A New Wave of Commercials: Charles Johnson (MBA ‘13) CEO and Founder of Pause Commercials is Transforming the Advertising Arena
As societies become more technologically intertwined with consuming media daily, finding creative and innovative ways to market products to consumers is continuously expanding. In today’s environment, businesses worldwide compete for consumers’ attention more than ever, conceptualizing new advertising forms to get their messaging to respective demographics.
Founder and CEO of Pause Commercials, Charles Johnson, built his innovative business doing what most advertisers do best—thinking outside of the box. Pause Commercials ingeniously delivers advertisements in a “pause-ad” modality—meaning a commercial plays when users press the pause button. While the content is idle, all pause-ads are served through the internet via Over the Top (OTT) media. Pause Commercials enables advertisers to tap into a newer segment of the market—increasing their visibility in a creatively unique way.
Having ample experience in the film industry, Charles brings his rich expertise to Pause Commercials, contributing unparalleled value to his business model. As an alumnus of Graziadio, Charles finds that an MBA has allowed him to pursue business avenues that may have been less available without a Master of Business Administration. His experience at Graziadio facilitated a learning environment that contributed to his overall business acumen and success within the industry.
Aside from his business ventures, Charles emphasizes the importance of giving back to the community—truly embodying a Best for the World Leaders mentality. His involvement in Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which helps Black and Latino high school students from underserved areas in Los Angeles learn about running a business, showcases ways business leaders can use their expertise to serve their communities. Charles continues to work as an innovative entrepreneur, and we look forward to what’s in store.
Tell us about your business, Pause Commercials. How did that become your career?
My background is a bit unorthodox. I went to undergrad for screenwriting and worked in Hollywood before getting into business, mainly at the studios where the executives were always in a battle with the artists—on one side, you had a business who seemed only to want to push their initiatives, and on the other, writers, who thought those initiatives were spoiling their art.
Then in 2008, a perfect storm of bad luck hit Hollywood. The writer’s strike, the financial crisis, and the rise of reality TV, which put many industry people out of work—myself included. I was doing a lot of self-reflection at that time and realized that I knew Hollywood’s business but didn’t understand business in general. If I were going to impact investors and executives, I needed to learn how they think. I felt I could bridge the gap between the artists and their financiers by going back to school.
While attending the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, Netflix was on the rise and began putting pressure on the movie industry to change its business model into significant formats for the streaming services we are now familiar with: subscription-based, advertising-supported, or a hybrid of both, like Hulu.
I have a clear memory of when the concept for Pause Commercials first came to me. I was invited to a presentation for a new product designed to be a competitor to Roku. While I was there, I wasn’t convinced their way of monetizing their platform would work, but a solution immediately popped into my head. However, instead of sharing it with him, I kept it to myself, went home, and started the patent process. Simultaneously, I put together a small PowerPoint presentation for the company that invited me to their exhibition and walked them through my concept of having ads appear when viewers pressed pause and demonstrated how it benefited their product. The patent was still pending, but the company saw the value and offered me a partnership deal on the spot. Surprisingly, they called a week later, asking me to work for them. I remember the phone call vividly. They specifically asked if I had an MBA, which by then, I did. They then went on to tell me that my background in Hollywood, tech, and business was complicated to find. If I were interested, they would hire me as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of their company in addition to the partnership agreement. The conversation may have gone a lot differently had I not had an MBA.
I eventually had to leave that company to develop the pause-ad business full-time, and by doing so, I was able to build a team more specific to advertising tech.
You recently were awarded a patent for your advertising technology. How is this going to help bring Pause Commercials to the next level?
To explain how the patent helps, it’s necessary to have a baseline understanding of how advertising works when it comes to streaming services. Right now, there’s pre-roll, where commercials roll before the content starts. There’s mid-roll, where the commercial plays in the middle of the content. Lastly, post-roll, where the commercials run at the end of the content, mostly being phased out. The patent essentially is for the fourth type of commercial option, a “pause-ad,” where a commercial plays when people press the pause button. Our patent is for commercials served while content is paused via Over the Top (OTT) media, covering all pause-ads served through the internet.
There are a few streaming services out there using pause-ads already, so we’re offering them licenses. We’re also offering our technology to streaming services that don’t have the pause-ad capability.
How does Pause Commercials support diversity in the workplace? What are the ways other companies can be more inclusive?
