John Lack was the first Chief Operating Officer of MTV Networks, and one of our great storytellers. In this interview for BBC’s Witness (“history as told by the people who were there”) John shares his memory of the MTV launch, 30 years later.0 comments Tagged: BBC, interview, MTV, MTVposts, MTV 30th, radio,.
Anyone who knows me is aware of my music habit, and close readers of this blog will pick up on my affection for cartoon music in particular.
So it was extremely gratifying when my friend, Rhino Records founder Richard Foos, agreed to indulge me in the 1990’s with a (now out-of-print) four CD boxed set of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons themes, underscores, sound effects, and other audio ephemera and artifacts of our historic studio. It was compiled and produced with passion and knowledge by cartoon writer/producer Earl Kress.
I’ve posted about my worship and respect for the under appreciated HB music director and composer Hoyt Curtin but, a few years ago, I finally got around to scanning the great booklet Earl put together for the set. It not only includes a listing of all the sound in the box, but has great essays by Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera, David Burd, Bill Burnett, and Barry Hansen (Dr. Demento). Plus Marty Pekar conducted an interview about the studio’s unique sound effects library with Joe, Bill, Greg Watson, and Pat Foley. (As we get around to it, you can look at separate transcripts of the essays here.)
For a quick preview, here’s a Quick Draw McGraw track from the box set, composed, arranged and conducted by Hoyt:0 comments Tagged: Hanna-Barbera, 1995, scoring, music, cartoons, animation, Hoyt Curtin,.
Ah, the 80s.
Within minutes of getting out of the gate, Warner Amex was getting a lot of pressure to license out our logo for swag for the money we could make (it wasn’t like advertisers were lining up at the beginning), we were already the hottest thing in pop culture. Our MTV programming boss, Bob Pittman, figured that was the fastest way to spell “fad,” which was the last thing anyone wanted. We were in it for the long haul. So, instead, we commissioned Manhattan Design to come up with stuff we’d only give away to our closest friends and allies, and that cable operators could get for contests and giveaways in their local markets.
The hottest items? The blue t-shirt of course. But, the one most in demand, with the smallest supply was always the satin tour jacket, staple of every band in the 80s.0 comments Tagged: MTVposts, MTV, swag, Manhattan Design, WASEC, MTV logo, logo, branding,.
I was roaming around some MTV stuff that was done by Fred/Alan, the branding and advertising agency Alan Goodman and I started in New York in 1983. It occurred to me that while our first blush of innovations happened right at the beginning of the decade, three years in Alan and I had already quit. But, it wasn’t the end of my story with MTV, by any means. We continued a direct relationship with the company for another nine years (and I’ve been consultant to them again for 13 years as of 2010) and did some pretty good work. Click over here to see some of it.0 comments Tagged: MTV, MTVposts, Fred/Alan,.
Click here for my other posts about MTV.
‘I Want My MTV’ 1-4 1982-1983 from fredseibert on Vimeo.
I WANT MY MTV! took the phenomenon that had taken over the imaginations of young America and supercharged it into a famous brand with just about everyone in the country. I just googled “I Want My MTV” and it popped up almost 4,760,000 results. Pretty amazing for an advertising campaign that ceased to exist 22 years ago.* Pretty potent.
The whole thing was the work of my mentor and friend Dale Pon. He’d been my first boss in the commercial media, at WHN Radio in New York when it was a country music station. He’d recommended me for my job at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, as the production director of The Movie Channel, and eventually as the first Creative Director of MTV: Music Television. We’d fallen in and out over the years, but in late 1981, when it came time for us to hire an advertising agency again —at first, our big boss had vetoed Dale as not heavy enough for a company like ours— with a lot of help from my immediate supervisor Bob Pittman, I was able to convince everyone that Dale understood media promotion better than anyone else in America. Besides, didn’t he have “insurance” with his partner, legendary adman George Lois?
