Harvard’s Anita Elberse Teaches Entertainment Ropes To Execs (And Celebrities)

Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse

Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse

Creative talent and commerce have always been intertwined. Centuries ago, patrons supported artists’ work – and promoted it within their social circles. The television era birthed “stars” who enjoyed mass exposure. With the digital age, organizations can attract new audiences from an array of online channels. At the same time, talents have evolved into brands. In the process, they’ve gained greater control over decisions impacting their careers.

As a result, talents are shouldering more business burdens. And entertainment firms are navigating a more segmented and competitive marketplace. Amid the uncertainty, each is asking where they should allocate resources, distribute content, and build partnerships to produce the highest returns and the lowest risk.

To answer these questions, celebrities and entertainment executives alike are streaming into Harvard Business School each June. Since 2014, the school’s Executive Education arm has held a course called The Business of Entertainment, Media, and Sports. Taught principally by Anita Elberse, HBS’ Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration, the course relies on intensive case studies and lively class discussions to illustrate the decision-making variables and best strategies for making creative investments.


Twitter's Luan Knaya

Twitter’s Luan Knaya

Indeed, the class draws an eclectic mix of students, says Luan Knaya, a 2015 attendee who manages sport partnerships for Twitter in Brazil. “It’s a diverse environment with each segment of society. [You’ll find] different cultures, ages, and [levels of] experience, but also different roles and jobs –presidents, vice presidents, directors, managers, and board members. They really mix it up in a very cool way so you see everything in a holistic perspective.”

And it’s not just different roles represented. The program takes great pains to admit executives from a wide range of industries, with Elberse clicking off sports, media, film and television, music, fashion and dance clubs among them. For examples, previous sessions have included the likes of Sean Saylor, VP and Creative Director at MTV International and Lisa Joseph Metelus, an executive at Creative Artists Agency. The course also attracts celebrities themselves, with recent alumni including three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade, model Karlie Kloss, and Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

“The target audience is mid- to senior level executives who work in the media or entertainment space – or hoping to make a transition into that space,” Elberse details.  “Or, they could come from industries affiliated with or helping this industry – like advertising. It is also people that work directly with the talent and sometimes the talent themselves.”


This year’s course is slated to run from June 1-4, costing $9,000 (which includes tuition, case materials, most meals, and the ever-popular dorm room).

The class is limited to 60-65 participants, with students receiving a non-credit certificate after they’ve completed it. While HBS doesn’t impose academic requirements on participants, they are required to be nominated and sponsored by their employer. Applications are then reviewed by HBS admissions.

“We want to keep it intimate,” Elberse explains, “but we want to have enough people to have meaningful discussions with and give everyone the chance to participate so they really have a voice.” While HBS doesn’t share its acceptance rate for this course, Elberse adds that they “say no quite a bit.” “We want to have the right mix of participants,” Elberse adds, “so we’re actually quite selective.”


 And quite rigorous, too. Before starting the course, participants are sent the cases covered in the class in advance (along with accompanying data and materials). And Elberse encourages students to do the reading in advance. “Some only prepare for the first day or the first half, so they are doing lots and lots of reading during the program which often means late nights.”


To build cohesion, the class divides itself into teams, with five students usually comprising each group. Students are assigned 3-4 cases per day, with each case discussion lasting 90 minutes to two hours according to Knaya. However, the real work happens outside of class in groups.

“There is Individual preparation,” Elberse notes, “but there are also small discussion groups. They have time to sit down and discuss these cases before we have our class discussions. They have the opportunity to reflect on the learning after the class. It requires a significant commitment from the participants. Nothing is worse than sitting through a case discussion if you haven’t read through the case. A lot of things will just pass you by. So we make it very clear to participants that we expect them to do a lot of work.”


However, the real magic comes with the case method, which Elberse says adds an extra layer of richness to the course. Instead of reading books on their own, students can interact with highly experienced peers who bring different backgrounds and perspectives to the table. “The experience of the case method and having to be on your toes for four days and being challenged to share your points of view and having the opportunity to listen to other points of view – that is one major element of why doing this might make a lot of sense,” Elberse stresses.

Just as important: These discussions happen in real time, with students able to tap classmates and faculty for further insight and clarification as learning is happening. In fact, Elberse divulges that many class discussions spill over to lunch and dinner due to students’ deeper sense of connection to the material. “It can be a surreal experience in those small discussion groups [to be] talking about what LeBron James should do in a case study in a group with (his former teammate) Dwyane Wade… There’s really no substitute for that.”

The cases themselves –ripped right out of the news – also keep students engaged. Forget well-worn cases like the 1982 Tylenol recall or Kodak overlooking the digital revolution. Elberse’s cases involve issues like Netflix’s move into original content and Beyoncé’s launch of her own distribution channel. According to Elberse, these cases are tied together by several key themes.

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