Category Archives: Ad industry

The art of political war compared to a comedy club and Disney studio politics

I usually keep away from overt politics in this blog so, no doubt, I will regret posting this one…

Jonathan Pie’s initial comic success came courtesy of RT

A comedian I know was recently asked about the possibility of appearing in the UK-produced comedy series which Russian TV station RT  is apparently planning to screen next year. He said he would not appear on RT, which is financed by the Russian government. I think he was wrong. All publicity is good publicity and, if he is allowed control over his own material, I see no real problem.

But why RT, the former Russia Today – a current affairs channel akin to the BBC News channel – should be thinking of screening a comedy show is interesting.

I was also told that RT is especially interested in screening Right Wing satirists who find it tough to get on UK TV.

Why would RT be interested in Right Wing not Left Wing comedians?

Well, presumably for the same reason that, allegedly, the Russian state set up hundreds of Facebook accounts promoting Right Wing rallies supporting Donald Trump during the US Presidential elections.

The Daily Beast’s view of who was behind Right Wing posts

They supported the more Right Wing candidate against the (comparative to Trump) more liberal, anti-Right Hillary Clinton.

I was in TV promotions and marketing for 25-ish years and have always been interested in techniques of persuasion and how to sway beliefs and perceptions.

As well as in marketing, that is actually what Art does too: you try to take the audience – whether viewers, listeners or fiction readers – along with you.

Which is also relevant to the art of war in the 21st century.

Sun Tzu says in his influential book The Art of War that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” because the object of war should be not to destroy your enemy’s assets and power structure but to take them over intact.

In the modern world, you no longer need to physically take over your rival’s cities, economy and means of production. You do not need to actually take over your enemy’s assets and decision-making processes. What you want is the power to influence your opponent’s economic and political directions and decisions.

Undermining their strength and influence is equivalent to increasing your own.

Lest we forget, the reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (written in the 5th century BC) came back to prominence in the mid-1990s was that Disney company president Mike Ovitz recommended it or (in some versions of the story) allegedly gave copies to all his Hollywood executives as a training manual for navigating the corporate world. It was said that the only two books you needed to read to succeed in corporate politics were Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Sun Tzu’s view in the 5th century BC

Two of Sun Tzu’s oft-quoted and closely-linked insights include:

“You have to believe in yourself”
and
“The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.”

In the modern world, corporations are – it could be argued – equivalent to non-geographically specific states.

You do not need to fully take over a company to influence its direction. A large shareholding will give you a voice – or being able to influence the main shareholders may suffice.

In the modern world, it is pointless – it always has been – to primarily seek to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who agree with your own views. They already agree with and believe what you believe. To change things, you need to influence the thoughts and beliefs of those who support/bolster your opponents.

There is no point only targeting the fans of your product, although you do have to remind them your product exists.

The important thing is the target (Photo: Christian Gidlöf)

Your aim is to sell a ‘belief’ in your product to people who are not yet convinced or who are actually actively resistant and opposed to your product. Or – and this is the point – you can undermine their existing beliefs in the product they currently buy, which will increase the comparative impact of your own product.

If that product is a political system, then you do not even have to convince your opponents that your beliefs are right. By undermining their confidence in their own political system, you can strengthen your own comparative position.

If you were to bizarrely and possibly unwisely transfer this to the situation of a stand-up comedy show featuring only two comics then, if you undermine the audience’s belief and confidence in one comic, you increase their (comparative) belief in the other comic. The MC can do this in his/her introduction of the other comic to the audience. Or one comic can undermine the other’s self-belief and thus performance.

In the case of the US, let us just imagine for a moment that the Russians wanted to install Donald Trump because they believed he would be more receptive to their overtures, reduce or remove economic sanctions related to Ukraine etc etc…

Well, they must be very disappointed because he has proved to be a rogue player.

It is a bit like the Kray Twins springing ‘Mad Axeman’ Frank Mitchell from Dartmoor Prison in the 1960s and then finding that he actually was uncontrollably mad.