Dale Pon (via MTV: The Making of a Revolution)
No one had ever encountered an adman like Dale, because he had the unique ability to be completely and analytically strategic, and be wildly —and smartly— creative at the same time. An almost unheard of combination, especially in media advertising. Sure, he had a volatile nature, in advertising that was often a given (look at his partner). But it was his strategic, creative abilities that really set him apart.
Tagged: Dale Pon, MTV, MTVposts, WASEC, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, advertising, branding, IWMM,.
We’d already done our first trade campaign, the “cable brats,” to the discomfort of most of the suits in the corporate marketing group (Bob and his team, me included, were in programming). But Dale didn’t buy into the efficacy of trade ads anyhow, so now were onto the big show, television advertising. The only problem was that we all recognized that an effective campaign would cost about $10,000,000. Our budget only had $2,000,000, and if we didn’t spend it quickly the corporate gods would probably take it away in the fall.
“I want my Maypo” commercials, created by John Hubley
Looking back, the core creative ended up being the most straightforward part. Dale’s closest friend and creative partner, Nancy Podbielniak had written the cable brats copy and had a tag line “Rock’n’roll wasn’t enough for them — now they want their MTV!” That rung a bell in George Lois, someone who never missed a chance to abscond with someone else’s good idea, and decided to rip off his own knock off of a Maypo campaign from the 1950s and 60s (animator John Hubley originated it as a set famous animated spots, and George had unsuccessfully knocked it off usin g sports stars) and presented a storyboard that completely duplicated his version. Rock stars like Mick Jagger were saying “I Want My MTV” and crying like babies, implying they were spoiled children being denied. No one was buying it until Dale let me know that there was no way he’d ask Pete Townshend or Mick to cry for us. “Pride! They need to show their pride in rock’n’roll! They’ll be shouting!” After a little corporate fuss we were able to sell it in.
AMERICA! DEMAND YOUR MTV!
Now, it was the next part that was completely and utterly brilliant. Because Dale came from the school that great creative was all well and good, but unless it could move the business needle, what good was it? In this case, the needle wasn’t ratings (cable TV didn’t have ratings in 1981), but active households, distribution for MTV. Cable operators were all relatively old guys who thought The Weather Channel was a better idea; they’d turned a deaf ear to their younger employees who were clamoring for us instead.
To dramatically simplify the strategy Dale organized, he decided to only advertise in markets where:
• There was enough penetration to justify a modest ad spend.
• But where there were critically large cable operators on the fence about taking MTV.
• And that we could afford a 300 gross rating point buy (three times heavier as any consumer products agency would suggest) for at least four weeks in a row (the traditional media spend would call for pulsing 10 days on and 10 days off).
The “G” in LPG/Pon was Dick Gershon. Along with data from our affiliate group, he crunched and crunched and crunched until he came up with a list of markets and dates we could afford. It was 20% of what we needed, but everyone figured if we could really start to knock off a bunch of cable systems, get them actually launch our network, the domino effect would solidify MTV’s hold on the market forever.
Strategy in place, the creative was back on the front burner. The basic campaign was a great way to get famous rock stars endorsing our channel, but where was the close? What would actually make the ‘ka-ching’ we needed? Luckily, back in the day there was only one way to for a homeowner get anything from your reluctant jerk of a cable operator (they figure they held all the cards, why should they do anything to make life better for their consumers?). And what was it that young adults loved to do? Dale knew immediately.
No one alive in front of a television set in the summer of 1982 could ever forget Pete Townshend, with the wackiest haircut of his career, shouting at the video camera:
“America! DEMAND your MTV! Call your cable operator and say, “I WANT MY MTV!!”
We shot the spots wherever the rock stars would have us for 20 minutes (they still weren’t really sure this MTV: Music Television thing was going to be good for them). Our director and producer, Tommy Schlamme and Buzz Potamkin, got together with some puppeteers to choreograph the ‘dancing’ stereo television. I asked my partner to go into the studio to edit the music sections when they weren’t rocking enough, and —poof!— famous advertising.
