Mad Town Revisited. Preaching to the Facebook Nation.
April 26, 2008
How does the old Steely Dan song go: “And I’m never going back to my old school.”
Well, after 23 years I finally did. On April 24th I accepted an invitation to speak at Professor Dhavan Shah’s advanced communications course at the University Of Wisconsin in Madison. (pictured w/ beard) UW had been trying to get me up there for years and, for no good reason or all kinds of good reasons (I’m not sure which), I always demurred. Selfishly, I’d rationalized that since my folks paid out of state tuition I owed the college nothing. Nice guy, huh?
And so I found myself at the lectern staring out at some 60 juniors and seniors, the future of my business, the new Gods of Advertising! I was as nervous as if I were standing before the Global Product Committee of General Motors. (Speaking to a group, any group at all, continues to be one of the most all-encompassing things I will ever do. Nothing is more exciting or scary. It is somehow both empowering and humbling. Those of you who have done it know what I’m talking about.) But I digress…
The Facebook generation was looking right at me. Hotties and Hippies. The pierced. The hung-over. The ambitious and ambivalent. College, baby! When I had sat in those very seats the only apples we brought to class were for eating and then they were usually burritos. Computing was but an obscure class on the other side of campus, personal computing the odd dream of odd students. Here and now, everyone had his or her laptops open. I wasn’t sure if they were I-chatting or taking notes. Either way, I had to capture their attention. Despite Prof. Shah’s lofty introduction I saw myself as some older, balder intruder.
Perfect. I love a challenge.
What I had for them was a presentation I’d given at Cannes a few years ago entitled “Inspiring Belief.” The basic idea being that great brands created a myth about themselves, which, if done well, turned idle consumers into fanatic believers. I showed a video and followed with a 20-minute presentation.
Without going into it, the class ate it up. And rightly so. It’s good stuff. Meant to be inspiring, not daunting. I’d spent a lot of time on this thing and I knew and believed in the material. Writing it got me my first boondoggle at Cannes. And now it was going to inspire the newest generation of brand builders. Oh, Jerusalem!
After the class the Prof took me on a tour of Madtown. Wildly different but, in many ways, still the same ramshackle bohemia. We paused at the various dumps I called home. Shah snapped a picture of me pointing at my bedroom window on West Doty Street. (see above) We drove by the saloons that started me on a path that could only end in 12 Steps. I remembered working on the newspapers here, all three of them. I recalled my goofy roommates: a Korean exchange student and a farmer’s only son. Of course they adored me. Me with my long hair, an earring, bandanna and Judas Priest concert tee shirt. Sexy!
All those thoughts. And a hundred more. I think now the reason I hadn’t gone back to school was because it reminds me of a time I can never have back. (Insert violin music here)
We closed the evening in a small, glitzy bar non-existent in my day. The cliental were very dressed up. Guys in jackets. Dresses on the girls. Shah told me it was part of a relatively new phenomenon on campus he called the “Sex in the City” phase. Lots of martinis and cosmos. Silky clothes. An upscale vibe with more than a hint of implied sex later. Back when, we drank 7&7s against a juke box blaring Van Halen. Most of the time we went home drunk with a sack of junk food. A musician friend once wrote a song about it: “If you can’t get a girl, get a gyro.” Progress.
Look, I don’t have a moral to this story, or a theme, or even a point. I just wanted to capture a bit of it before another 23 years passed me by. Who knows –the next time I return to UW it might be with my daughter in tow.
Anyone who happened be in that class I welcome your post. Validate my trip beyond these waxed over memories!