Marketing and Advertising Donkeys
Shoot'em if You Got'em
Shooting the Marketing and Advertising Donkeys in the Complex Sale
Advertising. Creative Processes. Creative
This is going to be
fun. We’re going to travel into the weird creative world of marketing and
advertising, get behind the processes, get into the thinking, and best of all
see the screw-ups. We hope to also learn how to avoid or at least make some
sense of the marketing and advertising side of the complex sales process.
Advertising. Is there any more expensive way to throw away money with such
arrogant disregard for common sense? Or, to do it with such condescending,
confounding, disparate, creative personalities?
Is there any more
effective way to get people to scratch their heads with befuddled looks and say,
“What idiot thought up that
Steve, aren’t you in marketing?
No … well, maybe.
I confess. I’m in
marketing too. And yes, I lump myself in with the knuckleheads referenced above.
But, recently I
watched several commercials that absolutely floored me. Totally nonsensical,
beyond even my warped sense of artistic marketing
Has High IQ
Now I consider
myself quite the
My IQ is (let’s play hi-low, I have to show some discretion here so as not to
embarrass fellow readers) between 50 and 75 (lower during work hours – higher
during NCAA March Madness). But when watching the aforementioned
I didn’t get the
message. I wasn’t even sure it was in a language known to man.
I couldn’t say what
product was being sold, if any.
I couldn’t decipher
why, if I figured out number two, I would want to buy it anyway. No benefit, no
And finally, I
couldn’t figure out how anyone besides a lame-brain, half-witted,
discombobulated imbecile with no fiscal responsibility to his employees,
shareholder, investors or owners, would okay the budget to produce the
commercial, let alone air it. (Though secretly I yearned to meet him. I have a
cool marketing campaign designed to rollout a hypothetical, superluminal
donkey-shaped quantum particle-powered car for the NASCAR
Some World Class Marketing Screw-Ups
(or … how to end your marketing career
quickly without really trying.)
Now, every business
discipline has its fair share of screw-ups. But, when marketing folks screw-up,
it’s typically on a grand scale. Spectacular … and funny (unless you’re the one
paying for it).
For example, a beer
company wondered why sales were close to non-existent in a European country they
were trying to penetrate. They had a slogan that was remarkably similar to, if
not identical, to “Turn it Loose.” Well, when translated into the native
language it came out as,
“Suffer from Diarrhea.”
that might have been the problem?
How about this one
(one of my favorites)? The Scandinavian manufacturer Electrolux rolled out an
American campaign that, when translated, caused a few titters.
“Nothing Sucks Like an Electrolux.”
Nice rhyme and it
grabs you, doesn’t it? I mean for a tagline … it’s a
And who wouldn’t
appreciate the bad taste (or more aptly … smell) of this campaign from a
multi-national hair product company. The product was called “Mist
Stick.” Has certain elegance, certain chic, certain ambiance doesn’t
Sales in a foreign
country were slightly hindered by the translation of “Mist Stick”
many people plopped down their hard-earned money for it. (However, the Marketing
Director was rumored to have been repeatedly assaulted with a manure stick as he
was run out of town.)
romantics out there, can you imagine the wooing possibilities?
Obviously, these marketing
mistakes centered on cross-cultural vernacular and incorrect translations. So
the obvious fix would to be more visual … don’t you think?
That’s it. Show. Don’t tell. Less
An American baby food company
tried that in Africa. They used the same packaging as used in the
includes a picture of a cuddly cute baby.
again, the first indicator of a problem was … no sales.
African companies put pictures of
what’s inside the jars (contents) on the outside of the jars. Apparently, in
Africa, there was no taste (that was in bad taste wasn’t
it?) or market for babies in a jar. Even if they were cute as can
Moving on – Illuminating
the Black Hole
So, for my own intellectual
edification, and to try to illuminate the black hole of marketing and
advertising for the reader, with real-life stories and examples, I decided to
find and interview someone that could help explain (in simple language, which
later turned out to be quite colorful) the thought processes and business
justifications that went into such campaigns (if it could be explained). Someone
that could give real-life examples of marketing flops and successes, the reasons
behind each and insights on how to avoid the flops, multiplying the chances for
success in a complex sales environment.
Or, how to use the …
Shoot the Donkey Key Principle.
The Shoot the Donkey key
principle of “Taking
decisive action to remove all obstacles to fulfill your mission” is based
upon a real-life incident portrayed in the movie "Patton."
Winners, Leaders, and
Innovators Know How, Why, When and Where to "Shoot the Donkey."
To shoot the marketing and
advertising donkey, I knew I needed someone with years of experience – on
both the creative and business side of the table. I was concerned there might
not be one person that had experience in successfully working both sides of the
table. Marketing, advertising, and business leaders have terribly siloed,
dysfunctional relationships – neither working closely together, nor having a
high opinion of the other.
I wondered to myself, "Are there
even people out there like that?" And, if so, I suspected they would be a
I was right.
Wonderfully strange in fact … and
hilariously entertaining. But, I must warn the reader, this interview is a
little spicy – a little dicey. I censored many of the interviewee’s comments but
the language remains, at some points, colorful.