US cartoonist Ben Garrison’s view of the Washington ‘Swamp’

But – swings and roundabouts – Trump’s appeal is to Right Wing voters in the US and his constant harping-on about how the Washington Establishment and the ‘Fake News’ media are corrupt must relentlessly and effectively chip-chip-chip away at his loyal Right Wing voters’ belief in their own system.

That is something that no Left Wing politician could ever do.

If you undermine a building, it will collapse.

As for my comedian chum, I think he was wrong to refuse to appear on RT.

If they give him an unfettered, uncensored voice which he cannot get onto UK TV then, in terms of Art, that is a ‘win’ situation for him.

The fact that the financiers of RT may see comedy on existing British society as a way of undermining belief in the current system and appealing to the always-malleable 18-35 year old age group while appearing to be the voice of individual freedom of expression is a side issue.

Morality was never a necessity in Art.

And, of course, abroad, many took individually-seen videos of fake reporter Jonathan Pie as those of a real reporter whose off-camera personal views had been caught between recordings, thus showing the duplicity of Western reporting.

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Do some Edinburgh Fringe acts screw themselves by advertising their shows?

Street art at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

Street art at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 probably told a home truth beyond the prevailing weather

Yesterday, I took part in a recording by Simon Caine, he of the Ask The Industry podcast. It is online HERE.

It was nominally about comedy awards at the Edinburgh Fringe and the participants were Steve Bennett (Chortle Student Awards), Kate Copstick (Malcolm Hardees and formerly Perriers), Bruce Dessau (Malcolm Hardees and formerly Perriers), Barry Ferns (the Barrys), Hils Jago (the Amused Mooses) and me (the Malcolm Hardees).

It turned into a discussion of the Edinburgh Fringe in general and I did not contribute much, but one thing I did mention was the giant show posters which appear all over Edinburgh during August. My point was this…

Sometimes in London you see massive posters in prime roadside sites and on the tube promoting TV programmes.

These are NOT paid for from the budget of the TV station’s Promotion Dept which publicises programmes. They are paid for by the TV station’s Marketing Dept which is responsible for selling the station itself to advertisers.

The primary object of these ads is NOT to increase the audience of the TV show being advertised. The object of these posters is to let advertisers know that the TV station is a successful, confident, currently buzzing one and that they are prepared to spend big money on promoting their programmes in prime sites and that, therefore, the station itself is a good place for an advertising agency to pay for positioning ads for their clients.

The target audience is not the punters. It is the advertising industry itself.

In the same way, massive street ads at the Edinburgh Fringe promoting shows are pretty certainly not a financially sensible way to get extra bums-on-seats.

Balancing the cost of the advertising against the number of extra punters likely to buy tickets, these massive ads probably each lose the act a lot of money.

These big ads have two main purposes. One is to say to the media – press, TV and radio – that some promoter, manager or agency has sufficient confidence in this particular act that they are prepared to splash out on this big publicity. And, more important, these posters show which promoters, managers or agencies are the alpha males in the Fringe jungle.

In effect, the promoters, managers or agencies tell their acts that these giant ads will ‘big up’ both them and their show. But, in fact, the acts (because the performers are the ones actually paying) are forking out to publicise and ‘big up’ their own promoters, managers and agents.

There may be collateral publicity for the acts, but it makes no financial sense in terms of getting bums-on-seats for their shows.

A lesson in life at the Edinburgh Fringe.

You get screwed from all angles.

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People are hypnotised by complexity and they confuse novelty with creativity

Dave Trott

Dave Trott gave his lecture today at the LSE

Stealing ideas is not always necessarily wrong.

Well, not stealing exactly. More like borrowing.

While giving credit where credit is due.

Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Which is my lead-in to quoting part of the fascinating lecture I attended today at the London School of Economics.

The lecture was titled One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking and was given by advertising man Dave Trott, who co-founded three major ad agencies – Gold Greenlees Trott, Bainsfair Sharkey Trott and Walsh Trott Chick Smith.

He was part of the creative team behind the ads Allo Tosh, Got a Toshiba?… Holsten Pils refreshes the parts other beers can not reach… Ariston and on and on… and the Cadbury Flake ads.

I can do no better that quote his introduction to the lecture.


