DAN GREGORY was once a stand-up comedian, but if you know his face, it’s more likely due to his participation in The Gruen Transfer and Gruen Planet.
Mr Gregory is known as one of Australia’s sharpest minds in advertising, brand image and corporate creativity.
The Gruen Transfer, which first ran on the ABC in 2008, found unexpected success, with the show’s producer, Andrew Denton, saying it had spurred Australia to have a conversation it didn’t know it wanted to have.
The show has since evolved into Gruen Planet and regularly pulls over one million viewers, making it one of the ABC’s most successful franchises.
The panel members on Gruen Planet discuss spin, branding and image control.
“Along with advertising, [these three] form the nervous system of 21st century life,” claims the show’s website. “They’re the levers pulled behind most news stories, the silent partners in public debates.”
According to the show, “everyone is trying to sell”, including tyrants, sports stars, actors, criminals, politicians, deities, charities and entire nations.
“They’re all trying to persuade us to think, buy or do things that we weren’t thinking, buying or doing yesterday.”
Mr Gregory appears regularly on the show as a panel member and says it’s had some unexpected consequences.
“My best friend’s wife called me after I did the first show,” he recalls. “She said, ‘You know you can no longer scratch your arse in public?’
“I thought she was joking, but I didn’t expect to have so many people coming up to me in the street, recognising me and wanting to talk about the show.
“Luckily no one’s ever got anything really negative to say.”
The best friend’s wife was actually the comedienne Mary Coustas, who often performs as stereotypical Greek-Australian character ‘Effie’.
Between 2000 and 2003, Mr Gregory worked as a stand-up comedian himself, which may explain why he’s found such success on the Gruen shows.
His advertising credentials, however, can’t go unmentioned.
After graduating from university with a BA in Communications, he went straight to work in advertising. After just six months in the industry, he had won the top award for creativity in Australasia, an Award Pencil.
His advertising clients have included Coca-Cola, Unilever and News Limited.
He also does corporate gigs, such as 2012’s Mortgage and Finance Association of Australia conference, where he was a guest speaker.
His presentation focused on ‘what drives all human behaviour, what makes us buy and what makes us buy in’.
Mr Gregory says brand loyalty is an “all too rare commodity” in the 21st century, so he aims to teach innovation as a discipline, rather than have people banking on a lucky discovery to help their business improve.
Mr Gregory’s foray into the Gruen franchise started – appropriately – when he responded to an ad.
“They ran an article in one of the trade magazines,” he says. “They were looking for people to do workshops, so I sent them an email and told them I’d be interested.
“In my head I thought ‘workshop’ meant people sitting around a table, tossing around ideas about what the show could be.
“When I arrived, there was a panel table set up with [comedian and host] Wil Anderson sitting in the middle, five cameras on us and about 20 people standing around.
“So it turns out a ‘workshop’ is more like a live audition.”
Although the experience was confronting, Mr Gregory says he has since had a ball working on the show.
“I think they were looking for people who had an opinion and were willing to voice it,” he says.
Being on the show gives him recognition and is certainly a conversation starter, but he can’t rely on that to get him through the day.
“I used to be a stand-up comedian and I read an interview by Jerry Seinfeld. He said, ‘Doing a TV show buys me five minutes, but after that I better be bloody funny’.
“I think it’s the same with what I do: If I’m having a conversation with a client, it buys me five minutes, but then I’ve got to know my stuff.”
THE IMPOSSIBLE INSTITUTE
Mr Gregory is now CEO of The Impossible Institute, which initially was a consulting business.
“We very quickly decided that wasn’t the right model,” he says; now it’s a training company, but in the “broadest definition of the word”.
The Impossible Institute goes inside organisations and aims to help them become more innovative, creative and efficient.
“A lot of people in the corporate world tend not to think of themselves as being particularly creative, or at least not particularly good at having ideas,” he says.
“But it’s actually a discipline that can be taught. The advertising industry, for one, teaches people to have ideas – so we do that for organisations.”
Mr Gregory says some consultants rely on being contracted back to a business each year to perform the same tasks, but his ultimate goal is to make himself, and his organisation, redundant.
“It’s more a ‘teach a man to fish’ model,” he says. “We go inside an organisation, train the people up, facilitate a series of programs and ultimately leave them with the skills so they can do it on an ongoing basis.”
Making himself redundant though is not business suicide, he emphasises.
“I think the goal is to make ourselves redundant in one organisation, but there are plenty or organisations out there that need our help,” he explains. “I don’t think there is a lack of business opportunity out there for me.”
The Impossible Institute – which has the tagline ‘Making what’s not... possible!’ – also facilitates marketing for SMEs.
“We come from a background of entrepreneurial start-ups, so we understand how important SMEs are,” he says. “Some of the people we work with could never afford to work with an advertising agency, but they do have buying power as a group.
“So we’ll put a group of people in a room and then over the course of the day we’ll facilitate their marketing. We’ve got ongoing programs, so they can put their stuff into the market, modify it and really get advice and facilitation from people that they’d never be able to afford normally.”
HAVING A BALL
Mr Gregory’s growing profile has meant an increase in public speaking engagements.
Unlike many people, who get sweaty palms and heart palpitations from the mere idea of speaking to a captive audience, he says he loves it – and he hopes the fun transfers to his audience.
“The more enjoyable the process, the more open people are to new ideas. People are more likely to adopt something if it seems like fun,” he says.
The idea is to make things you have to do within your business seem less like a chore.
Despite his captive audiences around the world, and his increasing success on television, Mr Gregory says his greatest achievement is the relationships that he has maintained.
“I’ve had the same business partner for almost 20 years,” he says. “I’ve worked with clients in advertising for a long time – Coca-Cola for about 17 years and Unilever for over 10 years.
“That’s unusual – certainly in the advertising industry – but in most industries that’s unusual.
“The relationships I’ve been able to maintain have actually allowed me to build a greater sense of trust with clients and that’s lead to bolder, more effective work.
"I think that’s probably the greatest achievement because all the other achievements I’ve had are as a result of that.”