Call me behind the times, but I'd never seriously considered cultivating my brand.
That is, until I went freelance, in December 2008. Of course, by "went freelance," I mean I was fired. But I landed on my feet. I started writing for the New York Times and doing celebrity Q&A's for Time magazine. I became a contributing editor at The Advocate and got a teaching gig at UCLA Extension. Suddenly, instead of being "an editor at Entertainment Weekly," I became "Ari Karpel, who writes for the New York Times" and "Ari Karpel, who writes for Cosmopolitan" (don't judge — a boy's got to pay his rent!). Though the publication names would shift, there was one constant: Ari Karpel. It became clear that I was trading onmy name, my reputation. It helped tremendously that I had cobranded with publications that lent me credibility, but it was time to think about what I lent them.
That's about the time I reconnected with Rick Tetzeli, who'd laid me off from EW. He's now executive editor of Fast Company. He hired me to co-write (with him) the magazine's feature story on Morgan Spurlock's new meta-documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, about product placement and marketing in entertainment.
The first thing I did was call up Howard Bragman. The veteran Hollywood publicist shapes his clients' brands while simultaneously advancing his own. The title of his 2008 book, "Where's My Fifteen Minutes? Get Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve," echoes the name of his firm, Fifteen Minutes. A frequently called upon TV talking head, Bragman is openly gay and has engineered the comings out of such stars as Meredith Baxter and NBA player John Amaechi. He has also sparked criticism by representing Isaiah Washington when the actor was accused of having used a homophobic slur against his Grey's Anatomy costar T.R. Knight; and Doug Manchester after it was revealed that the hotelier had given significant funds to support California's Proposition 8, charged with defeating gay marriage. "I didn't sell out. I didn't work against my basic interests," argues Bragman, who sees such moves as suiting his brand, which he describes as 'empathetic, perceptive and accessible.' "They made mistakes and apologized and made amends. We're imperfect beings, we all make mistakes."
Bragman's tightrope walk reminded me of Spurlock's. In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, the filmmaker criticizes product placement as he revels in it and benefits from it. It's a conflict that most people in business deal with these days. Our culture is riddled with cognitive dissonance: We advance your own objectives, or those or our company, while trying not to trample the objectives of others or sacrifice our personal integrity.
But I put aside such deep thoughts while I focused on ... me! Since Tetzeli had encouraged me to follow the spirit of the film and push the boundaries of normal magazine writing, I opted against interviewing the branding folks Spurlock had worked with in the film; instead, I asked them to assess my brand. To my surprise, Lindsay Zaltman — managing director of Olson Zaltman, the Pittsburgh-based branding outfit that had pegged Spurlock as "Mindful/Playful"—jumped at the chance to fly a team to New York, where I was working for a few days, to conduct a two-hour branding intake. No doubt, he had been enticed by the power of the Fast Company brand; he'd never heard of me.
"It's like therapy," Spurlock told me, explaining his own experience with Olson Zaltman. "You're in there and they dissect you, why you make the choices you make, why you process information in a certain way, and then they come back with, 'Here's who you are in its barest form,' and that was remarkable." He felt that the experience helped him articulate a clear message about what the film would be, marking the turning point when a series of rejections by potential sponsors started to become yeses. Olson Zaltman had declared Spurlock's brand affinity with JetBlue and Mini Cooper, and both companies ended up sponsoring his film. So I became curious which brands they would say I have affinity with. Perhaps my beloved NPR? Or maybe some other high-end, thoughtful entities, like Whole Foods or HBO? The mind reeled.
My assignment was to come armed with photographs that express who I am. I chose one of the Verrazano Bridge, an awe-inspiring metaphor for my desire to connect to people; a picture of performance artist Marina Abramovic recalled an experience I had with her that validated ideas in my head. My love of food and silliness was captured by Cookie Monster, and a shot of a kitchen let me talk about how I love to cook and entertain, bringing people together for meals. Finally, a photograph of a path through autumn trees illustrated my desire for perspective by getting out into nature and being able to recognize the absurdity of interviewing celebrities for a living.