Being African-American, I probably have a different viewpoint on what diversity means. It’s essential for me not just to have an all-Black, male company because that’s not diverse either. It wasn’t at the forefront of my mind to make a diverse company when I set about hiring my team, but it sort of ended up that way. I took the time to interview many candidates from many backgrounds and decided on candidates who were ultimately best for the job. Being open to interviewing various candidates helped us put together a top-notch team of highly qualified women and men from diverse backgrounds and age groups.
Why did you choose Pepperdine Graziadio Business School? What made you want to pursue a Master of Science in Entrepreneurship?
I chose Pepperdine Graziadio because of the MS in Entrepreneurship. It spoke to me, and it felt right based on my background as an artist and what I knew I would face in business. A few other schools offered similar business tracks, but the courses seemed to lack creativity when it came to curriculum focusing on starting your own business.
When I was still making a decision, a recruiter set up a meeting with Dr. Larry Cox and myself to talk through my interests and define an academic path forward. I wanted to learn business, but I wasn’t interested in being a CFO or working on Wall Street, and Dr. Cox understood that. He told me about Graziadio’s Entrepreneurship program, where I could learn how to develop essential skill sets for any business environment. Digital media was a newborn baby when I was considering grad school, so I knew I’d need a different approach to business. The MS in Entrepreneurship would essentially enable me to exercise both parts of my brain, which was exciting for me.
What were some of the most memorable takeaways from Pepperdine Graziadio that you’ve been able to apply to your business career?
I have two main takeaways that come to mind, and they’re very closely tied in terms of importance. One is that it’s not just about learning how to build a financial business model. You need to be able to apply it to your specific business venture. Knowing how to apply business models attracted a lot of people from different sectors to me. I could explain concepts to investors using their language, such as generating revenue and projecting monthly expenses. If investors believe your model, they’ll think you can have a business.
A close second takeaway is the importance of presentation style. If you can’t give a good presentation, no one is going to look at you. You have to be confident, knowledgeable, anticipate questions, and know the answers. And once your audience requests materials, your numbers in that robust model need to be ready to back up what you’ve been saying. Otherwise, you’re just a charismatic talking head. The old mantra of “I don’t know the answer, let me get back to you” isn’t true anymore. Investors want to know you’ve done all your homework to believe in you, not just your product.
What did you enjoy most about your experience at Pepperdine Graziadio?
I think my experience was slightly different from some of the other business students because I come from an arts background, and I’ve always been interested in learning. I prefer documentaries over traditional films, for example. Still, I especially enjoyed my entire experience at Pepperdine because I got to apply the business principles to my first love, which is telling stories via film and television. I liked that I learned to talk to executives in charge of the “dollars and cents” using language that made them comfortable. This is unusual because artists and financiers in Hollywood don’t usually get to speak to each other directly, so Pepperdine Graziadio helped me become a conduit who could talk to both sides. That was rewarding.
What advice do you have for current or prospective students about the current business world, and how can a master’s help?
Individuals that are thinking about the business school should have a good sense of who they are, their personality, and what they want to offer in the long term. The MS in Entrepreneurship tends to be a lot more creative than some of the other tracks and is an excellent way to expand your business thinking.
COVID presents several challenges for businesses today, but it has also opened up many opportunities to reach decision-makers who I previously would not have been able to reach. For example, I was recently on a virtual panel with a few large media executives who probably would’ve been too busy to attend as panelists before the pandemic, so the mere fact that I was sharing an equal stage with established companies nearly legitimized my company in the public’s eye. Pursuing a master’s isn’t specific to a brick and mortar business and can help smaller companies become successful no matter the circumstances.
Finally, I think the most critical piece of advice I can give current and prospective students is to be themselves. There’s no “one way” to do business school —everyone has a unique perspective, personality, and values that can benefit the business world if applied genuinely.
Do you have any final points you would like to mention?
One final point I’d like to make is the importance of leaders giving back to their community. Kevin Demoff and George Lucas offer contracts to qualified small minority-owned businesses to build areas in and around SoFi Stadium and the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, respectively. But you don’t have to be a big business to give back. For example, after grad school, I volunteered with the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which helps Black and Latino high school students from underserved areas in LA learn how to start and run their own businesses. I grew up poor and know what it’s like to feel as if there aren’t many options in life. I think NFTE helps get rid of those stigmas. Giving back to the community is very important and something that all organizations should be considering.