Nothing to it, yes?
* For comparison, “I Want My Maypo” posts 112,000 results on Google. Or “Where’s the beef?”, another famous 1980’s campaign for Wendy’s returns 176,000 (or if you only use that phrase, which has been appropriated for all sorts of uses, you get 2,640,000).
Before “I Want My MTV!” Part 1.
I was torn.
My mentor, Dale Pon, had suggested me for my job at MTV Networks (née Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company). He was the creator of distinctive, innovative, and successful campaigns for radio stations across the United States, was a creative and media wizard, if a little, um, intense, and had worked at WNBC radio with my boss Bob Pittman, MTV programming chief. Dale had recently started an ad agency, LPG/Pon with advertising legend George Lois.
John Lack, our executive vice president, was very close to Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising agency for American Express, our half owner. My first exposure to the idea that advertising could be actually be smart came from reading founder David Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man.” (If fact, it was one of four books I gave to my young staff members.)
I wanted Dale to do the MTV advertising, convinced that only he understood how to promote media, a completely —completely— different beast from tradition consumer products. John wanted Ogilvy. They were the classy choice, and I had to admit it would make us feel, well, bigger. Better? Not so sure.
John won; he was the big boss, and Bob wasn’t going to fight him on this one yet. I became the MTV point person, but that was only a little good, because we had a corporate infrastructure above us that thought they should control the communications of the networks. From the first day it was a complete struggle.
We get to the first meeting, and the account team wants to convince us (me) that they deserve the account. They wheel in their resident hipster copywriter, wearing his green and yellow satin tour jacket. He says something about Bruce Springsteen. I point out that Bruce made the decision to rock not to write ads. This relationship was not going to end well.
Our first big fight was over the logo. Big agencies, especially O&M, wanted to control everything about the marketing of a product, which often included actually creating and naming a product. That was not going to happen with us. We’d battled for months about the name (reaching the no-one’s-happy compromise of MTV: Music Television) and I’d already been working on the logo with my childhood friend Frank Olinsky and his studio Manhattan Design for almost a year.
So an Ogilvy meeting happens where I tell them about the logo and why it’s awesome (this is after weeks of disagreement with our company suits who succeeded in killing the thing once before we swept it out of the fire). They all stare at us silently while the senior account guy pulls out a xeroxed “Ogilvy’s Rules for a Great Logo.” Checking off the points one by one I proudly point out that we’ve broken eight of the 11 rules. Perfect for rock’n’roll network!
After that the ads they did for us generally sucked. It was bad enough they kept trying to make logo look “good,” but they said nothing and lacked everything. No snap, crackle, or particularly, pop.
When it came time to do a TV ad, they came up with some thing with fancy computer generated purple grids that was supposed to be cool. I didn’t really know what a “national” commercial as supposed to be (I’d only produced local radio station spots for Dale) and everyone else seemed to think it was OK, so I went along.
When it came time to make the spot I was in the production company’s office (what was a production company anyhow? That’s how green we were) in the Hollywood Hills and I hear the producer say to the agency, “What do you want me to do with this logo?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“We don’t do comic book stuff here. What do you expect us to do with this piece of shit logo?!”
You can imagine the screaming match that ensued, enough to make a wrestler blush. We came to an impasse, they made their junky (expensive) commercial, and somehow I became fast friends with the producer Sherry McKenna (now, the co-founder of Oddworld).
The commercial ran, no one noticed, we fired the famous Ogilvy and & Mather, and the company reluctantly agreed with Bob and me that we engage Dale and LPG/Pon.
Before “I Want My MTV!” Part 2
MTV had been on the air for six months and we’d fired the storied Ogilvy & Mather and hired Dale Pon’s LPG/Pon (a joint venture with George Lois) at my insistence. Now they were presenting their first trade campaign for advertisers and cable operators and my first big decision was being called into question.
