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!

11 Responses to “Mad Town Revisited. Preaching to the Facebook Nation.”

  1. Dhavan said

    As my students wrote to say in response to your visit, quoting you directly I should add: Hells Yeah! May the gods of advertising shine on you until your next visit, and hopefully it will not be another 23 years. If so, that shitty apartment on Doty may no longer be standing! Until then.

  2. Keegan said

    I was in that class and your “belief” speech was OK. I think it’s inaccurate to say “the class ate it up.” Not everyone in the class is a future “god of advertising.” Many of us are going into public relations or news reporting. Money isn’t everything to everyone.

    On college students in general, I would urge you to remember there will always be more traditional party-goers. Van Halen and burritos still works for a lot of us.

    On a lighter note, the picture above with you pointing is pretty interesting to me. I currently live on the second floor of that building.

  3. J614 student said

    In your lecture, you mentioned Jesus’ profession was a sheepherder. He was actually a carpenter.
    While I don’t buy into everything you said in class, it was interesting and innovative nonetheless! Thanks for visiting us.

  4. alex said

    Your lecture on belief in advertising was incredibly inspiring, and might have just cemented my future as a brand builder…rather than…well, anything else? It is so great to see somebody who loves what they do and has been successful as well.

    This blog post is very strange for me, as I can picture myself journeying back to the UW 23 years from now. It makes me wonder what will have changed by then. And it is hilarious to be referred to as the facebook generation. Who knew that something that seemed like a toy at the beginning of college would come to be a defining phenomenon for my generation?!?

    Anyway, thank you. You weren’t boring. Thank Goodness. I hate guest lectures, but I loved yours. Thanks for being inspiring, and funny.

  5. SRP said

    Jesus a carpenter! I should have known that. I guess I “mis-remembered” him as a shepherd. And to the guy living above my old apartment: How random is that? What are the odds? And, yeah, saying the class “ate it up” pretty presumptuous of me. Just knowing you didn’t leave half way through miracle enough! Thanks for having me. I had a blast.
    SRP

  6. Jeana said

    Carpenter, sheep herder the story ends the same. Thank you for the visit, Your excitement about your career 23 years out of college was the most inspiring thing about the presentation.

    I was taking notes, as I’m assuming everyone else was too. The wifi was down.

  7. Adam J said

    Although ads probably won’t be how I end up making my living I still enjoyed your lecture. I’m a fairly frugal person most of the time but the ability to instill desire in other people is something that has always fascinated me. I thought your quip about the shortcomings of rational advertising were particularly interesting. Anyway, it was fun. I always like getting insights from folks in the biz. Thanks!

  8. Myth building applies to journalism and PR, too.

  9. Heidi said

    This is coming pretty late after your lecture, but I really wanted to comment on how much I ate it up. My friends and I couldn’t stop laughing, but we were also appreciative of the work you shared with us and of how inspiring you were. Thank you for spending your time with us. I’m sure it’s rather expensive at this point.

  10. SRP said

    Thank you, Heidi.
    It was a thrill for me.
    Best of luck and a big future.
    Steffan

  11. All from UW-
    Your fellow student, Maya Carroll has just accepted an offer to intern in new business at Euro this summer. I guess it pays to ask questions after the lecture!
    Best,
    Steffan

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