Saturday, January 31, 2009

Directions Business Conference inspires the uninspirable

I had good fortune to attend Red River College's Directions Business Conference this week, and was not disappointed.

Actually, I'm never disappointed by the conference, but this year it seemed to be even better than usual and, dare I say: "inspirational?"


1. Lunchtime speaker Gail Asper.

After seeing her in person, I'm not surprised that she raised the nearly $265 million needed to make the Canadian Museum for Human Rights a reality. By the end of her speech, I was ready to hand over my wallet, and she's much richer than I am (although my nickname is Moneybags Larsen).

Among the memorable moments of her speech:
  • Her father, Izzy Asper, told her, "Never do a little deal." She went on to explain that it takes the same amount of time to get City Hall to install a traffic light as it does to build a giant museum, so you might as well go big.
  • Speaking of City Hall, she joked that her next initiative will be to get the speed limit raised to 60 on Grant Ave. "I get so many speeding tickets on Grant, they have a separate line for me on the civic budget," she said.
  • She asked that everyone present make a pledge to not "knock" Winnipeg here or when they travel.
  • She stuck it to Manitoba Hydro for its huge building on Portage Ave; primarily because it will open onto Graham Ave and not Portage. "What's the point of opening onto a street that's only open to buses?"
2. Heather Stewart from Lilyfield Cakes.

Heather proved to be another engaging speaker; and she came to the conference fresh from catering Barack Obama's inauguration with her signature cakes, which cost over $100 a pop. I'm sure Barack's cakes were even more pricey; just check out these cake boxes.

Responding to a question about her business plan, she said, "Business plan? I've never bothered with one of those." Rather, her promotional plan consisted of contacting magazines and seeing if the editors wanted a free cake sample. Who wouldn't want a free cake sample? And, apparently, the rest took care of itself.

She gave conference attendees (and, more importantly, "me") free samples. Her cakes, which have no icing and don't need it, can be shipped anywhere in the world by Fed Ex in 24 hours. And, she says, "The cake tastes best after it sits for a day, so the delivery time is perfect."

After a thin slice of sample, I'm happy to report that I'm planning to order a $150 cake. And I'm going to eat it all by myself. Please don't call me that weekend, OK? OK!

Here's Heather and her cakes at the Oscars:

3. Hilary Druxman

Her jewelry store in the Exchange District is one of Winnipeg's rare "New York" boutique experiences; in her presentation she chalked up her international success to embracing risk, commitment, and adaptability.

One of the most interesting parts of her speech showed how U.S. business declined after Sept. 11 and how she restructured her business to minimize the impact. She also talked about how important it was to get her jewelry featured in Flare and In Style.

4. Ed Huot of Clark + Huot

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Ed has the power to talk about branding like it's a religion.

In his presentation, he spoke about a company's "brandscape," a concept that is "easy to understand but hard to conquer."

He explained the concept by way of Apple, Starbucks, and his firm's campaign for Winnipeg Airports Authority by walking us through the importance of "storytelling" to the WAA campaign.

"We are our own heroes in this imaginary story of our lives," he said. So, for the WAA campaign, he imagined the story from the viewpoint of a fictional character, "Darren."

"Darren's a guy who is heading to the airport at 5 a.m. in minus 30 winters, going, "Oh my God, I hate my life,"" said Huot. By analyzing this character's story, Huot said, the WAA was able to make the airport experience more personal for travelers.

According to Huot, the secret to any promotional campaign (or "experiential marketing") is to be open to technology and invite people into a community that you create, using online tools like Facebook, YouTube, and Flicr, among others.

Letterman shows Bill Hicks' banned performance

Last night, Letterman had Mary Hicks on his show. She's the mother of the late, groundbreaking comedian Bill Hicks.

The occasion? Letterman's apology for removing Bill Hicks' performance from the Late Show back in 1993. I wrote about it a couple of days ago here.

The interview was quite touching. Letterman was hard on himself, taking responsibility for removing the segment from his show, and saying, "It probably says more about the kind of guy that I am than the kind of guy that Bill was."

Mary Hicks accepted Letterman's apology, but not before telling him how much pain he had caused the family in 1993; unbeknownst to Letterman, Hicks was fighting cancer at the time of the performance and had moved back in with his parents, who looked after him until he died.

