Lord Michael Grade: ‘drama and emotion key to digital marketing success’

Ahead of his keynote speech to the audience of marketers at The Drum’s Digital Sessions conference, Lord Michael Grade is said to have sat in the sunshine before meeting up with his colleagues at digital creative agency WRG, for whom he acts as non-executive director. This indicates the former BBC director general to be a man who enjoys some quiet time before taking centre stage, as he will be so very used to doing.

He begins his address by declaring that he is here at Kings Way to discuss SEO and the future of the algorithm, before pausing just long enough and dismissing the idea entirely, moving onto highlight the three plays that he is involved in that are running in New York. One of these, End of the Rainbow, centres on the last days of actress Judy Garland, who he knew late on in her career while he was a theatrical agent in London.

Grade explains that he went to see the actress who plays Garland in the show, but waited outside to hear the reaction of the audience, rather than go inside.

‘Then I heard it. Drowning out the noise of the New York traffic, the audience reaction to the final curtain, pouring out in a great big wave, clapping, cheering and wild applause. You could hear it on the pavement. People were stopping and listening. Then the doors opened and the crowd surged out high on what they had experienced that afternoon in the theatre. They were flying and I knew then that we had a hit on our hands.”

Having told this anecdote, Grade recognises that the audience is at a loss as to what this has to do with digital marketing.

“It’s got everything to do with digital marketing or any other kind of marketing,” he continues, “the quality that makes any kind of marketing really memorable, as you all set out to achieve, is exactly the same quality that makes great theatre. It’s drama and most of all it’s emotion”.

He highlights varying types of emotion, happiness, anxiety, grief – “it doesn’t matter what business you’re in. Whether it’s in wealth creation or doing good in the public sector or third sector. If you want to engage people then emotion is the well from which you have to draw.”

The technology, has adds, is important but it is “very much a second order issue,” and “a distribution method.”

He compares the digital highways to an Eddie Stobbart lorry. “That lorry has no value unless there’s something on it that people want to buy. It’s the stuff on the lorry that counts. Not the lorry itself.”

Grade moves onto a subject matter that he is very much at ease with – television. Picking out moments that ‘makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck,” including an interview with writer Dennis Potter with Channel 4 in 1994, which he says runs the gantlet of emotion, full of drama, as well as the “unforgettable” moment of discovery for Susan Boyle on Britain’s Got Talent, that, through social media, was shared by viewers all around the world.

After the clip of Boyle singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ went viral, Grade, who was executive chairman of ITV at the time, reveals that he received a phone call from Google’s Eric Schmidt soon afterwards who said that he wanted to meet with him next time he was in town. He adds that he turned to his PA after the call and commented; “’Eric Schmidt doesn’t want to meet me. He wants to meet the man who’s just given Google 300 million hits on YouTube.’ An unknown Scottish woman goes on TV and hundreds of millions of people get to hear about it, they seek out the video and watch it online over and over again. Why? Because of the emotion, the drama and the voice.”

The next clip he chooses to show is that of the Guinness surfer ad, voted the greatest advert of all time, which he believes takes three of four viewings before people get over the power of the drama, and begin to think about the technology involved, and then the classic scene from Only Fools and Horses in which Del Boy, Rodney and Grand dad attempt to take down a chandelier, which he says has lasted for thirty years because it makes people laugh and is still sought out on YouTube.

‘Creating effective marketing in the 21st century is becoming harder and harder and harder to cut through the noise. We live in a world without gatekeepers. Anyone with a laptop or a smartphone is their own publisher or broadcaster. We live in perpetual danger of drowning in information,” Grade warns, adding that there are 640 million websites in the world – one website for every ten people on the planet.

“How do we engage with the public? How do we make our message unforgettable?” he asks. “Technological wizardry may capture the public imagination fleetingly for a moment, but as we’ve seen with blockbuster Hollywood movies with stunning special effects can fail because they don’t engage emotionally.”

Augmented reality is an example that he says can be used to capture the attention of the publics, “but only for a moment.”

He continues to state that making a moment “unforgettable” is what drives the agency he works with, WRG when creating campaigns.

As he started, Grade finishes with another Judy Garland related anecdote in which he talks about having booked her for The Talk of the Town nightclub, despite her reputation for heavy drinking, rows and whether she would even appear.

Her first night was a success, however, as time went on, she began to show up later and later, keeping the audience waiting so late that they had no transport home. He was sent to her dressing room to speak to her and ask her to show up on time. He did and explained the situation. Her response: “Young man. People do not pay to see Judy Garland turn up on time. All I have left to sell is drama!”

And on this point, Grade signs off on his point, echoing this sentiment; “When it all comes down to it, all you have to sell is the drama…and the emotion.”

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