A Circus Taught Me Modern Marketing

When I was 23-years-old, I ran away and joined a circus.

I was not a lion tamer, sword swallower, daredevil, roustabout or acrobat. I was the guy in charge of getting all those people seen by as many people as possible.

I was an advance man. I traveled ahead of the show and pimped it hard, living for three weeks at a clip in the cheap motels of the small and medium-sized towns the circus played.

My responsibilities included negotiating all media buys, blanketing the market with paid media (negotiated half cash/half trade for tickets), and arranging promotional media (ticket giveaways), publicity, public relations, and media relations.

I also ordered hay for the elephants and arranged for the cleaning of porta-potties (“donikers” in circus-speak–– toilets mounted on truck flatbeds).

Sounds pretty glamorous, right?

Before I joined the circus, I had been a copywriter at a couple of ad agencies where I learned I wasn’t very good at office politics. I felt a job traveling America promoting a circus would improve my writing chops and be good for my advertising career.

So, was it? Absolutely. (Please, refrain from clown jokes.)

When I returned to the copywriting life after a circus season, agency people looked at me like I had six heads when I told them about my advance man past (I wish I did have six heads–– that would have been a surefire circus attraction, and those extra noggins would have helped in brainstorming ad concepts).

What valuable nuggets did I learn from my big top days?

I learned to be independent. In the circus, I was on my own when I arrived to work a new market. I was always the stranger in town.

Like working on a brand people have never heard of–– we each have to establish our identities.

My calling card was a circus. For some, that held excitement, romance, and adventure. Others viewed me as a sleazy carnie–– someone looking to fleece the locals, pick their pockets, and skip town without paying bills.

Like any aspect of marketing communications, gaining trust was difficult, but critical.

The circus gig taught me a better understanding of people. I was always the outsider, unknown, suspected, and distrusted. I empathized with the suspicions and trepidations of locals and worked to gain their confidence.

In my travels, I learned that every person wants acknowledgment and appreciation for who he or she is.

Geography changed, humanity didn’t.

There are marketers who still haven’t learned this. They want to communicate what they want, not what the audience wants.

I learned the importance of simple, consistent messaging. Because a circus plays limited time engagements, every message had the show dates, location, times, ticket prices and where to buy them.

In marketing, we must remind ourselves what we want our audiences to do, and show them how they can do it.

My best circus dates seemed to be the result of coordinated efforts. I always tried getting local businesses to lend their name to our show with co-op promos. I engaged the local media for performer interviews and participation in circus activities.

Like with social media, I learned it’s important to build a tribe and let them help you spread your good word.

I learned the power of emotional hooks. People remember their first circus. For parents, there’s emotional power in exposing their children to a circus, a four-thousand-year-old art form.

It’s like the pride parents take bringing their children to Disney World. In marketing, emotional drivers beat rational reasons every time.

I also learned there were no sure things.

There were towns where the messaging was strong, clear, and unified, where the P.R. and publicity were incredible, but the crowd sizes were meh.

There wasn’t always a correlation between my efforts expended and the results achieved. Some towns weren’t circus towns, or, maybe the location or dates were bad.

Who knows the problem? Things happen.

The same is true in marketing. Sometimes you can do everything well, and it still doesn’t work.

Learn what you can and move on. It’s best not to obsess over failures. Humans are unpredictable.

The circus I worked for folded its big top last year. And soon Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey will be calling it quits after 146-years.

I suspect some day all circuses will vanish. But I’ll always treasure my circus days–– when I was a mustached stranger in a bad suit, new in town and scrambling to establish trust.

It’s what I’ve been doing ever since for advertisers.