Content Marketing Gone Sideways
My first introduction to Ricky Gervais was an unlikely one – inside Grand Theft Auto IV. While running around sleeping with strange women, beating up gangsters, driving down the sidewalk putting people up over the hood at 90 mph, and solving criminal problems with my cousin (as Niko Bellic), I wound up sitting down in a comedy club called “Splitting Sides”. Inside the game there was a younger, heavier, and more unassuming character of Ricky Gervais – doing the funniest bit I had ever heard about how being fat isn’t a disease. I have to tell you, I instantly loved the guy.
But there is more to this story than just hookers, crime, and video games – in my view – Gervais story is the unlikely tale of a guy who before social media would have probably never gotten traction. An actor who works – but never gets famous. Instead, what I’ve seen over the past 10 years is man who marketed himself brilliantly, genuinely, and in such an intriguing way he’s irresistible. He’s as comfortable in a children’s movie playing alongside the Muppets as he is in a comedy club telling jokes that would make your grandmother blush while laughing hysterically. I mean, what’s there not to love about Ricky? More importantly, what can we learn from how masterfully Ricky has built an audience around himself. Gervais is a brilliant study in content marketing – he’s broken almost every rule but one – know thy audience.
The 20 year overnight success story
So after I encountered Ricky in GTA (2007)- I started to research him a bit more. I like edgy comedy. What I found, and what I was reminded of in putting this article together, is while Ricky is now “famous” – we’re talking about a man who for really the last 20 years has been honing his craft, largely through creative experimentation, in just about every medium. What’s more, the more research I did, the more often I found a story of repeated failure, followed by greater determined success. Thus, quite frankly, given the model of how most people go about their lives – we should have never heard of Ricky Gervais.
But here he is – superstar – precisely for the reasons of working with media, persevering through failure, and keeping true to his “brand” (for lack of a better word). Gervais’ comedy, personas, characters, have always been about the anti-hero, the anti-celebrity, the anti-superstar. Built an entire career out of making the everyday droll – appear funny and extraordinary. Why? Because that’s what appealed to him, and his audience. Honed over and over for the better part of three decades – here’s someone who has been basically fearless in finding the avenue (both in terms of content and medium) that makes it click. Not everything Gervais has done has been a hit, but, his story is one of 20 years of becoming the overnight success. So lesson #1 – building a following, and using content, is always the long-play.
Breaking All the Rules
Let’s be frank – Gervais is an unlikely superstar. The guy isn’t stunning attractive. The guy isn’t tall, dark, and handsome. As an actor – he’s good – but being honest again, I don’t think Laurence Olivier’s title as being one of the best actors in England’s history (or George Mason if you prefer), is in jeopardy. Gervais is brash at times. Gervais treads into areas people normally would gasp at going “oh my”!
But that said, he’s interesting. He’s provocative (and not for just the sense of being provocative, but actually tickles something in society that is both funny and uncomfortable at the same time). He’s played in nearly every medium, trying to find that mix of content, and channel, that would propel him forward.
For example, most people point to Joe Rogan’s podcast showing “this is how pod casting is done.” Ok – it’s a great podcast. Guess what – Ricky did it first. Probably also did it better, if the Guinness Book of World Records is right: it appeared in the 2007 Guinness World Record for the world’s most-downloaded podcast, having gained an average of 261,670 downloads per episode during its first month. In the end, Gervais comes up with probably one of the first successful podcast syndication shows. You probably never heard of that about him I’m guessing.
Why? Because this is the story of a man who’s been honing his craft since 1990 – abandoning stand up largely to play with new media, and embracing shows that gave him the opportunity to be exposed to a wider audience – such as Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen), and ultimately winding up with both acting and writing the sleeper-turned-hit series of BBC’s “The Office” (of which the US series was based upon). Here’s a man who has been utterly fearless, I’d argue, in finding the venue in which his brand of comedy and storytelling makes an impact.
Lots of “shock jocks” come and go. Shock value aside – Gervais is not shocking to be shocking. It’s not trivial to be trivial. Like I stated about Kim Kardashian – Gervais model of marketing taps deeply into the fears, desires, and projections, of people in society.
The product is ultimately about the audience. His product is comedy. Gervais does it unabashedly, intentionally, and with no intent other than making people laugh at it – through him. That’s his brand – the quirky guy who makes people laugh at everyday stuff. And he can break all the rules, and he can be this comedic genius, because like Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, Bob Newhart, Groucho Marx, and others, he is somebody who has taken the time to understand his audience at an instinctive level. All of these men (and Gervais) broke the rules of Comedy. But that was okay, because, in the end, the rules were broken to deliver value to their audience.
