The Middle Space

No Measure. No Meaning?

Seth Godin, best sock wearer on the planet, writes that “If it cannot be measured, it does not count.” This from his fantastic book (not too 101 for those of us in marketing, either) titled THIS IS MARKETING.

I placed this over my desk.

It’s all window-dressing without proof that your actions led to some measurable — whether results are good or bad.

There’s a lot of razzle, dazzle. But it’s just confetti. Impressive, but swept away the next hour.

It’s a simple question to ask marketers: how should we measure your performance? If it isn’t with real numbers or analytics or sales, shake off the dust and move on.


There’s a whole side of marketing that is upstream — call it the heart sell, not the hard sell. It’s about shaping hearts and minds, something I studied in graduate school where you use media, messaging, and strategy to move public opinion or public behavior. Still, that too can be measured. Polls, samples, testing, qualitative and quantitative research.

The point? Just like you cannot drive to your far-away destination without knowing where you are going, where you’ve been, where you are, and what the dashboard tells you — you must have measurement within every marketing dollar and decision.

Middle vs. Center

There’s a big difference between being in the MIDDLE and being in the CENTER.

I can tell when one confuses the two.

One is outward, the other inward.

One is generous, the other is graceless.

One connects, the other hoards.

One sees abundance, the other scarcity.

One asks questions, the other makes points.

Don’t confuse the two. Be in the middle of everywhere and not the center of everything.

Erik Lokkesmoe
Film Marketing: How to Build an Audience from Day-One [Part 4]

ROB: I definitely appreciate that. Erik, I think it would be helpful to get a real sense of what you do and where your heart is. If you could share a couple of the projects that you have worked on or that are coming up for you that are meaningful, I think that will help us fill in a little bit of the color and shape of what Aspiration really is. What’s been meaningful?

ERIK: We’ve had the benefit of working on 100+ projects and networks, shows, movies that mostly fit this aspirational audience—which is a very interesting conversation for a later time, the surge of aspirational-minded audiences.

But really, from Disney projects—Frozen, which is a big one obviously, but also much more of the arthouses like Tree of Life, Calgary. We produced a movie called Last Days in the Desert with Ewan McGregor that came to Sundance in 2015, premiered there.

Right now we’re working on Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the Mister Rogers film which comes to theatres this summer, June 8th. It’s a doc, but we’re helping the studio market this because really it’s such a transcendent theme.

We’ve seen audiences come away very emotional about not just nostalgia for him as an amazing figure—a consistent, authentic figure in the history of television—but also because there’s this longing for kindness. There’s a crisis of kindness. People realize, “Who is Mister Rogers?” A need for having him and his voice sweeps over the audience.

So that one is a special film. Focus Features is doing a marvelous job with Morgan Neville, who’s the director. A beautiful, beautiful story.

We have several in production, several that we’re marketing. We work with Nat Geo channel on many of their projects. There’s just so many projects that are coming that have this bent toward legacy for the creator. The filmmakers want to leave an impact, they want to leave a legacy. It’s not just about the dollar. And there’s an audience that’s shifting into this, “if I’m going to give you 2 hours of my time, it’d better well be worth it.”

That’s where we feel our sweet spot is—not just entertainment. There’s many companies that do that well, and that’s great. But there’s something about this screen-forward view of entertainment where something happens on the screen, big or small, that helps me think, “What else?” and moves me in a way that I’m haunted by it. After the credits roll, I’m haunted by something I can’t explain, but I want to do something. I want to aspire to do something. That’s really the sweet spot for us as a company.

ROB: I think that really does help. You talk about Mister Rogers; there’s a familiarity, there’s a built-in audience, as you said, but it seems like the film is a fresh take on that. It’s not something that simply takes the audience for granted. It’s not a bunch of Mister Rogers clips.

When you talk about Last Days in the Desert, it has a familiar religious bent to it. It’s about Jesus. But it’s actually, in a way, about a white space in Scripture, a fill-in-the-blank conversation. But it doesn’t take the audience for granted.

I think that’s such a challenging slot to fit in, but I’m glad that you’re able to find these projects and help get them in. I want to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor? now.

ERIK: You’re right, there’s a slot. We call it the middle space between—we describe it in a very simplistic way—there’s this “mass & crass” content and there’s this ideological “teach & preach,” very agenda-driven content, political/ideological, could be faith, whatever.

Then there’s a middle, where it’s “heart & smart.” It’s really an audience that wants to be moved intellectually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I think there’s a lot of artists in there that are always leaving the tension of what is, what could be, how do they wrestle with their own demons and their own angels—just what does life look like, what it could be for themselves and others. That’s not a great logline for movies because the audience is not clearly moved by a new TV ad. It’s moved by other things: meaning, purpose, beauty.