What I’m going to talk about is specifically creativity in advertising, but it’s creativity which works wherever you find it. Edward de Bono, the man who invented lateral thinking, said: There are a lot of people calling themselves creative who are actually mere stylists.

Real creativity isn’t what you call creativity. Real creativity isn’t in art galleries. Real creativity isn’t in design museums or copywriters or what they call creative departments. Real creativity is a function of how you do your job in a surprising manner. Real creativity looks really obvious after you see it, but you couldn’t see it coming beforehand; you couldn’t get there logically.

As Edward De Bono said: Most people can’t tell the difference between style and creativity…

What’s happened to British creativity is it’s become hypnotised by complexity. Everybody’s confusing novelty with creativity.

If it’s new – if it’s a new app, if it’s a new piece of technology, a new piece of kit, a new way of doing animation – it must be creative. 

Well, no, usually it isn’t. That’s shopping, That’s fashion. That’s not creativity.

Creativity is looking at something everybody else has looked at and seeing something nobody else has seen. I saw it described as:

A talent can hit a target that everybody else can see. Genius can hit a target no-one else can see.


413FmdXiWtL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Dave Trott was giving the lecture to publicise his new book One Plus One Equals Three: A Masterclass in Creative Thinking.

I do not know Dave Trott.

I have not read his book.

But, on the basis of his lecture today, I suspect it is exceptional.

He also writes a blog.

There’s a lot of that about.

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Is copywriting gross capitalism and poetry pure art? And what you can do with a cow in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato and much else

Matt Harvey, poet of the potato

When I was in Totnes at the weekend, I met poet Matt Harvey who told me he had once made a radio programme for BBC Bristol called Beans Means Rhymes, about poetry and advertising.

“How did that come about?” I asked him.

“I had just written a love poem to a potato,” he told me.

“Why?”

“It was for a Waste & Resources Action Project Love Food, Hate Waste campaign. It was specifically created to modify people’s behaviour vis-a-vis the potato.”

“Specifically?” I asked.

“People,” explained Matt, “buy a lot of potatoes, eat a few of them and chuck the rest of them away. I was told I had to communicate in a poem that, if your potato does sprout in your storage area, you should not just chuck it away. You should peel, boil or mash it and, if you have some mash left over, you shouldn’t just chuck that away. You should put it in a bag in a freezer and have it later.”

“I would like to see what Tennyson would have done with that brief,” I said. “Why did they decide to do this in a poem and not in prose?”

“It was,” said Matt, “just someone’s very good idea to give me money to write a poem. They had a series of posters with pictures of specific food items on them and a little poem about each. The poem would contain within its crystalline purity little hints about the best way to relate to this food item.”

“How did you approach your potato poem?”

Brevity results from a good brief

A good brief breeds effective brevity

“They gave me a really tight brief. I now include it in performances I do because it’s so interesting: I read out the brief and then the poem.

“As soon as they told me the brief, I went and wrote a little bit of a gush of enthusiasm for the potato taking into account that your love of the potato should include not wanting to waste any part of the potato.

“I found writing to a brief was just a real pleasure: to write a six line poem that says it all. It made me more confident about writing poems to order. I always thought I would never be able to do that but the more specific the brief the easier it is to do, really.”

“Advertising,” I suggested, “is really the same as poetry in that you are selling a concept in a very few words.”

“Yeah,” agreed Matt. “Although, in poetry, you’re often focussing on something nebulous like a feeling of rapture or a nuanced feeling – as opposed to a vegetable.”

“Do you do widespread readings?” I asked.

“I do lots of village hall gigs,” Matt told me. “Have you come across the Rural Touring Forum?”

“I only heard about it,” I replied, “a couple of months ago from mind reader Doug Segal. He should have known earlier that I would be interested.”

“The Somerset one is called Take Art,” said Matt. “In Shropshire, it is Arts & Lung.”

“Sounds like pun,” I said.

“The Devon one invited me to offer a show,” said Matt. “It goes on the menu and village hall promoters get to choose what they want. I encourage people to bring Anglepoise lamps to my gigs, because I find a few Anglepoise lights will adequately light me and it’s really quite atmospheric.”

When we thought we had reached the end of our chat, Matt checked the messages on his mobile phone.

