Lessons on personal branding from Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais delivered his fifth and final hosting of the Golden Globes ceremony last week, with a scabrous opening monologue that left the attending celebrities squirming in their seats. Gervais’ opening diatribe wasn’t kind to his targets, but we knew what to expect from his previous performances.

He reminded the audience of his job to entertain and prepared the stars in attendance for the worst, with a clear let’s have a laugh at your expense. No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. Gervais capacity to offend great swathes of an audience with a single utterance is pretty much unrivalled.

But the emperor has no clothes, and with a few pointed jokes, Gervais pierced their collective delusion, exposing the hypocrisy of Hollywood. He has retained the brutality and joke-writing brilliance of his early work, but applied it to socio-politics over celebrity, Gervais is the appalling, apocalyptic comic-poet our era demands.

The criticism levelled at Gervais is that he’s turned into – or perhaps always was – his Office alter ego David Brent, which at least goes to show what an unforgettable comic monster Brent was in the first place, a management busybody with delusions of charisma, fronting a pioneering cringe comedy and still-brilliant mockumentary nailing the pettiness and desolation of workplace life.

We’ve got a little bit of David Brent in all of us. We all sometimes mistake popularity with respect. We all want to be liked. We all wonder whether our perception of ourselves is exactly the same as the rest of the world’s. And we all want to feel that we belong.

The creator and star of The Office, Extras, Derek, and the critically acclaimed recent hit After Life, Gervais has won countless awards. His hit series The Office is the most successful British comedy of all time, shown in more than 90 countries, which he co-wrote and co-directed with friend and collaborator, Stephen Merchant. For me, his film Life on the Road and TV series Idiot Abroad are timeless, comedy classics.

His words flow and fizz with vocal energy. He does not cultivate gravitas and doesn’t much mind if you disagree with him. He is an intellectual hedonist, his big idea is that life should be pleasurable. Rather than trying to persuade, he seeks to infect an audience with his enthusiasm: isn’t this interesting? He’s almost an anthropologist.

This seems not to have been an ideological commitment so much as an expression of contrarianism, extracting glib homilies from the messy stuff of real life – if Gervais were to be parachuted into the Antarctic, it would take roughly twenty minutes before the penguins were lining up to peck his lights out.

It is true that he sometimes presses his stories too militantly and can jam together materials too disparate to cohere, but for the most part the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the sharp angle or the deceptively trivial incident to blow things up out of all proportions.

Gervais is playfully intelligent, in a time of antagonistic debate and polarised opinion, he has something to say and is worth listening too. If you had to identify the comedian who captures the moment of today, it would be Gervais. In a world of literalists high on certainty and short on humour, I value his teasing, sprite-like presence more than ever. If he does not embody the zeitgeist, maybe that’s because the zeitgeist has grown so pompous.

Either way, the size of his audiences suggests that even in the era of taking sides, many people positively enjoy his stepping over the line, provocation, picking targets and outrage culture, in and out of parody too fast at times to keep up. His message is simple but stark: speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — from the head or heart on your terms. Deliver a message or something creative that isn’t prettied up and restrained and it’ll have a far greater impact.

Gervais’ personal attributes and characteristics have created a definitive ‘personal brand’, a deliberate strategy, making his mark, making himself memorable and standing out from the crowd. Creating a ‘personal brand’ is a positive way to stand out in an increasingly competitive startup world. The term ‘personal brand’ first appeared in August 1997 in an article by management guru and author Tom Peters, who wrote, We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. To be in business today, our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.

Personal branding is simply the way in which individuals differentiate themselves and stand out from a crowd by identifying and articulating their value, and then leveraging with consistent behaviour. In this way, individuals can enhance their recognition as experts to establish reputation and credibility – ‘it’s what they are famous for’.

Let’s look at this in a little more using Gervais as the exemplar, how do you build a This is me brand to help you be memorable and help answer the customer’s question Why should I buy from you?

Be first with a purpose A personal brand is synonymous with your reputation, the way others see you. Are you famous for? What do you represent? What do you stand for? What thoughts come to mind as soon as someone hears your name? People recognise your name, what you offer and what you’re about. It answers the question how does working with me help them? Like Gervais, entrepreneurs have a purpose and ‘make the main thing, the main thing’.

Live in your learning zone The world is changing fast, make sure you are constantly learning and identify an area where you will be better than others, don’t be a ‘Jack of all trades’. Concentrate on your expertise. Once you have identified and developed this, make the most of it by seeking out opportunities to demonstrate your skills. Don’t be afraid to tell people about what you’ve created. Not to boast, but to demonstrate if you’ve genuinely innovated, people are will want to know about it.

It takes time to build your personal brand. If you fail to stay relevant, all of your effort will be wasted. If you’re not growing, then you’re stagnating, and that’s the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur.

Focus on the things that make you different What makes you, you? Concentrate on the positives on both personal as well as professional level. Consider the way you react in everyday situations, whether it’s the way you communicate, your creativity, or the way you think and process information. Become really, really good at what differentiates you, or be so good they can’t ignore you – there is only one Ricky Gervais!

Make yourself visible This does not mean claiming undue credit or being anything less than humble, it means focusing on having a high-impact that will likely have visible results, knocking them for six and sharing the results. Blow your own trumpet, but be consistent – every move you make either reinforces your brand or violates it. Also participate in larger conversations and encourage those around you, it’s less about broadcasting yourself per se, and more about reinforcing your personal brand.

Work harder than everyone else Nothing is a substitute for hard work. Look around: How many people are working as hard as they can? Very few. The best way to stand out is to out-work everyone else. It’s also the easiest way, because you’ll be the only one trying. Gervais is a great example of this, now approaching twenty years of relentless creativity, huge work ethic and productivity.

Keep a clear head Amidst the hullaballoo and the fury of the frantic noise, pressure of the event and the audience reaction at the Golden Globes, Gervais kept a clear head. In the heat of the moment, he cannot get caught up in the intensity and lose focus on his performance, which is an important skill to have as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs have to be both mentally alert and hold bundles of mental toughness, which helps to hone their mentality. It’s what makes an entrepreneur see the opportunity when others around them can’t see the way ahead.

Enjoy the oxygen Top rugby players use a technique whereby they take 30-second breaks when the game action is paused. During those brief seconds, they are exhorted to enjoy the oxygen. This teaches them how to breathe using their diaphragm, not their lungs, and to lower their heart rate during breaks in play when on the pitch. You can see in Gervais’ performances he too uses this technique, pausing to enjoy the audience reaction and to reground himself, reaffirming his personal brand persona.

Keep moving forward Like Gervais, entrepreneurial success is heavily dependent upon skill and the perfection of the craft, but also reinvention. Anyone can be broken physically by a relentless challenge. It’s hard to keep moving forward when you don’t see visible signs of success, it becomes as much a battle of wills and mental endurance as it does a battle of stamina, strength, and skill. Reinvention is key, applying learning and a focus on the next gig.

Building a personal brand is about developing an understanding of your true self, and then sharing that with the world. Take your mask off and don’t be afraid of being vulnerable as you develop this. If you want to stand out from the crowd, be yourself. The more you try to be like other people, the more you will recede into the mass of the background noise.

Take note of Ricky Gervais’ personal brand, don’t be afraid to let your own character show in what you do and in how you present yourself. Sure, you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but you’re not in this to win a popularity contest, but to stand out from the crowd and connect to a target audience.

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