Culture & Conversation

Right Between the Eyes

Great new ideas hardly ever survive being stolen or sold. That’s why revelation plays such an important part in religion, because the deepest truths are discovered, not invented. These thoughts occurred to me while reading Andy Nulman’s book on the (marketing) power of surprise. To truly benefit from his advice, you’d pretty well have to be Andy Nulman.
Certainly Nulman has benefited from his own advice major league, being a creator and for many years CEO of the Just for Laughs Festival, founder of Airborne Entertainment (a mobile media company), and the man behind a slew of other philanthropic, pedagogic and entrepreneurial ventures in Montreal and elsewhere.

Like most best-selling business tomes, the central message is contained in the title: Pow! Right Between the Eyes! Profiting from the Power of Surprise. I’d heard about the book for months but first learned of its actual publication (in Canada and the U.S. by John Wiley & Sons) when 400 people including myself received a personal e-mail from Nulman urging us to help get him on the New York Times best-seller list. It was days before the last of his friends stopped ccing me angry notes taking him to task for broadcasting our e-mail addresses. For all I know, it may have been a stunt. I read the book. I’m writing about it.

Tales of clever stunts abound in Pow!, many though not all of them, Andy Nulman’s. My favourite was an incredibly simple and cheap marketing gimmick he used to make a splash for Airborne at a crowded telecommunications industry conference. He had the corporate message stamped on 1000 one-dollar bills which staff members dropped onto the conference crowd during his address, provoking an instant scramble. After a string of such bold ideas, one year Airborne did nothing at the conference, and that too got people talking.

I may get stricken off the intimate 400 list for this, but what surprised me most about Pow! was the breadth of reading or at least Googling embedded in his bold, breezy style. How often do you read about Mark Rothco, Marshall McLuhan or hear 19th Century Prussian war theorist Karl Von Clausewitz quoted in a business book? (“The backbone of Surprise is fusing speed with secrecy.”)

Examples and anecdotes extolling Surprise abound; the word itself is nuanced, defined, echoed, deified. The power of Pow! lies in its cumulative effect. Little is really new, he says. A good marketing plan strives for fresh.

Somehow, it’s always surprising to be reminded of how much human imagination and creativity is being used up every day to oil the machinery of the marketplace. It shouldn’t be, though, since most of what we consume is fundamentally unnecessary, and even necessities have dozens of providers. Need and want must be created.

Tucked away in this power-point presentation between hard covers was a statement that caught my eye: “The actual act of creating Surprise is more at home in the world of art than in the world of business.”

So true. Released from its context (an excellent surprise tactic), much of what Pow! talks about could be applied to any creative endeavour: writing a novel, a play, for that matter, writing prose. What happens next? Wouldn’t you like to know? Wouldn’t you like to know?

Read Andy Nulman’s book.


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