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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 177: Telling the World's Stories with David Roemer

June 01, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week on the Be Epic podcast, Matt speaks with David Roemer, CEO and co-founder of Ideas United. They discuss Roemer’s experience early in his career at Apple that led to the founding of Ideas United. Now, Ideas United travels the world for Campus Movie Fest to discover the world's next best directors, animators, musicians and more. They also help companies, brands, and people share their story with the world. 

Episode Transcript

David Roemer  0:01  
Everyone really does have a story to tell and if we can find some more opportunities to help them do that, then it truly does make the world a better place.

Matt Waller  0:11  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton college. And welcome to the Be EPIC podcast. I have with me today, David Roemer, CEO, at Ideas United. Thank you, David, so much for joining me. I really appreciate it. 

David Roemer  0:40  
Thanks, Dean Waller. It's great to be here.

Matt Waller  0:42  
I'm really excited to learn about your company, you have a really interesting background. And it looks to me like your career started at Apple, which is a very well admired company in marketing. And, you know, really seriously when I think of marketing, Apple's one of the first companies that come to mind. Before the recording started, David and I were talking about the Think Different campaign and how we created our Be Epic campaign sort of modeled off of that, not that it's anywhere near Think Different, but we did use it as kind of a model. But I would love to hear about your eight years in marketing at Apple and Cupertino, and then how that may have impacted the company, that you're the CEO of. 

David Roemer  1:32  
Thanks. It was definitely a dream come true just to be out there. And for whatever reason, growing up I, Steve Jobs was one of my heroes, I always wanted to go work at Apple, I was the 13-year-old sending a 40 page report to Steve, you know, hoping that you would read it and getting a little letter back that changed my life. And I, um applied for an internship, my best friend got offered that internship and turned it down to go work at NASA. So he reminds me of that often. And I was lucky enough to get to be the only undergrad intern in marketing at Apple for five summers there, which truly was one of the best experiences of my life getting to be surrounded by all these brilliant people that were trusting me and empowering me to learn and to try some new things and learn from the best along the way.

Matt Waller  2:16  
I can't imagine. That must have just been a wonderful experience.

David Roemer  2:20  
It really was and was always raising my hand and doing the things that nobody else wanted to do there and gave me a chance to really be around some of these, these heroes of mine. That was a lot of what inspired me to start what became our company too. And we'll tell you a little bit about that as we go here. But fortunately, there were some people at Apple that said, you know, you'll always have a job out here if you want it. But you also have a chance to continue to your dreams of what you might be able to do starting your own thing, and told me to go for it. And that'll be that the second part of the story here. 

Matt Waller  2:49  
I do want to make sure we talk about Ideas United but back to Apple and your marketing experience there. What did you notice about the culture? Because you you were one of the founders of Ideas United?

David Roemer  3:05  
Correct. Yes.

Matt Waller  3:07  
And you started that like, right after you graduated, I believe. Not too long after you graduated.

David Roemer  3:12  
Yeah, in a way, it was a student organization that started it all when I was at Emory. So I was interning at Apple back when iMovie came out, and a couple of friends and I wondered what would happen if we passed out some laptops and cameras to students at Emory. And before we knew it 1500 students had made short movies in a week and walked down the red carpet and got to see their stories up on the big screen. And that's what really convinced us to see what happened if we share that opportunity with other students around the globe. So it wouldn't have been possible without some friends at Apple that slipped us a couple of things under the table to give us a shot. And some mentors at Emory that gave us that opportunity too.

Matt Waller  3:49  
Okay, that's interesting. So your experience at Apple directly led to your formation of this Ideas United?

David Roemer  3:59  
Completely. And I was lucky enough to, after I graduated from Emory go study in Scotland as part of Bobby Jones scholarship, and ran the same program over there where we passed out these laptops and cameras and had a similar result where 1000s of students were making short movies. They happen to be wearing kilts when they were walking down the red carpet. But other than that, it really just showed us all this creativity and talent and passion out there. And yup, without the experience at Apple and the supporters there, none of this would have would have really been possible.

Matt Waller  4:30  
Interesting. So tell me about that first one. When you passed these cameras out at Emory. What made you decide to do that?

David Roemer  4:40  
I think with iMovie it showed that someone even like me, who wasn't a filmmaker could still use the power of video to tell a story. One of my co-founders was a Resident Advisor. And he was looking for opportunities, activities for his students that maybe didn't involve drinking. And so we just kind of wondered together. Let's give the students the laptop camera week to make a short movie, and we saw them stay up every night, we saw them have the time of their lives. And that was really what sparked that idea was to say, you know, is this a chance for us to bring this student's memory together? To celebrate the creativity instead of just maybe bringing in a band or a comedian? What happens if we actually let the students be the ones that get to celebrate the awesome stories that they have?

