Writing business

The Spinoff: Five business lessons from Leigh Hart that are honestly very good

Comedian, radio presenter and performance artist formerly known as “That Guy”, Leigh Hart has also shown a keen sense of business. Photo/Greg Bowker, File

For 25 years, Leigh Hart has been a staple of New Zealand television comedy. It never quite crossed over into the kind of prime-time ubiquity of the 7 days crew, but operated with a creative freedom few can match.

He got his start playing a character named “That Guy” on sports cafe, a talk show that is underrated for the pivotal role it played in proving that surreal comedy could appeal to large audiences, and thus paved the way for the likes of Ravaged, Return of the Y and pulp sport. Hart was spotted at a party by Marc Ellis and became an emergency ringer who never left. He had a weekly slot that developed tracks that stuck in the minds of generations of late-night viewers, including Speed ​​Cooking – the product of a hangover and a deadline.

From this platform, he created Lunar TVa sketch show consisting of a number of series that functioned as love satires of contemporary television tropes, including a reality show The Speedo Copsshambolic morning tv in the Great late night breakfast (which would go on to become several full series) and Shortland St-but-make-it-a-curry-house in Naan Doctors.

Leigh Hart on the Late Night Big Breakfast Election Special streaming on TVNZ.  Photo / Provided, File
Leigh Hart on the Late Night Big Breakfast Election Special streaming on TVNZ. Photo / Provided, File

From season one the pattern was set and for 20 years he has played with different aspects of this very specific micro-genre, all the while involving himself in publicity (somewhat still going on for Hellers), cricket commentary (through the also very innovative Alternative Commentary Collective) and radio (Bhuja, for Hauraki). It has led to a devoted group of fans, who follow him wherever he goes, whose understanding of this country and its character has been shaped, for better or worse, by Hart’s much-watched comedy.

This has all been reasonably well documented by television critics, myself included. But I think along the way we missed an equally remarkable side career, if not more so. This one is not Leigh Hart, comedian, but Leigh Hart, entrepreneur. I had Hart on my media podcast The fold this week, to do a rare out-of-character interview in which we focused on the thinking and strategy behind his creative career — one I think has relevant lessons for anyone working in media, and beyond. of the.

Leigh Hart, left, with the Alternative Commentary Collective team.  Photo / Provided, File
Leigh Hart, left, with the Alternative Commentary Collective team. Photo / Provided, File

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to start something you know nothing about
When Hart was in school studying film and television, his classmates worked the usual part-time jobs. Hart started a journal called – what else? – Moon. “It was full of typos. It was just the most horrible thing,” he recalled. He did everything from writing to layout to selling ads (“I would pretty much bully a little old woman in the coffee shop to put a $50 ad”).

It worked well and lasted 16 issues. But its benefits go far beyond the immediate financial rewards of the time. His boldness in starting a newspaper persuaded John Harris of Greenstone Pictures to give him his first television job a few years later. More than that, however, the diary essentially laid the groundwork for the rest of his career, with many of the characters who would become pivotal to Lunar TV originally appearing in Moonthe newspaper.

Comedian Leigh Hart at home in the kitchen.  Photo/Michael Craig, File
Comedian Leigh Hart at home in the kitchen. Photo/Michael Craig, File

Why? The experience taught Hart the basics of small business and didn’t scare him away from doing it again a few years later when the opportunity to put on a show presented itself. The intellectual property hoard and job opportunities were a welcome bonus.

Lesson 2: If you do it yourself, you stay in control
One of New Zealand’s best streaming platforms is also one of the most obscure. Its name is Moonflix (“I’m just waiting for Netflix to sue us, I’m getting publicity”), its slogan is a modest “world’s greatest comedy”, and it has a nearly complete archive of every bit of it. television than Hart ever did. For audiences, it’s a kind of living museum of one person’s TV taonga — a standalone version of the kind of national streaming service that Chris Schulz recently talked about. For Hart, there is the satisfaction of having everything in one place, a catalog raisonné showing all of his work.

More than that, it points to something that separates Hart from many other creatives in that, because so much of his work has been funded outside of the NZ on Air system, he owns it end-to-end, ownership intellectual to the product. This allowed him to create Leigh Hart’s Big Isolation Lockdown, a wholesome music video show made in level four with his wife and children. This means he can post all of his work to YouTube, where some clips have millions of views and generate ancillary revenue. It also means that he can exploit any part of it to create a new show or sell to channels around the world, without asking permission.

