The Secrets of Leading a Global Talent & Creative Business: A Conversation with YMU Group Chief Executive, Mary Bekhait.

Mary Bekhait is one of the most powerful figureheads in the global entertainment industry. As Chief Executive of YMU Group, she leads an international business representing household name clients across music, sport, entertainment, literary, social, art and business management. Mary began her journey at YMU Group as a director in the entertainment division, while it was still known as James Grant. Her trajectory has been impressive ever since, with pivotal headlines including appointments of Deputy Managing Director in 2016, Managing Director in 2017, and UK CEO in 2019. “By that point, I had scaled the Entertainment division very successfully and had been provided access and understanding of the wider business from which to drive through a new vision”. Mary’s stewardship of the company has overseen a series of major expansions and integrations across YMU, extending its reach across newly emerging growth markets. Across the previous 12 months Mary has heralded the expansion of both YMU Entertainment and YMU Literary divisions within the U.S, with further big announcements upcoming.

In this interview, I speak to Mary Bekhait about the secrets of the talent management industry, what it takes to lead a global talent and creative business, and the need for curiosity in leadership.

Q:  What was it that made you passionate about this sector and this space?

[Mary Bekhait]: I have always been attracted to creative people and been fascinated by what drives them and what they are made of; whether that be a recording artist, an author or a broadcaster.

I knew I wanted to work in the creative industries and with creatives from a young age however I didn’t quite know what shape that would take.

In truth, I fell into talent management but as soon as I did, I knew I had found my spot, my space. The most exciting thing about it is the fact that you can support somebody on a mission to create something unique, something that creates impact- and often at the level that we are operating at – something culturally relevant. That for me is a thrilling journey to be a part of, to contribute towards and help guide.

Q:  In your view, what is it that separates those individuals who really do become ‘talent’ and the ones who really are shaping their spaces? Are there any kind of characteristics you’ve found? 

[Mary Bekhait]: There is a certain kind of X factor that is really hard to define, but it is the thing that makes a person stand out when they walk into a room or makes you magnetically drawn to walk towards them at a party or a gathering.

That intangible quality that so many of them have is hard to describe however in terms of some of the commonalities that some of these individuals share, often there’s a sort of preternatural talent at being able to communicate whatever it is that they are passionate about. Whether that is on a one on one basis, whether that’s connecting with hundreds of thousands or millions of people – they are able to do that in such a unique way that very few people can. Whatever the medium.

It is often about authenticity and being true to themselves, because I think most people are very good at reading what is and what is not authentic. Hence the best clients are the ones that are true to themselves, the ones that have a clear voice or a clear mission in whatever it is that they are trying to convey to the world.The ones that are able to connect in a way that just outshines everyone else.

Q:  Do you find that the role of the talent manager in that regard has changed quite a lot over the last few years? 

[Mary Bekhait]: I think it’s changed immensely. I think in the old days it was about ‘can you get me a gig – can you do the contract?’ and off we go. At YMU our approach is very much manager versus agent. We see ourselves as the long term creative and strategic partners to our clients and that word – partner – is really important to us. We are there to go on a very long journey with the individuals that we manage, and help them create whatever their dream career is.

We will put intellectual, human, financial capital around the ideas of our clients and make them happen. We have invested sizable amounts over the last decade in bringing experts in each of their fields to coalesce around each client, each idea. From literary, social, live, commercial and IP teams through to graphic designers, experts in music, TV, film and beyond. It is extraordinary the depth of resource that we have created because it is no longer around just getting a deal done. If you want a deal done and that’s simply what you want – then just go and get a lawyer to do that. A manager is about somebody that has an opinion, who has the ability to take your dream from inside your head to a reality and to do that in a way that makes sense, is strategic and is commercially viable.

Q: Do you think social media has kind of changed the game here? 

[Mary Bekhait]:  I think that social media has completely and seismically changed our industry in a way that is hard to express in the short time we have today. Historically we would have largely been reliant on a few gatekeepers, whether that be somebody at a record label or an A&R saying they like a record, whether that be the channel commissioner saying that they like this individual or whether that be somebody at a publisher saying they like the book. A very small group usually composed of similar types of individual, making decisions about who the audience(s) gets access to.

That has been completely flipped on its head with social media, in that anybody with a unique voice that is able to connect with an audience, that is able to understand and serve that audience can be talent. That for me is extremely exciting. Social platforms are enabling clients and talent to not only just broadcast one way, but to have a dialogue with their audience, to ask them what they want, to pivot and to create content that is actually what their audience requires. Being reactive and responsive to their needs rather than guessing. It means they can be global rather than geo- locked and it means they grow incredibly quickly. Further with the advent of Web 3, NFTs and tokenisation – the ownership models between talent and audience are being changed and challenged. It’s an incredibly exciting time.

Q:  How in that world do you play a role, for example, in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of your talent?  

[Mary Bekhait]:  It’s a huge and important topic. Individuals who are creative are sensitive, they can be vulnerable and can take things incredibly  personally – often they are putting the rawest version of themselves out there so when that’s criticised or they are simply disliked for what they stand for, look like, who they date, how they parent…I mean the list goes on, it’s really hard for them not to take it personally and for some of those comments to land. It can be really difficult and damaging.

