THE BLOG

What I Learned This Week: In Business, Ditch the Past

05/13/2013 12:13 EDT | Updated 07/12/2013 05:12 EDT

As a rule, I usually dread corporate strategy meetings for a number of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • They are clichéd
  • To the loudest go the spoils
  • There are few concrete results
  • If perchance something concrete is resolved, it is forgotten within a week

So imagine my surprise at the recent productive two-day session we had at Just For Laughs. The jury's still out over the long-term effectiveness, as we need further meetings to build on the foundation...but at least we came out with some sort of a foundation, one that was built on respectful (!), reflective (!) and intelligent (!) debate.

One such debate focused on the exploitation of the vast Just For Laughs catalog. A content company with over three decades of TV history, we've been mining our vaults for gold for years now. One of our projects--the Just For Laughs Gags channel on YouTube--is perhaps the company's most successful and profitable, culling hundreds of hours of content and more than four million unique visits per day into one of YouTube's top 100 worldwide destinations.

On the surface, this is good, if not great, news. But a little scratch reveals a chink in the armor sparked one of the meeting's best debates, namely the one that arose when I said:

"If your future is based on your past, you're screwed."

(To be honest, I used a term a little stronger than "screwed," but I digress...)

The euphoria of continually going back to the well and finding it full is, in my mind, short-lived and dangerous. And this isn't just relevant to those producing "content." No matter what your business, if your dreamy current sales projections are based predominantly--or entirely--on what you've produced before, you are in for a rude awakening.

One can argue (and some at the meeting did) that if you are actually in the business of selling the past, my premise is invalidated.

No it's not.

Even if you're dealing in antiques (be it the guy down the street or the Gold family on TruTv's Hardcore Pawn), history (like my friends at Alexander Autographs), family trees (like geni.com or familysearch.org) or non-comedic forms of previously broadcast filmed entertainment (everything from ESPN Classic to Turner Classic Movies), your future doesn't necessarily have to be mired by your past.

Different methods of packaging, of distribution, of presentation, or of editing can breathe new life into the past, and do so in a manner that's so effective and fresh...

...it's as if the past is making its debut.

Case in point--the new iPad app chronicling the history and career of The Doors, a passion project of former Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman that just about reinvents the music biography. Or the one by my buddy, Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis, that doesn't merely aggregate a bunch of his previously-published newspaper strips, but through animation, audio and video commentary and original corresponding content, gives them a new relevance...not to mention a new hope for the survival of the comic strip genre as a whole.

Selling the past can be easy, but you're ascending a slippery slope that you'll eventually slide down...and fast. Re-making the past is more difficult; it's a different story that requires a different skill set. Yet it's the only way if you don't want to get caught up in the past/future conundrum shouted out in bold red above.

Perhaps the best way to summarize this week's lesson is not just to re-use the words of philosopher George Santayana, who said "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it," but to paraphrase and re-make them into:

"Those who (merely) repeat the past are condemned to be forgotten."