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MENTORING: The Accidental Mentor

How does one actually go about being mentored? Do you take out an ad in the Sunday paper saying "Mentor Wanted"? Plant a sign in your front yard? Is there a school for mentors? A union? Can you earn a degree in mentoring? I wouldn't know. I didn't ask to be mentored any more than I asked to be born. It just happened.

Monty Python’s Graham Chapman Teaches Me How to Write Comedy

My mentor was the late Graham Chapman of Monty Python, and our mentor/mentee relationship began slowly--so slowly in fact that I don't think that either one of us noticed it was happening until it was over. I first met Graham in the mid-1980s while I was doing research on a book I was writing about the Monty Python television shows (Monty Python Vs. The World), and he was on a lecture tour. As luck would have it I was the only writer in a room full of photographers so I pretty much had him to myself. He was impressed by my knowledge of "all things Pythonic" and invited me to come and stay with him when I went to London the next month. Graham was an extremely generous and warm man and a friendship was budding, and the mentoring had begun.

One morning, quite out of the blue, Graham asked if I would like to "try my hand at writing something with him. Was it a genuine offer? A joke? I told the cynic in my head to sit down and shut up. I quickly realized that it's one thing to say 'yes' and quite another to actually put pen to paper and do it. What is the protocol? Do you initiate a sketch premise--or is that too presumptuous? Graham launched into a story about an exasperating experience he'd had with a bank teller. I don't think I even caught the first few sentences as I was so preoccupied with the proper decorum, but when he said "How about that?" I snapped out of my cogitation as if I'd been zapped with 10 million volts of electricity.

"Yeah, that's funny," I recall mumbling, hoping he'd repeat what he'd just said because I'd missed it. Luckily he said, "Well, obviously it's a man in a bank having some sort of difficulty with a teller." That was glimpse enough to get my mind active. It’s been my experience that in any writing team there's usually "the writer" and "the walker." One of the team pontificates and the other is the guy who actually picks up the pen and pad and gets it all on paper.

Graham thrust a pen and pad into my hand, and began to pace. I began to scribble. "The man wants to make a withdrawal," he said, "but the teller doesn't speak English… .No, that's boring.” Was he going to look to me for help? (God, please don't look to me...) He began to walk again. He twiddled with his sideburns. And then he stopped walking and smiled. "He's robbing the bank, but the teller refuses to co-operate. She doesn't believe him. She..." he trailed off. He was stuck. Now is my chance to save the day, I began to panic. And then, miracle of miracles, I had an idea.

"What about..." I began hesitantly, "the teller's a real stickler for the rules of the bank?"

"A stickler for the rules of the bank," he deadpanned. I was sweating now.

"Yeah. Maybe he hands her a holdup note and she asks if he... has an account with the bank."

"Do you have any collateral?" For a moment I was unsure if he was asking me that or if it was a line. My God, I thought, we're actually writing a sketch together. And so it went for some twenty minutes. Maybe half an hour. Graham walked and talked, I sat and scrawled. I was writing so fast and furious that the letters on the paper were losing all shape, it was beginning to look like a relief map of Peru. And then, just as suddenly as the brainstorm began, it was over. Done. I dotted the last "i" and crossed the last "t" and then pushed back onto the sofa, utterly exhausted and deliriously happy. Granted, I had a cramp in my wrist unseen outside the confines of a SoHo peep show, but never mind... I looked up, stunned to see that Graham was watching Steffi Graf play at Wimbledon on TV.  I was a little pissed off. I mean, we'd just written a very funny sketch and there he was... watching tennis! Why wasn't the Champagne popping? Where was the trophy? I realized, sure, it had been a thrilling experience--for me. For Graham it had been just another day in the salt mines.

"That was fun," he said. "Would you like a cuppa tea?" We went on to write a few others things during the 18-or-so months that I got to know the man before his death, but for my money nothing ever surpassed that initial time when I sat at the feet of the great Buddha and learned how to create and build a sketch line-by-line; how to let go and let it take you where it naturally wants to travel; how to build up to the punch line, even if it's not the punch line that you expected--especially if it's not the one you expected because that's when you know the sketch is born alive and not delivered dead-on-arrival.

Looking back I can now see that, like all great mentors, the things that Graham taught me about writing comedy he taught accidentally, by showing me how to do it. Any trepidation I had that day about taking him up his offer to write together had more to do with my ego than his. It was not a grand scheme designed to show-off his brilliant wit at my expense, or how 'generous' he could be. It was the genuinely selfless gesture of a truly humble man. That's more than a lesson in comedy, it's a lesson in life. I was mentored the same way that I was born. By accident.

When Graham died of cancer in 1989, he even managed to do that in classic Chapman style: passing away just one day shy of Monty Python's 20th anniversary. Fellow Python, Terry Jones, called it "The worst case of party-pooping I've ever seen." I couldn't help thinking that he'd done it again, delivered the consummate punch line with his usual pitch perfect timing.


Badvertising: “Party on, eh!”