“Ooh!” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“There is some interest from a local snack manufacturer,” he said. “They want to talk to me about being creative with their foodstuff.”

“You are obviously a culinary cult,” I said.

“I was once a question on The Weakest Link,” Matt mused.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I was the official Wimbledon poet,” he replied.

“The London borough?” I asked.

“The tennis championships in 2010,” he replied.

“You stood up in the crowd and declaimed poetry?” I asked.

Matt declaimed his poetry to the BBC at Wimbledon in 2010

Matt read his Wimbledon poetry on BBC News

“I blogged poetry,” he explained, “and one morning, as a gimmick, I went out and read poetry to the queue. They stared at me, bleary-eyed, but they enjoyed it because they were filmed and they were excited. As soon a they saw cameras, they assumed I was important and assumed they should be excited, so they were.”

At the time, Matt told BBC News: “I have a rich inner tennis fantasy life.”

“How did you get that gig?” I asked.

“Wimbledon have had an ‘artist in residence’ for the past seven or eight years,” Matt explained. “The artist has usually been a water colourist or someone working in inks or oils. But, in 2010, they decided they’d have a poet and two enthusiastic women who had heard me on Radio 4‘s Saturday Live and who worked in the visual side at Wimbledon sold this idea to one member of the committee. The rest of the committee didn’t care either way, so they got it passed. The only thing they said to me was Don’t embarrass us.”

“So not too many references to balls, then,” I said.

“I must go,” said Matt.

And, again, we thought this was the end of our conversation, but it was not.

Comedian Matt Roper arrived.

“Did John tell you he went to Cambodia in 1989?” Matt Roper asked Matt Harvey.

“No,” said Matt Harvey.

Why would I? I thought.

“Matt has been to Cambodia too,” said Matt Roper of Matt Harvey.

“Oh?” I said. “Phnom Penh was very empty when I was there. The city had maybe only a third or a quarter of its previous population in it, so it felt very open and empty. The Vietnamese Army had left a month before, so people thought the Khmer Rouge might be back in power in a week or a month or six months. This was back in 1989. Now, from TV footage I’ve seen, I think it’s full of sex tourists and UN jeeps. S-21 was the saddest place I’ve ever been.”

The regulations at Tuol Sleng - S-21 - Phnom Penh

Regulations to be followed at Tuol Sleng – S-21 – Phnom Penh

S-21 was the former girls’ high school which had been turned into a Khmer Rouge interrogation centre and prison.

“S-21 is still on the list of tourist sites,” said Matt Harvey, “together with the Russian market and the royal palace. And you can also pay to fire a bazooka at a live cow.”

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How Doug Segal changed his image from top corporate advertising agency man to successful comedy mind reader

Changing his image - Doug Segal in 2008 (left) and in2011

To help change his image, Doug Segal lost 8 stone in weight

This Saturday is Star Wars Day – May The Fourth be with you – and I am probably going to Stowmarket in Suffolk to see two early Edinburgh Fringe previews – by comedian Juliette Burton and mind-reader Doug Segal.

Both are also performing their shows at the Brighton Fringe next month.

Whether I go to Stowmarket or not depends on the carpet man from John Lewis. Trust me. You do not want to know.

But I had a chat with Doug Segal in case I do not go.

Yesterday, he told me: “Stowmarket will be the first time I’ve ever done an actual ‘preview’ as opposed to a fully-honed show, so I’m packing extra trousers! I’ve already identified a bunch of major changes I’ll be making between this weekend and Brighton – but I’m leaving them in because I want to work on other stuff and I need to try that in front of a real audience.

“The new show is called I Can Make You a Mentalist and premieres properly on 24th and 25th in Brighton, then there are about ten dates around the country, then it runs at the Gilded Balloon throughout the Edinburgh Fringe in August and it tours the country in Spring next year.”

Doug is very successful but does not have an agent.

“I’m really struggling to get an agent,” he told me.

“But you have bookings coming out of your ears!” I said, surprised. We were talking in London at lunchtime; he was on his way to Brighton to play a corporate afternoon show, then he was returning to London in the evening to play another big gig.

