The Chaos of Creation

  • by Mack McKelvey
  • Feb 02, 2016

The Chaos of Creation

I was mesmerized by last night’s Grease: Live! on Fox.  The direction, the cast (and their performances) and the production went far beyond any live television show we’ve seen to-date.  Could this be the renaissance of live TV, a one-hit wonder or just another Sunday night?  And what, if anything does this teach us about brilliant marketing? Let’s dissect it.

In high school, I spent a considerable amount of time on stage.  Drama, next to Political Science (and really, is there a difference anymore?), was far and away my favorite class.  I logged hundreds of hours in auditions, run-throughs and performances throughout those years and to this day; the people, preparations, and productions are some of my favorite memories.

I’m now a marketer by trade and have been for nearly 20 years. While there is not a perfect formula for marketing, there’s one universal truth, the product/program seen in market is the result of countless hours of research, development, coordination and finally, execution.  People, planning, and production are behind every successful marketing program.  When all of these elements come together, the program is not only memorable, but actual business results tend to follow.

So what does this have to do with the theater, or more specifically, Grease: Live!?  Everything.


  • It starts at the top: Grease: Live! director, Thomas Kail has received critical praise for Hamilton (it’s on my list of must-sees).  When profiling Kail in July 2015, the Washington Post noted, “Kail, a mile-a-minute talker who projects a mix of confidence, deference and affability, seems to be built for the chaos of creation.” I can’t imagine better qualifications for a director (or a senior marketer).  We saw his genius last night in creating memorable moments that kept alignment with the original, yet strayed just far enough to hold onto our interest while he put his own unique stamp on the show.
  • You must build a strong team who bring different perspectives and approaches, and who reflect your customers: Finally, SOME DIVERSITY.  I loved the cast.  It actually looked more like my High School in suburban Maryland than any “school” I’ve seen on TV and film to-date. I loved seeing some of the main roles, supporting roles and chorus members–the full ensemble–played by African American, Hispanic and Asian actors (that were played by white women and men in the original movie). I also loved the infusion of R&B legends, Boys II Men, and Mario Lopez playing uber-creepy Vince Fontaine. Brilliant casting and performances all around.

The Grease: Live/Marketing connection: Successful marketing always starts with people. Find the right leader who can carve out differentiated approaches to the market, choose the right team and encourage them to take risks. Ensure you have multiple, diverse perspectives captured in each program from planning through execution. Each team member’s performance is critical to an ensemble execution.


  • Brands are not built overnight. Last night’s performance was no small feat, in fact, it took nearly two years of planning. The scale of the overall production, the attention to detail, the casting and choreography were larger than any movie or theatre production (at least that I can name).
  • Storytelling reigns. Through a variety of means, the directors, producers and actors brought a classic story to life in an interesting way, without sacrificing the integrity of the original. By changing the sequencing of songs, mixing styles and even including an original song, the show created freshness. Were all the changes hits? Depends on who you ask, but clearly the directors built risk into the planning and that kept the three hour production exciting for those of us who knew every word by heart.
  • Know your audience. The cast and production reflected the audience the show was trying to engage. Let’s not gloss over the cameos of some of the Grease movie actors in last night’s production. I’ve seen the movie, and I was Rizzo in a scene for my high school dinner theatre production. I recognized the actors from the movie immediately and it provoked instant nostalgia and connection.
  • Force Majeure: Rain in LA? Weather is just one variable in an outdoor, live production. Not only was the show prepared, but the director’s nod to the possible nightmare by incorporating it into the program in both the opening performance and Mario Lopez welcoming El Nino was a stroke of genius.

The Grease: Live/Marketing connection: Planning is brutal. It’s arduous and time-consuming. Without it, marketers are literally throwing stuff into the market, hoping for success. With it, marketers can build measurable, value-based, and customer-focused programs.


  • Plan for packaging. Coco Chanel famously stated (and my mother often quoted), “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” That is as true in theatre as it is in marketing. Last night’s performance was brilliantly produced. Vibrant and well paced; from the sets to the costumes to the sound—all the audience saw was an amazing show.
  • The details matter. The details were clearly poured over, as they seamlessly became part of the overall production, and not awkwardly there, distracting and confusing viewers.
  • Keep them guessing. Last night, we were waiting for what was coming next. Good content, or in the case of Grease: Live!, telling the story straight is not always enough. Never underestimate the impact of ‘surprise and delight’. The Grease Lightning number was close to breathtaking. It was my least favorite song in the movie, but it may have been my favorite last night.
  • Leave them wanting more. The carnival was in the gym. Of course it was, Grease: Live! was on a live TV set. The show was over. Nope, the cast jumped in golf carts and took us (yes, we almost had a flipped golf cart—part of the fun of live TV) to the real ending…the actual carnival, there on the movie lot. I honestly didn’t want it to end.

The Grease: Live/Marketing connection: Customers don’t care about your marketing programs. That being said, people will engage with quality, well-produced content. But strong content isn’t enough either. The design/packing/production is as important as the content itself. This is often one of the most overlooked elements of marketing planning and it’s one of the largest disconnection points for programs. Pay attention to how your programs are presented to the world.

In the end, it’s all about results. Will we see a resurgence in live television productions? One show does not a strategy make. What will the overall business impact be? Let’s hope it’s more research and planning for large and small scale shows, infusing diversity into role development and casting until it’s second nature, and ultimately producing quality entertainment viewers want.

And marketers, the same goes for us. We need to focus on quality—from our research and planning, to diversity in our hiring and our production. The stakes are high—we are on live TV every time we execute in this always-on era.  We need to balance creativity and inventiveness with quality; and continuously show value and prove results.

Welcome to the chaos of creation.

This was originally published on LinkedIn here.


Categories:Best Practices, Uncategorized

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