Enter Ken Sutherland
Ken Sutherland is that rare
(Steve’s politically correct way of saying strange) personality
type that can successfully work both the creative and business side of the
table. He’s won numerous awards for marketing, advertising, and music,
including: four Clios, more than 300 Gold Addys, two Gold Camera Awards, three
Cine Golden Eagle Awards, two IBC Awards, and the London International
Advertising Award. He’s also been voted
to Ad Week Magazine’s
All-Star Creative Team.
After an extended career in
advertising and marketing, including tenure as a marketing executive with some
of New York City’s largest advertising agencies, Ken crossed over to the
creative side and began writing and producing commercial music for national and
international clients and, eventually, motion picture and television scores in
Hollywood. His award-winning composing and song-writing talents together with
his marketing background and experience provide a unique combination of skills.
Ken has created and produced
commercial music for a multitude of major clients, including: American Airlines,
Holiday Inn, Coors Beer, Frito Lay, Ford Motor Company, Exxon, Sports
Illustrated, Quaker Oats, Gulf Oil, Radio Shack, Levi Strauss, 7-11 Corporation,
McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Zales Jewelers, and Pepsi Cola, to name just a few. Ken
also composed the musical scores for dozens of documentaries and informational
and sales films, working with clients such as Greyhound Bus Company, RCA,
Chevrolet, The U.S. Navy, Xerox, Pizza Hut, Cadillac, Volkswagen, and Campbell
Just the right person to “Shoot the Marketing and Advertising
Ken was wonderfully gracious when
asked to do the interview and invited me to
Dallas so we could discuss the
marketing and advertising business.
I met him in the
Dallas airport. Immediately, I knew
it was going to be an experience. Ken is a big, burly, bearded Texan. He was
smoking a titanic cigar, wearing a loud, neon, sequined cowboy shirt, alligator
cowboy boots, a 1,000-gallon cowboy hat and …
Yes. You read me right. A dress.
A short one at that. Too short. And …
It was ugly. (For you visual
types out there – think Andre the Giant in a
mini-dress smoking a cigar.) And, it was plaid, too (it offset nicely the neon
sequined shirt … not that I’m a style avatar).
Now, I’ve had the opportunity to
travel this blessed beauteous globe, meeting all kinds of weird and wonderfully
eclectic people. Nothing much bothers me … but a cigar-smoking, burly, bearded,
Dallas cowboy in a dress made me
gawk slightly. My mouth must have dropped quite low.
Like to the floor. Because
“What’s the matter … you never seen a Kilt?”
“A dress you mean?”
“No, a Kilt, Bozo. Where you from,
I acknowledged the geographic
heritage proudly. Cincinnati has an
image to uphold, and, a stellar history of producing long-lines of distinguished
It turns out Ken is a proud
Scottish Dallas cowboy. Notwithstanding this fact, I still struggled with the
ramifications of walking into any local
Dallas eatery with a cigar smoking,
kilt-wearing cowboy to discuss the marketing and advertising business. Call it a
self-preservation instinct, call it stupid, but, despite the cost of living, it
still remains a favorite endeavor of mine.
I voiced my concern that perhaps
real men – in Dallas specifically,
wouldn’t be caught dead wearing a dress… errr kilt.
“Anybody says anything I’ll
knock’em upside the head. Besides, did you see Mel Gibson in Braveheart? Number
one movie in Texas for close to a
I hate to be out-movied by
anyone. I mean, geez, Mel Gibson wore a kilt. He had a point. Still, not easily
deterred, I couldn’t let it go.
Eastwood never wore one.”
“Ever seen his legs? He
didn’t need the attention anyway. Got your attention didn’t I? Getting attention
or awareness is what marketing is all about isn’t it?”
I nodded my head.
“You, Dufus. No! It’s not.
Marketing and Advertising is only about one thing. ONE THING!”
I waited, head slightly bowed,
his voice had risen substantially and I was still uncomfortable about being seen
with a burly, bearded, cigar smoking, kilt-wearing
“It’s only about making a
sale! That’s it. That’s all that matters. Selling your product, your service,
music, whatever. If what you’re doing wins an award for graphic design, or
creative whatever, and it doesn’t make someone buy something, it sucks! Get rid
I didn’t get the message. I wasn’t even sure it was in a language known to man.
I couldn’t say what product was being sold, if any.
I couldn’t decipher why, if I figured out number two, I would want to buy it anyway. No benefit, no Unique Selling Proposition (USP).
And finally, I couldn’t figure out how anyone besides a lame-brain, half-witted, discombobulated imbecile with no fiscal responsibility to his employees, shareholder, investors or owners, would okay the budget to produce the commercial, let alone air it. (Though secretly I yearned to meet him. I have a cool marketing campaign designed to rollout a hypothetical, superluminal donkey-shaped quantum particle-powered car for the NASCAR circuit.)
“Money, which represents the prose of life, and which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses.”
KEN: I started my advertising career in Cleveland, Ohio and it was, in retrospect, a blessing, not an obstacle.
KEN: It gave me a chance to screw up away from the limelight in a smaller market, sort of an under-the-radar-thing.