“I’m playing big venues,” agreed Doug. “I played York Theatre Royal two weeks ago. It’s frustrating. I’ve got 15% of an on-going business that I’m desperate to give away.

Wrestling with the problem of agents who cannot categorise him

Agents’ problem with Doug’s act is they cannot categorise it

“Agents come along and say: I absolutely love what you do!

“Then they have a little think: Oh! I can’t just put it into the machine, crank the handles and it’ll fall into the normal places. I’ll have to actually think about it.

“Then all of them tell me the same thing: We adore what you do! Amazing! But it’s a lot of work for us at the moment and we’re not sure we’ve got the manpower.

“And I think: Well, I’m managing it AND doing the act, so why can’t you?”

Perhaps that might be because Doug is a better salesman than most agents.

He started off selling space to advertisers in the Today newspaper, the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard.

“I left advertising and did corporate after-dinner mind-reading shows for about six years,” he told me. “Then I went off and started a second career doing stand-up comedy and got to the point where I was getting regular paid middle-of-the-bills and the odd paid opener. And then I quit… because the whole point was learn how to make my act funny. So then I had a comedy mentalism act and started doing public shows and that took off beyond my expectations.”

“What first interested you in mind reading?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “I used to fanny around when I was doing psychology at London University – Birkbeck College – I started doing party pieces. I usually tell people I was taking hard science and perverting it for tawdry entertainment. I also did some acting with a theatre company and I’d been in bands in my teens – from 14 to 19. We supported some decent bands.”

Who knows what is going on here?

Mind reading? Who knows what is going on?

“So you had a desperate urge to be famous,” I said.

“I had that once,” said Doug. “Now I just want to make a decent living performing. I think Stewart Lee’s model is you want 10,000 people who are prepared, each year, to pay you £15 to come and see a new show.

“So I only want sufficient fame to make that happen. I would hate the level of fame where your life becomes a pantomime played out on the public stage. That would be horrific; I genuinely don’t want that.

“What happened was I had a son really, really young and needed to provide for my family and needed to get a sensible career, so I sold advertising space for newspapers and worked for an advertising agency. I learnt about persuasion, extended my repertoire of party pieces and then I had a client who bullied me into doing a show for a car manufacturer’s conference.

“It went down really well and I thought I could give this a go! I miss being on stage: I’ll give it a shot! And I sold out the Baron’s Court Theatre for two weeks and then things escalated from there.

“I was at quite a senior level in advertising when I left. I was on the board of a major agency: the third biggest agency in the UK at the time. I was one of the first people in Britain to spend money on posters in toilets. And I was one of the ad agency people developing all these LED sites you see on the roadside and in the underground.”

A sophisticated act, Doug never resorts to know gags

Off stage, Doug is an art connoisseur

“Can I say in my blog that you were very big in toilets?” I asked.

“Only in the context of posters,” replied Doug.

“What are you going to be doing in ten years time?”

“I have no idea. What I wanted to do when I left the corporate world was to effectively have an early semi-retirement. The principle was: Don’t work very often but charge an obscene amount of money when you do. That model worked right up to the Recession.

“Then my wife told me: You need to do a tour. I said No, self-funded public tours lose money. So she said: You should do the Edinburgh Fringe. I said: Absolutely not. It’s a money pit. But she talked me into it and it went really well.

“That first year – 2011 – I did ten days on the Free Fringe, picked up ten 4 and 5 star reviews and, after accommodation costs, made £350.

“Last year, I played the Gilded Balloon and the average loss you make at a paid venue is something like £8,000… But, after taking into account accommodation and everything, I only lost £102 over the full run and that was only because I had a bloody expensive screen and TV camera. If it hadn’t been for that, I would have made a decent profit.”

“So this new show…” I said. “You do a mind-reading act… Mind-reading is mind-reading. Basically, it’s the same as your previous shows. It’s the same old – highly successful – tosh.”

“No,” said Doug laughing, “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t the same old tosh. I’ve really ramped-up the comedy angle and there is a storyline. Things happen dramatically through the show. I don’t just move from one thing to another. There are ‘events’ within the show.

