Summer Series: Bookmarks 2016
Our Summer Series airs every Saturday at 1:30pm on CBC Radio One.
The research team at Under The Influence does a lot of reading over the year, and finds a lot of great stories - many of which don't fit into our regular episodes. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be told! This week, we'll tell the story of how Stephen King's wife fished a story out of the wastepaper basket that changed their lives, how Engelbert Humperdinck's manager tricked his record company into signing him, how Rocket Richard taught an enforcer a lesson, and we'll tell an emotional story about one of the most memorable scenes from M*A*S*H. Then, we'll extract the marketing lessons from each of those incredible tales.
Back in 1973, Stephen King and his wife Tabby were living in a trailer in a town called Hermon, just west of Bangor, Maine.
King was earning $1.60 an hour at a laundry, and his wife was working the second shift at Dunkin' Donuts. But what King really wanted to be was a writer.
So he wrote short stories and sent them off to various magazines.
He sold a few, but mostly got a lot of rejections slips.
A few months later, Stephen King managed to land a job as a high school English teacher for $6,400 a year – a big step up from the laundry job.
He continued to write at night and on weekends. Through all the rejections, his wife Tabby's support was constant. She believed in King, even if no publisher did.
One night, he started writing a story called Carrie. It was about a high school girl who is teased and bullied by her classmates. But Carrie has telekinetic powers.
King wrote three single-spaced pages. But then realized that to tell the story properly would be too long for a magazine article. And he didn't want to spend months writing a novel he wouldn't be able to sell.
So he crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage.
The next night, King came home to discover Tabby reading the pages. She had found them in the garbage, had shaken the cigarette ashes off the crumpled balls of paper, and had smoothed them out. She wanted to know the rest of the story. She said, "You have something here."
King decided to continue – based solely on his wife's belief. When he was finished, he sent Carrie off to some publishers.
One day at school, he got a message to come to the office because his wife was on the phone. King instinctively knew it must be trouble – because they couldn't afford a phone in their trailer – so Tabby would have had to go to a neighbour to make the urgent call.
When he answered the phone, his wife read him a telegram saying Doubleday had taken the book, and was sending a $2,500 advance.
Later that night, the excited couple lay in bed marvelling at their good fortune. Tabby asked King what he thought the paperback rights might sell for. He said his best guess was between $10,000 and $60,000. Tabby said, "Is that much even possible?"
King said it wasn't likely, but possible. Even $10,000 was more than a year's teaching salary.
Stephen King and his wife used the $2,500 advance to fix their car and move into a basement apartment with an actual phone in it.
Many months later, King was alone in the apartment when the phone rang.
It was his editor from Doubleday calling. He asked if King was sitting down. King asked why.
Then the editor told him the paperback rights to Carrie had just sold to Signet Books for four hundred thousand dollars.
King was speechless. He was sure he didn't hear the number correctly. "Did you say $40,000?"
The editor said, no, four hundred thousand dollars. King asked him to say the figure again slowly and clearly. The editor said the number was a four followed by five zeroes. After that, a decimal point, then two more zeroes.
King's legs gave out from under him and he slipped to the floor.
When he hung up, he tried to call his wife at work, but she had already left.
When she got home, he took her by the shoulders and told her the news. She didn't appear to understand. He told her again.
She stood there speechless, looked over his shoulder at their small, $90 per month basement apartment, and began to cry.
Carrie had just changed their lives forever.
Stephen King tells that amazing story in a book titled On Writing. It's a memoir of his journey as a writer, and how he views the act and art of writing.
I highly recommend it. Every page of it is applicable to advertising copywriters, and writers of all stripes.
But that's not the only book I'm going to recommend today.
Welcome to our annual Bookmarks episode, where I recount the great stories we've found over the year in our research, but were not able to fit into any of our episodes.
Just because they couldn't fit, doesn't mean they shouldn't be told.
So grab a coffee, put your feet up, and let's do a little reading together…
Listeners I meet often ask if coming up with episode ideas is the toughest part of Under The Influence.
And I tell them that's the easiest part.