KEN: We used to say “shoot low, he’s riding a Shetland” to describe our visibility in the hurly burly world of advertising. Working in Cleveland also gave me a chance to learn and work with and for some truly magnificent mentors. Bob Baumgardner at the Griswold-Eshelman Agency was one of my early gurus. God . . . the screw ups I made there were graciously overlooked by a man who, I guess, thought there was some potential at work.
Focus. And, find a truly magnificent mentor. One that gives you the chance to learn, make mistakes, move on to other things, and leaves the door open for your return.
“My main focus is on my game.” – Tiger Woods
When I was offered a really cool job at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, Bob not only gave me advice on how to handle the job, he left the door wide open for me to return to Griswold-Eshelman should I fall flat on my face in NYC.
STEVE: Ogilvy? Never heard of him.
STEVE: What are some of the obstacles you encountered in the marketing and advertising world? That struck you right away?
KEN: Ah yes, the obstacles. Sometimes arrogance, sometimes alcohol, sometimes attitude, sometimes all three … truly an amazing combination. The arrogance – especially – existed in every department of the agency, from creative to accounting. I really saw it in New York and Houston. I’ve run into some pretty top-heavy egos in the entertainment biz but nothing like the arrogance that permeates the agency scene. Maybe I was just new at the game. I didn’t drink – at least not at lunch – and I was in a learning mode most of the time. As an account executive in New York with Ogilvy and later in Houston with McCann-Erickson, I learned that the best way to be productive was to stay low to the ground before lunch and stay sober during lunch. In the afternoon, I would soar upward and onward because it was easy getting approvals from the comatose.
Be productive. Stay low to the ground before lunch and stay sober during lunch … to soar upward and onward.
This was especially true in New York. I was an account guy and account work was, at best, a balancing act. You’re the agency when you’re with the client and the client when with the agency. Having some creative ability served me well, too. A lot of ads got re-written on the way to the client’s office. Of course I told the agency that the client insisted on the changes and the ads generally got produced as amended.
Results are often obtained by impetuosity and daring which could never have been obtained by ordinary methods.
I guess maintaining my cool and keeping the mood lighthearted was the key to my survival. There were times when the most amazing and incredibly funny things took place. In the midst of those disasters, I tried to stay cheerful, in the moment, knowing full well that they would make great stories one day.
KEN: Okay … There may have been a few … well, maybe more than a few. The two that immediately come to mind failed, really, because of product and/or the lack of client follow up. I worked on the General Cigar rollout of Tijuana Smalls cigars for three years. The agency created a terrific campaign, targeting the youth market, particularly young cigarette smokers. The commercials were loaded with post-Woodstock pop and rock icons (Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, B.B. King, Sonny and Cher, Ravi Shankar to name a few). Great music written by Steve Karman, and ongoing cameo appearances by Mike Meyers (not the SNL Mike Meyers).
1) A reward for smoothing out the relationship between the agency and their blue chip client, International Nickel (the reason for which I was hired) and,
STEVE: They weren’t really cigars and they tasted like S$^t? I guess that would be a problem, but we may need to rephrase that. I have an image to uphold.
KEN: Oh. Yes. The donkey thing. How about they tasted like feces ... not my exact words but the meaning and context should readily be understandable. Nonetheless, those were the exact words I spoke to both David Ogilvy and the client. But the commercials were wonderful, a whole new anti-selling scheme that told the audience:
Hardly over promise. The client had to drop-ship the product into the test markets because the product was selling so fast.
“Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.”
The ads were working, they were generating trial! That’s what commercials are supposed to do. But, I repeat: the cigars tasted like S$^t, a fact voiced loud and clear by America.
“Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work."
STEVE: Hmm … yes. My
90-year-old grandmother, but she’s always been keen on Imus and Mini-me. She
thinks they’re both hot. She actually nicknamed me
strangely uncomfortable sitting next to me) Moving along
STEVE: Learning the
craft. What actions did you take not only to learn, but also
KEN: Okay, for example,
the ads I just referenced, the commercials were shot by our art director, Jack
Beck. Jack, a union assistant and I traveled this great country shooting these
spots. For the record, I did everything imaginable on these shoots: loaded film,
ran interference with the talent, paid extras on location, made reservations,
drove the car, and even held Jack securely on the top of a lock a hundred feet
above the Columbia River in
Oregon while he filmed a shot.
Hell, I even changed a few lyrics in the jingle so it would be more on point and
bought an umbrella to protect Ravi’s sitar from the sun
in Boston. I was the line producer,
jack-of-all-trades, idiot account guy on these shoots. The commercials won a Clio and everyone who
even passed gas in a meeting about the cigars that tasted like S$^t were listed
on the Clio certificate ... EXCEPT me. Sometimes voicing your taste bud
opinions come back to haunt you.
KEN: But, here is the nugget I took away from that experience: The Tijuana Smalls commercials also won the first David Ogilvy Award, a $25,000 cash award David gave to the creative team that created the campaign creating the greatest increase in sales or measurable increase in product awareness.
KEN: This award underscored the reason we were all in business: not to collect awards but to help our clients sell product. It was a wonderful lesson and I never forgot that fact.