What's most interesting and surprising about the performance is how clean Hicks actually is; he doesn't swear once. Clearly, it was Hicks' take on pro-lifers and Jesus that made Letterman queasy back in the day. My favorite part doesn't get much of a laugh - the tag about going "hog wild" is a classic Hicks moment.

The performance:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Letterman to air "lost" Bill Hicks segment

This is pretty amazing: the holy grail of comedy will apparently be unearthed on this Friday's Late Show with David Letterman.

The famous censoring of the late Bill Hicks' appearance on the Oct. 1, 1993 Letterman show marked the only time that that an entire stand-up performance was cut after a taping of the show.

At the time, CBS and Late Show producers denied responsibility. But, apparently, Letterman himself takes responsibility in tomorrow's show, apologizes to Hicks' mother, Mary Hicks, who appears on the show, and shows Hicks' original performance. Wow.

This is famous because it was only seen once before (on the U.S. cable channel "Trio"), and Hicks spoke about it a lot before he died: in a handwritten, 39-page letter to John Lahr in the New Yorker, who wrote an article about it, and in the above "public broadcast" interview he taped before his death

Hicks is a groundbreaking comic, who never got much recognition until after he died. His work is now widely available on CD, and it's pretty great stuff; if you buy Flying Saucer Tour, it's impossible to listen to his take on the original Gulf War without thinking that maybe Bill is actually talking about George W. Bush and the War on Terror.

The CD is also very dirty and - amazingly - features a lot of material where Hicks isn't doing very well with the audience; in fact, he's outright bombing much of the time, which is why he "prays for a nuclear holocaust" from the stage time and again.

Tune in to Friday's Letterman: it should be something special.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why this year's Oscars will suck

This year's Oscar nominations were rolled out earlier this week to a collective yawn.

Timing is everything: it's kind of hard to get excited about actors winning awards when you've just seen Bush finally leave the White House and Obama become U.S. president.

Hell, I've been on pins and needles the whole week waiting for the J. Crew website to come back up, so I could buy myself an outfit just like the Obama kids. Those kids are so darn cute. And so will I be in my new orange fuzzy hat-and-coat combo. Am I right, people?

Yes, it was great to see two, great former TV actors nominated for Oscars: Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) - the dead father in Six Feet Under, and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) - who was on one of my favorite TV shows of all time: Homicide: Life on the Street.

But these aside, the Oscar nominations were a big letdown:

1. No nomination for the Dark Knight or director Christopher Nolan.

Yes, there were problems with the movie, but no film has done more toward restoring dignity and smarts to the summer movie blockbuster since forever. Say goodbye to ratings on Oscar night, nomination committee.

2. Robert Downey Jr. is nominated for the wrong film.

Tropic Thunder really sucks after Steve Coogan blows up. For my money, the Downey nomination should've been for Iron Man; a superhero film that wouldn't have been anywhere as near as good without the involvement of its lead actor.

Today, a friend of mine disagreed, saying, "No one has ever done what Robert Downey Jr. did in Tropic Thunder." Yeah, except for C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man or the Wayans brothers in White Chicks. Sigh.

3. Brad Pitt is nominated for Benjamin Button.

Half (or more) of his performance is CGI. Frank Oz, Andy Serkis, and - especially - Jar Jar are scandalized.

4. No Clint Eastwood.

See above poster. Duh! Give this man what is rightfully his.

5. Kate Winslet proves the joke in Extras is true.

In the great TV show, Extras, Ricky Gervais tells Kate Winslet (playing herself) that she'll never get an Oscar without doing a Holocaust film. Err....he was right. Joke go poof.

6. WALL-E is nominated in the cartoon category.

As "the movie guy" would say: "In an world where nothing is for everyone, this is everyone's favorite film of the year." It would've been super cool to see this one win the best-picture Oscar. It won't be quite as exciting to see it beat Kung Fu Panda.

7. What's with the best song category?

This category usually has five songs in it. This year, it has just three: two from Slumdog Millionaire and one from WALL-E, none of which anyone on planet Earth could hum at gunpoint.

Lots of folks are up in arms about Springsteen not being nominated for the Wrestler, but I don't really mind, since he got away with murder when he won for "Streets of Philadelphia." But how could there not be more songs worth nominating?