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we examine what happens when big corporations fumble at social media. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Molson's Facebook Fail

Back in 2007, at the dawning of social media, Molson Coors Brewing (the third-largest U.S. brewer behind Anheuser-Busch and Miller) tried to get the party started by creating a Facebook promotion called The Molson Canadian Nation Campus Challenge. They were looking for “The #1 party school in Canada” and encouraged students to upload the most outlandish party photos (presumably of them getting down with a ice cold Molson), and said that the school with the most awesome pics would win a trip for five to spend spring break in Cancun, Mexico. The ad also listed the top 10 Canadian party schools. Seems wholesome enough, what could possibly go wrong?

Oh, everything. Anger and criticism erupted, probably because universities generally don’t like being seen as places “to get your freak on,” and parents were up in arms because they don’t like having photos of their offspring acting drunk and stupid posted on the Internet. Xavier University administrator and dean of students, Joe MacDonald said: “This is not something that is welcome within our campus community.” Molson was accused of obscene behavior and in encouraging underage binge drinking. This last one was, perhaps, unfair as the legal drinking age in Canada is 19 and they were targeting 19-24 year olds—but what Molson failed to take into consideration was that underage freshman and sophomores might participate—which they did. A Molson spokesman said the idea was to promote school spirit, not encourage drinking. Yeah, okay. The campaign was pulled a week early.

All too often, corporations rush into social media like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook without knowing the dynamics, or the full reach of the platforms. Social media is a two-way street, unlike traditional marketing, where interaction is key, and the speed at which that information travels is both a curse and a blessing. While some companies get social media right, like American Airlines, and some get it wrong, like KFC and Kenneth Cole, in order to really harness the massive marketing power that social media has to offer businesses must use the medium to do a lot more than disperse generic information about the company, insert a website URL and ask for some awesome party pics. Get social media right and you'll have fans who will sing your praises, but get it wrong by trying to be “cool” and, more often than not, it will get you kicked out of the club.

Oh! In case you’re wondering, Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland—with 69 photos uploaded—won the contest, although that had its detractors. A spokeman for Canada's Western University's Purple Spur Society, a social club that, among other things, “offers the opportunity to party the Western way,” was ranked eighth—didn't like the results. “I don’t think the list is accurate,” said Richard Cuttler, president of the Purple Spur Society. When asked why the Purple Spur avoided being more active in promoting Western’s partying on the Internet, Cuttler explained that “corporate sponsorship” was an issue.

Party on, Rich.



Badvertising: Too Funky Fresh?

In this installment of MarketSmiths’ Badvertising we examine what happens when corporations try to be too clever with their marketing—and get busted big time. As usual, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!

Sony PlayStation's Fake Fan Site (and its bad spin) 

Back in 2006, a guy who went only by the name of “Charlie” created a fan site dedicated to Sony PlayStation Portable called “All I Want For X-Mas Is A PSP.” Seems that ol' Charlie was trying to help his bro, Jeremy, get a PSP for Christmas—he (and his rapping bud “Cousin Pete”) even created a video for poor J.

Awwwww, sweet. But, gamers being gamers, some got suspicious of Charlie and went on a fetch quest. Within hours they discovered that “Charlie's” domain was registered to a branding agency called Zipatoni and that the whole thing was fake, fake, fake. Not cool, bro!


Trust was destroyed and the insulted gamers went ballistic. Visitors to the blog let Sony have it in the comments section, calling them out for trying to game the gamers and (worst of all) saying the Sony's marketing ploy was “lame.” Burn, bro. Lame is the one thing you don't want to be called when you are talking to your target audience. Top gaming site Penny Arcade had this to say: “Unwilling to let an increasingly savvy portfolio of titles speak to gamers directly, they chose instead to bring aboard guerilla marketing gurus Zipatoni and do irreparable damage to their brand.”

But Sony—I mean, “Charlie”—valiantly pushed back. In pseudo hip-hop speak he (more than once) wrote: “Yo where all u hatas com from... juz cuz you aint feelin the flow of PSP dun mean its sum mad faek website or summ... you all be trippin.”  And then “Cousin Pete” added: “Are site was registered through an external provider. We don’t work for sony.”

The denials incensed the gamers even more and it started a feeding frenzy. Over at the popular message boards, one commenter wrote: “Makes you wonder why they (Sony) can't cough up the $8 to do private registration, to keep people from easily seeing that their ‘blogs’ are owned by promotional companies.”  

Double burn, bro.

It wasn't long before Sony threw in the towel and offered an “Oops, my bad.” But they failed at even that, issuing an apology for being too clever! “Busted. Nailed. Snagged,” their statement read. “As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn’t a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP. Sony Computer Entertainment America.”

Yeah, that was the problem, being too funky fresh... And this wasn't the first time Sony tried to “get down with the peeps” and then make a major fail in the attempt. Back in December of 2005, they ran a pseudo graffiti campaign. It didn't work out then either. Neighborhoods called it vandalism and graffiti artists cried foul and then defaced the ads. Sony apologized.

As savvy marketeers know, good advertising doesn't have to rely on tricking people, and then lying to cover your tracks. Consumers are smarter and more wary than many think, which is why when alternative marketing is used it has to be real because everything comes under scrutiny these days. Involving consumers in the brand story is the best way to motivate them because, while they might forgive once for faking them out, if you keep trying to fool them they'll be tuning you out. Or, as “Charlie” might put it: “Yo, you korprate boyz is fony tymez 4. you all be hypin. We done. Peace OUT! Da Consuma.

Word to your mother, dawg.