KEN: The other campaign that I thought was terrific was created by Richard Schiera of the then Bloom Advertising Agency (now Publicist, Inc.) in Dallas. The commercials were for Anheuser-Busch’s new wine cooler, Dewey Stevens. I chimed in on this one through our music production company for I was now a “supplier” to the biz. First of all, we beat out some pretty heavy hitters in New York and LA to win the account and that is always fun. Second, the ads were first class production effort. Second. A major USP (unique selling proposition) of this beverage was that it contained 1/3 fewer calories than the competition (Bartles & James, Seagram’s, etc.)
KEN: The problem was the agency was told to focus the ads on the lifestyles of their target audience (women 25-45) and leave the calorie story to Anheuser-Busch’s PR department.
KEN: Einstein now are we? I attended some of the product focus groups on this one and every time the calorie issue was addressed, the women in the focus group went straight to Dewey Stevens as their beverage of choice, regardless of taste. A missed opportunity, I think.
“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”
KEN: I guess the very first jingle I wrote once I left the agency business. It was a riot. It was for Barney’s Boats in Houston, Texas. The client showed up at my door expecting to hear his brand-new commercial music. I thought he was coming a week later and, of course, had prepared nothing. After an awkward “hello” at the door – and prior to confessing that I wasn’t really ready – I sat down at the piano and did my best "Johnny and Jack” routine. I shoveled out the lyrics and tune on the spot, perhaps putting into human consciousness the Worst Jingle Ever Sung Aloud and it runs for seven years
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
- Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
I have written literally thousands of commercials in my career since then but I still remember those God-awful lyrics. I was being funny, I thought.
KEN: Wise$@#. No. But Barney was ecstatic! Dazed and confused, I produced it. It ran for SEVEN YEARS and Barney’s, I presume, sold a bunch of boats.
KEN: Not disasters. Maybe incidents, or the feedback was preposterous because of unintended meanings attributed to the messages.
KEN: Okay, if you’re going to be a pain in the $#@ about it, here’s a couple of quickies. But first of all, there are too many components to marketing to label any entire marketing effort as a disaster. At Ogilvy, we ran a campaign for Shell “No-Pest” Strips. Remember them?
A woman wrote us asking what happened to the mosquitoes after three days. Talk about your ascension stories!
“The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
KEN: How about the famous “singing coffeepot” commercials for Maxwell House coffee? The letters that came in on that campaign were hilarious: where do I buy a coffeepot that sings? Can I get a coffeepot that sings something else? And my personal favorite: "Maxwell House must have changed the way they process their coffee beans – my percolator has stopped singing”.
KEN: Ah, yes, the infamous Condor tale. We were shooting a commercial for a new recreational vehicle called “The Condor." So off we went to South America to get a shot of a giant condor gliding off a cliff, soaring out of the morning sun. We secured the condor (and his bewildered handler) from the private zoo of the country’s reigning dictator and set up for the shot on a cliff high in the Andes Mountains. The camera crew was in a truck below the cliff. Upon the now infamous bullhorn cry of
The confused handler thrust the bird into the air. Obviously, there were some translation problems because that bird had been raised in captivity and had no idea of how to fly.
The crew fled for their lives, with the dictator’s hit men hot on our trail. We were lucky to get out of the country alive.
KEN: (adjusts kilt downward) In Cleveland, we tried to convince a rather long-in-the-tooth beer client to let us use music to attract college-aged folks to the brand. I think the average age of the clients who came to our agency was about 80. After promising to keep it tame, we went off to New York to produce the music. We made a “Four Aces” kind of spot (pretty white), a Kingston Trio type of spot (really white) and a James Taylor kind of spot (unbelievably white). We also made an R&B spot. Not so white. Upon returning to Cleveland, we were told to never play that R&B music for this client. As we anxiously gathered around the conference table, they wheeled in the client ... literally.
After explaining how this soft, gentle “white” music would put their precious brew in front of thousands of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania college kids, we signaled the sound guy to play the first spot. Somehow the only spot he had on his reel was reel was … yep … the R&B spot.
The client almost had a stroke and they wheeled him and his three-million-dollar budget out of the building as fast as they could. It was hilarious then, even funnier today.
STEVE: Okay: Moving
right along. Awards. You’ve won a bunch of them. What’s a Clio? What’s an
KEN: Clios are awarded
nationally, internationally, and locally to honor campaigns and individual ads
for broadcast, print, outdoor, and now, Internet advertising. Gold (and other
metallic) Addys are awarded
locally and regionally across the country by local ad
STEVE: How did you
go from a Marketing/Advertising career to musical
KEN: Boy, I have
waited a long time for this question to be asked. I was an account guy at
McCann-Erickson in Houston. I was
there for the name change of Esso/Enco to Exxon. Pretty sizable project. The
agency spent about $300,000 bucks in developing music demos for the campaign
that would launch the new name of the then world’s largest company. None of
those demos stuck. So I wrote a tune with a campaign line of “Exxon lends a
helping hand.” The theme line was changed in New
York to “Exxon Keeps Things Moving,” but my tune
survived. Spencer Michelin – a wonderful New
York writer/producer – produced the new lyric with my
music and it went on the air with roughly $30 million dollars of airtime behind
STEVE: $30 million
dollars for airtime?
KEN: Seemed reasonable
at the time.
"Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy."