We try to put ourselves in our client’s shoes and champion empathy as a team – trying to better understand how they might be feeling and holding their hand through difficult times. We make significant investments in mental health care for our clients and work with external partners that can provide the tools to enable them to cope during the tougher moments. We currently work with a brilliant company called Exception.

We also have a bespoke team of experts for our team because they are often under a huge amount of pressure too. We often have clients confiding in their managers and they thus take on some of that worry and shoulder some of that burden. We make sure that we extend those services to our team as well as our clients. It is something that is very much front of mind as we think about the role of talent management and service because to your point – that ‘always on’ side to this industry can mean some really good things – however that can also come with a negative side.

Q:  How do you ensure that you’re sense checking what’s right in any given situation?

[Mary Bekhait]:  We are a values driven business. We really are. We have been around for 30 years and some of our clients have been with us for that length of time – there is a good reason for that and it’s because they know we care about them as a human being as well as ‘talent’.

We approach it from looking at a client as a whole being; taking a very bespoke approach and also because we operate as a team at YMU – we take a collective view versus having one individual sitting in a room and making a big decision.

We are able to get lots of different types of people together, provide different viewpoints to ultimately decipher a question, understand the issue / challenge and work together for the right outcome for that situation. We take our time to talk as a team, to get to what we believe is the right recommendation for the client. That often means slowing down for a second, thinking about what the issue is and then coming up with a solution.

We are fortunate to have real cognitive diversity within the group which leads to better decisions.

Q:  Lets say someone like an Ant Middleton comes on, you have to learn them very quickly, build that trust, build that rapport, but also get to know them as humans in a very short space of time. How do you approach that? 

[Mary Bekhait]:  First thing we do is we sit with them and we ask them questions. Our job is to listen, truly listen to the response – not assume that we know who this individual or put any of our we think you should be doing X or Y on them. We operate by having a conversation – we ask them everything from who they are in terms of the values, the core of their character, what they want to do, right through to how often they want us to contact them and everything else in-between.

Listening is incredibly important at YMU. We never jump to assumptions and once we’ve fully understood, we then create strategy documents which we present back to them. This is our moment to say have we understood you correctly? Is this where you want to be going? And only then, once we have that approval, do we get the mandate to go out there and start doing things.

In respect of trust, it’s like any human relationship –  you build it over time. Everyone enters into a relationship with the best of intentions. We gain trust when we prove ourselves. And so every single day, everyone at YMU gets up in the morning understanding that they’ve got a human being on the other end of the telephone, at the end of those emails who has put their trust and faith in us to deliver against their objectives. We take that incredibly seriously, and that trust builds over time. Which is why we have retained clients for over 30 years, it’s a testament to all of the above. 

Q:  I think one aspect of the work as well, when you’re working with creatives, you’re working with individuals where the output that they’re creating is such an intrinsic part of who they are. How do you handle that with your clients? 

[Mary Bekhait]. We’re conscious of that – doing their job means being out there with their heart on their sleeve and when that’s well received, it’s beyond wonderful but sometimes it isn’t. Failure means different things to different types. What is a creative failure? Is it that some critics didn’t like it? Is it that you didn’t sell as many copies? But actually you were authentic and true to yourself? If it was a project that you genuinely believe in, that you think you executed well, but didn’t necessarily connect as broadly as you hoped, that for me is not a failure.  You followed your dream and did so authentically.

I think being creative, trying new things, being ambitious means at some point along the line you are going to ‘fail’. And actually, it’s our job to say this is one step on a much broader journey to success.

There is no such thing as a linear line on the trajectory to success. If you want to have a 30, 40 year career, there are both complexities and excitement that comes with that. There will be good times, there will be down times and it’s our job to be there during both, keeping a cool, calm head and saying look, we’re still continuing on our chosen path. For me, if you’re a creative, being true to yourself means you haven’t failed.

Q:  What would be maybe some of the bits of advice that you would give to individuals in the creative industries who are on that path about what they really should expect? 

[Mary Bekhait]: I think working in the creative industry is a huge privilege. Very few people get an opportunity to work in an area that they’re genuinely passionate about.

For me, I think empathy is absolutely critical because we’re dealing with people. We’re not making widgets or cars. I think as I’ve developed as a leader, I’ve kind of taken a step back and allowed the managers within the group to have more autonomy and to be able to run their individual areas of the business in the way that they see fit.

As long as it aligns with the broader values and the framework of the business, I think giving people freedom to manage in their own style is incredibly important. I think courage is really, really important. So to your point about failure, I’m never afraid to fail. I’m afraid of stasis, I’m afraid of not doing things but I’m not afraid to fail because I know that it’s a critical part of success and moving forward.