The toughest part of doing this show is the research. Each episode requires a substantial amount of reading and digging. We have a superb research team, and between the team and myself, we do about 30-40 hours of research per episode.
That involves a lot of reading.
But what a joy it is…
I've often said on this show that creativity loves constraint. In other words, the more challenging the problem or the tighter the budget, the better the resulting creativity.
The Creative Director who taught me that was Trevor Goodgoll. He used to say that creativity was like "Doing ballet in a phone booth."
I loved that line, because it meant our job was to create a beautiful solution inside a very constricted space.
That's why I found the new book, A Beautiful Constraint so interesting. Written by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden, it's about how constraints fuel creativity.
In the book, Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards says Mick Jagger learned to dance outrageously for one very specific reason.
See, all the stages the Rolling Stones performed on in the early days were unbelievably small.
Once their equipment was set up, that left Jagger a small 4 by 4 foot space to perform in.
So he learned how to get attention in a tight spot. The constraint led to an utterly unique set of dance moves that became Jagger's signature.
As a matter of fact, Keith thinks Mick's dancing got less interesting as the stages got bigger and the constraints disappeared.
The authors of this book believe that restrictions force you to abandon your conventional thinking.
That tension fuels a high degree of creativity. It forces you to find a different way.
The book gives many examples of the power of constraint, including this one: The chief engineer at Audi asked his team how they could win the gruelling 24-hour Le Man's race if their cars couldn't go faster than anyone else.
It was a bold ambition with a self-imposed constraint. The obvious answer would have been to build a faster car – but the more interesting question is how do you win if you can't go faster than the competition.
The solution was ingenious.
Make fewer pit stops.
So they decided to put diesel technology into their race-cars for the first time ever.
Diesel gave them more fuel efficiency. That meant fewer pit stops.
The resulting Audi R10 TDI race car placed first at Le Man's for the next three years straight.
A solution born of a constraint.
And that's why I love A Beautiful Constraint. It shows you how restrictions and discomfort can trigger incredible creativity. Because what is marketing but one long series of constraints.
One of the ongoing mysteries of human nature is how we make decisions.
That question has fuelled and confounded the marketing industry for over 100 years.
In his terrific and intriguing new book titled You May Also Like, author Tom Vanderbilt tackles the subject of taste in an age of endless choice.
He points out that choice is categorical. You may love the colour blue, but not on cars.
He says choice is contextual. When he lived in Spain, all the fashionable men wore red pants. When he wore them in New York, everybody turned their noses up.
Vanderbilt says choice is rarely inherited. In other words, your kids rarely have the same tastes as you.
Choice changes with age – we don't like the same things at 40 that we liked at 20. I tried to tell my 21 year old daughter that when she got a tattoo. I warned her that she may not love that permanent inking twenty years from now.
She just got her eighth tattoo. My formidable powers of persuasion are failing me.
Vanderbilt tells an interesting story about how choice is influenced by the way a question is framed or presented.
A French social scientist asked a group of professional violinists whether they preferred old instruments or new instruments.
They all said old, by far, like the ones made by Italian masters like Stradivari. And we've all heard tales of million dollar Stradivarious violins being left behind in taxi cabs.
But here's the interesting thing. When those same violinists were asked which violins they preferred in blind test conditions, they all picked the sound of new violins.
The name Stradivari influenced their choice. But their tastes were a very different thing.
That reminded me of a funny story Tom Jones tells in his recent autobiography, Over The Top And Back.
The Welsh singer shared a manager named Gordon Mills with another singer named Gerry Dorsey. Dorsey was having no luck getting a recording contract. He had knocked on the same doors dozens of times, but got no offers.
So Mills found Dorsey a great song, recorded it, then went to see if he could convince Decca Records to sign the singer.
The song was called Release Me.
When the record company heard the recording, they loved it. Mills asked if they would be willing to sign the singer, and Decca said absolutely. Mills asked them to shake on it.
Then he tells Decca the artist is Gerry Dorsey. The men from Decca let out a loud moan. See, they had turned Gerry Dorsey down dozens of times.
Now they had to sign him because they shook on it.
Mills held them to it, and he changed Gerry Dorsey's name to Engelbert Humperdinck. And the rest is history.