Now for a short
history lesson: McCann-Erickson creatives in New
York – Bill Backer and Billy Davis – had previously
created the “Teach
the World to Sing” campaign for Coca Cola. A couple of other guys actually
wrote the tune but when the advertising turned into a pop song (generating
millions in royalties to the writers), Backer and Davis – both agency employees
– shared in the revenue stream form the pop tune’s success.
I asked for the same
thing. If we got a pop tune released based upon the commercial’s extensive
airplay (and we had one lined up), I wanted to participate in the royalty
stream. I was told no way. The music I wrote was the exclusive property of our
client. I signed the same employment contract that Bill Backer and Bill Davis
signed with the agency, but was refused the same courtesy that was extended to
the New York
STEVE: I guess
that’s what you get for moving to
Dallas and wearing a Kilt. Now, how
“Nixon Now More Than Ever?”
KEN: Hah. Funny. Shhhh!
Quiet! I’m still trying to get over that one. Yes, I wrote it for Richard
Nixon’s re-election campaign. But don’t tell anyone. Because of that tune, I
couldn’t get a job during the Watergate years. But, I also, in that time frame
wrote the campaign theme for the national United Way Campaign - "Thanks to
You" so I figured I was better off out on my own and working for people who
valued my efforts rather than working for the guys who didn't appreciate me.
And, of course, the ever-popular “Barney’s Boats” was about to launch my
jingle career so I plunged headlong into SELF EMPLOYMENT!
"Man is not the creature of circumstances; circumstances are the creatures of men. We are free agents, and man is more powerful than matter."
KEN: No, self-employment, don’t you listen? Actually, the songwriting came before the jingle writing for me. The stuff I mentioned above got me labeled as a “command writer,” one who could write about and/or for a given theme or artist. Since I understood a bit about the agency game, I figured hustling up some jingle business would help support my songwriting career. It was an economic thing, really.
KEN: I was headed back to New York to do that but stumbled into the wonderful Dallas recording talent pool and, preferring Texas insanity to New York insanity, settled in.
I wrote a couple of songs that got recorded but not much happened with them. While building my commercial music company in Dallas I was spending five days a month hawking songs to LA labels and artists. On a plane returning from LA to Texas, I sat next to a fellow named Mark Miller, former TV star of “Please Don’t Eat The Daisies." Mark immediately began telling me the story of this wonderful script (Film screenplay) he had written. He never asked me what I did or asked for my name. As we taxied to a halt I told him I was going to write the title song for his movie.
KEN: He wasn’t
amused. Five days later I sent him the music demo for Savannah
Smiles. He called me immediately and told me that I would get the
soundtrack work once he had his funding in place. It took him 10 years to find
the money. In those intervening years, I snagged two more film soundtracks and
learned my trade, how to write and score for film.
Some really weird
stuff. A guy keeps his word (of course, Mark was a
STEVE: So he was
persistent, determined, and kept his word?
KEN: Yes. Mark got his
money in 1982 and, true to his word, hired me to do the score and songs. In 1983
Savannah Smiles won family film of the year honors from MPAA and became a staple on HBO and
KEN: I never did thank my travel agent for seating me next to Mark on that California-to-Texas flight. I do so now.
STEVE: So your music career
KEN: Blossomed after years of
hard work, sweat, and tears. Eventually I hooked up with legendary record
producer Snuff Garrett in LA who
gave me a writing contract and a ton of song-crafting
STEVE: Snuff is a common name in
KEN: You got a problem with
STEVE: No. I think I’ll name my
next kid Snuff. Great name now that I think of it. Who’s influenced you creatively and
musically? Your favorites?
KEN: These folks are favorites, I
guess, because they liked and/or recorded my stuff. Sammy Davis, Jr. cried openly when I
played him the demo of a song I wrote for him called “Peace, Love Togetherness.”
I wrote the lyrics to that song – based upon his closing catch phrase after each
performance – after I saw him perform in Lake Tahoe. He
promised to record it but became ill and died before he could. But his genuine
approval of the song was tremendously validating to a young writer.
Western Music artist Red Steagall has become one of my dearest
friends. In addition to writing for and producing album projects with Red, he
hired me to write the score for Jimmy Dean’s film version of his 1960 hit, “Big
Bad John.” Red was the producer of that film and fought for me when others did
not. Can I add a Shoot the Donkey
STEVE: How about on the creative
side, communicating a message? Whether it is marketing, advertising or
storytelling, the principles are very similar, aren’t they? To communicate a
clearly unique message?
KEN: Absolutely. Hey, you said
something that made sense!
STEVE: Thanks. It happens
occasionally. Any other people come to mind that have influenced
KEN: There has been no one more
friendly to and supportive of my career than award-winning film producer, Martin
Marty hired me to score a film
called Papa Was a
Preacher for him in 1985. Martin is the ultimate class act. Among his
producing credentials are films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Great Race, The Pink Panther, and Terms Of Endearment.
STEVE: That’s a pretty impressive
array of films.
KEN: Wait. Another
STEVE: Okay. Last one. I’m supposed
to be writing this. You’re getting too involved.
STEVE: How about mistakes, bad
ideas, let’s talk about them and how you overcame them in your career.