“It’s always been a comedy mind-reading show – there are gags and stuff – but, as well as that, there’s now sketch comedy, animation and music. The sketches I’ve co-written with James Hamilton of Casual Violence and Guy Kelly from the Beta Males.”

“Good grief,” I said.

“This year’s show,” explains Doug, “starts with a random audience member being chosen and then they do the show. They do all of the tricks in the show. I have this enormous machine on stage called the Brainmatiser 3000. It’s like my TARDIS, I guess. Stuff happens. The narrative of the show gets taken off-track. Unexpected events happen and then get resolved. Lots of physical comedy.”

“But you’re screwed on TV,” I said, “because there’s only room for one mentalist act at any one time on TV and Derren Brown is already there.”

“What I really want,” said Doug, “is for people to come out of my stage show this year and say I have really no idea what that show was. This year’s show is a Fast Show type comedy with mentalism plus a storyline running through. That’s something different. You could put that on screen and it would not be the Derren Brown show.”

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The best way to flyer for an Edinburgh Fringe show – use mice and terrorists

Sameena Zehra and husband Mike in Edinburgh yesterday

Yesterday, I went to see Sameena Zehra’s totally fascinating Edinburgh Fringe show Tea With Terrorists.

Afterwards, I got talking to her husband Mike, who flyers in the street for her show.

“I’ve been a musician all my life,” he told me. “A Blues singer. My name is Dr Blue.

“I love flyering. I love the challenge of flyering because it’s a 5 or 6 second performance. It’s the time it takes for someone to walk past you. I’ve got to get their attention in those few seconds. They need to know what the show is; where it is; and I need to get them to take one of the flyers.

“I never ever give a flyer to anybody. They always take them from me. Because, if you force a flyer on someone, they will throw it on the ground. I’ve got a patter which I use. It’s got various forms. It’s about getting someone’s attention but mostly their eye contact. As soon as I’ve got eye contact, they’re going to take a flyer.”

“So,” I asked, “why am I, a passing person, going to be interested in this show by a comedian I’ve possibly never heard of?”

“Well,” Mike explained, “the show itself has got to have a very catchy title. So Tea With Terrorists... Immediately people’s ears prick up. If I get eye contact, then I have another line – where it is, what time it’s on, the fact it’s free. But, if they’re waivering and they’re still smiling as they walk away, I’ll go:

Sameena has the full backing of her husband

No tourists or terrorists are harmed during the performance of Tea With Terrorists.

“And that’s when I’ve got them… Then you can extend that 5 or 6 second window by adding a bit more patter. Once they’ve taken the flyer, I can usually stop them and talk to them.”

“Do you say And it’s my wife?” I asked.

“I do sometimes,” he told me. “Once I’ve got them, there’s then a patter which I’ll use to talk about the show. I give them four key elements without giving anything away.”

“And they are?”

“Sameena did actually accidentally have tea with terrorists. She was nearly shot in the Green Zone in Kabul. She has got a grandmother who curses. And a friend who is frightened of sheep… Now you’re smiling,” he told me.

“If they’re not smiling by the end of those four,” he continued, “they’re probably not going to come to the show.”

“Flyering does work better,” I suggested, “if you’re a performer or a close blood relation.”

“Well, obviously,” agreed Mike, “I have a huge emotional commitment in this. I’ve watched the process develop. This show hasn’t just fallen out of the sky. It’s a writing process that’s been going on for 18 months. Sameena brought the show here to Edinburgh last year, when it was called Punching Mice.”

Punching mice?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “that was an even better title to sell. I just stood on the street corner yelling PUNCHING MICE! and people came up to me and asked What the bloody hell are you talking about?”

“It was an earlier version of this show?” I asked.

“Yes. There used to be a sequence in the old show about punching mice as a form of stress relief.”

Sameena Zehra and her good luck panda without Jon Snow

Later, I asked Sameena about this.

“It’s pretty much the same story,” she said, “but it’s changed and it’s tighter. When I did Edinburgh last year, I had no idea what I was doing; I was pissing in the wind and it was a steep learning curve, but it was brilliant.”

“There are only really three comedians who tell gags in this country,” I suggested to Sameena, vastly over-generalising. “Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine. Everyone else is telling stories not gags.”

