Monday, May 21, 2012

Celebrity Business as Usual

First, the disclaimer: I am a card-carrying Clay Aiken fan. Truly. The card is in my wallet.

As a fan, I've been able to follow other, more-resourceful fans' investigations into Clay's various activities, and so I've actually been "watching" this season of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice not for three months, but for about seven months. The taping for the 2012 spring season took place over the course of about six weeks last fall, concluding with the final task just before Thanksgiving.

So at least I knew Clay (and Arsenio Hall) would be in the final two. This made watching the show itself less stressful. But it did not make the episodes more entertaining. It was an education in the underbelly of what passes for business in the entertainment world.

(Photos via NBC-Celebrity Apprentice)

As my friend and colleague Patrick said, "Celebrity Apprentice is to Business what circus clown cars are to Transportation."

 So let me ramble a little here and try to pull out what business lessons there are from this show.

1. Celebrity sells. See title of show. We got our first sense of the importance of celebrity (or, as they call it in business, "branding") when a contestant with the legendary name of Andretti did not volunteer to be the project manager for the Buick Verano product introduction. Instead, the project manager was the player with the most knowledge about the product, and--despite the opposing team's abominable lack of knowledge about the product (even mispronouncing it as "Verona,") both Michael Andretti and Adam Carolla were fired. They failed to deliver Trump and Buick the desired celebrity endorsement. (And it was the patriarchal legend Mario Andretti who was invited to "chauffeur" Mr. Trump to the live finale.)

Arsenio's strategy was to deliver celebrity to the Trump project in the form of the name of his charity: The Magic Johnson Foundation. What's that for? one might legitimately ask if one does not know that the basketball legend is a long-term HIV survivor. It's simply not immediately clear what the foundation does, only that it is named for a celebrity.

In contrast, Clay Aiken originally named the foundation that he co-founded in 2003 "The Bubel/Aiken Foundation." Though he agreed to use his own name (presumably to help shine his newfound celebrity spotlight onto the organization), he gave his co-founder, Diane Bubel, priority. Later, hoping to clarify the Foundation's mission in its name (and give it an identity of its own), the organization was rebranded as the National Inclusion Project.

My personal opinion is that the rebranding kind of worked and kind of didn't. I could see why Clay and the Foundation's board felt it necessary to keep the focus on the mission and not rely on Clay's name, but I don't think "Inclusion" is self-explanatory. Include what? Include whom? and why "national" only? Is that self-limiting?

Another important point about the non-celebrity way in which the National Inclusion Project (nee Bubel/Aiken Foundation) was formed is that its blueprints were drafted by Clay in the form of an independent project to complete his special-education degree. It wasn't really real until his fans sent in checks (and flung them attached to panties onto the stage while he was performing during the American Idol Tour in 2003). It was a gift to Clay that would give to many other deserving kids.

But, as I said, celebrity sells. As Entertainment Weekly blogger Dalton Ross observes in his recap of the final challenge, to create a public-service ad for their respective charities:
Now that Arsenio had his Magic money shot, whose ad would come out on top? To me, this one wasn’t even close. Clay’s was earnest and fine. ... It went for tears rather than cheers. It also was a bit of information overload. ... The ad wasn’t bad, but it kind of looked like every other charity PSA you’ve ever seen — one that makes you feel vaguely bad about yourself for not helping disadvantaged people more before you find yourself being blissfully distracted from such unpleasantness by a delicious bowl of Cool Ranch Doritos.
2. Advertising is out. Integration is in. Every episode of Celebrity Apprentice is a product placement. The deals are apparently struck with these advertising partners long before the celebrities are selected and tasked. That's the script. But these performers are creative people and often either don't pay attention to the script or go their own way. Or they screw up, as when Penn Jillette inadvertently referred to Walgreen's as Wal-Mart--in front of the Walgreen reps, during the presentation.

So that is a risk that the show takes with its sponsors. Some work out (there is a pitcher of Crystal Light Peach Bellini cooling in my refrigerator, thanks to Clay's "Life's a Beach Peach" beach party product launch) and some don't (the failure to deliver an Andretti endorsement on a Buick).

Sometimes I think the producers and the partners/advertisers threw out the diamonds when they were panning for gold. Lou Ferrigno's O-Cedar Pro-Mist video was cute as hell, but criticized for being more of a traditional commercial than a "viral video." Lou won the task anyway, but the bottom line is that the sponsor wanted free advertising on YouTube rather than something they would have to pay to place during an actual TV program. When the episode was repeated later in the week on CNBC, the commercials were for Swifter products. And I can't find a single Pro-Mist in any store near me.

3. To compete, you must cooperate. Not a new lesson, really. It's the principle behind every sports team and every military action. Teams work. Clay and Arsenio both understood this, and their management styles ultimately were about ensuring that their teams won the challenges, no matter what. As leaders, though, their styles were very different. Which leads to Lesson

4. Delegation isn't deferral, and good managers aren't control freaks. Just because you were assigned a specific portion of a task doesn't mean you don't have to report to your project manager. Your work must fit in with the big picture, and that requires supervision. I'm talking to you, Debbie Gibson and Aubrey O'Day!

5. Play for this task, not the next. Time after time in the boardroom, project managers on the losing teams were asked who should be fired. Time after time, the PMs wanted to pick the stronger, more versatile players to keep, even if they made a mistake, and let go the less-versatile players, even if they did nothing wrong. Time after time, Trump cut off that line of reasoning and focused on the mistakes:

- The "Success" cologne executives "hated" Penn's suggestion of "You earned it" as a slogan, and he was fired.
- The Crystal Light executives "hated" the fact that their logo was too small on a poster, and Patricia Velasquez was fired.
- The Walgreen executives "hated" the box design by Dee Snider, and he, too, was fired.

Penn, Dee, and Patricia had all previously won their tasks as PMs and proved to be strong players. It didn't matter. Trump had a zero-tolerance policy for mistakes (unless, of course, the mistakes were made when Trump wasn't ready to fire the celebrity at hand).

In tallying up the "scorecard" of wins and losses, Trump looked only at the number of victories that Arsenio and Clay had earned as project managers, not at how those victories were achieved. And the final task was never added into the score, leaving Arsenio with an extra win over Clay.

This "lesson," by the way, is one that should not be learned, IMO. It makes no sense to me. While there is virtue in focusing on the task at hand, you need your talent for the future.

6. Ego trumps talent. Again, a "lesson" that needs to not be learned. And here I'm waving my Clay Aiken Fan card at you. Clay didn't kiss up enough to Trump and lost despite superior performance.

Like Clay Aiken, I come at these views of business practice from a different angle, that of nonprofit organizations. Clay jumped right in with the Integration business model, developing strong partnerships with like-minded youth service organizations. He knew what he was doing, and it works. So the lesson of Clay Aiken School of Business is:

Inclusion works.

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