KEN: Okay, well, writing the songs
and score for the movie The Life
and Time of Xaviera Hollander: The Happy Hooker was a bad idea. I
wanted to do a movie score and a friend presented this one to me. But I should
have passed. Again, there are some hilarious stories that came out of this
ill-fated project, but I would just as soon forget them. Everybody has to start
someplace, I guess. The music was clean ... the movie wasn’t.
STEVE: Is it true the government
attempted to make you pay for this work experience?
KEN: Yes, in Federal Court. At
the time, even though it would be considered an “R” movie today (and a tame one
at that), back then it was considered worthy of physically requesting my
personal presence in Federal Court.
KEN: It was interesting. The
judge recognized my name.
He asked, “Aren’t you the guy
that wrote Nixon Now More Than Ever?”
I acknowledged I was.
“How did you retrogress to
this?” asked the Judge.
“Well Judge, I was
trying to learn the craft of film-scoring. And … look, I wrote the music, I
confess. But, I never really looked at the film, I just sorta listened and
figured out the storyline (wasn’t all that hard). And … well, you know, the
music was clean even if the movie wasn’t.”
KEN: No. Once he stopped laughing and the bailiff picked him off the floor, he said one of the sweetest words I’ve ever heard, “Dismissed.”
STEVE: I know you’ve traversed
the gamut of the creative world. But, recently you’ve gravitated to financing
entertainment projects. How difficult is that? To go from the creative to the
KEN: How much time do we have?
Some day I’m going to write a book about raising independent-film funding. It
took Mark Miller ten years to find 2.7 million dollars to make a movie that
grossed from all sources about 45 million dollars. I’m working at it right now
with a great script and two bankable veteran Hollywood
partners on the production side. I was chosen to put the business plan together
because I have the MBA and my partners, frankly, are busy making great movies
and television shows for other people. I’ll say this: chasing independent film
money makes you older and tougher.
KEN: The clowns and the schemes
are everywhere. One guy wanted US to give him $25,000 so he could buy
shoes, haul them to Africa and turn the $25 large into
five million. We chased him out of the restaurant and down the street. He lives.
But only because I’m not as fast as I used to be.
STEVE: The kilt may have slowed
KEN: You are a bonehead. Anyone that knows anything
knows that a kilt adds to your speed. Your legs are much freer.
STEVE: I wouldn’t know. But,
isn’t raising money very similar to marketing a product or service? You have to
offer a compelling message with a unique benefit to the
KEN: True. But mostly, it
requires doing your homework, getting the information accurately stated and
presenting it in a cogent, articulate fashion. It helps to have skins on the
wall, too, and we do. We’ve done it for others, now we’re going to do it for our
investors and ourselves.
You have to provide numbers that are
defensible and realistic, based upon industry averages. For the most part, we
have been presenting our plan to investors who, while successful in other areas,
have little or no film financing experience. They’ve heard all of the horror
stories about the creative accounting that goes on at the major
studio/distribution companies. They know about the “floating breakeven” that
permeates the studio system. So, most of the time, we’re teaching investors
ABOUT the industry rather than enrolling them IN the industry. Truth is, with
all of the income streams available to producers through the ancillary markets –
particularly the very lucrative foreign market – making the right “gross
participation” deal with domestic distribution minimizes the risk and makes the
upside even more attainable.
I was at many of the
presentations to potential investors that Mark and Don Williams (producer) gave to secure
the funding for Savannah Smiles. I watched Mark tap dance too many times
and thanked God I was only in the deal for the music. Now, I’m involved in the
whole enchilada and my admiration for what Mark went through has grown
immensely. No matter how much you believe you are involved with the right
project and the right people, asking for funding is a humbling
STEVE: What was the biggest
surprise when you started getting your market numbers?
KEN: The growth of the lucrative
foreign marketplace for American-made films has been the saving grace for both
studio and independent filmmakers. American-made films can now expect to make
fully two-thirds of their money in Europe,
South America, and the Far East.
The game plan now is to spend the domestic marketing money on your film to do
three things: tell domestic movie-goers about your film, alert the video
companies that you’re in the game, and inform the foreign sales agents that
you’re ready to go. Most films try to make their production costs back in the
US and their
profits overseas. Most do.
STEVE: You’ve traveled
extensively in your career, even recorded overseas?
KEN: Yes. I used the same
orchestra that many of the American and British composers use when we worked
abroad, including the London Philharmonic
Orchestra. I recorded two projects over there, both documentaries. We had
about 75 musicians at the scoring sessions. Organizing these sessions is always
pretty easy – regardless of the time restraints – when you’re working in a major
music market. As long as the music preparation is accurate, good musicians can
get through it pretty quickly. And, they have marvelous players in
London. Great studios, too. The most
important hire is what we call a contractor in the states and they call a
“fixer” in London. The fixer knows
who to call for every instrument, who to hire as concertmaster, the right
cartage and music copying services, etc. They give you all the 411 on the best
restaurants, clubs, etc., too. As for respect, if the check clears you get
plenty of it!
STEVE: What was your biggest
challenge and how did you overcome it when working outside the
All Recording Session Challenges
KEN: My biggest overseas challenge
wasn’t London (at least they spoke a
language with which I had a passing familiarity).
Saudi Arabia was
the mother of all recording sessions for me. Well, we actually recorded back
here. But, I had to go there to learn about their music for a couple of TV shows
I was hired to score. The experience was amazing and the Saudi people who were
brought in to teach me were wonderful.
