(Posted from the fabulous Paris Hotel, Las Vegas)
(btw, read Part I first if you haven't already)
Two weeks ago I didn’t even know there was such a thing as the Electronic Retailing Association. Today I’m in Vegas, attending parties as a guest of its chairman.
Fate played its hand in the person of Jack Kirby, outgoing (in every sense of the word) head of the ERA. In our previous lives, Jack and I had worked together 22 years ago at a CBS overnight show called Nightwatch. Jack was, at the tender age of 22 or possibly less, a wunderkind senior producer in charge of booking guests on the show. I was, at the age of 24, a wannabe wunderkind, a writer charged with throwing together glib little introductions for the anchors to read about those guests.
To survive in a place whose median age was twice your own required preternatural doses of self-assuredness, which both Jack and I possessed in spades. His was cloaked in bespoke suits; mine in writerly sweater-vests; but under the hood the same aspirational engine was purring. Which might have been why, even though most people in the place might not have loved us nearly as much as we loved ourselves (he had to tame an unruly bunch of older, female talent bookers who all felt they should have his job; I spent too much time pestering the “hard news” writers in the bullpen with jokes and observations – verbal blogging – while they were frantically trying to squeeze down Associated Press wire copy into 20-second TV scripts. I’m sure that today I’d tell me to shut up, Pupkin, this is a place of work not your personal talk show) Jack and I always got along. They saw him as cocksure; I saw him as, simply, sure. He was five levels above me at the show, and could have thrown copy back in my face just because he was having a bad day, but he was always respectful, and for a Rat Pack throwback he sure knew a hell of a lot about the popular culture (such as it was in 1982). Though I did wish that I’d had a shot at meeting whoever had greased Jack’s way into the business – he wasn’t chained to his Smith-Corona bulletin-font typewriter as I was, leaving him free to glide through the newsroom on his way to fancy steak dinners with grownups who were his actual friends while I ordered Chinese.
Flash forward a year. “Nightwatch” is radically downsized, with only a skeleton crew transferred to the CBS News Washington bureau to work with a new anchor, Charlie Rose. I was the line producer, getting the show on and off the air on time; Jack was head booker. One day he blew me away by coming over and asking if he could shadow me as I did my job, as he wanted to learn how to produce a live TV show. In other words, remove the cufflinks, roll up the sleeves, and get a little ink on those manicured fingers. Forgo cocktail cruises around Georgetown in the company of Larry King for the pleasure of working 6pm to 6am in the ultra-glamorous death hole of CBS News Washington, with no desk to call your own, working your pencil and eraser to the nub repeatedly timing the show elements backwards from the hard off-time of 5:59:52am to make sure everything fit. I figured one night would kill him.
He wound up spending several weeks, and I learned something much more valuable than he did. I learned that no one had ever handed Jack Kirby anything – it was clear from his unpretentious attitude, his sense of humor about himself, and his earnest desire to learn that Jack had earned everything by working harder and being better at it than the others. What a strength: when he had a gap in his knowledge, he’d address it, not ignore it.
Two weeks ago I found myself staring at a gap in my knowledge, about the direct response business. Rusty Greiff, a Kirby-esque figure in his own right who we’ve hired to spearhead our entry into the Direct Response and Direct Marketing categories, handed me a list of top players in the field. And there was Jack Kirby, on top of the heap. He’s had a huge success with a pet vitamin product called Paaws that his company, Continuum Commerce Group, developed and sold via infomercials.
We got him on the phone. And because of our history and the kind of guy I know Jack to be, I didn’t pretend I knew a thing about his industry. I laid my cards on the table, said we had developed a platform that seems really good at using video to keep people on websites longer and more deeply involved – and to me it seems that if there was a commerce element attached, it could help move more product than a TV spot. But I wasn’t sure I was right.
Jack and his partner, Brad Galinson, listened attentively, offered many good insights, and concluded that I wasn’t crazy, maybe. That it’s worth looking into further. That it so happens the ERA is holding its convention this week and we ought to be there. Jack’s been incredibly generous in offering to pull us into parties and other gatherings at this event, which should help us to have the right kinds of conversations at the right level to get a few trials going.
On the phone, Jack filled in for me his own Chapters 9-29: he went from CBS to a job as a, get this, line producer for the 11 o’clock local news in Boston, then to a station in Santa Barbara. Where they leased out the studios to infomercial producers. Whom he learned from, exceedingly well.
I hope I learn as well from him.