And actually, if you’re not failing, you’re probably not trying hard enough is my general take.  As long as you’re learning from that and you’re not taking silly risks – actually trying things is critical. A huge one for me is curiosity, and I speak about that a lot. For me, curiosity is the cornerstone of creativity, which is the beating heart of who we are, what we do and the individuals that we represent. So if you’re not curious, if you’re not out there intellectually curious about what’s going on in the world and what drives and motivates people and how to connect with audiences and individuals, then you’re probably not in the right place.

Q:  For you as a CEO, how do you manage that? How are you able to A) balance the demands of the role with this need for curiosity? And B) what are some of those practises that you have in your own life that that ensure that you’re able to maintain that that level of inspiration that you will need? 

[Mary Bekhait]:  I’m lucky in that I’m a naturally curious person and hence it’s not something that feels laboured or forced, but of course I put effort into it like anything in life.

I read extensively and I read outside of the immediate ambit of what I do, because I think it’s really interesting in terms of how other industries approach common issues or opportunities or challenges within the workplace. I listen to my colleagues, so when they start talking about, NFTs, Web3, social monetisation, I dive into that with them. I  sit with them and give them an opportunity to tell me more about it and I ask questions about it and off the back of that, I do extensive reading also.

I make sure that I use platforms like LinkedIn as an example, where the algorithm serves me in a number of areas where every single morning I get my news delivered into my inbox. That helps.

I make sure that I am open to information from lots of different sources; senior, junior, internal, external, old fashioned newspapers right through to social media platforms and everything in between. I think asking questions and remaining alive to what is going on out there is utterly critical and I make time for it..  

Q:  How did you develop your own style of leadership? And how do you therefore translate that into the kind of culture within the organization?

[Mary Bekhait]:  I’m quite bold as an individual, and I think I need to be. Clearly innovation is incredibly important to me. I do not accept people saying we’ve always done it like this, so this is the way we’re going to do it. That doesn’t mean you need to meddle with everything that’s working, but it does mean that you need to push the envelope.

As a leader, I’m constantly saying, okay, but what else can we be doing? Where else should we be? Should we be trying this? Should we be trying that? There’s a lot of forward momentum and I drive that from the top. That takes courage and I see this more and more within the Group. I try to be empathetic give people freedom. I’m leading by example – I’m always off doing something, trying new things, experimenting and I like the team to do the same and bring me opportunities – I feel like my leadership style is around hopefully engendering a place of innovation, curiosity, boldness and creativity.

Q:  How have you managed to kind of almost bring them to your vision?  

[Mary Bekhait]:  I think you need to A) have a vision to start with; which is I want to do these things, these things are all leading up to X goal. I think you need to be compelling in terms of the story that you’re telling to different types of stakeholders, so the way that I speak to the group Board and the PE House is very different to how I speak to an Assistant Talent Manager. The communication of that vision needs to be sort of staggered and layered depending on who I’m speaking to and ultimately – because I am passionate about it – when i come up with an idea it is always well-researched and thought through.

There is a force of personality as well as a passion, that kind of makes things happen.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Mary Bekhait]:  Genuinely it’s around female leadership because I sit on so many Boards that are entirely male. When I sit with banks it’s often entirely male. When I sit with PE Houses, it’s entirely male and often when I sit with group Boards of other organisations, it’s either entirely male or almost entirely male.

Even in the creative industries where you would expect a slightly more sort of forward looking approach to this, that still is not the case.  I hope that other women coming through the business, wherever they are, will be able to see that I have done it – as have many others – and ultimately see a path themselves. I don’t think you can do it until you see it and that is definitely something that I hope I will leave as a legacy for the female leaders coming through YMU and perhaps even more broadly within the industry.

Q:  Why has there been such an egregious imbalance in the creative industries in particular?

[Mary Bekhait]:  I’ve been a Talent Manager so I know this first hand as part of the journey, when you’re a talent manager, it is all consuming. So if you are a female talent manager of a musician, that means you might need to go on tour for several months. It might be that you need to do late nights, that you need to go to clubs, etc. That is incompatible with raising a family for a lot of women. And sadly, a lot of women still have the responsibility of being the person that looks after the children. Even if you are talent on the broadcast side, in TV, or other areas, it is still long nights. It’s still turning up at the studio and recording for an entire evening. It might be that you need to be available on the phone outside of normal working hours. Often it can be incompatible with what is considered ‘normal’ family life, and at that point you see a number of women tail off because they tend to still be the ones that are responsible for the child rearing.

I think you get into a much broader societal thing, where women are criticised more heavily for making a mistake in public and that can see some women just think it’s not worth the hassle. I think men – because of the way that they are often brought up and the way that society operates –  probably sail through criticism and failure more easily. In my experience, having witnessed some of the ways men and women operate and the reactions towards them so much of it is in our expectation of how men and women should act. There are so many contributing factors in why women are held back. Those can be economic, it can be childcare, it can be societal expectations. It can be a lack of seeing other people do it.

It’s such a complex issue and it is fascinating, and one of the things I’ve tried to do since I started is to improve this imbalance. I’ve hired a brilliant group of M.D.s, and 90% of those have been female. I really, really want to see more women leading and I want other women to see women leading. And it’s exciting. I think things are changing.  Slowly, but they are changing.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.