industry. It means finding new ways to open esports to more people.






(Claire candidly talks on the need to do more in DEI at Liquid and in esports.)




~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Because it’s a passion thing and because it’s a 24/7 industry, it’s very hard to turn off. As a President/COO, how do you try and promote healthy work-life balance in this kind of a frenetic, connected industry?



I think you have to empower people to own their own time and make clear to them they’re not being judged by the amount of time they spend. What we’re interested in is the output from that time.



Everyone has a slightly different lifestyle. Some people have kids, some people don’t. Some people like working all night and sleep during the day. Everyone will have their own choice about their own lifestyle and it’s about, as a manager, as an organization, empowering people to truly make those decisions for themselves and not be pigeonholed into something that doesn’t work for them. [...]



As an employer, you can’t always make it 100% right for everyone. But you can try to create an atmosphere where people can do their best work as individuals.



My own approaches to this have changed considerably over the years. I now have 2 small children and they will now say to me at night, “why don’t we see you anymore?” I have to react to that and make changes to the way I work cause that’s not fair on them. It’s a constantly evolving process.






(When asked what some of TL’s biggest challenges are, Victor and Claire express the need to protect staff from overwork.)



[On an operations level] you are focusing on social cohesion and on the health of the group, not top performers. On a practical policy and leadership level, how do you go about promoting strong social cohesion?



It has to start from organizational structure. The organizational structure has to make sense in order to enable people to collaborate and not feel as though they are in silos. So to have a structure with clear line management.



People have clear goals and feedback from their line managers and some of those goals aren’t based around numbers and finances but are based around collaborations or DEIBAJ [Diversity, Equality, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice] initiatives or whatever it might be. But people clearly understand what their targets are, they’re being managed and given feedback, they know who to go to ask questions, they get useful responses, they have a voice at the table.



What do you see as some of the biggest challenges to diversity in esports and do you have any sort of preemptive solutions or things in mind? Or do you feel it will take some time to develop a strategy around it?



Women are talking about the toxicity online and what is said to them while they are online gaming. It’s absolutely appalling and I’m surprised so many women stick at it when faced with that kind of abuse.



Actually, I think that’s why we get some of the strength of voices you get in women’s gaming because these are people with resilience.






(Speaking to that resilience, Claire mentions that a high percentage of TL’s most invested fans are women.)



There is a lot of toxicity in the industry, there is a preponderance of men working in the industry and that has bred a way of working, a way of thinking, and a way of recruiting. For us we start at education. Young people who are coming into gaming and going onto gaming platforms, for them to be better educated from an early age about the possibility of esports as a future career or hobby - making it accessible to new audiences. That is a key pillar of our DEIBAJ strategy.



Also recruitment, in terms of our own structure and our own employees. Why are we getting so many men applying for jobs? Well, it’s because we’re always asking for people who are gaming and esports enthusiasts and that is not an even divide. So if we want to bring more women into this industry we need to be more innovative and creative about the way we recruit for our roles.



Those are two immediate things we can do. One in terms of people coming into gaming as fans and players and one in terms of people working in gaming.



~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“As a COO, you don’t take any glory for anything. You don’t have an ego. You just go and get stuff done, it’s not about you and your success. You’re kind of in the background.”



Claire presents that description of the COO in another long-form interview. Much as the audience entails her field, her work, and her interest, she doesn’t see her position as having one at all. After all, only a devout few esport followers will have an interest in the day-to-day behind the seemingly endless slipstream of content and competition.



But that day-to-day is massive and, truthfully, fraught with the difficulties you see in a startup or a boomtown. Equity, overwork, monetization, audience - the exponential expansion of the industry wears on its foundations. If you don’t see to the cracks in the cornerstones, you risk a full collapse.



So Claire tries to keep it all very workman, despite how glitzy and digital esports can be. Mend the cracks, reinforce the base, create something that lasts as it builds. “You’re the trains,” she says in the huddle, “and I’m building the track.”




Writer // Austin "Plyff" Ryan
Graphics // Hendrik Tol






















Please log in with your teamliquid.net account to post a comment.
 
  The Liquid Review: September 2022 Franchising in Valorant, heartbreak in League, YEKINDAR in CS... It's been a busy month in Team Liquid. Catch up today with September's Team Liquid Review!
League of Legends   Eyes on Worlds: Midbeast fills you in on LPL and LCK One of the best things about any esports title is international tournaments. All the regions coming together, the styles, the pride, the best-of-the-best, all clashing in one arena… it’s both competition and celebration, and nothing showcases that better than Worlds. League of Legends’ biggest event is already pretty exciting, but in 2022 it’s set to come back to North America for the first time in six years, bringing with it a return to live crowds. It’s so hype that by the time it rolls around, you’ll probably have forgotten your 4th place blues.
League of Legends   Farewell Guilhoto, farewell superteam As we say goodbye to Guilhoto, we want to also say goodbye to the superteam. This farewell is an interview conducted by Ben Zieper and CoreJJ and a reflection on the entire year. It's an article that reflects Guilhoto's own candor and openly discusses the issues within the split and how the superteam reached less-than-super results. If you want to know what happened, you'll want to read the article.
CS:GO | Valorant   IMC presents: The Liquid Open Get ready because it’s time for the 3rd annual IMC and Liquid grassroots tournament! This time we’re changing the name to Liquid Open and joining the FPS world. How do I enter? What can I win? How do I tune in? Can I win anything by watching? Why is IMC - a trading company - supporting all of this? The answers to all those questions in the article.