Behind the scenes of The Late Night Big Breakfast filming with Leigh Hart and Jason Hoyte.  Photo/Jason Oxenham, file
Behind the scenes of The Late Night Big Breakfast filming with Leigh Hart and Jason Hoyte. Photo/Jason Oxenham, file

Why? Hart isn’t alone in doing this – Joe Daymond, Hanelle Harris and Taika Waititi all have their own production companies and work on both sides of the camera. Six60 does the same in music. And it’s really not for everyone. Doing everything – from ideation to production to sales – is really hard. But Hart’s career and especially his creative use of his back catalog show the future value he can create.

Lesson 3: There’s more than one way to fund something
“I think I convinced Autotrader to sponsor the first one on Sky,” Hart says of the first season of Lunar TV. For the privilege, the used car paid weekly only $6,000. Even taking into account inflation based on the 20 years since, it’s still less than $10,000.

To make that budget work, Hart was largely the show’s writer, writing, cutting, producing — and selling, with a few close friends to do what he couldn’t. And although he has periodically received funding from NZ on Air over the years, he prefers to find alternative paths on screen.

Amsterdam Hamsterman, aka Leigh Hart.  Photo / Provided, File
Amsterdam Hamsterman, aka Leigh Hart. Photo / Provided, File

“I would go to TVNZ and say, ‘I have sponsors who really want me to do another show. him to put on a show “and they are looking for sponsors”. It’s deeply unconventional and potentially not entirely ethical, but it worked.

Why? NZ on Air is a decentralized public broadcaster, and despite all its flaws, it works pretty well. But it can make creatives feel like it’s the only game in town – while Hart’s career shows that for those willing to take big risks (and work with small budgets), you can accomplish a lot.

Lesson 4: If you’re working with a client, get as close to them as possible
For decades, Hart has been the face of Hellers meat products, essentially playing a slightly toned down version of his hapless everyone at the barbecue persona. It’s one of the longest-running talent-client relationships in New Zealand television, as Hart acknowledges. “I became the Briscoes type of small goods”.

He’s still around despite the fact that the original agency that pitched him is long gone. “They’ve been through three or four agencies since I’ve been there. I’m still there. It’s very rare.”

Why? Whenever there are intermediaries, there are vulnerabilities. New people tend to want to rearrange furniture even if it works, so Hart’s close relationship with the people behind Hellers has allowed him to survive several regime changes – and had a steady stream of corporate income flowing to him. allowed to continue being weird and doing things on the cheap elsewhere.

Lesson 5: If you don’t have a sponsor, create a product
This one might be specific to Hart, but perhaps the larger lesson is to think laterally about your operating model. It’s come from watching the crowds at events like the Wellington Sevens and seeing a constant stream of speedo cops or hamstermen and being a bit frustrated with the gap between the constant cultural impact of its characters and nature bygone television revenues. series.

Leigh Hart with her fries and beer.  Photo/Michael Craig, File
Leigh Hart with her fries and beer. Photo/Michael Craig, File

Hart wanted to create a more stable financial base and thought about what that might be. “For some reason I was sitting in the office,” he says. “I thought I could create a brand of beer.” He’s become Wakachangi, a somewhat strained name that seems to have te reo origins, but it doesn’t – though it fits very authentically with the confident but ultimately silly type personas that populate all of his series. Originally brewed under contract by Cassels in Christchurch, who transformed it within weeks, it is now a staple of the McAshins brewery in Stoke.

Still, the beer was just a warm-up for the next product, Snakachangi. Crisps have become a wildly successful newcomer to a saturated category, and one flavor was recently named the best in the country by The Spinoff’s acknowledged authority on the matter, Madeleine Chapman. The maker first thought it would be weird hybrids, like Marmite and Jelly. “It’s going to be wacky, because your shows are wacky,” Hart recalled thinking of the maker.

Hart says he misunderstands what he’s been doing all this time – “the shows are actually in a format, where we’re just editing a reality show. We’re just editing a breakfast show. lunch.” The twist was the copy and the presentation, not the flavors. And the rest is fast moving consumer goods history.

Why? The real beer and fries genius was less about the products and more about understanding its relationship with its audience and the increasingly blurred line between content and marketing. His shows were filled with fake informational ads for years — think of his brilliant creative partner Jason Hoyte in a turtleneck — only now the fake ads are about real products. And his audience can express their fandom not just by quoting their favorite skits, but by showing up to a party with food and drink from their idol.