One thing that you can count on: as usual, the best picture will be the one that wins the "Best Foreign Film" category.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The best and worst song about reading

Every once in awhile, something strange comes over a band, and it decides to write and record a song about reading. At best, these songs look something like Belle and Sebastian's "Wrapped up in Books:"

Is it just me, or does that one owe something to a the Tears for Fears video for Head Over Heels?

At their worst, "reading songs" look something like Moxy Fruvous' "My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors:"

As the talkbacker says on YouTube, "Once in a while I get embarrassed to be Canadian. This is one of those moments. Ugh."

It's hard to believe that this was a real single, and not a PSA that CBC was forced to play by the Canadian government, or a parody outtake from A Mighty Wind. How much do you figure Margaret Atwood paid for the product placement/shout-out?

Still, it's not a complete loss to see a pre-CBC Jian Ghomeshi in all his crimped hair and acid-washed jeans glory.

See you in the library.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hey, Maurice, two minutes for lookin' so good!

In advertising class the other day, we did a live re-enactment of the classic Canadian Grecian Formula ad featuring Maurice "The Rocket" Richard (lookin' a little long in the tooth) and the catchphrase that captured the imagination of a generation.

Forget "I am Canadian." Life would be so much better if we brought back: "Hey, INSERT NAME OF PERSON YOU'RE SPEAKING TO HERE, two minutes for lookin' so good!"

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Dick Cheney in race to find lost Ark of the Covenant

One of the big surprises today was seeing that Dick Cheney has finally embraced the dark side and is openly scheming to take over the world in full view of God and everyone.

Some said that he looked a bit like Ironside today, but to me he's never looked more menacing. Like Ronald Lacey in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or Dr. Evil. Or Darth Vader with the mask off.

A great visual counterpoint to Barack Obama and the forces of everything that's good and right in the world.

Morrissey now has change that he can believe in

Congratulations to U.S. President Barack Obama. Ahhh, that sounds good...

In celebration, here are the lyrics from Morrissey's great song, "America is not the world."
"In America, The land of the free, they said, And of opportunity, In a just and a truthful way.
But where the president, is never black, female or gay, and until that day,
you've got nothing to say to me, to help me believe"
Morrissey can believe again! Almost as shocking as the first African American President!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Winnipeg's comedy uber-fan makes Gawker

Anyone who has done stand-up in Winnipeg knows Sharilyn Johnson - comedy uber-fan and sometime stand-up.

There has been many a night when I've played to a half-empty (by that I mean "empty") room where the only folks in attendance are the other comics and Sharilyn. Minus 30, blizzard, bad, hack, and old material (hello, my old friends!): nothing deters Sharilyn from coming out to a comedy show.

I haven't spoken with Sharilyn in awhile, so I'm late in finding out that she recently became a New York comedy uber-fan, regularly attending tapings of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report.

Everything was apparently going to plan until election night, when Sharilyn flew to New York to see the Daily Show and didn't get in, despite having a ticket.

Frustrated and let down by the experience, she blogged about it in the Huffington Post (the original article is here), and the Blogosphere exploded - as it often does - leading to this article on Gawker.

How to have a grievance, version 2.0

It is interesting to note how the new media has changed the whole business of having a grievance: in the old days, if I had a complaint, I'd tell my friends at work, no one would listen, I'd feel better, and forget about it.

Or, if it was really important, I'd write a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, they'd run it, nothing would happen, I'd feel better, and forget about it.

Now, I guess, I should post my complaints online and everyone around the world can weigh in with helpful comments, like the one talkbacker on Gawker, who says to Sharilyn: "You're Canadian, sweetheart. Life is tough."

Then, I'd feel worse, but later get to star in a Weezer video. Or something.

Maybe the best solution is to do what my father used to suggest when I was a kid and whining about something: "You have a complaint? Take it to the complaint department!"

Where can I find that online?

Would the last American newsweekly please bring the flag?

According to yesterday's New York Times, we may be seeing the end of the U.S. newsweekly magazine category, effective almost immediately.

Newsweek appears to be headed the way of The Economist by peddling "views over news" and aiming for an "elite" target audience - translation: big income earners - which advertisers still want to reach.

