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Taking It to the People

Anne Zehren is no stranger to marketing brand-new concepts in brand-new ways. In 1998, she launched Teen People, making it the fastest magazine in publishing history to become profitable. Before that, she was the associate publisher at Glamour, transforming the magazine’s marketing department into a profit center, an idea that had never even been considered before.

Now she has taken on the challenge of doing the same thing for Current, the new, highly publicized cable channel that former Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt are launching to 20 million viewers this August.

Current’s blueprint combines a video blog with MTV sensibility: It plans to accept video submissions from amateur filmmakers and videoographers nationwide, who will post them on a Web site. There, the online community will gather to pick and choose what they want to watch. The channel is targeting viewers 18-34. (Zehren is 43.)

To get an idea of how Current is going to market its novel programming concept, here’s a snapshot of April 4, 2005. On that day, Current held a street party for 5,000 at the intersection of San Francisco’s Second and King Streets. While Gore couldn’t resist the opportunity to give his brand of stump speech, hip-hop star and actor Mos Def hosted; movie star Leonardo di Caprio showed up; and up-and-coming bands Crown City Rockers, Goapele, Michael Franti and Spearhead each played sets.

To get a crowd, the Current crew started to let people know they were seeking video submissions. They got 6,000 hits, and, Zehren says, the site “got people talking.”

“The first day we posted this, things started to snowball,” says Zehren. “That, to me, was a pretty big clue that we’re on to something. We’ve already done a little call for submissions and received more than 3,000.”


Zehren and her marketing team also sent “evangelists” out into the community to get the word out.

“We hope it’s very viral and that the network will market itself,” Zehren says. That said, she also hopes to use other forms of neo-marketing—such as guerilla marketing, where non-traditional campaigns are run in innovative ways—to bring viewers to the nascent cable channel.

“Basically, it’s real simple. Involve the viewer every step of the way,” Zehren says. “The whole network is created along the fact that we’re going to be co-creating the content, as well as some of the ads, with our viewers. The raison d’etre of our network is to involve them.”

That doesn’t just mean airing viewers’ home videos. The network plans to cull out the best pieces for air, and it has already hired Lisa Ling’s little sister, Laura, and Deepak Chopra’s son, Gotham, to host segments.

“We hope we develop some really big talent,” Zehren says.

But, like many new to the TV business, Zehren hopes to revolutionize the TV advertising industry, with viewers also working with companies to create homemade advertisements.


“Winterfresh is doing it. Converse is doing it a little bit,” Zehren says. “I would love it if every single one of our partners would start working with our audience and our agencies to create our ads.”

Other ad people like it, too.

“All advertisers need to expand their horizons, because it’s not just about reaching people anymore or having a frequent and single-minded message. It’s about how a marketer can be interesting to an individual or to a segment of 10, 100 or 1,000 in a compelling and interesting and immediate way,” says Carla Hendra, president of advertising agency Ogilvie & Mather.

“That’s what brands are going to have to figure out how to do. Traditional media approaches are not going away, but they are getting further and further fragmented.”

Adds Jon Cropper, executive creative director and senior VP of channel strategy for Young & Rubicam Brands, “Current is extremely progressive and aggressive, and it requires marketing that’s equally progressive and aggressive. That they are exploring grassroots ways to build attention for the channel and promote it in nontraditional ways makes sense, because that’s reflective of the product itself. I think it’s a really special opportunity to have a channel that’s basically a product of the audience.”

But Zehren realizes that she has to get her audience on board—and fast.

“For me, having worked in the youth market for eight or nine years, you have one shot with these young people,” she says. “If you don’t play it right, sometimes you don’t have a second chance. You really have to be honest and real. You have to show a lot of respect and do it on their terms.”