America is fast becoming a land of Cable Brats!
“It’s audacious! Outrageous! Just like you guys.” George Lois was a big talker, a big seller, and a bit of a smart ass, loudmouth. He was also smart. Even though I knew he designed the “cable brats” thing, but my brilliant mentor Dale, who’d never steered me wrong creatively or strategically, was behind the whole thing. His ex-girlfriend, and now one of my best friends, Nancy Podbielniak, had written the copy. Besides, I agreed with Dale that generally trade advertising was a waste of time and bigger waste of money. Consumers were where it’s at, and weren’t all the tradesmen we were hopping to reach consumers too? If we had a knockout punch of consumer advertising our job would be done. I knew he was keeping his powder dry for the big show.
America is fast becoming a land of Cable Brats!
There’s an incorrigible new generation out there.
They grew up with music.
They grew up with television. So we put ‘em both together — for the Cable Brats, and they’re taking over America!
They’re men and women in the 18 to 34 age range advertisers want most — plus the increasingly important 12 to 17 segement.
The Cable Brats buy all the high volume, high ticket, high tech, high profit products of modern America.
They’re strong-willed, cunning, crazily impulsive — an advertiser’s peerless audience.
They look and listen and they want their MTV.
And they buy, buy, buy.
Rock’n’Roll wasn’t enough for them — now they want their MTV. (The exploding 24-hour Video Music Cable Network (and it’s Stereo!)
Tagged: Dale Pon, George Lois, IWMM, LPG/Pon, MTVposts, WASEC, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, advertising, print,.
George was certainly right. It was audacious, and it was a touch outrageous. Somehow, the tone wasn’t quite right, but after the crap Ogilvy had done for us, it was way better.
Besides, hidden in there was the sand grain that was going to lead us to our pearl.
On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m., MTV: Music Television launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,”spoken by John Lack. Those words were immediately followed by the original MTV theme song, a crunching guitar riff written by Jonathan Elias and John Petersen, playing over a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. With the flag having a picture of MTVs logo on it. MTV producers Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert used this public domain footage as a conceit, associating MTV with the most famous moment in world television history. Seibert said they had originally planned to use Neil Armstrong’s “One small step” quote, but lawyers said Armstrong owns his name and likeness, and Armstrong had refused, so the quote was replaced with a beeping sound. At the moment of its launch, only a few thousand people on a single cable system in northern New Jersey could see it.
Weirdest part for me is Adam Curry’s line at the end: “combining the best of TV with the best of radio.” There’s been a line in Next New Networks’ materials since we began: “combining the best of TV with the best of the web.” No coincidence that Fred was involved with both.
I rarely reblog here, but this clip seemed like a good bet. (Though that last VJ was actually Mark Goodman.)0 comments Tagged: MTVposts, WASEC, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, logo, branding,.
George & Lilliana Seibert at the Harbor Pharmacy, 1958
Most of the mentors I’ve written about have been work companions and no one I’ve worked with has had the same impact as George and Lilliana Seibert. It would have been their 60th anniversary today (George passed away in 2002) so it’s a great day to honor them.
Yes, Lilliana and George are my parents. And yes, most people can point to their parents as the prime influence on them, but I’m not going to completely bore you with too much personal biography. This blog is focused on work and my folks were my first bosses at their suburban pharmacy. The takeaway from my first work experience has shaped most of what I’ve done since. I picked up my complete love of work with them, and found out that for me “work to live” is not an option. “Live to work” is much more like it. I didn’t become a workaholic —I like my personal time as much as anyone— but I absorbed the real joy of the process of work itself.
I worked* in their store for more than 20 years. Along the way I picked up the building blocks of everything I’ve done ever since (as my parents had from their fathers’ local stores). Of course, there was the simple stuff that lots of kids learn at home, like responsibility and politeness. And small business basics. But working with them side by side went a lot deeper. The measures of an outfit’s viability. The service of a local enterprise to it’s customers and the community.