That would leave Time Magazine as the sole newsweekly in the U.S., which is especially bittersweet here in Canada, considering that Time recently announced the end of its Canadian edition. I'm not surprised that Time did it: I'm sure that most readers didn't even realize there even was a Canadian edition, except for the occasional surprise, like the April 2005 cover story on Arcade Fire.

We've been talking about the death of print a lot in our advertising and PR classes lately, and it does seem that a revolution is upon us. In the past few months alone, we've heard about the Winnipeg Free Press, the Winnipeg Sun, and CanWest Global (a Winnipeg-based media conglomerate consisting of mostly newspapers and TV) laying off their staff, while the Sun reportedly is heading toward becoming an online-only entity.

The question is: when print finally does kick the bucket, what kind of journalism will we be left with, and how will it be supported? Will we see an online news business model that has credibility and makes money, or will we see something more akin to the music industry, where mostly unpaid and untrained journalists report the news, and we consume it - for free?

I'm sure that most of us will continue to be riveted - to the Internet - to find out how this all turns out. In the meantime, maybe the traditional news media can learn from Graham on the "Progressive Winnipeg" blog, who recently pointed out (spelling his): "Maybe time for the Sun and the FreeP to get a head start and get on designing better web pages."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

How do you sell TV in a post-TV world?

The New York Times recently asked the question: “How do you sell soap in a post-TV world?”

Better yet: how do you sell a TV show in a post-TV world?

This semester, RRC Creative Communications' students' major campaign is to propose an IMC campaign for Breakfast Television on Citytv. The goal: to increase the ratings by getting 20 per cent more viewers to watch Citytv’s morning show, Breakfast Television, and generate as much publicity, notoriety, and momentum for BT as possible over the course of one month in the spring of 2009.

Having just discussed this in class, one student openly shook his head at the very possibility that one could succeed at this endeavor; I don't necessarily agree, though I will say that it's an interesting challenge, and one that was flagged recently by the New York Times Magazine in its awesome "Screens" issue.

Some pearls of wisdom from Jack Hitt's Times interview with Benjamin Palmer, Lars Bastholm, and Robert Rasmussen about how they'd promote Katie Couric in today's media landscape:

Rasmussen: So the other day I TiVoed the CBS news. And I gotta tell you, sitting in front of the TV for that long watching news was painful to me. Katie Couric is an outdated product, an outdated model; it’s not really relevant to me.

Palmer: What Katie Couric is not giving us, as a mainstream evening-news anchor, is an invitation to participate. You start involving people in the conversation. You start using television as the theatrical component to the Internet. Because what TV offers that the Internet doesn’t offer is a guarantee of fame. You know that millions of people saw that bit of you on television.

Rasmussen: I think consumers need to be able to control their media a little bit when they deal with Katie Couric. So say you’re in a taxi and you see a little promo of Katie Couric. Maybe there’s a menu that says, “These are the topics she’s going to be talking about today.” So Katie herself becomes a kind of menu.

Bastholm: She also needs to change from being a persona to being a person, and that’s what digital is best at.

Palmer: So it’s like, what does Katie Couric think about sports? What does she think about politics? What does she think about pro wrestling? What does she think about human-interest stuff? What does she think about whatever?

Hitt: How does any of this help CBS?

Bastholm: It helps CBS because you can start establishing the brand Katie Couric, and she happens to have her digital home on CBS.

Bastholm: You can’t turn her into Walter Cronkite. That model’s dead.

The best song about media domination ever

Billy Bragg's "It Says Here" is probably the best song about media domination and hypocrisy ever recorded.

Whenever I hear someone singing from the "PRs are liars, journalists are purveyors of the truth" songbook, this little ditty always comes to mind. My usual rebuttal, by the way: "PR people are more honest about their dishonesty." So, there!

Bragg's early work was especially prescient; if you play his song "Help Save the Youth of America" next to Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" (both from the 80s), you pretty much get the idea that Sept. 11 was as inevitable as it was predictable.

Sample Anderson lyrics: "Here come the planes/they're American planes/made in America/smoking or non-smoking?/Ha-ha-ha-ha..."

Sample Bragg lyrics: "The cities of Europe have burned before, and they may yet burn again/and if they do you can be sure that Washington will burn with them." Hmmm...