I think, as marketers, that’s the tension we all feel as well. There’s things that we love to market. We love feeling the audience or the consumer moved by something with meaning. There’s also stuff we have to market because it’s just being a good steward of our clients and of the product we’re asked to serve on.

But I think we’re all bent toward, ultimately at the end of the day, end of our career, to say, “I worked on these five things that moved the needle, moved people, and is contributing to society’s overall good.”

ROB: Erik, what are some things that you’ve learned building Different Drummer and now Aspiration Studios that you would think about doing differently if you were starting fresh?

ERIK: Oh gosh. [laughs] I love that hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I love that I’m not at the point where I can’t take those learnings and figure things out.

I do think much of what we’ve been asked to work on is not just giving solutions, but also telling people, “There’s a bunch of hazards and potholes and cars in a ditch back there, so watch where you’re going.” [laughs] It’s a bit of warnings and learnings from all of our own challenges and mistakes.

I think for me, if the question is what would I look back and do differently or think about, it would be the importance of staying true to your purpose, your mission, your calling, your vocation. As much as we are drawn to be professional plate spinners—we’re interested, we’re curious and want to work on a lot of different things—the way the world is going is be really good at something.

A friend of mine was talking to us the other day and he said there’s three things driving younger generations, motivating them. It’s community, craft, and cause. It’s belonging to something, being good at something, and believing in something.

To me, that’s where I always feel like if I just stick to that and if I always try to stick to that—that’s where I get off the rails; I think that I should be doing something else or different. If I’m with the people that I care about, I’m doing things that matter, and I’m doing something that I’m good at, those three C’s (craft, community, and cause), when they align I do feel like we are doing great work for great projects.

ROB: That makes a ton of sense. I think that’s a recipe also for a deeper contentment than some people find sometimes in their work. We can get caught up trying to be the one best person at this thing, but when we look at how we’re gifted and what matters to us and how we do it—particularly with a faith perspective that we’re not valued-based on just what we do, that we have intrinsic value—it seems like a healthier recipe than just trying to chase the stars.

ERIK: Yes, exactly. That’s the great thing about the creative space, entertainment in particular. It has to be collaborative. It’s impossible to do it all yourself, and it’s impossible to think you have all the answers.

I’ve had the benefit of living in cities that are highly collaborative, and I’ve also lived in cities that are highly selfish. I’ve lived in D.C. People tend to not be there for the money, but there for the cause. They’re locking arms with people who are likeminded.

I’ve lived in L.A., which has this sense of “If you’re winning, I’m losing.” It’s like, you’re an actor. I’m not even in your space. I’m glad you’re doing well. But there’s a sense of envy if someone else is advancing. I’m generalizing of course, but it just feels like you’re losing if someone’s winning.

Then I lived in New York for 4 years and there’s this tribe and unity of New Yorkers, like “we’re in it together.”

I feel like Nashville has a sense of all those in many ways combined. The creative community here is very collaborative. They’re looking out for each other, they want each other to win—at least on the surface. It’s a good Southern hospitality side of it. [laughs] But there’s a sense of, we celebrate with each other and we’re in it together.

I meet filmmakers all the time who are like, “How can we make Nashville a great filmmaking center?” It’s going to take more than just one company or one person or one project.

ROB: Super wise. Very good, Erik. When someone wants to get in touch with you and Aspiration, how should they find you?

ERIK: There’s a couple ways. I’m always either spouting off on Twitter or just watching my friends spout off on Twitter. I’m @eriklokkesmoe there and @AspirationHQ. I’m also fine with getting emails:

Check us out on our socials too. We’re oftentimes traveling with films, we’re oftentimes doing public events, so we’d love to connect with people that you’re connected with.

And of course, we’d love people to read the book that we have. I’m giving a lot of those away, so if you have someone who really wants it for free, I’ll send it to them. As a starving artist author that I am on that side, it’s fine.

ROB: [laughs] That’s fantastic, Erik. For sure, if you’re listening and you see a project that Aspiration is working on and it connects with something that matters to you, I definitely encourage you to check it out. It’s thoughtful, it’s high quality, and I’m so glad it’s on my radar. Thank you, Erik, for sharing today.

ERIK: Thank you, Rob. Pleasure.

ROB: Take care.

Erik Lokkesmoe
Film Marketing: How to Build an Audience from Day-One [Part 3]

ROB: I appreciate that. There’s an intentionality and an empathy there.

If I zoom out a little bit from your path, it seems that you have quite often taken an intentional path. I could certainly imagine a world where you just continued following the train of politics to some logical conclusion where you’re the congressman from Orange County or something, I don’t know.

Or within film, you could certainly seize on very large marketing budgets and coast and have that disconnection from the outcome. Even where you choose to be business-wise, I would imagine that the default choice in entertainment is not Nashville, Tennessee. There’s strength there, but it’s not the same. It’s not the #1 place you go.

