At PromaxBDA’s The Conference 2016, FX Networks and FX Productions CEO John Landgraf sat beside creator, executive producer and star of FX’s “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” Denis Leary to talk about the state of television and marketing – and drop a handful of f-bombs in the process. The lively conversation hosted by PromaxBDA, an international nonprofit association for promotion and marketing professionals working in broadcast media, touched on a number of insightful and humorous anecdotes, including Denis’ varying experiences with networks marketing his shows and his surprise at John’s ability to contribute timely creative ideas that were crucial to a show’s storylines.
The keynote discussion, which took place at the New York Hilton Midtown on June 16, also covered a wide range of television-related topics, including the difference between good and bad shows, the importance of listening before marketing a show and how to protect the creative process from business challenges.
On the importance of specificity: If you look at every good show ever made – it doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy or drama or miniseries – the characters are unbelievably specific. And the tone of the show is also specific – it comes out of the characters… And if you think about every show that’s ever been made that’s not good, the characters are generic. Somehow the shows and the characters are generic… It seems to me the same analogy can be made for marketing that can be made for shows. On some level, every great piece of marketing is highly specific. It has a specific tone. It has the courage to take a point of view about a character in time. And every mediocre piece of marketing is, on some level, generic.
On the danger of backsolving: I think the temptation in this industry – and it is an industry – is really to sort of start with what you intend and to backsolve from there. “I want to make a hit character. I want to make a hit show.” I think marketing has a particular tendency to be utilitarian because it’s made for a purpose, which is to sell a show. I think a lot of times, when you sort of backsolve from the intended effect, you just never get to the grassroots of true creativity.
On the importance of listening: I think that the essence of creativity and art always starts with listening. It starts with observation… You start by looking at things really, really carefully. You start looking at other people’s work and sort of looking at the human condition. I think the essence of art is really trying to see as deeply into the human experience as you can and then figure out how to remix it through your own peculiar experience. I think that as an executive, I’ve always taken art and artists seriously. I really listen to what an artist has to say. If I can give credit to our marketing department, I think they do the same thing. I think they’re artists. I take them seriously as artists, they take themselves seriously as artists and they take you seriously as artists. They listen really, really carefully first. Then after they’ve ingested the observation of truth, they try to take it somewhere.
On the best idea vs. the safe idea: There’s always that moment in time when there’s the best idea and then there’s the safe idea. It’s a fork in the road and you just have to screw up your courage and choose the best one, because the best one’s usually a little scary or has within it the possibility of spectacular failure or embarrassment or something like that. And I think that’s often true in every creative process. I know it’s true in marketing.
On how to protect the creative process from business concerns: If you start with a business challenge and you try to backsolve from that, I think you’re going to tend to end up with genericism in marketing, or you’re going to end up with genericism in creative. There may be some places where genericism works from an economic standpoint, if you’re trying to be palatable or unobjectionable to a wide range of people. But I think [with] the nature of the TV world that we’ve worked in, it’s better to be unpalatable and be really beloved by a smallish segment of the audience than to be palatable to everyone because it’s not for broadcast networks anymore – it’s 60 places… I think it’s my genuine perception that if you find the best creative and if you support it, that will take care of your business issues better than anything else. And I feel that way in marketing as well as in the creative process. So just find the best people you possibly can, help them if you can, but mostly just get out of their way and let them do the best work they’re capable of. That’s the best shot you’ve got.
On the importance of marketing shows: When I first went in with [writer, producer, director] Peter [Tolan] and we gave John [Landgraf] and the guys at FX our pilot script for “Rescue Me” – I’ll never forget this because you gave us a couple of great creative notes and then you said, “I also want to talk to you guys about marketing.” And that stuck with me and Peter… We both went like, “This guy’s f—— smart.” One of the first things we talked about was how you market the product, because it doesn’t matter how good the product is if the audience doesn’t find out what time it’s on and where it is.
On grabbing people’s attention: There’s so many f—— television shows and so many movies, and they’re all competing for your attention. You only get to grab people’s attention very briefly… If you’re not in charge of letting the audience know when it’s coming and what it’s about, then you’re f—– now. You’re totally f—–.
On TV vs. movies: I think television is a better place to be than the movies right now creatively. I just think there’s more opportunity.
On catching eyeballs: Everybody can pick what they want to watch now and become emotionally invested in it. Marketing really has to reflect the show and be smart and strong enough to go out and catch our eyeballs.
On TV marketing’s recent strength: I have to believe it’s not just a great era of television – it’s also a great era of marketing campaigns and images.
FX Networks was named North America Marketing Team of the Year for the sixth year in a row at the 2016 PromaxBDA Promotion, Marketing and Design Awards Thursday night.