Matt Waller  5:22  
Once the videos were created by the people, or the students, what did you do with it, then? 

David Roemer  5:29  
Yeah, that first year, we brought everybody together in a big auditorium. They felt like they were at the Oscars getting to see their movies up on the big screen. And then that was way back in 2000-2001. We basically came up with a website to share these videos, which sure could have been YouTube. And maybe we have a couple of regrets about that. But that was the beginning of learning how to share video over the web for all their friends and family to see too.

Matt Waller  5:55  
Did you charge anything for that, for the first one?

David Roemer  5:58  
First one, we kept all for free, and actually kept that as a model for quite some time. At that point, we partnered with Emory and got some funding from student government or student programming, got a couple sponsors, whether it was Apple that never sponsors anything, but really helped us out because of that trust I had had built or Krispy Kreme at the time that donated several thousand donuts that my co-founder had to sell his car after carting those around campus for a week, we couldn't get rid of that smell. But it was some of the supporters early on that made it possible for free for the students.

Matt Waller  6:32  
Today, you run something called Campus Movie Fest. Would you tell us a little bit about that?

David Roemer  6:40  
You got it. That's what grew out of that first student event was being able to share that with campuses all over the globe. And so when we graduated, wondered, you know, how would that business work, we got a couple of early partners, Delta Airlines at the time that came on board as our first presenting partner. And that let us run that Student Film Festival on campuses across Georgia, and then across the US, and then later around the world to the point where we've now had over a million students that have been able to create short movies, and be a part of this experience all over the globe.

Matt Waller  7:11  
So today, I mean, you explained how you did it then. Let's suppose we were going to do one at the University of Arkansas, how would that work?

David Roemer  7:20  
Rewinding a couple of years pre-pandemic, the way it would have worked is we would have partnered with a lot of great student leaders on campus, we would have brought 100 laptops and cameras that we pass out to all the students, whether they're filmmakers or sports team members, fraternities, sororities, people that have never made a movie before, we would be there to help everyone have that week to create their short stories. Some could be around themes, whether it's social justice, or could be just great comedies or dramas. And then we get all those movies in, turn them around and have them judged, and then have that big red carpet finale on campus to showcase the best of the best. And meanwhile, we'd be doing that on all these other campuses around the globe, and being able to showcase the best of the Arkansas talent against or with all these other universities around the globe.

Matt Waller  8:05  
What a neat idea. So that's how you did it pre-pandemic, how do you do it now?

David Roemer  8:12  
Yeah, we've learned a lot. So some of that has been a little bit more virtual, obviously, where we're finding ways to actually reach more students and more universities, that's a little bit less about providing the equipment given most students have a cell phone or camera in their hand, and some of the editing software for free. So it's more about the training that we're able to provide virtually, it's more about the incentives or the overall opportunities we can create together. And then it's often about bringing together the best of the best, both online as well as hopefully in some some grand finales across the globe at the end of the year too.

Matt Waller  8:46  
When you do these, how do you get the word out to students that it's going to happen?

David Roemer  8:52  
A lot of times that's partnering with the student leaders that are really great at doing that on their campuses. So they're the ones that have organized a lot of the big events and know how to help us reach those, those students. But also it's working with our partners. So as we have different brands that are part of it. Currently, it's Disney or Panasonic, or Elfenworks, which is on the social justice side. They'll help us also share that whether it's online or through email blasts, or through some physical activations as well. 

Matt Waller  9:21  
And how do you make money? 

David Roemer  9:23  
Yeah, I've heard that's important in business. That's what I learned in undergrad business school. Two ways. So one is over all those years, we were just running campus movie fest initially, and that was funded partially by the universities that were used to bringing kind of the student band parties or comedians. Also through the brand partners that we would talk to them and say instead of just having a 30 second ad to try to reach this generation, why don't you come on campus with us and provide these unforgettable experiences for the students that are made possible thanks to your brand? So that's what built our business for the first decade, what really accelerated after that was realizing through to these festivals, we were also discovering the top emerging talent. So that's where Ideas United was really born out of was saying, you know, we're finding the best emerging directors and animators and musicians, all these different passions, all these different expertise, and now located all around the globe. So what happens if we're able to partner with them to help tell the stories for our partner brands or universities or nonprofits too so right now Campus Movie Fest, in a big way, is a really a talent discovery arm for all this other work that we get to do at Ideas United.

Matt Waller  10:33  
Wow, that's great. You're creating this content. Are there other modes you use to create content?

David Roemer  10:40  
For sure. Now, it all comes down to storytelling for us. And that's what we see in all these different modes of content, whether it's events, and experiential, which is turned into these hybrid events that we're now getting to, to learn all about, podcasts for this, for example, short films, episodic, original series, feature films, we're seeing all these different ways to tell stories. And I think, through social media, obviously, that's where being able to tap into the best of the next generation really helps us stay on the cutting edge of that to find these new formats and find the most persuasive way to tell stories and make a positive impact.