Among them was a man named General Tarik Abdul Akhim, who wrote the Saudi
national anthem. The Saudi marches and military music were pretty easy to
understand. Their traditional ancient folk music was not so easy to grasp. Added
to that was the fact that we could not purchase any of the traditional musical
instruments with which they played those folk tunes. The digital sampling
technologies we have now didn’t exist then. So, to replicate the sound of
Ganoons and Rebabas, we pitch bended piano, guitar and harp strings. Did it
pretty well, too, because we convinced the Saudis that we had the instruments
and knew how to play them. The shows were a big hit and we got letters from
General Akhim that we were welcome to come back anytime we wanted.
between marketing, advertising, songwriting, storytelling?
KEN: Except for
marketing, it’s all the same, isn’t it? It is one entity trying to seduce
another. Marketing is a bit more intricate and less emotional: it includes
pricing, packaging, purchasing, advertising, and distribution (see I did pay
attention in grad school!). The rest of it is all a call for love. They are all
right-brain creative processes in search of an audience. And, when you fully
participate in any of these disciplines and detach yourself from the outcome,
the reward is IN the doing. Sounds corny, I know, but I’ve made a living doing
each of these at one time or another and each is a great way to make a living.
Even better when you feel like you’re making a contribution to society.
KEN: The common link
would be, I guess, some grasp of what moves and motivates people and/or
societies. To be commercially successful, one has to find the theme that – be it
musically or in words – touches the heart of the masses.
KEN: I’ve never
pandered to the elite. I don’t care if they like my music at the Cricket Club in
Philadelphia. I do care if they like it in Nebraska or Iowa or Kentucky or even
Cleveland. That’s where America is. There has to be heart ... lots of it. You
cannot be afraid to let your softer side show.
STEVE: That message
ties in nicely with the kilt wardrobe.
KEN: It does,
doesn’t it? I just
wrote and produced a song for the city of Ft. Worth. The client who hired me
got the demo yesterday. She was so excited about the song she went from office
to office grabbing people to listen to it. That’s the reward:
STEVE: Who are some of the people
or companies that influenced you along the way … and why?
Marketing: Richard Sears (Sears and Roebuck) and Texas
Instruments companies. Pretty gritty stuff from both. These were classic
marketing people. What they did then still works today. Delivery systems have
changed (Internet, etc.) but the thinking is intact.
David Ogilvy, Mike Turner, Bob Baumgardner, and Richard Schiera.
Storytelling: Joseph Campbell.
father, Vince Hall (my pop piano teacher), the “A list”’ greats (Mozart,
Beethoven, Rachmoninov, etc.), Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Charmichael, a ton of people
(The Beatles, Stones, etc.)
STEVE: Who do you
think is the best storyteller you’ve ever run across?
KEN: You’re pretty
STEVE: That’s what
the IRS says too.
STEVE: Yes. I did
see that. A high school girl was terrorized over a night of unknown calls on a
phone while babysitting. She realizes the caller was in the house all the time
and had murdered the children. I took a date to that and she never spoke to me
again. Terrible date movie.
KEN: Why? What did
STEVE: She said,
"You’re supposed to be the guy. Get off my lap! You’re more scared than me …
that’s not right!"
KEN: She had a
STEVE: What are you
working on now?
KEN: Right now I’m
multi-tasking. Two projects. One’s art, one’s film. I’m working on an art
project called “Community in
Harmony” for the city of Fort Worth, Texas. It’s a 356-feet-long by
25-feet-high mural and is the largest work of public art in North
STEVE: Size does
KEN: In murals, yes.
STEVE: You’re an
KEN: Take a look at
the mural. You tell me.
STEVE: What’s the
STEVE: Killer name -
tagline. Short. Sweet. Descriptive. Moves. Motivates. Touches the heart … You’re
STEVE: (I accepted
the bet…results noted at the end of this article… I hate winning no-brainers
from no-brainers, but I do it nonetheless.) The film project?
KEN: An unpublished
novel, Reckoning, was put on my desk by a session musician some years
ago. The musician (Jay Saunders) knew the author, a Denton, Texas surgeon named
Arvin Short. Took me two years to get to it but when I did, I went nuts over the
story. It was great movie ... maybe not a great novel ... but a hell of a story.
It touched me at a core level and did so to virtually everyone I showed it to.
The original story was set in the '50s and told about some incredible events
experienced one summer by a 14-year-old boy and his friends/contemporaries. I
was that boy in the '50s. I didn’t go through what he did ... but I understood
him. Funny thing was, so did my 70-year-old mother, my 30-year-old wife, my
daughters, and the readers at Paramount, Warner Bothers, and New Line Films.
Teen-aged boys – the target audience – went crazy for this story.
I immediately sent
the novel off to Martin Jurow who
knew a thing or two about good film stories. Marty had identified the story to
film value in the last third of a book called Terms of Endearment and won
an Oscar with the film. He knew. Marty told
me, “Make this film ... it is the best story I have seen in years ... and it
will change your life.” He recommended that I get Steve Feke to write the
screenplay and Marty came on board as an advisor. I bought the rights to the
story then I found the money to hire both of these guys with one timely phone
call. Remember my comment about the lifelong friends I made in Cleveland? Bingo!
