Lessons From Comedian Ricky Gervais on Making More Meaningful Consumer Connections

Lessons From Comedian Ricky Gervais on Making More Meaningful Consumer Connections

In an all-too-rare moment of idleness not that long ago, I happened upon a several-years-old episode of Piers Morgan Tonite on CNN and his hour-long interview with famed, if not controversial, comedian, Ricky Gervais.

Ricky apparently had some explaining to do after roasting, er, hosting the recent Golden Globe Awards. Piers and Ricky shared a pint — perhaps more — and went back and forth in a delightful exchange that revealed a very human side to the man, as well as his interviewer. As I listened to the conversation, however — aside from the good laughs and banter — what struck me was Ricky’s approach and perspective on comedy and what drives him. Specifically, what he values most and holds sacred are not dissimilar to what many of us in communications or in the vast world of creativity prize (or should at least respect!).

What [Ricky] values most and holds sacred are not dissimilar to what many of us in communications or in the vast world of creativity prize.

Consider these exchanges, and note the parallels or message that should strike a chord with anyone in the business of creativity, traditional, online or otherwise.

- Ricky, on what he does: “My purpose in what I do is to make people laugh… but… to do so on my terms. It’s not a popularity contest. If people say, ‘make it more palatable; you’ll be more popular,’ great, but that’s not my joke then.”

The message: Speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — from the head or heart on your terms — and God will set you free. (Or at least you can sleep at night.) Deliver a message or “something creative” that isn’t prettied up and restrained and it’ll have a far greater impact. We see this with brands that speak the truth and aren’t fake, from Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign to the New York Times’ “The Truth is Hard” work.

What does comedy have to do with branding and innovation? More than you may think.

- Ricky, on the Golden Globes: “They hired me for a job. If they didn’t want me and what I do, they shouldn’t have hired me.” Piers: “Yes, it’s a bit like inviting a hammerhead shark to dinner and when he eats all the guests, you complain…”

Message: When you’re in the business of creativity, know who you can partner with versus who you think you want to partner with. Don’t get falsely seduced. How many times do we want the bold, creative, risk-taking partner to push creative or innovative solutions, admiring their work from afar—until it’s shown with our logo or brand on it and then, suddenly, our blood drains? Similarly, from the other side of the fence, how many times were you convinced that this time with a client it would be different? That you could teach someone to fly who was incapable of flying?

I worked at an agency in NYC that was known for its unique, envelope-pushing solutions, and brands were usually blown away by our work (which was very rewarding). But some thought they wanted this kind of thinking and provocative work, and then turned crimson — timid, gun-shy, and outright defensive at times — when presented to them with their logo on it: “Oh, no! We could never do that! That’s not us!” And suddenly, we were the hammerhead shark! Many were consumer brands in categories that desperately need to differentiate, too, but while the marketers thought they wanted something new and exciting, in reality they should have stayed with “safer” agencies.

- Ricky, on the essence of comedy: “I’m not apologizing for what I say and for being true to myself. Are there limits [to what can be said and can’t be said]? There’s nothing you shouldn’t be able to joke about. Comedy comes from a good place. Not just to make [the audience] laugh but to get them to a place they’ve never been before. A comedian’s job isn’t just to make people laugh, it’s to make people think.”

Message: I reacted to this statement the most — isn’t that the very essence of what constitutes effective advertising? Or design? Or a film? Or a website? Or a mobile app? Or a good book? Or a good story? Or a new product or other innovation that’s a smash hit? To get you to a place where you’ve never been before? So you can see a perspective or a message or a tale or a fable, or have an experience that was unexpected and thought-provoking or funny or engaging because you could relate to it but had never seen it quite served up that way before?

Isn’t that the very essence of what constitutes effective advertising — to get you to think — and to a place where you’ve never been before?

- Ricky, on sticking to your gut: “My strategy is to make myself laugh. If there’s anyone else in the audience like me, that’s a bonus! You do your own thing. If you’re constantly checking, looking over your shoulder and seeing if people like you, you’re finished… I don’t care what people think about me. I’ve cared if I’ve done a good job and told the truth.”

Message: While everyone zigs, it’s really OK to zag. What separates the true geniuses in our business is the willingness to take a stand; to be their own person and become the strongest advocate of their ideas through their own filter, as quirky as it may be. They are driven by what matters to them and their own passions and not by what they think will be the reaction of other people. Not to be confused with not wanting to be successful, but the success comes as a result of your efforts, not by the wanting of it.

Other Ricky maxims and views that can inspire, motivate, and help us better see the world and risks (and risk-taking) in a new light:

- On stepping across the line vis-a-vis his comedic subjects: “It’s really all about confronting the elephant in the room, isn’t it? You can’t come out there and be everyone’s mate and schmooze.”

- Ricky, on why he’s persevered and what keeps him going: “It’s all a labor of love really. I’ve observed life, worked in an office, took notes, poked fun at it. On stage, I try to be as funny as I can… but as if I were in a pub with people I know and live with.

- Ricky, on leisure time: “Work is my time off. It’s a privilege to wake up every day with an idea and to be able to act upon it. [My advice to you?] Start from there and start working on that.”

Cheers, Ricky. Bottoms up!

Click to watch the full interview.