The record company would have turned that song – and the artist – down if they had known it was Gerry Dorsey.
Choice is influenced by how it's framed.
By the way, Release Me kept what was arguably The Beatles strongest double-A sided single ever –Strawberry Fields backed by Penny Lane – from going to number one.
Which reminds me of a great story about Ringo…
I recently read a biography titled Ringo by Michael Seth Starr.
When Ringo was hired by The Beatles, he wanted to buy new drums.
So he went to a store called Drum City in London. He chose a Ludwig drum kit. He chose Ludwig because he liked the colour – oyster pearl black.
Before The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show ten months later, Ludwig had sales of $6 million. Immediately after the show, the Ludwig factory had to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to keep up with orders. Ludwig's sales doubled to $13 million overnight.
Ludwig became the number one drum manufacturer in North America for the next twenty years.
Drummers didn't choose Ludwig because they were the best drums.
They chose them because They chose them because Ringo chose them.
And Ringo chose them simply because he liked the colour.
The implications of choice can be staggering.
I've been doing some research on an upcoming episode on Sports Marketing. In that research, I've been reading about the Montréal Canadiens.
In Dick Irvin's wonderful 1995 book titled In The Crease, he tells stories of the NHL's greatest goaltenders.
In 1959, Jacques Plante took an Andy Bathgate slapshot on the side of the nose. Because there was no two-goalie system back then, the game had to stop while Plante got stitched up.
When he came back, he had seven stitches… and a mask.
Plante's masks were a collaboration between him and a man named Bill Burchmore from Fiberglas Canada. Burchmore made a plaster cast of Plante's face at the Montreal General Hospital, then they experimented and tweaked several versions until they came up with the mask that made hockey history.
Coach Toe Blake had threatened to bench Plante if he wore a mask. But Plante was an innovator who was willing to take that risk to make goaltending safer.
In advertising, when you create a fresh idea – there is always pushback. The bigger the idea, the more resistance. That's why a creative person needs to be both talented and bold.
The talent fuels the creativity, the boldness creates the space for it to survive.
In another book about the Canadiens titled, Lions In Winter, written by Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz in 1986, they dedicate a chapter to one of my favourite players of all time: Rocket Richard.
Rocket got his nickname from a teammate named Ray Getliffe, who said Richard "came in like a rocket." The press picked up on it, and the nickname stuck. Getliffe also said that when he saw Richard coming in his direction with that look in his eyes, he wanted to jump right over the boards to get out of the way. And Getliffe was on Rocket's team!
As he said, "Can you imagine what the competition felt?"
Jacques Plante made the same observation about the Rocket. He said Richard was no different in practice then he was in a game – he would stare you down with his big, black eyes. Plante said it was like being hypnotized by a cobra.
Back in the 1944 season, the New York Rangers called up a player from the AHL named Bob Dill. Dill was a feared brawler. His nickname was "Killer." The Rangers put him in the lineup for one reason: To intimidate Rocket Richard.
The next time the Rangers met the Canadiens, Dill picked a fight with Richard's line mate, Elmer Lach.
A little later, Dill picked a fight with Richard's winger, Toe Blake.
After roughing Blake up, he turned to Richard and said, "What's the matter, is the frog scared?"
That's the last thing Bob Dill would remember for the next few minutes. Richard lifted him off his feet with a right hook that left Dill crumpled on the ice. When he came to, Dill was escorted to the penalty box, where he made the mistake of taunting Richard one more time.
The Rocket leaned over and nailed Dill again.
The press headline the next day: "Dill pickled."
Maurice Richard was a leader. He walked the walk, and talked the talk.
By example, he taught the Montréal Canadiens how to focus, how not be intimidated. He showed the team how to adopt a shared perspective, not an individual one. That perspective was an intense desire to win as a team.
Marketing is a kind of warfare, too. Successful businesses need fearless leaders. And if a company's staff is willing to crawl over a mile of broken glass for its leader, that company is unstoppable.
Larry Gelbart, the executive producer of M*A*S*H, wrote a very interesting book in 1998, titled, Laughing Matters.
