Ten things marketers can learn from Roger Ebert

Why the late film critic inspires us to combine both passion and critical thinking in all of our roles.

I was in junior high school when I first exchanged letters with Roger Ebert, one of the most engaging journalists I've had the pleasure to encounter. He wrote back with an epistle of encouragement about careers in media and communications, sharing his own scrappy rise from obscure beats at local papers to prominent posts at the Chicago Sun-Times, PBS, and later syndication. He shared the importance of “sweating the small stuff” and attending to the particulars that will help illuminate a bigger picture. “Details matter!” was a point that stuck with me.

At the time of my correspondence with my “movie reviewing superhero” in the early 1980s, there were likely a few hundred movie critics in America, compared with now, when professionals exclusively covering film are an even rarer breed. But even then, Ebert was the only one with a Pulitzer Prize.

I did my college thesis on comparative film criticism, with emphasis on Ebert's lively writing style, and dabbled in regional film reviewing in homage to Ebert's populist leanings before plunging headfirst into an agency career. Nearly 20 years after my first correspondence with Ebert, however, I finally encountered him in person at several events on the topic of transformation of analog to digital technology in communications. We got to discuss Martin Scorsese's favorite use of color in the movies as part of a campaign for high-definition TV and spoke together as part of a cable trade show panel about the future of digital cinema. Where there was stimulating thought and wide-eyed excitement about new ways to connect and explore the human condition, there was Roger Ebert.

So many modern movements find origins in this man's influence. Was his vivid on-camera commentary an early example of punditry that so dominates our mainstream media? Was his unbridled passion – expressed in voluminous essays and his famous frame-by-frame festivals examining every sequence of influential or even undiscovered films - that of a “fanboy,” the types that pour over every detail of Star Trek Into Darkness or To The Wonder on blogs and podcasts? Was his longtime professional bickering with Gene Siskel an early example of the “frenemy,” who can vehemently disagree with but still be pals post-quarrel? And were those two trademark thumbs, assigning their version of a #win or #fail to each major endeavor, the harbinger of a social media culture of immediate “liking” and “favoriting?”

Ebert's illustrious career mirrors society in profound ways – and it's no accident that with the changing landscape of media and with his own failing health, he adapted into one of the most avid social media practitioners of our time. He was steeped in two-way engagement long before its mainstream popularity, and he fully leveraged the medium to stimulate great ideas and engage in intense conversation. No matter the medium, his plainspoken authenticity, that some have compared to a modern-day Mark Twain or Will Rogers, is a reminder of how we should live our lives as communicators. Just as Ebert built his brand on this foundation, we as brand marketers can honor the legacy of the best-known film critic of our time with ten guiding principles:

1.   Intellectual curiosity is a secret to living a life with authenticity and transparency. Ebert inspired many a young person to start watching Kurosawa, Herzog, Bertolucci, and many of the greats and inspired many a communicator to look for clever ways to tell their stories. Knowledge about global topics and cultures and interdisciplinary issues will fuel the brainstorms that can take brands to a place you've never been before.

2.   Inspiration comes from the writing process.
Too often, folks take a traditional top-down approach to storytelling, when it's often best to just start in the middle or start where your emotion burns the brightest. The art of writing a first draft should be unbound by structure and guided solely by your instincts and imagination.

3.   Discuss everything in words that are understandable.
Ebert became an icon because he put his thoughts in simple terms so anyone who could pay the price of a newspaper could understand his point of view. Often times, brand marketers become too charmed by their own symbolism that they forget that the common and the everyday can resonate most. Ebert once said, “If you have to ask what it symbolizes, it didn't.”

4.   Be both a lifelong learner and teacher.
Ebert took great satisfaction from his formal roles as a teacher at University of Chicago and informal roles mentoring and advising others in his field. He also learned just as much visiting movie sets, interviewing luminaries and pouring himself into industry events such as the Cannes and Sundance film festivals that make the film industry pulse. Passion means always filling your soul with new ideas and being unafraid to share everything you know and that's in your heart with others.

5.   Dare to live cross-platform.
The outpouring of love about Ebert this week has reflected a variety of communities' reactions to a man who they saw on TV, heard on the radio, read in newspapers and books, followed on blogs, and engaged on Facebook and Twitter. In his final years, he diversified his subjects to encompass politics and science and larger issues in life (his final book, entitled Life Itself, plumbs topics including redemption and spirituality). A good brand marketer knows where his or her audience lives and how far they will follow you into your musings in multiple channels. It's hard not to want to follow someone who has so many amazing ways to share what's on their mind.

6.   Don't be afraid to coin a clever phrase or stage a little stunt.
As a kid, I loved it when Ebert was joined by an actual pet skunk to announce the “skunk of the week.” What a crazy and specific way to honor even a film that was stinking up American theaters! I loved how he categorized some of the time-honored traditions of moviemaking in his famous glossaries – from the “We're alive! Let's kiss!” cliché to “The Law of Movie Brand Loyalty” in which, thanks to product placements, all characters, no matter how heterogeneous or geographically dispersed, drink one brand of soft drink, use one brand of flat-screen TV, or drive cars produced by one company. Being able to identify formulaic conceits can help direct marketers to new, more inventive ideas.

7.   Live each day with passion.
Ebert often remarked that the great movies observe, share, and shape the human experience. Each time the movie theater lights went down, it was a chance to make a connection. We should remember the power and possibilities of the forums we influence and strive to illuminate them with greatness.

8.   Tailor your communication to an audience's attention span.
Be prepared with an overarching message as well as the ability to drill down to proof points and anecdotes. Sure, you could sum up an Ebert review by the number of stars he doled out or the direction his thumb was pointing, but those who truly knew what was on his mind reacted to his riveting essays, in which he brought in his own life experiences. He enjoyed bantering back and forth with friends and soon with the denizens of an online community. Make sure you do more than skim the surface when there's lots of great color to share.

9.   Stirring messages repeated over time will indeed sink in.
Be willing to underscore your key messages again and again, in different ways, so they ultimately sync with society. I remember Ebert's countless segments and articles about how TV networks cropped the sides off theatrical movies to make them fill the square screen, often panning and scanning in awkward ways the director never intended. There's nothing worse than watching Mrs. Robinson seduce Benjamin in The Graduate when all you can see if the space in between them! Due to Ebert's relentless writing and demonstration of how “letterboxing” can solve the problem, we now enjoy widescreen movies at home. Ebert knew how to showcase the right examples as a persuasive way to help change peoples' ways of thinking.

10.  Love what you do and the people around you.
We're in a field of constant communication and constant collegiality. Folks may succeed for a while stepping on others, but someone like Ebert brought great love to his craft and to the people around him, including his fellow journalists, his friends in the industry, and his beloved wife Chaz. “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to help make others a little happier, that is about the best we can do,” he proclaimed.

My company rallies us to “dig deeper, imagine more” in all that we do each day for our clients. The legacy of Roger Ebert is a further, constant reminder to wear our critical thinking caps to each new assignment and, through the sheer force of our ability to dream big, we too will bring something amazing to our spheres of influence.

Stephen Brown is MD of Cohn & Wolfe Atlanta.

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