I am, I admit, addicted to scripted reality TV shows of a certain nature, particularly cooking or design competitions, such as Hell’s Kitchen, Project Runway or The Next Food Network Star.
Apart from the style or cooking ideas, and the dubious (and guiltily pleasurable) entertainment deriving from interpersonal drama, the shows offer some succinct lessons in marketing (and none more so than the Next Food Network Star, who has the programming and the marketing directors of the channel on the judging panel, to better assess who can have public appeal, and how the core product could be extended).
Lesson 1: Bounded creativity
In order to be successful in reality TV (and in marketing), the key skill to have is creativity on demand and within set parameters, or what I call “bounded creativity”. The constraints vary, from scarcity of resources, to seemingly irreconcilable components, from stringent time limits to a very specific brief from a “client”, to physical impediments, and the successful candidate will be able to display the right type of ingeniousness to meet the goal, achieving originality without sacrificing compliance.
Lesson 2: Excellence without excuses
Most reality shows thrive on creating artificial pressure, whether with time, or teams that are deliberately mismatched, or curve balls occurring mid-challenge. The TV shows teach that despite the pressure, short cuts, shoddy work and excuses are not acceptable, and will cause you to be eliminated from the race. Though not all marketers have the same challenge at the same time, chances are the playing field is still level: we all run across time crunches, people we can’t stand, abrupt changes while a project is unfolding and so on. So, there are no excuses for under-delivering, when others can and do deliver under similar conditions. The expectation of our “judges” (bosses, shareholders etc.) is always excellence, regardless of the conditions that we operate under.
Lesson 3: Success is growth
If there were one motto for all the shows, it would be this one: meeting the standards initially will not assure a win. It’s not always the technically best contestant that will win, it’s the one who “came furthest” or made the most of his/her knowledge and ability, absorbing the feedback and learning offered. Similarly, professionals that stagnate will find that their once good performance will quickly downgrade to adequate, and then sub-par. The only guarantee of continued success is growth.
There is also an overarching theme: VOICE or POV. Every successful contestant has a personality that shines through in their work. Whatever they produce, whether an outfit or a sandwich, bears the unmistakable mark of their chosen point of view, and they are reprimanded if that POV is not authentic and consistent. It’s a bit difficult for marketers to have a point of view separate from the product or organization they market for, but nevertheless it is important, I believe, to develop a trademark approach to challenges, a consistent way of doing business. a style of management that connects from job to job and project to project so that they are recognizably yours.
But perhaps, these are just lessons from reality, rather than reality TV, and I’m simply trying to justify my (not-so-secret) addiction.