Tell me a little bit about some of those choices that weren’t necessarily the obvious choice, and what drives you in that.

ERIK: I love that question, Rob. I don’t get asked that a lot because I think most of the time it looks like I’m jumping from thing to thing. But it has been intentional, as much as I can control.

I wrote a book called Different Drummer, which was a company I started that was successful in the alternative marketing space. In that book, I talk about when I was a press secretary, how I would never go to the official press secretary meetings where they hand out the talking points and the agenda for the week. I think I went to one. I didn’t want to conform to the party line, literally. I didn’t want to conform to what others were doing.

In the same way, look at Nashville—a city that, in the next 5 to 10 years, will be a dominant story center. It is Storyville here, from music to healthcare and technology and eventually film. You have storytellers here. Publishing as well.

In entertainment and politics, I’ve always seen things as, what does it mean to be a different drummer? I don’t want to play the game out to have a lifestyle company that I feel makes a good salary. I’m willing to take the risk to see what else is possible.

That blue ocean idea, blue ocean and blue collar, really defines the company for us. There’s so much red ocean. There’s so many competitors lowering the costs of their services or trying to squeeze more value for their clients. I’m much more interested in asking—I see all these little various fragments of opportunity; how do you assemble something that changes distribution or changes the way audiences engage with content?

I’ll just tell you a quick story, if I can. What troubles me about what’s happening with the industry as it relates to artist and maker—this is part of my bent, has been how do you shepherd and care for the artist and the maker? I really do believe they’re essential to what the future society looks like. They’re often disregarded or not seen as a utility that’s helpful and useful to society, but they are. There’s such a power there.

There’s a story of the Gold Rush period, which was the greatest migration of Americans across the current history of America. It’s people leaving family farms and businesses from the East Coast/Midwest and traveling West because at Sutter’s Mill, someone had discovered gold in the river.

There were those that traveled across the plains, went over the Rockies and Sierras into the foothills of the Sierras. There’s others who traveled by boat, went down and across Panama—which was pre-canal, so they hiked 30 miles on mosquito-infested mud trails with their belongings to board a boat that went up the coast to San Francisco.

I was telling this story today, that much of San Francisco, the reason it’s unsettling ground, literally, it’s because the boats that were abandoned by the sailors is how they built the city. They moved dirt over those boats and built the city on top of it, part of it. The sailors were rushing up to the foothills as well, because tens of thousands of people are coming into the rivers there.

It’s total chaos, and yet you have all these dreamers. You have all these people who are just a pan or a shovel away from making it rich. That was the first time in history you could literally put your shovel in the water, in the soil, and you could be rich. That never happened in human history, certainly American history.

So what happened? Over years, gold started drying up, people get disillusioned. There’s violence, there’s people who are desperate. They leave. The question is, who profited the most out of the Gold Rush? It was those selling whiskey and shovels.

The whole of California is still built upon, and much of America is built upon, the idea of—“I’m only one project away.” In Silicon Valley, “I’m only one app away from being rich and famous.” “I’m only one movie away from this or that.” That’s still in the soil of California.

But it concerns me that much of the industry is built upon feeding off of false hopes and aspirations of dreamers. I really want to see the alignment between the creative and the support side.

Much of what you do I think is fascinating because you’re providing measurables to clients and customers to see what’s real. There’s no more of this false numbers and exaggeration that swirls around projects. It’s like, “This is working, this is not.” That’s the beautiful thing about that alignment between creative and the service side.

Erik Lokkesmoe

Require weekly reports. Read them. Ask questions. We've read reports that included names and outlets that were shuttered years ago. Don't assume anything.

  1. Agencies work for you. You don't work for them.

  2. Overproduce assets, images, clips, production notes, endorsements, and other materials -- the more you provide an agency, the better.

  3. Start building your audience as early as possible -- even when you are in pre-production and certainly before you bring on a distributor.

  4. There's no silver bullet in marketing, but two things come close: a good story and grit. Agencies cannot fix a bad film, but when a good film is in their hands success comes through a lot of hard work.

  5. Remember these five "C" words for your campaign: comprehensive, coordinated, compelling, consistent, and creative.

  6. Put your audience first. Not the industry. Not prestige. Not awards.

  7. Build-in incentives for your agency. Find every possible way to make sure they have "skin in the game."

  8. Always have a big idea or a big theme that ties everything together -- from creative to social to web to ads to publicity -- everything needs to work under a big idea.

  9. Be unconventional. It's risky not to be. Most will push back because "it's not been done before" or "that won't work." Exactly. The risk for you is being exactly like every other film that gets lost in the clutter and cannot reach an audience. Be bold. Take risks. Dare to be different.

Erik Lokkesmoe