KEN: I sent the
novel to Steve Feke, who was, at the time, in Chicago polishing the script, Poltergeist
III. Steve agreed immediately to write the script. He moved the story from
the '50s to today and made a few other changes but otherwise left Arvin’s
amazing story in tact. We’ve raised half the budget, but half won’t get it done.
Steve Feke brought in a wonderful, gifted, experienced film producer (who shall
remain nameless because he has, at present, a high-profile job at a major
studio) and the three of us formed BFS Entertainment with the express purpose of
making this film. We have since acquired five other scripts and a great TV
mini-series but Reckoning is the project we will do first. It just makes
economic sense to do so.
STEVE: Wouldn’t a business plan
be necessary? I mean, it is a creative endeavor but don’t business rules and
logic still play? Did you whip one out in a couple days?
KEN: Yes, yes, and
no. I spent over a year developing the business plan because I wanted to make
absolutely sure it was accurate, that the projections reflected real-world
expectations based upon the story, the amount of marketing money expended and
the current industry conditions and trends. We took a long look at how we’d
market this film as well. Reckoning requires established actors only in
support roles. The story spins around three teenagers. It is a smart, intense,
action drama with a huge mystical/spiritual theme. Lots of teen humor, but it’s
full-throttle intense. We believe, in addition to the revenue streams from
theatrical, video/DVD and foreign markets, the spin-off video game, soundtrack,
and obvious opportunity for a sequel make this a franchise movie, one that keeps
Martin Jurow said go
for it ... it will change your life. Well, my life has been pretty amazing as it
is, but I’ve always been open to change and growth. And Marty was clearly
suggesting that the real financial rewards in music and in film were ownership.
So, we’re pressing hard to find the other half of the six million dollar budget.
We have distribution interest from three of the major studio distribution
STEVE: What role are
you going to play?
KEN: While my
initial role in all of this will be to work with the studio marketing people to
help develop the ad campaign, the real pearl for me will be the opportunity to
put together a great song soundtrack and what we hope will be a killer film
STEVE: What’s the key? The key,
not only to make your next project successful, but what’s the key to success, to
winning this deal and the many complex deals that follow you through your life’s
KEN: Simple, for me
anyway. I’m determined to do whatever it takes, however long it takes, screw-up
as many times as it takes, kiss as many frogs as it takes to succeed, to win.
Everything I’ve done in my life, every skill I’ve developed, every hard lesson
I’ve had to learn, every mistake I’ve made has prepared me for this project ...
and the next … and the next.
While doing this
interview with Ken, I made a bet with him on the naming of his mural. I assumed
he was kidding about naming it “the mural.” I mean what kind of uncreative,
linear, inane and completely boring name is that? Especially from a creative
Right? You do agree,
I mean … a
Okay. It’s a
descriptive name. No doubt what it means. But c’mon. “The mural?”
I lost. That really
is the name.
I propose that, in a
way, I won and was correct. It’s technically called “The Mural,” with
caps and italicized. However, after an intellectual discussion of the various
nuances and technical implications with Ken (which included a scene very
much similar to this link), I, in the spirit of magnanimity, agreed that,
indeed, he had won the bet (although, as stated earlier, technically I think
capitalized and italicized letters do change the context of the name, therefore
the essence of the name).
Me wearing a
I took it like a man
... if real men do wear kilts. I wore the revolting thing.
enough, a size six kilt fits me just dandy, the plaid design makes me look a
little thinner … I’m keen on them now.
But … that was only
one part of the bet. The second part entailed me … riding a mechanical bull. It
was a stellar learning experience in marketing and advertising.
The sight touched
the heart of the assembled masses at Billy Bob’s Bronco Bull Riding Bar and
Grille … so much so that I was motivated to move as quickly as I have ever
done to assure my lifelong success, which was, at that point ... getting out of
Sutherland: After a ten-year career in advertising and marketing,
including tenure as a marketing executive with some of New York City's largest
advertising agencies, Mr. Sutherland crossed over to the creative side and began
writing and producing commercial music for national and international clients
and, eventually, motion picture and television scores in Hollywood. His
award-winning composing and songwriting talents together with his marketing
background and experience provide BFS
Entertainment with a
rather unique combination of skills.
Ken Sutherland is
currently writing and producing record album projects while directing the
development of the new Entertainment Company. In addition, Sutherland is
currently writing and orchestrating an original oratorio scheduled for debut at
Easter 2003, commissioned by Unity Church of Dallas and a "Community in Harmony" mural project,
one of the largest murals ever created in the United States for an economically
disadvantaged municipal area.
Ken is also
the lead Principal in BFS Entertainment, a company being formed
by three experienced, successful Los Angeles, California-based filmmakers who
have nearly 60 years of combined history and over 100 film credits in the
entertainment industry. Individually these filmmakers have worked with some of
the most prestigious film, television and music people in the United States and
abroad and on some of the most memorable films and television shows created in
the past twenty years.
Ken Sutherland graduated
from Carnegie Mellon University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and from
Case/Western University with an MBA in marketing.
If you'd like to contact
Ken, he can be reached at 214-321-7002 or e-mail at BFScine@swbell.net