When actor McLean Stevenson, who played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake, wanted to leave the series in Season Three, it was decided to kill off his character in one of the most memorable scenes ever filmed in M*A*S*H.
When the script was finished, Gelbart ripped the final page out so the cast and crew didn't know how the episode ended. As far as they knew, Henry Blake was discharged from the army, bids an emotional farewell, then boards a helicopter to begin his journey home.
After the episode was shot, Gelbart asked the cast to gather, then distributed the missing page. As the actors read it, they gasped. In the scene, Radar O'Reilly relays the message that Henry's plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan, and there are no survivors.
The cast was stunned, and only had a few minutes to digest the scene before shooting it. When Gelbart called action, Gary Burghoff, who played Radar O'Reilly, walked slowly into the OR and delivered the line perfectly, filled with genuine emotion.
The doctors and nurses react to the news with their eyes, as they are wearing surgical masks, but no words are necessary.
The impact of the scene was profound.
When Gelbart called cut, his cameraman said there was a technical glitch, and the scene had to be re-shot. Gelbart was beside himself - there was no way the cast could summon that degree of emotion a second time.
But it had to be redone. Gelbart called action again, and Radar delivered the heart-wrenching news – even better than the first time:
The doctors and nurses in the scene reacted with even more emotional intensity. Gelbart was in awe.
The impact of that moment is a tribute to the cast. And it reminded me of how amazing actors are. For over 20 years, I directed commercials with the top actors in the country. Even within a 30 second commercial, when they only had a few scant seconds to deliver a funny line, or just a beat to deliver an emotional moment, they always came through.
I marvelled at their ability.
I don't direct commercials anymore, but if you ask me what I miss most – it's the actors.
While researching the rise of HBO for a Brand Envy episode, I read a fascinating book titled Difficult Men, by Brett Martin. It's about the remarkable creative revolution that took place in television with the arrival of shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. The title refers to the difficult protagonists in those programs, and the difficult men who created them.
When David Chase shopped The Sopranos around to CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox, they all turned it down.
They had two major problems with it. First, they objected to the fact Tony Soprano was in therapy. They all uniformly hated that plot element.
Secondly and more importantly, they didn't think a criminal could be a protagonist.
Actually, it was more complicated than that. It wasn't audiences the networks were worried about – it was advertisers. They were adverse to difficult characters, and tended to reject anything that didn't carry warm feelings over into the commercial break.
So Chase took The Sopranos to HBO.
The cable network loved the idea – but didn't like the name The Sopranos. They wanted "Family Man" instead.
David Chase was bold - he fought for The Sopranos name, and won. As David Brett says, it proves once again that - like The Beatles and Amazon and YouTube – the most obscure name will seem perfect and inevitable the moment it's attached to a cultural phenomenon.
HBO took the show in spite of the underlying thesis of The Sopranos – which was the notion that the American Dream might, at its core, be a criminal enterprise.
But then again, HBO had an advantage when making that decision.
It didn't have to worry about advertisers.
I was giving a talk at a university recently, and someone asked me what it takes to be a great writer.
I said great reading = great writing.
Books teach you how to write. They contain powerful stories, and storytelling breaks down complicated ideas so people can internalize the message.
Like the insight creativity loves constraint, because when you have no resources, that's when you're most resourceful.
Or the notion that decisions are one part logic and two parts mystery. Professional violinists say they prefer an old Stradivarius, but in blind tests they prefer new violins.
Ringo Starr chose Ludwig drums and turned that company into the leading manufacturer for the next twenty years – all because he liked the colour.
Or the underlying truth that leadership is destiny. The Montreal Canadiens were lucky to have some of the best hockey players in history, but the real blessing was their captains. Maurice Richard was the rocket fuel to eight Stanley Cups.
And while all the television networks turned The Sopranos down because a criminal couldn't be a protagonist – David Chase's superb storytelling proved them wrong.
One great book can change your entire point of view on a subject. Or can shed light on the inner nature of things that you take with you for the rest of your days.
Or it just might convince you that a great idea is sitting in your wastebasket right now. Just ask Mr. and Mrs. Stephen King…
…when you're under the influence.