Zaltman's colleague Nick Kimminau asked probing questions, amplifying metaphors I'd referenced and steering them back my way for self-reflection. ("You mentioned that cooking feeds you. What does it feed in you?") Having done plenty of therapy myself (hey, I'm a gay Jew from the east coast — it's endemic!), I wasn't rocked emotionally. Still, one intriguing exercise led me to concoct a tale involving Karate Kid star Ralph Macchio, former vice president Dick Cheney and Oscar nominee Tilda Swinton, representing respectively my best, worst and most balanced qualities, in a Central Park cagefight (don't ask). By the end of the session, Zaltman and Kimminau's life-coaching-meets-ad-agency approach provided a great distillation of things I already thought about myself: I have an almost obsessive need for authenticity, a yearning to connect to people, a desire for validation through my writing, and an acute appreciation of the absurd.
A week later, they reported back to me with the Ari Karpel Brand. Drum roll, please! I'm "A Connector to Authenticity." The rundown wasn't too different from what they'd mirrored back to me on the spot, and when they got to my brand affinities, I was ready to hear "Oprah!" or "BMW!" Boy, was I in for a surprise. The five brands that Olson Zaltman determined "Ari Karpel" has affinity with are: Harley-Davidson, Yogi Berra, Southwest Airlines, Twitter and Cisco.
Twitter, I can see—the social media tool is all about connections. But Harley-Davidson? Turns out my connection to the motorcycle brand has less to do with its outlaw image than with Harley riders' descriptions of their experiences gaining perspective on life while riding. "We've done studies for Harley before," says Zaltman. "It's about being in the moment—almost what cooking does for you." And Cisco? Olson Zaltman has also worked with the communications technology company, which has adopted the tagline "The Human Network." "It's about facilitating authentic connections in the marketplace," explains Zaltman. As for Yogi Berra, Zaltman says, "He was extremely real, and he liked to play around with words, like you do."
Zaltman advises that teaming brands, even like-minded ones, is complicated, and one must consider both a brand's essence as well as how most consumers perceive it. In other words, an Ari Karpel partnership with Harley-Davidson would probably not come across well enough to work. "It's not always black and white," he says. "Your brand qualities are both things that are important to you and they're also ways that other people connect to you; it goes in two directions."
One insight Zaltman had offered about my brand struck me as truly valuable: Only by connecting with myself can I connect to other people and, in turn, the audience for my writing, he said. It reminded me of a story I wrote for the Hollywood Reporter last year, in which I laid out how movie stars must know their brands, and stick to them, to remain successful. Of course, with an established personal brand like, say, Meryl Streep, a branding team can interview people who have seen her movies just as they can interview users of a product. But in branding an unknown individual, like me, they must rely solely on that person. Therefore, this brand assessment is really about how I want to be seen. It's what's important to me, what's at my core. It's my brand aspiration.
So, how will I leverage my newly articulated "Connector to Authenticity" brand? I love nothing more than sitting down with someone and talking, trying to find the real person behind what's often a well-honed brand veneer. I already do that when I moderate panels at film festivals, when I teach and especially when I interview people for magazines and newspapers — as in this video sit-down with Mike Tyson and this Advocate cover story on Sean Hayes. I think that's when my core brand values of authenticity, connection, validation and perspective come through.
Promoting myself isn't the most natural thing for me, but it's a necessary component in this economic climate, and I have a plan for world domination! Or at least a public radio interview show. First, though, I'll start with a blog. For two years, I've intended to launch TheModernMensch.com — a blog about media, politics, entertainment and a bit of my own life, as seen through the lens of striving to be a good person — but I've been too focused on doing work that will actually pay my rent. ("Mensch" is a Yiddish word for, essentially, "good person.") I think that amidst our culture's noise about making money, getting attention, even building our brands, we've lost sight of being good people. The world's a complicated place; being a good person should be simple. It's good for everyone around you, and it's good for you.
Take my experience: When I was laid off two years ago, I didn't bad-mouth my boss, I simply accepted my fate with dignity, brushed myself off and moved on. And look where it got me: I just co-wrote a Fast Company story with the guy who let me go, and at the end of the piece, the magazine names me "The Greatest Writer Ever." That's got to be good for my brand.