"It Says Here" was recorded in 1984, and came out of Bragg's frustration with what he saw as a right-wing agenda in British newspapers. This song predates Fox News, but that's really what it's about, along with the media outlets that would sell us "a feature on stocking and suspenders, next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders."

Later in the song, he could be singing about the Winnipeg Sun girl: "Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press to print pictures of women in states of undress?"

We're now well into an era where the traditionally "deep" purveyors of the news, the print media, are going under all around us as we continue to prefer getting the news for free. Right now, it's probably as good as it gets: "free news" for readers, as subsidized by the New York Times and its advertisers.

But, as papers continue to fold for lack of an online business model that works, the quality of journalism - and it's not that great now! - will continue to get worse.

As Bragg sings, "Do you ever wish that you were better informed?"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Jericho returns to RRC; intrepid CreComm students on the job!

It's not often you get to hear the words "WWE Superstar" and "CreComm grad" in the same sentence.

But yesterday, WWE Superstar and CreComm grad Chris Jericho came back to Red River College to pick up his Distinguished Alumni Award in person.

To use the singular, that makes Jericho an RRC Distinguished Alumnus, which - as he points out in the RRC video below - makes him smarter than us.

It was great to see Jericho in person, but it was even better to see many second-year CreComm students on work placement, covering the event for their respective media outlets.

Among them:
  • Jess Hassard for the Winnipeg Free Press (with Mark Reimer on photog duty). Story here. Too bad they didn't post the picture of Jericho "choking" Program Chair Larry Partap online: it made it to page 2 of the print edition.
  • Ezra Ginsburg for the Winnipeg Sun. Story here. Too bad they didn't post the picture of Jericho "choking" student Jason Booth online: it made it to the masthead of the print edition.
  • More links to come. I also eagerly await seeing the first-year students' Projector story.
Other coverage:
  • Wrestling News World here.
Among the highlights of Jericho's speech:
  • He once considered calling himself "Jack Action," but later realized that "it sounds stupid."
  • When he started, the WWE wanted him to dress like a cowboy.
  • He very quickly qualified himself as an entertainer, not an athlete, putting to bed the oldest wrestling controversy in the book: "it's fake!"
  • He says he was fired from his XM satellite heavy-metal radio show for insulting Oprah Winfrey. "She has agents everywhere," he said.
  • He redefined CreComm's IPP acronym to stand for "Intense Personal Project.
  • He mentioned "Red River College" and "Creative Communications" a lot, and fondly remembered Chair Larry Partap and instructors Kent Gulbrantson and Chris Petty, who apparently still has his IPP and plans to sell it on eBay.
  • Jericho, RRC President Jeff Zabudsky, and student presenter Jason Booth all said the word "festoon," which we later dissected and defined in Duncan McMonagle's Journalism class.
  • One of Jericho's team was an older guy with earpiece and microphone, which he spoke into in regular, "out loud" speaking volume for the duration of Jericho's speech. And I thought cell phones were irritating...
The silliest controversy was that, in his speech, Jericho told a story about how he'd like a shirt for his friend that says, "I'm with Distinguished Alumnus" with an arrow pointing in his direction. Later, when RRC showed its video (see top of this article), Jericho told the same story. The crowd laughed at the repetition, and Jericho said something like, "I only have one joke!"

This is the kind of thing that teachers, comedians, performers, motivational speakers, businesspeople, and - whomever - do all the time: find a shtick that works and use it ad nauseum, until it stops working. Nothing controversial or different there to my ears, though some in attendance seemed to feel differently.

There was also some differences of opinion on whether Jericho came across as "genuine;" but, really, who among us can be defined as "genuine" or "phony?" Let ye among us without sin be the first to condemn, I say!

After the speech, Jericho stayed around for a full hour, doing interviews, signing autographs, posing for pictures, putting on Manitoba Moose and RRC jerseys, and essentially doing whatever anyone wanted him to do (except putting them in his "signature move," which he said he would hurt himself doing - a nice way to say, "No thanks" to a request he probably gets a lot).

I think it's very cool that Jericho took the time to come back to RRC, and that I work for a college that recognizes a grad in the performing arts - wrestling no less - as a Distinguished Alumnus. JERRRICCCCHHHHOOOO! OK, I feel better now.