When I got into the television business it didn’t dawn on me that lessons learned in a mom & pop drugstore would have any direct usefulness. But, one day in 1985 my partner and I were sitting down with the president of Nickelodeon, and I was trying to convey a particular scheduling strategy, where we’d take a bunch of our network IDs that we’d run the sprocket holes off of and just switch them to a different daypart. It would save money on new ID production, and the network would get new dose of freshness.
“How do you know about this stuff?” The president knew I was as relatively new to television.
I explained to her a lesson my mother had taught me at the store. A basket of sale lipsticks had stopped moving, so my mom just placed the basket at the opposite end of the counter. An hour later they were selling again. Transposing the exercise to media placement seemed like a good idea to me, nutty as it was. By the way, it worked on television too, and it was only the first of dozens of surprising tips I could put to good use.
Two decades in the family store netted me oceans more than can recounted here. Not to short shrift our home at all; my two sisters and I had a wonderful, warm life together with my parents. But, suffice it to say, when it comes to work, I was one lucky dude.
* The Harbor Pharmacy opened in suburban New York in 1954, and I started “working” right away. Babysitting was expensive and though most of what was given to me was busywork I took it as seriously as a child could. Stocking shelves was my first important duty, but I rapidly ascended to checking out customers (a classic cash register is way better than a toy for a boy). Accompanying the delivery “boys” (men from 16 to 60) on their rounds was the highlight of my day (not theirs, I’d bet), and my driver’s license led to my next promotion. By the time of my last stint in 1977, I was writing and designing their local Pennysaver ads.
** A quick word about the modern American Gothic photograph up top. Early in our pharmacy’s life a trade magazine was writing a story and sent an art director to supervise the photography. My father, a complete and proud professional, felt the proper attire for a business owner was a shirt and tie, which he wore at work every day for over thirty years. But, the art director thought that the appropriate pharmacist’s attire was the same lab smock it had been for decades. He insisted my father conform. It irritated Dad forever.0 comments Tagged: mentors,.
At 19 I was determined to become a record producer rather than a chemist (my plan since I was six). I’d played music since I was seven, The Beatles had infected me at 12, and the excitement of recorded music completely enveloped me by the time I was working at my college radio station. I was the only one to jump at the chance to record visiting jazz musicians, even though my interest was popular music. When Gunter Hampel, a German avant-garde multi-intrumentalist, released an album I had engineered, and put my name of the cover (!), I was was hooked.
It was an explosive era of independent record labels and my new friend, local record retailer Tom Pomposello, and I decided we’d start a label. We’d release great, underappreciated blues and jazz, and not incidentially, Tom’s solo music too. Our 1972 debut album on Oblivion Records came from tapes I’d recorded when Tom guested with country blues legend Mississippi Fred McDowell. We had an great time and released some amazing music. Five more releases and our lack of capital, lack of acumen, and insufficient entrepeneurial zeal closed the label in 1976.
Now I had the bug, and during my short career the demand for my production services grew enough that I produced almost thirty albums (one with a Grammy nomination), many of them for the tiny New York independent Muse Records.
For most of the jazz ‘producing’ was a misnomer, it was actually ‘recording supervision.’ I mean, what was an a rock’n’roll playing, 26 year old kid from the suburbs going to tell a master musician to do? Play faster? Better? The records weren’t always what I would’ve wanted, but they reflected the vision of the artist. That was my job.
All the magazine articles about producers celebrated activist visionaries like Phil Spector, but artist oriented folks Jerry Wexler, George Martin and Alfred Lion were the ones I admired most. They became the kind of models I carried forward with me to filmmaking.
Alas, I never found my way into the pop world I coveted. And therefore, no surprise, I couldn’t make a decent living the way I was going. I slowly, reluctantly, started to morph the dream.0 comments Tagged: Muse Records, Oblivion Records, producing records, records, producingrecords,.