“Well, I’m not a punchline comedian,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for about a year and a half. I’m not a comedian yet. I am a storyteller and I will be a comedian. The new show I’m writing is much more comic, but I’ll still be a storytelling comedian.

“Tea With Terrorists is very much about fear being redundant: you have to live with joy, you have to deal with stuff. The next show I’m writing is about how we end up becoming the people we are.

“The working title is If Jon Snow Were My Dad, because I love Jon Snow and if he had been my dad instead of the emotionally incontinent parents I had, would I have been a different person? How much of our lives is inborn, how much accidental? I’m not going to say any of that directly in my show, but it will come out through the stories.

“It’s going to have lots of stories from by my boarding school days in India. I went to a school run by a Socialist headmaster and started by Henry Lawrence, who was a British army officer. He started it in 1857 for the children of British Army officers. It was very very weird.”

Sounds ideal for Edinburgh.

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The Edinburgh Fringe now insists on artistic control of all shows’ promotion

Comedian Lewis Schaffer lost his shirt staging Fringe shows.

In 2009, I staged a show at the Edinburgh Fringe titled Aaaaaaaaaarrghhh! It’s Bollock Relief! – The Malcolm Hardee Award Show. No-one batted an eyelid. More’s the pity.

Not when the title appeared in full in the Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Not when flyers were handed out in the street. Not when posters appeared in the refined streets of Edinburgh.

No-one cared about the word “bollock” back then.

But yesterday, in an online response to a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News about censorship in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme, comedian Jackson Voorhaar wrote:

A quote in my blurb was actually censored to “the b*st*rd offspring of Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding”. Surely in that context bastard is a perfectly legitimate and inoffensive term?

My last couple of blogs have been about the Edinburgh Fringe Programme’s new-found puritanism where, for example, Richard Herring’s show Talking Cock (which had no problem in 2002) now has to be printed as Talking C*ck in the Fringe Programme because it might offend someone – despite the fact that, in August 2012 (as was the case in August 2002), large posters will festoon the billboards of Edinburgh saying Talking Cock and random pedestrians will be given A5 flyers advertising Talking Cock.

Vivienne Soan of London’s Pull The Other One comedy club talked to me yesterday about the title of the Stuart Goldsmith show, which the Fringe has insisted cannot be listed as Prick but has to be listed as Pr!ck. Vivienne sensibly said: “I think that, at first sight, they look like the same word… but actually the latter is slightly funnier/cleverer. Therefore,” she added a tad mischievously, “the Fringe programme are also insisting on artistic contro!”

She raises an interesting point here.

As Richard Herring told me: “Underneath the silliness and twatdom it’s a very important issue.” And it is.

Last night Mervyn Stutter, who has been staging Fringe shows for 26 years, asked me about the Charlie Chuck listing which the Fringe this year objected to as being “ungrammatical”.

“Strangely,” Mervyn told me, “I find that more sinister because it will affect so many more people with perfectly safe show titles.”

The 40 word Fringe Programme entry is an advertisement for each performer’s Fringe show. It is an ad paid for by the performer. It costs almost £400. So, if you use all 40 words, it costs £10 per word. If you used only 20 words, it would cost £20 per word.

Mervyn Stutter says: “If we pay £400 then we should choose exactly the wording we want. If it doesn’t ‘make grammatical sense’ then what happens next? An angry letter to the Fringe from an audience member demanding better grammar or just that we – the performers who pay for it – lose some audience?”

This is the key point.

Does the Guardian tell Renault it has to change the wording for a new car ad because it does not conform with the Guardian’s own ‘house style’? Does Exchange & Mart or eBay tell advertisers their ads are ungrammatical or must be changed into an appropriate house style?

The Fringe Programme is perfectly entitled to have a house style for its own wording. But not for paid advertisements. Occasionally, in the past, the Royal Bank of Scotland has taken out ads in the Fringe Programme. Were these vetted by the Fringe for proper grammar and checked for adherence to the Fringe Programme’s own house style? Bollocks. They were not.

Part of the blurb for absurdist comedian Charlie Chuck’s new show Cirque du Charlie Chuck mentioned above (trying to make every £10 work count) was submitted as:

Charlie Chuck back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant.

