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Monday, June 07, 2004

"Next Big Thing" Marketing

If you're among the hundred million or so people who wake up in America each day in order to earn their daily bread, there's a somewhat likely chance that, somewhere between the time you get up and drain your last cup of coffee, you listen to the radio. If you listen during the morning commute, there's a fair chance that at some time during the last 22 years, you may have listened to a guy named Rick Dees.

Rick Dees, for those of you who don't know him, was a local morning disc jockey in the southern part of the United States in the late 1970's. Checking your history books, you'll find that the latter part of that decade was dominated by the polyester pounding of the disco beat. It was a ridiculously dopey kind of music, played in night clubs throughout the world, with every tune driven by an overly loud drumbeat, assuring that even the most tin-eared oaf could keep a beat on the dance floor. The disco dance craze was powerful. It spawned huge careers (Bee Gees, Donna Summer, John Travolta), major hits and big box office numbers at the movies. Rick Dees contributed to the disco craze by writing and performing his own composition, lampooning an entire generation with a song called "Disco Duck."

His song rocketed to the top of the charts. Not just regionally. Nationally. Seemingly overnight, Dees was a sensation. "Disco Duck" launched him to the big time, namely a morning drive show in Los Angeles, California. That success was followed by a nationally-syndicated Top 40 countdown show. Then a year long nationally-syndicated television show. After that, his morning drive show went national. Playing in every medium to large media market in the country, Dees cranked out the jokes and pumped in the money for his employer of 22 years.

Everything was going great - until he got fired.

After a quarter century of consistent earnings, Dees got dumped for a younger, new celebrity: Ryan Seacrest. Seacrest, if you don't know him, is a B-league blonde who interviews contestants on the reality show "American Idol." His talent pretty much begins and ends in an uncanny ability to keep his hair spiked for the entire episode of the show. He is neither witty nor intelligent, or for that matter, good at anything other than being pedestrian. He doesn't sing, write, dance or do funny bits. In fact, about the only reason anyone can muster for replacing Ryan Seacrest is that he's currently "hot." Seacrest not only appears on "American Idol," but in Pepsi commercials and on radio with two different shows. Nobody knows why he's getting these deals, but the thinking goes that if one big name has hired him, they must know something.

On the one hand, I find this disturbing, because it displays yet again how success so often has less to do with merit than it does with the lemming-like tendencies of executive managers. On the other, I find it reassuring that my assessment of executive mediocrity isn't at all sour grapes, but a reliable account of history.

In short, what we're witnessing is a profound shift in entertainment marketing. I call it Next Big Thing marketing. And that's what killed Rick Dees, not ratings.

Next Big Thing, or NBT as it's become known, is when everyone in an industry piles on to a trend with absolutely no idea why they're doing it. You can always tell an NBT when it's happening by the way it happens. Usually it begins with a hypermedia blitz, with media journalists playing straight into the pitch, jamming "entertainment reports" and "magazine shows" to the walls with press kit puffery. Radio gets saturated with the same hit over and over. You can't flip the TV dial without some image or reference to the NBT.

It goes on this way for 12 to 24 months. And then the NBT simply disintegrates. Like a stock market bubble, the insiders realize that the gravy train is about to derail, so they dump the act in favor of - what else - the NEXT Big Thing.

There was a time when talent was carefully groomed and managed as a long term property. This is why classic actors' and musicians' careers used to span decades. Today, that's rarely the case. The reason is NBT: the idea is to grab as much cash as you can as quickly as you can with disposable talent.

Remember Ricky Martin? Nobody else does, either.

When you can turn the cash spigot on the national media, I suppose you can afford a scorched earth tactic like NBT. Most of us, however, don't have the luxury of billion dollar budgets and tentacles that reach beyond entertainment and into the media. Which is why you can't allow your brand to be influenced by what you see out there. Your brand has to maintain its integrity over the long haul, so that it can grow larger, gaining strength organically through its users' evangelism.

Watch what happens to Ryan Seacrest, this week's Next Big Thing. In two years, possibly less, everyone will have dumped him for that year's NBT. And then both his and Rick Dees' careers will be little more than ashes on the scrap heap of entertainment marketing.

In the end, everyone gets done in by the Next Big Thing. Is that too much of a downer? Then consider this: if your competition is practicing NBT tactics, you can pretty much count on THEM crashing and burning sooner than you think, too. Stick to your guns and build that brand.

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