Matt Waller  11:17  
Like if a company were to hire you, do they ever say "Hey, we would like you to crowdsource a story from our employees"?

David Roemer  11:28  
Are you looking at our whiteboard right now? We've had it up there for a while. It's, that's the exact type of model that we love is saying that not everyone out there has these stories, everyone's creative, there's ways to really harness or empower that creativity together and tell these stories. So we've just done some pilots on that side of it, but I think there's a ton of opportunity.

Matt Waller  11:49  
So for example, if, let's say the Walton College wanted a story about, I don't know, student success, or student engagement, so I don't know, could you then get the students to create their own videos that demonstrate student success?

David Roemer  12:08  
You got it exactly. And sometimes, now, we might start with more of the overall concepts. So maybe the students would pitch it could be a couple sentences about it, that we would then narrow down and then together select the concepts that we would actually move into production. Other times, it's really about, yep, submit all these different videos so that we can see all this incredible creativity, and then from there, maybe choosing some that we could together produce at even higher quality, if that's what's important to our partner.

Matt Waller  12:36  
Well, I know you've worked with some pretty big name companies like Amazon, and Apple, and AT&T, and Microsoft, and Panasonic, and Frito Lay, and many, many other really well known brands. What are you doing primarily for those kinds of big brands? 

David Roemer  12:56  
Part of the fun is that each one is a little bit different. But a lot of times it is helping them reach what we would call the you know, the next generation, whether that's college students or recent graduates, and saying let's partner with that generation to come up with some of the creative and come up with some of the content that actually speaks to them. And so that's where we get to manage all the productions from start to finish, whether it's coming up with 30 second ads, or digital content, or the experiential side. But really being able to empower that generation to be part of that process has been a key to a lot of our success. Other times, it might be really helping a brand, rethink the way that they do shape their story. And being able to tap into a more diverse community of creators to do that has helped unleash a lot of the power. So that might be like a PGA of America, which is 100 plus year old brand in the golf world, looking for a way to a little bit more efficiently tell their story, a way to grow the game and a way for us to partner to say there's a better way to get their story out there.

Matt Waller  13:59  
Interesting. And then once you have content, say a company hires you, and you create the content this way, what are the different ways you deliver it? Obviously, for the universities, you have the Campus Movie Fest, but what do you do with companies in that way? 

David Roemer  14:18  
Yeah, again, each one's a little bit different. A lot of times they would have media agency that would be placing a lot of this content through digital channels, or that would be aired nationally or globally on television. Other times, it's more about us sharing that with our network, with our community of creators, so that we can continue to build upon that creator community too.

Matt Waller  14:39  
David, would you mind just sharing a little bit more about some of what you all have learned from your mentors that really helped you decide to go ahead and pursue this. I mean, by the way, for those of you don't know, I mean, David started this almost 20 years ago. He's been doing this a long time. So, obviously, you must have had some mentors that really encouraged you to move forward.

David Roemer  15:07  
We definitely did and are entirely grateful for that. We were lucky to find a few of those mentors at Emory that said, yes, that, you know, really gave us a chance to try things, and they trusted us, helped us learn that it was okay to make some mistakes along the way, and empowered us to ask some of the big questions. So one of our professors was asking, you know, what would the world be like if your student organization didn't exist tomorrow, wasn't something that had crossed our minds previously, but helped us think about the impact that we were trying to make. And I think that was key for us to be able to take some of these chances and seek some of these experiences out early on, learned how to address some objections along the way to whether it was you know, who we could film on campus or finding out what hadn't worked previously. And then just being able to ask a little bit of forgiveness instead of permission with Emory PD, when we were carting around laptops late at night, it was that sort of spirit that I really think gave us a chance to give this a shot and 20 years later, still be going strong.

What are some things that you've learned maybe recently, or over time, that really stands out to you that you think people might be interested in?

We're, I think, all used to skepticism in the world, or cynicism or saying that, you know, students don't have time to make short movies, or they're not creative enough. They're engineers, whatever it might be. I think what we learned pretty quickly was just that everyone really does have a story to tell. And if we can find some more opportunities to help them do that, then it truly does make the world a better place. For us, it comes back to that there's a scene in Ratatouille where they talk about anyone can cook. And that doesn't mean that everyone is going to be a great cook or a great artists, but a great artist can come from anywhere. And that's what it comes down to for us.

Matt Waller  16:55  
Well, David, thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today. And congratulations on your success of starting and maintaining and building this company that is really doing a great job of creating content and telling stories. Well done.

David Roemer  17:12  
Thanks Dean Waller. Thanks for the Be Epic podcast and continuing to teach us as well.

Matt Waller  17:17  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be EPIC. B-E-E-P-I-C.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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