Jean Paul Sartre And Ringo Or How We Learned To Stop Worrying And Trust The Audience

A conversation with Kelly Leonard and Steve Kakos.

Kelly is the Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at The Second City and Second City Works. For over twenty years, Kelly oversaw Second City’s live theatrical divisions where he helped generate original productions with such talent as Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers, Steve Carell, Keegan Michael Key, Amy Sedaris and others. His book, “Yes, And: Lessons from The Second City” was released to critical acclaim in 2015.

Steve is a Vice President for Second City Works, where he guides leading businesses in capturing unique consumer insights in order to develop creative concepts, campaigns and innovations through Second City’s wholly-original Brandstage process. His client list includes Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Google, IBM, The Hartford and EY.

Kelly:  My favorite Second City show title is Jean Paul Sartre and Ringo from a Chicago Mainstage show in 1987. It’s a title that upends expectations, it has a clear hook and it speaks to the kind of cultural content that The Second City has trafficked in since we opened our doors on a snowy December night in 1959.

Funny video: Old-school Second City Cubs tickets sketch

Certainly, The Second City is known for its clever show titles. What’s interesting, however, is how few of those titles connect to the actual material inside the actual production. Further, it is extremely rare to find any regular audience member who can accurately recall the title of The Second City show they saw.

What do they remember? They remember laughing, having a good time, a memorable sketch or character – maybe an actor, but rarely by name. People remember coming toThe Second City and they know they will come back. So what does this tell us about brands, messaging and engagement?

Steve: No doubt a similar dynamic exists for our friends in advertising. Our pet show title is their methodically fussed over campaign, content, or logo (ok, perhaps a tweet here or there, too. Maybe.). They are living manifestations of craft. They are meant to demonstrate care and create preference. They grow almost parental feelings of pride among creatives, helping them affirm why they do what they do and how important it is.

And it is important. For all its faults, a life without marketing would be like never having any sugar in the household. Sure, you could intellectualize how much better off you’d be without it, but you wouldn’t have as much fun. And to Kelly’s point, having a good time goes a long way with audiences – even when they fumble a bit with the details.

So how and why do audiences get things wrong anyway? Do they know? Don’t they care? Are they that indifferent to our sleepless nights and wasted weekends crafting beautiful and unique snowflakes? How do we figure it out?

Easy. We quit pretending we know it all and we create it with them.

Kelly: But what we don’t do is ask for them to give us their vote on what they think is the funniest material and then put that in a show. We come to the audience for suggestions, we improvise material in front of them – we gauge, in real time, what’s working and what’s not working – making adjustments as we go. We’ve compared this process to “prototyping” and the comparison is apt.

Engaging audiences engages audiences. Say that ten times fast.

The point is this: people love to be in on the act. And, It just so happens, that when you can infuse an audience’s input into your creative process, you have just exponentially improved the probability of success. You don’t surrender your expertise to an audience. You use an audience to help guide your expertise. The beauty of this is that the experience is mutually beneficial.

Steve: Many marketers routinely invite audiences into the creative process. Clearly the desire to involve and adapt exists, but too often the right techniques for collaborating do not. As a result, the conventional means of holding brand-consumer exchanges can feel pedestrian and under-productive.

No candy dish has ever countered the effects of rotely drilling some poor soul with twenty questions in a focus group. No one relishes a half-hearted email invitation to “be part of the conversation online.”

I can’t imagine a hot-blooded argument between two consumers about how to complete a customer service survey, or someone being served an average home-cooked meal offering the cook anything other than polite, faint praise when asked how it tastes (unless maybe they were encouraged to “taste this” over the stove earlier).

“They don’t get it” (as if describing an esoteric joke rather than one that isn’t funny) gets tossed around about audiences far too often. Rarely is that ever the case. Moreover, most of us as human beings simply match the energy and emotional register of what we’re confronted with. Ask a stupid question…

Turns out that in creative work, as in life, the little things go a long way: being fun and funny to be around, putting your truest self out there and being honest about your shortcomings, knowing that success requires lots of failure along the way, and understanding that involving people early on makes them feel good about themselves and more enthusiastic about helping you.

Kelly: I’m not quite sure if it’s ironic or awesome (it’s both) to work in place that has been creating short form, interactive content decades before the terms crowd-sourcing, disruption and shareable were even part of the business vernacular. But here we are: knee-deep in a methodology that may be in the vanguard, but is merely, to us, The Second City practice of creativity.

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