The Fringe changed this to (the capitalisation is mine to show the changes):

“Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant.”

The Fringe insisted: “These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.”

Note they said “are required”. Not suggested. Required to be added.

When queried about this, Fringe Publications Manager Martin Chester confirmed that “as long as your copy… is grammatically correct… it can be run.”

His full explanation was:

“As long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.”

There are two points here…

  • What does it matter if it is ungrammatical? If an act were to pay the Fringe £400 to run a badly-written Fringe entry which made the show look bad, the performer seem illiterate and it persuaded punters NOT to come to the show, that is entirely the act’s problem. The Fringe officers – if they are hanging around and have loads of time on their hands – might kindly suggest the entry could be improved. But, if they are taking £400 simply to print the ad, then (provided the wording is legal and ‘decent’ by their standards) the English grammar contained within the ad is nothing to do with them. And…
  • Why do £400 paid-for ads come within the Fringe Programme’s house style at all?

A house style exists to homogenise the style of a publication created by a single entity.

It is reasonable that a document or publication written by the Fringe itself should have a house style.

It is unreasonable that a Programme listing hundreds of separate £400 paid-for ads in which individual performers are trying to uniquely distinguish their own show from the (literally) thousands of other shows should have all the £400 paid-for ads homogenised into a single style.

It is artistic nonsense. It is financial nonsense.

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that comedian Jody Kamali told me that the Fringe Office “said I couldn’t use three dollar signs in a row ‘$$$’ in my Fringe entry, as it didn’t fit their ‘house style’.”

Call me innocent, but to have $$$ in your show title is not going to offend any man, woman or child who reads it. I fail to believe it will psychologically damage or morally offend anyone. I am unaware of $$$ being any obscure sexual term and I somehow think the Fringe’s own imposed C*ck and Pr!ick are a tad more objectionable than $$$.

What insanity is ruling at the Fringe this year?

This all seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe Programme exists. It seems to be the opposite of why the Fringe exists, the opposite of what the ‘open to all’ nature of the Edinburgh Fringe itself is supposed to be.

Performers and acts are not invited to the Fringe. Anyone can perform anywhere. You just have to arrange it yourself. The Fringe as an entity (the Fringe Office) does not stage, produce or directly promote the shows.

It can cost, over-all, around £7,500 to stage a fairly average Fringe show – venue costs, accommodation, promotion (including £400 to write Fringe Programme’s 40 words) etc etc.

100% of this is paid for by the performers.

The Fringe does not pay for the shows. The Fringe does not pay for the £400 show listings within the Fringe Programme.

So why does the Fringe claim that the £400 small ads (because that is what they are) within the Fringe Programme have (in the words of the man in charge) to “adhere to the style guide” and be “grammatically correct”?

In the Edinburgh Evening News yesterday, Neil Mackinnon, Head of External Affairs for the Fringe, said:

“It is not for us to vet the content of anyone’s shows – that’s one of our principles”.

Well, he is talking bollocks. And they are not even disguised, Photoshopped bollocks.

The Fringe are vetting the content of the ads people pay £400 to run. And not just for what they now (but did not in previous years) regard as ‘rude’ words. According to the Fringe’s own Publications Manager, the paid-for £400 non-rude words are vetted because they have to conform with the “style guide” – no use of $$$ in a title, for example – and be “grammatical”. Why?

The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

In effect, the Edinburgh Fringe are now insisting on artistic control of the promotion of all Fringe shows. And charging performers £400 for the privilege not to have control of their own advertising.

The people who think of themselves as ‘good guys’ have turned into ‘rip-off’ merchants.

American comic Lewis Schaffer (who is staging two shows at this year’s Fringe – that means two Fringe Programme entries at £394 each) commented on a blog I wrote a couple of days ago:

“Next year I am not going to register my show with the Fringe and instead I will spend the money more effectively by paying the first 700 punters £1 each to come into my show. Or enrol everyone who comes to my show in a £700 lottery. Or spend £700 extra pounds buying drinks for the other acts bled dry by the Fringe Society.”

He may not be joking.

And he has a point.

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