Ash Stahl is just as comfortable posing along the neon-lit corridor of Flighthouse‘s east Hollywood office for a photo shoot as she is running the company — after years as the managing director she was promoted to CEO in August of 2021. And though ascending through the ranks of one of the most influential TikTok agencies in the country is a huge accomplishment, Stahl has never for a second forgotten how much work it took to get where she is now. Even if she isn’t a TikTok star in her own right, and has no designs to be one, the behind-the-scenes work Stahl does keeping the creative agency moving is just as important as perfecting the latest dance trend… if not more so. But how she landed in her CEO role is due more to a series of unexpected events than an action plan.
“It wasn’t really my goal to live in LA and to work in entertainment or content,” she explained during a recent interview. “It’s really just been taking the next opportunity that came to me.” Back when she was growing up in upstate New York, Stahl did initially think her calling was to be in front of the camera herself, until taking an internship at a local TV station at the age of 16 threw the realities of reporting into sharp relief. “They literally threw me out there with a camera man and a microphone and had me start asking people political questions on the street,” she remembered. “That was the most intimidating thing I’d ever done, and made me realize I didn’t really want to be on camera.”
Still, raised on MTV, Stahl had her heart set on the idea of being a broadcast journalist, and pursued a communications degree in the field while attending University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Eventually realizing that wasn’t going to be her path, Stahl switched out her degree and finished with a focus on PR. Around the same time, Stahl started getting involved with some artists in the electronic music world while she was still in school, and ended up helping out with artist management and PR right around the time the EDM bubble exploded. Managing artists for next to nothing, Stahl also began working in marketing at EDM.com. And even though she left that job after moving to LA, she stayed involved by managing one artist, Said The Sky, who she’s been working with since 2014.
But hustling as a young woman in the music industry meant long hours and very little pay, especially in the beginning, and, perhaps surprising some, Stahl credits her time as a waitress at Hooters as the support she needed to make it through that period. “I started in college working at Hooters and put myself through college like that,” she said. “Even that, was an awesome fucking job. They pay you for your grades and offer a super flexible schedule. I was able to work at Hooters while getting into artist management, back when I was working for free and managing baby artists.”
After college, Stahl lived in Florida for a few years while she found her footing in music, and made the jump to live in LA around 2015 to start working at an agency called Create Music Group. “Create was originally doing production for a lot of early influencers on Vine,” Stahl explained. “We were doing music videos and artist production packages for those kids, so I worked on project management and artist services.” Fligthouse was one of the projects Create had on a back burner, and started off as a sound page on the now-defunct social media app, Musical.ly, which has since transformed into TikTok.
“We saw the opportunity and the potential there was on the platform.” she said. “We started focusing on Flighthouse right when they announced the transition from Musical.ly to TikTok. Originally, our goal was to take our audience on Musical.ly and move it off platform. We started off doing really high-budget content and started bringing Musical.ly stars into those shows. Honestly, we spent a million dollars and it just didn’t work. So we started transitioning to work on different kinds of content.”
In August 2018, Flighthouse landed on a super simple content style that would become a lasting formula for them: Rolling down different colors of paper backdrops. “The content that worked was super lean,” Stahl said. “When we posted our first color backdrop premium influencer content, the first one got 30 millions views overnight. TikTok initially said don’t do any premium content, only UGC and only iPhone, premium isn’t going to work. But we had a studio and access to talent, so we wanted to try it out — and it blew up. It kind of went against what they were suggesting as best practices, but it really worked for us.”
Following their initial success, the platform even got in touch with Flighthouse and told them “we don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it,” which is exactly what Stahl and her team did. Their team started to make content on the white label side as an agency, working on campaigns like the Marshmello and Anne-Marie song “Friends,” and continuing to focus mostly on music clients. Until 2020, when they started to take on their first brand clients. And even as the audiences, users, and yes, brands, get involved with TikTok and its explosive growth, Stahl still sees music as the core connector on the network.
“TikTok started as people lip-syncing or doing dances to different songs,” she said. “That’s where Musical.ly started, that’s where Flighthouse and TikTok started. Obviously, as TikTok has grown there’s a lot more communities and different types of content, but the throughline still really is the audio, is the music. TikTok is way more fast-paced, and that’s what Gen Z wants. Instagram is so edited and polished, and people are growing away from that a little bit.”
Leaning into those aspects, Flighthouse has been able to maintain their following at around 28+ million followers on TikTok, earning the designation as the most followed brand on the platform. Stahl explained that stars on the app see working with their agency as a “rite of passage” for TikTokers, and that’s part of what helps them maintain their status as a tastemaker in the field. “Once they get to a certain follower count, they hope they’ll get invited into Flighthouse to go shoot content,” she said. “For a lot of these influencers, we’re the first time they’ve really talked on camera. We’re showing what these influencers’ actual personalities are by putting them into the gamified Fligthouse content.”
As Fligthouse continues to grow, they’ve begun working with brands like Hollister, Tinder, HP and more to create content and build partnerships. And as Stahl has moved up from first championing the agency, to becoming the managing director, and finally the CEO, her leadership has helped these partnerships become more common. In this day and age, most brands realize they need to be on TikTok because that’s where their audience is — and Flighthouse is a great place to begin. As for Stahl, her journey from waiting tables at Hooters to working as a CEO in the constantly expanding world of social media content has been a long one. She credits her success to working hard, surrounding herself with good people, and being herself.
“It’s been awesome coming out to LA and just fucking working hard and it paid off,” she said. “Being myself and being authentic, and not trying to change that for an executive or an industry has been awesome, and fulfilling for me. Lucky isn’t the right word, but surrounding yourself with good people and making sure you have a really good team. Women’s empowerment, women’s rights and supporting women in these industries has been really important to me. But no one’s ever been like ‘you’re doing an awesome job for being a woman’ they’ve let me just do a good job as a person, and not have gender be a part of it.”
Learn more about Flighthouse here.