I mean consider this – the man is both a spokesman for Audi and acts with Kermit the Frog. Show me someone in Hollywood with that type of career. He’s created a unique brand of comedy – the anti-hero, the mundane, the underdog, the forgotten, and turned it into something wonderful. Took 20 years to get there (thus perhaps the lesson for brands is content marketing is not an overnight strategy), but once arrived – he has a massive following of fans that adore him, and he adores. There is no better example of this than looking at social media and Gervais. If Howard Stern was the “King of All Media” – at the minimum, Gervais is the heir-successor with respect to social media. I’d argue that without social media, Gervais would have never reached this superstar status.
Know your Audience
Consider this Picture:
Is this the picture of a big Hollywood movie, screen, and internet star? Yes – if you’re Ricky Gervais. (This one is taken from Ricky’s Facebook Feed – he was taking the “hot bath challenge”.) Every day, there is something new and unusual he shares with his Facebook and Twitter audience. Genuinely so – a portrait of a man who is both fan and actor all at once.
Again from his Facebook Feed – everyday – a new set of images, tweets, and interactions.
The best however, I think I’ve seen thus far, which captures a man who in the end has been honest about his own career and genuine to his audience were these:
Before the Emmy’s
And after (he lost – and snaps this “selfie”):
Not a media campaign, it’s not “spun” – it’s Gervais. He is who he is – and genuinely embraces his fans, and his audience. Consider this, Gervais didn’t win – and gets kudos for being a man who didn’t win, and did so… well… funny-il-ly (if that’s a word). I’ve seen more articles about Gervais – then people who actually won Emmy’s (not that I care either way – just pointing that out). Gervais gets up, and gives a speech, at the Emmy’s, and it makes news:
So what then makes Gervais successful? In the end – brilliant marketing of being himself and understanding in the cacophony of silliness that exist, someone who makes sense of the bizarre, can make a lot of money doing it – I’d argue. What is the glue that bring it all together? Reality and transparency. Here’s a man who’s been very open and transparent with his fans – using social media to keep his popularity and audience base as leverage in getting to try new things. Who else stands up at the Emmy’s and makes fun of himself for not winning, in a way we know everyone is “thinking” – but Gervais is willing to say it. That’s what has made him brilliant – and he’s honed to a level that it’s not a “spun” activity – it’s instinct, because he knows his audience, and knows himself, and knows where he fits in their lives – thus turning defeat into something funny.
More importantly, perhaps, Gervais is truly real and champions “his brand” through his portrayal of characters. Doesn’t matter what he’s play, or what he’s doing, in the end – it’s Gervais. Consider his interview in the Hollywood Reporter:
You know, Derek comes from inside me, my family and the surrounding world, just like David Brent is a part of me — I’m a little bit David Brent, I’m a little bit Andy Millman and I’m a little bit Derek. Derek is me at eight before the world made me worry about what I say or peer pressure or what it’s like to be cool — just a pure feel where I used to run around, I loved everything, I loved nature, I took a clock apart, I loved friends, I loved everything, I loved life. And I thought, “That’s a nice starting point.”
So, Gervais is basically the “Apple” of Hollywood stars – embraces being different, being real, being genuine. He’s richly rewarded for it now. Decades of plodding, building, experimenting, has now paid off with a following that adores him, and quite frankly, that he obviously adores as well.
Comedy is Hard
Of all the advertising campaigns I’ve done, I cringe the most whenever we tread into comedy. For comedy to work, timing, material, delivery, and knowing your audience, is essential. Henny Youngman stands up and tells a joke – it’s funny. I do it, I wind up on America’s Most Wanted. It’s that simple. So when someone who is quirky and bizarre makes it as being funny – like Gervais – there is something to study there.
Realizing he wrote it through his character in the Office, for me, this is the quintessential Gervais, and what I learned by watching him:
Life is just a series of peaks and troughs. And you don’t know whether you’re in a trough until you’re climbing out, or on a peak until you’re coming down. And that’s it you know, you never know what’s round the corner. But it’s all good. “If you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain.” Do you know which “philosopher” said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she’s just a big pair of tits.
Now who the hell else can say that, and make it funny?
Nobody. That’s the genius (and the marketing brilliance) of Ricky Gervais.
You want to be famous, adored, and a force to be reckoned with, you have two tasks: 1) find your niche (in both content and channel), and then be fearless in being nakedly different in it.
Piece of cake.