Tom Geller, dilettante and poetaster


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* About that cat picture... *

or, Is P.R. a creative art?

"Think Different" parody picture... you just have to see it.After two months of being prominently featured as the title page on my Web site, I decided to remove the graphic you see to the right. Normally, such a minor administrative change wouldn't be worth discussing; in this case, however, reaction to the graphic raised issues that deserve attention.

I sent out an e-mail to friends and colleagues when it first went up: I got back about a dozen positive responses. I also got one from a friend who said that, while he personallly found it funny and harmless, he could imagine potential clients being put off by it. I kept that in mind, but decided to leave it up. I thought it was appropriate, dammit, and (I defiantly told myself) I wouldn't want to work with anyone who didn't see the humor in it. In my mind, it demonstrates the kind of thinking I look for in people I hire, work with and buy from. After all, which will better drive consumers to a particular brand: a product mention on Meet the Press or one on South Park?

Since then, I've gotten a few more comments, mostly positive. Negative comments have invariably come from those who swear that they aren't offended themselves, but worry that others might be. (This is the specious "it's to protect the children" argument censors commonly use.) The argument goes on: P.R. is a serious business, and the cat picture is supposedly a sign that I'm not serious.

This saddens me, because I take this business very seriously. And judging from the reaction I got, the picture did its magic. It increased site traffic, improved name recognition for my consultancy, and associated me with Apple, the Mac and a creative approach to P.R. (I'm taking it down, in fact, because I'm not as strongly connected with the Mac community as I used to be.) But the question keeps rearing its ugly head: Is it appropriate? And, ultimately: Is P.R. a creative art?

But back to the cat picture.

Just in time for the January 1998 Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Apple introduced a series of ads with the slogan, "Think Different." You've probably seen them: They feature great people who, through applied creativity, made quantum leaps in their respective fields. Muhammad Ali, Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, the current Dalai Lama, Amelia Earhart... you get the picture. In the voice-over that accompanied the T.V. spots, the company posited that these iconoclasts suffered for their brilliance, much (it's implied) as Mac users suffer in a Windows-dominated industry. ("Here's to the crazy ones....")

Like many people, I appreciated the series' ambition. It reminded me that the advancement of civilization relies on brilliant conceptual insight as well as gradual, hard work. Most ads for computer products promise that hard work will become easier; Apple's ads suggested instead that the Macintosh would facilitate inspiration.

Clearly, most P.R. professionals are experts at the "hard work" portion of the field. God knows there's enough to do: There are always editors to call, demos to arrange, press releases to write and clients to meet with. Indeed, any P.R. agent who fails to do these things should be fired.

But the agents I admire go further -- and their results prove that clients benefit from an iconoclastic approach. In recent memory, they include:

  • Mike Rosenfelt, formerly of Power Computing Corp. His manic stunts at Macworld Expos (and elsewhere) helped create a buzz that gave the company positive name recognition far out of proportion to its size.
  • Kevin Mallon of FileMaker Inc., whose creative user profiles humanized an otherwise hard-to-conceptualize database product. I once told him I knew a prostitute who used his company's product in her business: He immediately asked that I arrange for her to contact him, so that he could do a user profile. He knew that the public-interest value of such a story far outweighed any negative repercussions.
  • Craig Isaacs, of Dantz Development Corp. He never shied from telling me the truth about his company's products, thereby building a trust that lasted from launch to launch. Further, his insistence that I understand technical issues surrounding his company's products made for better editing and, ultimately, gave me more interest in what they did.
It's worth noting that all three are hard workers as well. Mike frequently worked twelve-hour days. Craig called me from Germany at two in the morning to help me fact-check a review. And Kevin once argued with me about the phrasing of a sentence for over 30 minutes. (He won in the end.) Their competence complements their creativity: For without an attention to detail, creative people become interesting flakes, no more.

Assuming that one takes care of the business of P.R., an original approach makes the difference between an average campaign and a superior one. Certainly, competent creatives are a huge improvement over the uninteresting drudges too often found in P.R. For people who merely do their jobs -- writing dull press releases and making unengaging calls to editors -- pass up tremendous opportunities to proactively improve their clients' positions.

Sure, applying creativity to P.R. is dangerous: Misjudge public perception, and your client will look idiotic -- or worse. But those who fail to exhibit appropriate daring from time to time are doing their clients a tremendous disservice.

And that's the story behind the cat picture. I didn't realize it at the time, but I put it up because I seek clients who recognize the value of the memorable image, the unexpected phrase and the creative approach. For I know that, together, we can create a brand that no-one will forget.

This page was last updated on Friday, January 06, 2012 at 12:17am UTC. All contents copyright 2005 by Tom Geller.